Richardson opened door, now he tries to close it

March 25, 1994|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Writer

DALLAS -- Ask Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson about his passion for his job, and he'll tell you about how, after growing up poor in El Paso, Texas, the game of basketball became his "key to open doors."

"Of course now with that key I've been able to move in and become a basketball coach," Richardson said yesterday. "Hopefully, in some fashion, that will be able to open some doors for others to follow me."

Nearly three years ago, Richardson left a door open when, after five years at Arkansas, he considered returning to the University of Tulsa, where he had achieved a tremendous amount of success in his first major-college coaching job.

Richardson eventually said no, and Orlando "Tubby" Smith -- at the time seeking his first job as a head coach -- said yes. And tonight the two will attempt to shut the door on one another's season when top-seeded Arkansas (27-3) faces No. 12 seed Tulsa (23-7) in a Midwest Region semifinal at Reunion Arena.

Tulsa is the lowest-seeded team left in the tournament, but has pulled off two of the biggest upsets so far with a first-round win over fifth-seeded UCLA (112-102) and second-round victory over fourth-seeded Oklahoma State (82-80).

But this will hardly be a game where the Golden Hurricane can sneak up on the Razorbacks: the teams met in December, with top-ranked Arkansas escaping with a 93-91 overtime win.

"We know that Tulsa is a good basketball team," Richardson said. "The name of the school and the national rankings have nothing to do with the game. UCLA can attest to that, and so can Oklahoma State."

Smith, who was raised on a farm in Scotland, Md., agrees. "We've played extremely well in our two games," he said. "We shouldn't be considered an underdog at this time."

Should Tulsa beat Arkansas, it would be Smith's first against a man whose legend still exists in Tulsa. Richardson was able to lead the Golden Hurricane to the postseason in each of his five years at Tulsa -- including a National Invitation Tournament title in his first year -- and regular appearances in the Top 20. He left for Arkansas in 1985, casting a shadow that Smith says still looms.

"With his success at Tulsa, everyone knows Nolan," said Smith, who was an assistant at Kentucky before arriving in Tulsa. "It was a privilege for me to coach at Tulsa knowing some great coaches had coached there before."

When officials brought Richardson to Tulsa in 1991 and asked him to consider returning, Smith also was in town to interview for the job. Richardson declined, Smith got the position and this year he has gone on to win in the NCAA tournament -- something Richardson never was able to do at Tulsa.

Smith is using a style he picked up as an assistant at Kentucky under Rick Pitino -- a fast-paced attack that looks to free up the team's three-point shooters.

Apparently that style has gained some fans as suddenly Smith (nicknamed Tubby by his grandmother, because he was a chubby child) has become a hot commodity, putting Tulsa at risk of losing yet another successful coach.

"He's brought to the University of Tulsa a new image, a reputation thatsome other coaches have never had here," said Tulsa guard Lou Dawkins. "I would like to see him stay."

There is a similar devotion among Arkansas players to Richardson, whose .749 winning percentage ranks fifth among coaches with at least five years' experience.

In his nine years at Arkansas, Richardson has won two Southeastern Conference championships and three Southwest Conference titles. The Razorbacks have won at least 21 games seven years in a row, playing in the NCAA tournament each season.

Richardson's been successful with a style that pushes the ball down an opponent's throat on offense, while pressing full-court defensively for 40 minutes.

"There are more running teams today than in the history of the game," Richardson said. "And I think they're copying me."

Others might offer a different description than a "running" team.

"People probably view it sometimes as street ball," Arkansas guard Scotty Thurman said. "I think it's unfair to him. He tries to incorporate a lot of discipline in what we do."

And in incorporating that discipline, Richardson is hoping to develop players who in the future might be able to open some doors -- just as he did for Tubby Smith.

"I have their best interests at heart on the floor and off the floor," Richardson said. "It ain't all about winning for me. Off the floor I can be the other guy -- the father you may not have. I can play the uncle or the brother," he later added. "But on that floor I'm the judge, the jury and the executioner."

Even when facing one whom he has opened the door for in the past.

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