FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas basketball Coach Nolan Richardson won't say so, but he has to be thinking that soon he will wake up and the bad dream that this season has become will be over.
Richardson arrived here late last summer with his 119-37 record from the University of Tulsa in tow. His job was to replace Eddie Sutton, who had left to become coach of the Kentucky Wildcats. Last season, Sutton's final one as Razorbacks coach, the team went 22-13 and advanced to the second round of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament before losing to St. John's.
Still, some Razorbacks fans weren't happy, saying that the team should have done better. Newspapers ran polls asking whether Sutton should be fired. Kentucky didn't have to ask Sutton twice if he would like to replace Joe B. Hall.
Enter Richardson, the guy who built Tulsa into a national power. Richardson, who is black, always has had winning teams. He often jokes that in some of the southern cities in which he has coached, he knew he'd better have a winning team. He took over a ballyhooed Arkansas squad. In a preseason poll, other Southwest Conference coaches picked Arkansas to win the league title.
Richardson, who was hired too late to do any recruiting, did not enter cautiously. That's not his style. He charged in, acknowledged that Sutton had done a tremendous job, then said he planned to continue the winning tradition with a scrappy, racehorse-type team. Look out SWC, the Razorbacks would be "Rollin with Nolan."
"I did it because I've got some guts," Richardson said recently. "You know, poor-mouth coaches usually are the best coaches. If they win, they've done a helluva job. If they lose, they already said they would. I won't poor-mouth. Even at Tulsa I never said we were rebuilding. We would just reload and go places."
But Richardson now says several things quickly became apparent: he didn't have anybody who could shoot the basketball; he didn't have anybody who could rebound the basketball, and he didn't have anybody to take charge on the court.
"This team was oversold," Richardson said. "I read all the stuff, too. Last year's freshman group was supposed to be the best ever. Every one of them was compared to some great player. But when they were freshmen, I had some of them in my camps at Oklahoma, and I just didn't see that. I mean, I was nose to nose with these kids and just couldn't see it."
Another factor, although one not so apparent at first, was that some of his players didn't like each other and were carrying their bad feelings onto the court.
After a decent start, the team has plummeted to a 2-9 SWC record, 10-12 overall, and Hawgball has become one of the biggest marketing disasters since new Coke.
It snowed heavily here last Friday, and the airport runways were treacherous. Some flights were canceled, others couldn't touch down for fear of skidding into the Ozarks. All things considered, it was a good day to stay off the roads, never mind the small planes that fly in and out of this part of the state.
In his office at Barnhill Arena, Richardson was trying hard to get a flight connection out of Fayetteville that afternoon after practice. There was a prospect in New Orleans he wanted to see.
Richardson and his staff are recruiting hard. They are looking particularly close at junior college players--guys who should be a bit more mature and who can help right away. Because there is only one senior on the Razorbacks' roster, some players will have to go if new ones are brought in. Richardson won't spell it out, but clearly that's the idea.
"We have to change this whole thing around," he said. "I'm sure there will be some players who are very disenchanted, some who aren't playing a lot. Maybe we'll lose some because of grades. This way, we'll have impact players from junior colleges ready to take their place."
Asked what type of help he is looking for, Richardson said just about everything. He said that if he can get a few Nolan Richardson-type players on the team, things will get better. He wants players who are heads-up on the court and team-oriented on the bench.
"This is like coaching a freshman basketball team," Richardson said. "I've worked extremely hard teaching basic little stuff like dribbling and passing, so much so that we haven't been able to deal with enough up-tempo basketball. We want to be a pressing team. But, fundamentally, they don't know how to press. It's foreign to them.
"Last year, the guards dribbled from sideline to sideline looking to get the ball in to Joe Kleine," Richardson added, referring to the star center who since has graduated to the National Basketball Assn. "The guards are more active in my scheme of things. They have to make decisions--when to go, when to pass, when to shoot--not just look for Joe."