Nolan Richardson, one of El Paso’s brightest athletic stars and one of the most sought after motivational speakers in the country, was in El Paso recently to serve as guest speaker at a gala for the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank.
Richardson, now 73, was an outstanding athlete from the moment he stepped onto a playing field in El Paso. He excelled in Little League baseball, then earned all-district honors at Bowie High School in baseball, football and basketball. He played basketball for UTEP when it was known as Texas Western College and was a standout there, too.
But he found his greatest fame as a coach. He took over the coaching reins at his high school alma mater, Bowie, in 1968 and turned the Bowie Bears into a powerhouse. In his 10 years there he won 190 games and lost only 80.
He went on to coach Western Texas Junior College and won the national junior college championship in 1980 with a 37-0 record.
Tulsa University beckoned in 1981 and he became the first coach to win the National Invitation Tournament in his first year. His overall record at Tulsa was 199-37. He also became the first coach in NCAA history to win 50 games in his first two years.
He really hit the big time in the 1990s. Richardson took the University of Arkansas to the Final Four three times, losing to Duke in the semifinals in 1990, winning the National Championship in 1994 against Duke and losing in the championship game to UCLA in 1995.
He was named National Coach of the Year in 1994 and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014. His team’s style was known as “Forty Minutes of Hell” because of its upbeat style. He is the winningest basketball coach in Arkansas history, compiling a 389-169 record in 17 seasons.
And he is still the only head coach in the country to win a Junior College national championship, the NIT and the NCAA Tournament.
When Richardson was in town recently, he agreed to sit down with El Paso Inc. for an extended interview. He spoke candidly about discrimination, why he retired from coaching, what his grandmother told him 50 years ago that’s come true, and his biggest honor.
Q: What were you up to on your latest visit to El Paso?
I was here for two reasons. One was to speak at the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger event.
Also, I came to see my mother-in-law and my wife. My mother-in-law, Carolina Davila, is 105. She’s doing real good for 105. She can’t walk much anymore but she’s very bright, very intelligent. Her eyesight is beginning to leave her along with her hearing but she’s always gotten along very well.
Q: And how about your wife, Rosario?
She’s diabetic. She’s been that way for many years. But she gets around pretty good. She’s been here in El Paso five months. She had been with me in Arkansas, but the last time I came here she stayed to help out her mother. They get along fine. They’re very close, very close. I’ve been here like every month to see them.
Q: Do you have any other family living here?
Yes, my oldest of two daughters, Madalyn. She’s 55. And my great granddaughter …
Q: You have a great granddaughter?
Yes. She’s a cheerleader at Hanks High School. She’s 17. I have seven grandkids and more great grandkids than grandkids. Some of them are in Tulsa. As you know, my son, Nolan III, passed away a few years ago. One of his sons, Stephan, is quite a basketball player at a high school in Tulsa. Another son of his also played basketball and his name is Nolan IV. I’m Nolan Jr., my son was Nolan III and now there’s a Nolan Richardson IV. He’s playing basketball in Europe.
Q: How long have you been retired from coaching?
I coached college basketball 25 years. Then I coached the Panama national team and next the Mexico Olympic team. Then I coached the Tulsa Shock women’s team of the WNBA. That was my last coaching job. That was it. They (the women players) ran me crazy. I resigned in 2011. Now I speak. I’m a motivational speaker.
Q: Do you own a ranch or a farm in Arkansas?
It’s a ranch. When I first started, it was like an animal world. I had nearly every kind of animal. I had goats, cows, chickens, llamas and other types of animals. I raised llamas. Now I mostly have horses. I have rescued some. Some aren’t taken good care of and people ask me if I want them. I’ve taken quite a few. I’ve got six of the largest horses in the world. They’re like Budweisers, only bigger. They’re from Persia.
Q: How many acres do you own?
I have 155 acres.
Q: That’s a lot of acres. How do you take care of them?
I have a family who lives on the land. They kind of help me take care of the land.
Q: What’s a typical day for you when you’re home?
I don’t do very much work anymore. I enjoy sometimes getting on the tractor and working some of the fields. I enjoy that because it’s a form of exercise.
For some time I had a camp out there where I brought underprivileged kids. They stayed there for days and played basketball, football, soccer. It was 35 kids, all I could handle. We fed them. Most of the day it was learning basketball but it wasn’t all basketball. We made it a fun camp.
Some of them wanted to do other things. One is golf. I shaved off a part of my land and made it a driving range. It was so much fun. I stopped doing that. You need so many people to run that kind of a deal.
Q. Have you always had 155 acres?
When I first bought it I owned half and a good friend owned the other half. But then he decided to move and I didn’t want my land next to someone who might come in and build homes so I bought his part.
Q: Are you sorry you retired from coaching college basketball?
No. It was time to go. You can stay in some places too long. I was 60 years old when it happened. It wasn’t something that drove me stone crazy.
