FAYETTEVILLE, Arkansas -- Four months ago, Nolan Richardson lost his llamas.
Tropical Storm Bill hurled rain throughout the South in mid-June. Arkansas and Texas took its worst jabs, a flurry that flooded country roads and canceled hundreds of flights in the region.
Downpours often bewilder and frighten the creatures on Richardson's 155-acre ranch in Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas, where he led the Razorbacks to the 1994 national championship and opened doors for the next wave of black coaches. It's an oasis occupied by a log cabin, two basketball courts, ATVs, trucks, fishing ponds stocked with crappie and trout, Percheron horses, donkeys, cattle, exotic birds and the llamas he could not locate that day.
The Hall of Famer jumped into his pickup truck one steamy Friday afternoon and searched the property for the herd while Sheba, a waist-high Great Dane, trailed the vehicle.
Sheba got distracted, briefly, during her daily standoff with one of Richardson's hee-hawing donkeys -- she huffs at a cockatoo named Boy, too -- before spotting the llamas posted across a creek near a tree, gnawing on a grass patch with a blond hue.
Then, Richardson pointed through the brush and announced with a proud smirk, "There they are."
Today, Richardson's gregarious and calming vibe contrasts the previous persona of the man who stomped into a forced retirement following a vicious battle with Arkansas leadership.
"I was just a totally different person then," Richardson said. "[Former Georgetown coach] John Thompson came out here a few years ago. He said, 'You in the stalls cleaning out horse s---. People would have no idea who you really are.' He couldn't believe it."
Today, Richardson helps Wal-Mart christen new stores in Arkansas through meet-and-greets sponsored by Coca-Cola. He's also a motivational speaker, and he helps multiple charities, including the Yvonne Richardson Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit created to raise money for cancer research in honor of his daughter, who died of leukemia in 1987 when she was 15 years old.
He's on a golf course most days. He plays 18 holes with the same foursome every week. He practices by hitting golf balls into the wilderness on his expansive, personal campus. And sometimes, he takes pictures with fans at Herman's, a local restaurant, whenever his appetite for savory ribs and brisket leads him there.
He smiles. He waves. He winks. He chuckles.
It took some time, he reveals, to get here after Arkansas fired him 13 years ago and a federal judge dismissed his racial bias lawsuit against the university two years later.
"I was pissed," he said, "most of the time."
He was 6-foot-3, 250 pounds during the peak of his tenure. A bold black man with a thick mustache, a deep voice and an oft-misplaced filter. Richardson believes his size, race and demeanor all contributed to any negative perceptions about him. But he was also, admittedly, brash in his delivery. And, at times, combative. Hell, he often bragged about hypothetical battles with bears.
"You'd better help the bear," he'd say.
Following retirement, Richardson shed 40 pounds. The sturdy commander of Arkansas' best teams also aged. His hustle is now a stroll at age 73. His mornings begin with the tasks he tackles from a home office, a replica of his old space at Arkansas, that's decorated with the trophies he amassed throughout his career. He usually dons a visor and wedges an orange tee behind his right ear while he watches the Golf Channel from his oak rocking chair, and wonders whether Tiger will ever be Tiger again.
It's serene here. Once you get here, that is. If you can get here.
The pebbled grooves on the steep gravel road curve into a rusting white gate at the foot of a snaked driveway that keeps the uninvited away and grants the former coach, who "can probably name my friends on one hand," the seclusion he and his wife, Rose, desire.
"The greenery, the quietness, the peacefulness. It's the greatest thing I've ever done for myself and my family is to have a place like this," Richardson said. "Just to lie back and enjoy it."
He's the inventor of "40 Minutes of Hell," a vicious full-court press that suffocated opponents during the 1993-94 season. And most minority coaches call Richardson, the first black basketball coach at an upper-level school in the South, a pioneer.
But his legacy also includes his tumultuous relationship with former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles, who fired him in 2002. After his dismissal, Richardson retreated for a respite in his man-made getaway before returning to various sidelines. He coached the Panamanian and Mexican national teams -- he is fluent in Spanish -- for a few seasons, and he led the Tulsa Shock of the WNBA from 2009 to 2011.
Then, he reflected on the sequence that ended his term at Arkansas, often while leaning on the banister of a back deck above Rose's flower patch and sculpture garden:
His clashes with the school's brass about former football coach Houston Nutt's compensation and bonuses.
The night he dared Broyles to fire him during a postgame news conference because, "If they go ahead and pay me my money, they can take this job tomorrow."
Broyles' decision to give him his $3 million buyout did just that.
