Nolan Richardson's Biggest Mistake
By Neal Shaffer

Events of recent months give rise to an interesting query: why would anyone choose to make a living as a coach? We have seen several debacles in the NFL (names like Dennis Green, Jon Gruden, and Tony Dungy spring once again to mind), a total embarrassment at Notre Dame with George O'Leary, and the Dan Issel incident in Denver. The Boston Red Sox have just ousted manager Joe Kerrigan in the culmination of a process which is a whole story unto itself. But perhaps most interestingly, there is Nolan Richardson.

The former University of Arkansas men’s basketball coach wasn’t fired, he was bought out. He will receive something on the order of three million to not coach the team (as of this writing Richardson has appealed the dismissal, though it is unlikely it will be overturned). The settlement marked the conclusion of a turbulent week during which the coach (whose career record, at 508-206 including 17 years at Arkansas and stints at two other schools, is nearly unassailable) lashed out at Arkansas media for perceived mistreatment and racism. Among other things, he said "My great-great-grandfather came over on the ship, not Nolan Richardson. I didn't come over on that ship, so I expect to be treated a little bit different."

Odd, to say the least. Whether or not Richardson has a point about the racial element of this is up for debate. It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility. But the incident, and a slew of others like it, points to a larger, more bizarre phenomenon. Even more so than the players, coaches are subject to a vicious cycle of deification and defamation that, increasingly, seems inescapable.

For more than a decade Nolan Richardson was the king of Fayetteville—the first, and for the foreseeable future, only coach to lead that school to a national championship. This is no small feat, and any coach that does it should automatically be given the benefit of the doubt. Winning records are not easy to come by in college basketball. It’s getting harder with each passing year—the best young talent now leaves early or goes straight to the NBA. Right now, the Razorbacks are having a bad year, plain and simple. They won’t make the NCAA tournament, and may not finish at .500. The thrust of Richardson’s point, a good one, is that he is entitled to a bad year or two with all of the success he’s had. He’s one of many coaches in many sports that should be given such leeway. More often than not, however, such leeway is not forthcoming. As high as Richardson was, he is now just that low.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is former Indiana and current Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight. Here is a man who is, inarguably, one of the finest coaches the college game has ever seen. And he coached at Indiana. To be the best at what you do, and do it in the place where passion for it is unrivaled, is to be at the very top of your game. Yet Knight left Indiana in disgrace after a string of so-so seasons and an even longer string of accusations of abuse. Knight’s example is more muddled than most given the fact that he never really had terrible seasons, but then again more was expected of him than most. His fiery personality tended to bother folks a lot less when Indiana was a perennial contender for the national championship. When they became simply perennially decent, Knight’s flaws became that much more important.

Serious sports fans have a way of giving themselves over to the enigma of coach as father, general, and hero. With that comes expectations that are difficult to meet and impossible to sustain. When the natural cycle of success and failure swings to its lower echelons, the resent is palpable.

The truth is, it’s usually not the coach’s fault. But unless there is one player who stands out so much that his shortcomings can be said to have cost the team its shot, the coach will take the fall. The process is a reflection of the strange dynamic that exists between organized sport and the people who watch it. We, as viewers, are powerless to affect the outcome of the contest. But our happiness, our good mood and our good times, lives and dies by the final score. When our team loses on Sunday and our workday goes that much slower on Monday, somebody has to answer for it. We sling our arrows at the largest and most obvious target. Nolan Richardson’s biggest mistake, then, was not having a losing season, it was being foolish enough to demand that right.