ATLANTA -- Amid the homogeneity of college basketball coaches, more afraid of offending the opponents at Rival U. than telling it like it is, stands Arkansas' Nolan Richardson. He has never feared telling it like it is, for the truth can hurt him no more than life already has.
Richardson, who directs the second-ranked Razorbacks (33-3) into tonight's NCAA Southeast Regional semifinal against Alabama in Charlotte, N.C., is his own man and has been for a long time.
"I enjoy being me," said Richardson, 49. "I enjoy being the only coach in America that coaches this way. If everybody starts playing like me, I'll start walking.
"I don't want to be compared to any other coach. If anything, I want to be thought of as crazy."
Richardson, who guided the Razorbacks to the Final Four last year, certainly isn't crazy. But he oozes confidence, in both himself and his players, largely because the circumstances of his life and his coaching career have forced him to be stronger than anyone he knows.
Richardson is in his sixth season at Arkansas after an impressive tour at Tulsa, where he led the Golden Hurricanes to the National Invitation Tournament championship and three NCAA tournament bids in five years. He grew up in El Paso, Texas, raised by a grandmother who took him in after both his parents had died by the time he was 12.
He went on to star at Bowie High and at Texas-El Paso (then Texas Western), where he learned the game from Don Haskins, whom Richardson describes as the "finest basketball coach in the world."
Richardson said Haskins taught him that "discipline and dedication to defense" were the keys to success in basketball.
"When I was a player, I took more shots than any player that ever played at UTEP," said Richardson. "One morning, I woke up and thought, 'What if I could shoot all I want and play defense?' He said 'Well, you still can't shoot.' "
But he could learn, and Richardson did, rolling up a 190-80 mark as head coach of his alma mater, Bowie High. Then at Western Texas Junior College he won a national JUCO championship and compiled a 101-13 record in just three years.
After that Richardson moved to Tulsa, going 119-37 in five seasons. Then the call came from Arkansas. Richardson nearly didn't take the job, out of concern for his teen-aged daughter, Yvonne, who died four years ago after a bout with leukemia. But she urged him to make the move and he did.
After he arrived, though -- to compound the strain of caring for Yvonne -- he faced the stress of criticism over the changes he made in the Arkansas system.
He stumbled initially, because his uptempo program ran counter to the halfcourt system that had won for his predecessor, Eddie Sutton. In time, however, Richardson was able to recruit the type of players he needed to implement the "40 minutes of pure hell" that he expects to dish out to his opponents. The Arkansas program got rolling.
"When I got to Arkansas, I had better athletes than I have now," said Richardson. "But I have great players. There's a difference.
"I'm not totally married to my system. If the press doesn't work, then I'll pull out of it. I'm in love with it, but I'm not married to it. I might get engaged pretty soon."
In six years in Fayetteville, Richardson's teams have gone 140-54, winning three consecutive Southwest Conference titles. The early criticism is a faded memory. But one senses that while Richardson has forgiven his critics, he hasn't forgotten.
"There are a lot of guys who think I don't know anything," said Richardson, who received a seven-year contract before the start of the season. "Well, I consider the source. There are no great basketball coaches. There are great basketball players who make coaches smart."
Even this season, the best in school history, there have been shots taken at Richardson and his players, most stemming from an incident in which four players were implicated in the alleged sexual assault of a woman in a campus dormitory. No charges were filed, but Richardson has spent a good part of the last
month answering questions about the matter.
Richardson is trying to keep his Razorbacks focused on returning to the Final Four and a possible rematch with Nevada-Las Vegas, which swamped Arkansas in a February showdown at Barnhill Arena.
Toward that end, Richardson is hoping his Razorbacks spread hell -- and lots of it -- across the landscape.
"Can you imagine those kids going to bed feeling, 'Damn, we've got to play Arkansas?' That's a great feeling. I like that."