"I did not come over on that ship, so I expect to be treated a little bit different," Richardson said in 2002, in reference to the Middle Passage on which slave ships brought Africans to America. This was just two days after a matchup against Kentucky and just before Arkansas dismissed him. "Because I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on. I know that. You know it. And people of my color know that. And that angers me."
He filed an $8 million lawsuit against the university, alleging racism and bias in his termination after the school gave Nutt bonuses and extensions for what Richardson believed were lesser achievements. But U.S. District Judge William R. Wilson, who reasoned that the lawsuit centered on "wounded pride -- wounded pride in a man who started way behind, but climbed to the top by hard work, savvy, and most of all, perseverance," dismissed the case in 2004.
Richardson said he boiled after that verdict. Men and women he had once called friends turned into witnesses against him as the case unfolded. Some fans who once cheered his Razorbacks grew cold. And Richardson, not the type to avoid a fight, returned fire by retreating to this distant destination and nurturing a grudge he struggled to shake.
The strife did not begin with the lawsuit. In his first season (1985-86) at Arkansas, his daughter, Yvonne, wrestled with leukemia, and Richardson split his time between Fayetteville and Rochester, Minnesota, where Yvonne was treated at the Mayo Clinic. She died a year later, but Richardson said some Arkansas fans expressed more hatred -- police once cleared his home due to a bomb threat -- than sympathy.
And then he began to fight Broyles over his support for the football program and Nutt, a consistent backing that Richardson believed he himself never got from Broyles.
"There was a time when I wouldn't give [Broyles] the spit if he was dying," Richardson said. "That anger. When you've got that kind of an anger in you, it takes away from living because you're so angry."
Broyles, now 90, spoke highly of Richardson's tenure through a statement submitted via the Frank and Barbara Broyles Foundation.
"While Nolan was here, he raised basketball support to new levels," his statement to ESPN.com said. "His very presence helped other coaches recruit. Nolan reinvigorated college basketball and changed the game forever. He brought a national championship to our program. To this day, that is something I am extremely proud of and so is the rest of the state. My family and I have the utmost respect for Nolan and his wife, Rose. I have continued to be proud of his accomplishments and believe his impact on the game of basketball will stand the test of time. The entire state is happy that he chose Northwest Arkansas to be his home."
But initially, Richardson wanted to flee.
In 2002, he told his wife they should load their animals into an ark and move back to El Paso, Texas, their hometown.
"I came home one day and said, 'Let's pack and get the hell out of this place,'" Richardson recalled. "And she said, 'Do you really want to leave here?' I said, you know, yes and no. That was during the time that I was getting ready to file the suit. And I said I think it'd be best to get on out of here because I am gonna file the suit. I woke up the next morning and said, 'Why the hell am I moving?'"
A brash pioneer
So he stayed, which is not surprising.
Richardson's resilience had always marked his path.
As a kid in El Paso, he had to cross the bridge into Mexico to enjoy the attractions that white kids in America were afforded then. For one day each summer --Juneteenth (June 19), which marks the day that slaves in Galveston, Texas, were liberated by Union soldiers two-plus years after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 -- black children in his hometown felt equal.
"You could go to the swimming pool, you could go to the movie houses and sit in the balcony," Richardson said. "We loved Juneteenth. You had picnics, but you could go to a public place, basically, on Juneteenth. The next day they cleaned out the water, put fresh water back in. Cleaned out the skating rink, disinfected every pair of shoes in there and put the skates back in. That's what we grew up being a part of. Now today, you might say 'You're kidding me.' Yeah ... it happened."
Those experiences birthed the blunt commentary on racial matters he offered throughout his career. He initiated conversations about race that made folks around him uncomfortable. He challenged Prop 16 -- an academic standard that elevated the scholastic requirements for incoming students -- because of its disproportionate impact on minority student-athletes.
He told the media that they were too white.
And Richardson questioned the role race played in the politics at Arkansas, where World War II veteran Silas Hunt became the school's first African-American law student when he enrolled in 1948.
He's still unbridled in his critique of collegiate sports, especially since some of the obstacles he faced remain. Tougher academic standards for freshmen, which will be incorporated in 2016, prompted the National Association for Coaching Equity and Diversity (NAFCED), an offshoot of the Black Coaches Association, to condemn the NCAA.
Plus, the percentage of black coaches has not experienced any major increases over the past 20 years after reaching a record 25 percent in 2005-06. It fell to 18.6 percent in 2011-12, per Richard Lapchick's "The 2014 Racial and Gender Report Card: College Sport." In 1995-96, the year after Richardson's Razorbacks lost to UCLA in the national title game, 17.4 percent of the coaches at the Division I level were African-American.
