The first thing Arkansas Razorback fans might notice about Rus Bradburd’s “Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson” is that the book seems awfully short. How could anyone tell a story of the greatest years of Arkansas basketball — one so central to our self-identification, mingling our finest hopes and our secret shame — in anything less than 500 pages? The answer is simply that the book is not about the Arkansas Razorbacks. The games that captivated us in the mid-90s play a glancing role in the drama and are given a summary gloss at best. This book is about Nolan Richardson, and, through the towering prism of Nolan Richardson, this book is about race.
“Like a lot of people, I was perplexed by what I saw in the 2002 press conference,” Bradburd said of the public meltdown that might have cemented Richardson’s termination in a recent phone interview. “Every article I read, except one, said basically that he got what he deserved.”
Bradburd spent eight years on staff at the University of Texas at El Paso. Richardson is something of a legend in El Paso, having begun coaching high school basketball there after a brilliant athletic career at Texas Western (now UTEP). Bradburd felt a kinship with Richardson, and set out to discover what happened to the local hero.
The details about Richardson’s El Paso youth are some of the most revealing passages in the book. The unusual racial mix of the town and its proximity to Mexico, where a black man could enter a restaurant through the front door, helped define Richardson’s character. To prepare the reader to understand what happened in Arkansas, Bradburd realized he had to start from the beginning, not just of Richardson’s career, but from before a black man in this country could rise to such stature.
In the process, Bradburd takes in the whole sordid history of race in amateur athletics, the long struggle of black coaches to rise to prominence as witnessed and exemplified by Richardson, and puts it between two covers with chapter headings drawn from some of the greatest works of African-American literature. This is an ambitious book, to say the least.
Richardson confronted and overcame racism on every stop leading to his position at Arkansas, where some combination of personal matters, a retrograde athletic director, and often unreasonable fan expectations eventually did him in — but only after close to two decades of unparalleled success.
Hired away from Tulsa in the midst of his beloved daughter’s terminal bout with cancer, Richardson had a rocky start. “Immediately he was crossways with the fans and Frank Broyles because of the high expectations,” Bradburd says. “I don’t think he ever got over that: the feeling that winning was more important than his daughter.”
The death of his daughter drove Richardson as much as it challenged him, as did the shameful cultural history and racism of his new home. Operating on a campus where a black sorority mixer was once broken up with police dogs, long after Alabama had permanently loaded such actions with racist implications, couldn’t have been easy. Bradburd takes great pains to describe the place where something so unacceptable could still happen.
“I don’t pretend to be an expert in Arkansas history,” he said, “but I thought it was important for readers who hadn’t spent time in Arkansas to understand what a complicated place both Fayetteville and the state were.”
At times, the book reads like a litany. The scope, the nastiness, the many flavors of the racism recounted here are overwhelming. Surveying the voluminous anecdotal evidence, I was reminded of the fourth section of Roberto Bolano’s “2666,” in which the author digs up the skeletons of hundreds of murdered women in excruciating detail, in penance and anger over the thousands of women disappearing every year in border towns. Bradburd drags the skeletons out of our closet with the same ruthless aplomb.
In Fayetteville, Frank Broyles has a brick and mortar legacy that isn’t going anywhere soon (his name graces athletic complexes, playing fields and practice facilities), but his private legacy, the memory that maybe really matters and will last longest, comes in for a real beating here. There are numerous examples of Broyles’ casual racism, but one of the most condemning is the harrowing story of Darrell Brown, the first African-American Razorback football player, a walk-on who was basically used as a tackling dummy, prey to the most vicious racism from players and coaches alike and cast aside without even a hint at a scholarship offer. Brown later enrolled in the University of Arkansas law school and was shot on campus by an unknown sniper while agitating for civil rights. Broyles never called him a name or spit on him or refused to block for him, but he sat in the bleachers and oversaw it all.
Times had indeed changed by the time Richardson came to campus, but history bubbled under the surface. Broyles reportedly hired Richardson because basketball was, in his own words, “a black man’s game.” Richardson’s willingness to speak out on racial matters bristled the establishment, and Broyles attempted to remove the Arkansas coach no less than three times.
“What we’ll never know is how well Coach Richardson would have done if his athletic director had been behind him,” said Bradburd.
Did Nolan Richardson say and do all the right things? Maybe not, but Bradburd has “grown to believe that Richardson will say what he thinks is the truth whether or not it is politically expedient, and the former athletic director will say what is politically expedient whether or not is the truth.”
Bradburd states toward the end of the book, in an uncharacteristic generalization, “[T]he criteria white people in Arkansas use to determine what constitutes racism is fuzzy.” I have to disagree. White people in Arkansas know racism when we see it; we just don’t know what to do with racism. Bradburd reminds us time and time again that far too often we have simply condoned it.