The biggest thing about coaching is recruiting. That’s travel. That’s work. It never stops. It’s constant. I don’t miss that part. The part I miss is the every day contact with the kids.
Q: How many Halls of Fame are you in?
Thirteen, last I heard. That includes Halls of Fames, Halls of Honor, that sort of thing.
Q: How many charities are you involved in?
In El Paso alone I have at least 20. UTEP is one. We must have six or seven scholarships there, like for Bobby Joe Hill, Jim Barnes, Don Haskins, Mark Haskins, my wife, Yvonne Richardson. Maybe it’s 10 in all. We give at least $2,000, $3,000 every year. Some of them are endowed.
Q: Do you have a foundation?
Of course. It’s the Yvonne Richardson Foundation.
(Yvonne Richardson was Nolan Richardson’s youngest daughter. She died at the age of 15 in 1987 of leukemia.)
Q: How do you decide when and where to speak?
I have two situations. One is to call the Yvonne Richardson Foundation. The other is to call me. If they call me that’s on my shoulders.
Q: You get a lot of calls?
Yes, but my speaking is not free. That’s what a lot of people think. But that sort of thing will wear you out. I have an agent that books me. My daughter plays a very important part. They have to contact her. So she has my calendar. She handles how much people are going to pay, that sort of thing. We do it that way so I’m not involved.
You have some people you know you want to do things for but you have so many it never stops. And I have to live, too. My fees range from $750 to $25,000, depending on the number of days. Some are clinics.
Q: Do you still play golf?
Every day. Just before this interview, I played at Fort Bliss. I like to play at 7:30 in the morning so I can be through by 11:30. I don’t like to play during the day.
Q: You look physically fit. How do you stay so fit?
When I played here I weighed 185, 190, but when I was coaching at Bowie High School, I weighed 225. That’s about how much I weigh now. When I was at Arkansas I went up all the way to 245. That was 13 years ago. When they dismissed me I had no food to eat so I lost weight.
Q: How bad was discrimination in Arkansas?
A lot of people don’t understand discrimination because they’ve never been discriminated against. What might be offensive to me might not be offensive to you. Times have gotten better. Schools have gotten better.
When I was younger I couldn’t have gone to that college. When I was playing at Bowie High I saw a lot of discrimination, too. And the “N” word was common. I saw those signs that read “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.” I couldn’t stay in the same place as my teammates when we traveled. I used to get so angry. But things change. My grandmother, Rose, raised me and kept me from being so angry all the time.
Q: What did your grandmother say about discrimination?
She would always talk about Jackie Robinson. She would say if he hadn’t done what he did I wouldn’t be playing basketball and doing other things. She said I had also been a chosen one, so take it.
She was my hero. She was ahead of her time when it comes to having patience and vision. She told me 50 years ago that the world would be just like I’m seeing it today, that this world would grow wiser. She also told me that doctors will cure things you never dreamed of and we’ll be going to the moon.
Q: Was it all positive?
No. She also said that sons would turn against fathers, fathers against sons, daughters against mothers and mothers against daughters and that we would be smarter but corrupt. Parents aren’t parenting anymore. That’s usually my topic now.
When I was coaching I saw when parents parent. You could tell when a student had a mother and a father in the house. And you could tell the ones who had no guidance in the house. Oh, my gosh, it got worse and worse and worse.
Some sent me an 18-year-old boy who had no discipline and expected me to teach him discipline in three years when they hadn’t given him any in 18 years. People on the outside look down on all this and say, “Oh, man, how can that guy act like that with that coach?” It’s not the coach’s fault. Hell, that kid came like that.
Q: Have you had any movie offers?
No. I’ve had a book written about me, “Forty Minutes of Hell,” by Rus Bradburd. But I’ve been in a couple of movies. One is “He Got Game” by Spike Lee and the other is “Sixth Man” by Disney Studios. They were small parts.
Q: Do you miss El Paso?
Oh, yeah. But I’m here so often, especially the last three or four years. Some people think I still live here. My family is here. Besides, when you’re from El Paso, you take El Paso with you wherever you go.
Q: How about your tenure at Bowie High School. How was it? You were the first black.
I had a wonderful time. I was the first black in any sport in Texas almost. When (Bowie principal) Frank Pollitt gave me the coaching job at Bowie High School, I became the only black coach at any school in Texas that could be called “mixed.”
Q: Mr. Pollitt did a lot for you, didn’t he?
He was my man. It’s amazing. There’s Frank Pollitt and then there’s Frank Broyles who hired me at University of Arkansas. They’re both Franks.
I give a lot of credit to Western Texas Junior College, too. There were 52 junior colleges in 1977 and none had a black coach, but they hired me, making me the first black college coach in Texas.
Q: What is your proudest honor?
That’s easy. Having Nolan Richardson Middle School in El Paso named after me.