The issue, Richardson said, is that most of the athletic administrators at Division I schools -- 87.7 percent in 2013-14 -- are white.
"When you have 90 percent of white ADs making decisions, what do you expect?" Richardson said. "In order to reach things, you have to get started at the top. You can't be down here at the bottom asking this guy down here to help me when the man at the top is calling the shots. We've got to get to the top. We've gotta get some more involvement."
Richardson made history when he left Tulsa to accept Arkansas' offer in 1985 -- 13 years after Washington State hired George Raveling, the first black coach in what's now known as the Pac-12, in 1972.
Richardson's efforts and success created new avenues for other minority coaches.
Two years ago, seven of the SEC's 14 head coaches were African-American. With Frank Martin at South Carolina, eight of the league's coaches were minorities.
"Those guys are such trendsetters: Nolan Richardson, John Thompson, John Chaney, George Raveling," said Texas coach Shaka Smart, the first black men's basketball coach in Longhorns history. "They really paved the way for the next generation of coaches. The dynamic has really changed since then, but it's not that race is any less important or any less of a factor. I think it still affects the narrative."
Still a fan favorite
In June, Tropical Storm Bill made a mess on Richardson's ranch.
Hefty branches blocked the clearing that abuts one of his fishing ponds. Richardson, still stocky, refused assistance from a visitor before he jumped out of his truck and tossed them aside. He then drove to the other end of his ranch and checked on his horses. They roam the land like wild stallions but still greet him as a friend.
He and his wife purchased the land in the mid-1990s, nearly a decade after his daughter's death. A painting of his wife and Yvonne rests over the dresser in their master bedroom.
They grieved here.
At first, they only visited on weekends, but they felt more comfortable mourning here than in the condo they had on a local golf course. So they turned the condo into the weekend destination. They've been on the ranch full-time for more than a decade.
The highs and the lows of his career -- Richardson processed both at this sanctuary.
Three years ago, Nolan Richardson III, who coached Tennessee State in the early 2000s and worked as an assistant under his father at Arkansas before that, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was 47. Richardson hadn't fully digested the terms of his departure from Arkansas or the unraveling of the subsequent lawsuit when he received that news.
For years, he'd wrestled with conflicting emotions after his exit from college basketball.
But after his son's death, he began to cherish the blessings and special moments. He prayed for guidance. The folks who'd battled him during the lawsuit? He forgave them. And, gradually, he became visible again throughout Fayetteville.
He attends most of the Arkansas games now. He signs autographs. And if Arkansas coach Mike Anderson asks, he'll attend functions with boosters to help the program.
"Coach is well-respected here," said Anderson, an assistant under Richardson in the '90s. "It's just the few that you hear that talk. Arkansas is his home. He never left. I think it speaks volumes of the people in the state of Arkansas that Coach is their coach. That statement there, that's a big statement. Everywhere he goes, he's one of the most popular things here."
He's about three steps through the door at Herman's when a plump man in a disheveled suit calls out, "Hey, it's Coach Richardson!" He traps the coach's hand and gushes about his favorite team's title run.
"Hey, Coach," the man says to Richardson, "it was great when you were here."
Another fan screams into his phone that "I'm sitting here a few feet from Nolan Richardson!" The man nibbles on his food, stares across the restaurant and waits for an opening so he can approach Richardson with his photo request. The guy wearing a frayed baseball cap at the bar seems jealous as he swivels and fidgets on his stool. But he too joins the congregation and reminds Richardson of a chapter Razorbacks fans will never forget.
Richardson loves Fayetteville. And, it's clear, Fayetteville loves him back.
The drama of Richardson's early years on campus and the legal tussles of the early 2000s disrupted his relationship with the program and some members of the community for a stretch, but that wound seems healed now.
Richardson invited Broyles, his former nemesis, to attend his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last year.
But Richardson stood in front of that microphone by himself in Springfield, Massachusetts, just as he did on controversial issues throughout his time at Arkansas.
The remoteness of the life he's carved into this endless land resembles his career. Sometimes, he had to step forward solo.
In Fayetteville today, however, he's no longer alone.
It just took some years to accept the embrace and agree to hug back.
"If I had moved, where would I have gone? Probably back to El Paso," Richardson said. "Would I have been able to recover what I think I've recovered living here? Recovered is some of the people who really, who really weren't against me but they had to be, and I understand that now. Before, I wouldn't have understood that. As time goes on, you get to see people ... they feel more comfortable around you. Before they were worried about how you felt and now they feel like you're just one of them and that's because I've been here. If you were in and out of here, I don't think that takes place.
"We've made this home. A lot of folks have houses to go to, but this is home."