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Nolan Richardson's Ferocity Carries Nostalgic "40 Minutes of Hell"

This weekend ESPNU debuted the documentary “40 Minutes of Hell.” It’s a valentine to a style of basketball (full-court pressure, relentless substitutions, scoring in heaps) and to a coach, Nolan Richardson, who lived with the same fire he demanded on the floor. His Arkansas team with the catchy nickname not only ripped its way through college hoops for two years (63-10 overall, 11-1 in the Big Dance) but fed a moment that might never come again: an instant of pure, joyous triumphalism in Arkansas. The Hogs were a force, Bill Clinton was president, Wal-Mart was the expanding to fill the planet. The in-state joke went from “Thank God for Mississippi” to “Arkansas is taking over the world.”

As it happens Clinton is one of the anchors of this film, along with Richardson, frosty ‘stached and still with a voice that could rattle stained glass. They’re both fantastic, but the best quotes come from Corey Beck, the point guard from 1993 to 1995. Here’s one that captures Richardson: “He used to tell us all the time, man. ‘If you see me and a bear fighting, you better help that damn bear. I ain’t gonna need you to help me.’”

Tough as he was, the fighting wore Richardson down. The documentary points out he was the first black head coach of a major college sport in the South. He played his college ball at Texas Western; his final year there preceded the 1966 title team. When he began at Arkansas in 1985, he put up with a bunch of violent redneck nonsense (bomb threats, e.g.). Once he started winning, it receded to plain ol’ redneck nonsense. “Niggerball,” the fossils in the South would call his style of play, relying as it did on frantic defense and constant running. (Hell, some use that appellation for basketball generally.) He got to hear from the likes of Mitch Albom that the “smarter team,” Duke, would thump the Hogs in the 1994 title game. “When you’re listening to these guys who describe you? They have no clue who you are,” Richardson says in the film.

Even moments after winning the title, Richardson vented at the news conference about the racial double-standard that faced black coaches, of which there were virtually none other than Richardson. The rap was that they were great recruiters and motivators, Richardson said, but never were African-Americans labeled great coaches. But how much talent did Richardson really accumulate?

The title team had a couple of all-world studs whose presence fed Richardson’s rep as a recruiter: Corliss Williamson was a Gatorade National Player of the Year, and Darnell Robinson, a freshman on the ’94 team, had set California’s prep scoring record. But the contributions from juco gems like Beck and Al Dillard were just as critical. Williamson’s NBA career (12 years, a Sixth Man of the Year Award, 11 points and 4 boards a game) was the only decent one that title roster produced. Scotty Thurman famously went undrafted after declaring for the draft as a junior, and played overseas. Beck played 88 NBA games, averaging 2.7 points across three seasons. Guard Clint McDaniel scored 30 points in 12 NBA games. Robinson, the last player drafted in 1996, never played in the NBA.

There’s an argument to be made that Richardson wasn’t developing the talent he got. Still, at a time when Arkansas was running past teams with more elite talent in Michigan (Fab Five minus Webber) and North Carolina (Jerry Stackhouse plus Rasheed Wallace) and Kentucky (Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Scott Padgett, Walter McCarty, Rodrick Rhodes, Mark Pope) you had to assume he was doing more than simply motivating.

Richardson, like Clinton, got to enjoy the early and mid-1990s more than the end of the decade. At a certain point — let’s say, oh, Feb. 23, 2002, when he started saying the administration could pay him to walk away any time — something in him wore out. If “40 Minutes” has an obvious omission, it’s that the name “Frank Broyles” never appears in it. This would be akin to putting together a documentary about George W. Bush’s presidency without mentioning Dick Cheney. Were it not for Clinton, the coach and the athletic director would have been popular picks as the two most powerful figures in the state, and their acrid divorce could hardly have been more public. A deep dive into that relationship could’ve yielded the new insights that “40 Minutes” frustratingly lacks.

The last third of “40 Minutes” is given to Richardson’s decline, which every sports fan in the state felt. No one came out of that cleanly. The school fired the best thing that ever happened to the basketball program, and things haven’t been the same since. Really, they were never the same after 1995, just as Richardson was starting to give the impression, with three Final Four trips in six years, that he’d built a machine. The truth was somewhere shy of that. The best quote of the movie falls to Beck, explaining what made those teams go:

I used to be afraid of him, my first year. I thought he was probably, meanest guy I’ve ever seen. He gave this real hard-core attitude on the floor, but off the floor he was a real gentle guy. He knew that he was dealing with some kids that was away from their parents, so he treated us like we were his kids. Every other weekend we had cookouts, or we’d play dominoes together, swim parties and things like that. We grew to love each other.

 

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