WITH the job Nolan Richardson has done at the University of Arkansas, he has truly established himself as one of the premier coaches in college basketball. Exhibit A came earlier this week when his Razorbacks beat Duke University, 76-72, in a national championship game better than even the close score indicates.
Long before that, Richardson began his rise to national prominence. He says he learned a lot from Don Haskins, his college coach at Texas Western (now University of Texas, El Paso). After Richardson left, Western won the 1966 National Collegiate Athletic Association title with an all-black starting five, upsetting Kentucky and stimulating far greater integration of the sport.
After college, Richardson took a high school coaching job at Bowie High in his native El Paso, where his teams compiled a 198-80 record over 10 years. From there it was on to Western Texas (junior) College, where this writer remembers making Richardson's acquaintance at an awards ceremony during the major college Final Four weekend. Richardson was honored as the nation's top ``Juco'' coach, but he was only part of the scenery then, despite a perfect 37-0 campaign in 1980 and a 98-14 three-year record.
The University of Tulsa came knocking next, followed by Arkansas, where he is now 220-75 in nine seasons.
Although named Naismith Coach of the Year before this year's championship game, Richardson felt that he and his team were getting short shrift in the respect department. Some of his sensitivity seemed tied to the perception that the press slights black coaches' achievements, attributing their successes to talented players more than to expert coaching.
Observers can't help noticing, however, the way Richardson gets maximum value from so many players, molds them into a poised, unselfish unit, and motivates them to play so tenaciously. Richardson is the second African-American to coach the men's national champion (Georgetown's John Thompson, in 1984, was the first), and with most of Arkansas's players returning next season, a successful title defense is a distinct possibility. Prime-time hurdle
COLLEGE basketball produced two stirring finishes to its men's and women's championship tournaments, with a last-minute three-point basket decisive in each case. Early reports show TV ratings for the women's game, won by the University of North Carolina, were down from a year ago. That has to be a disappointment, given the growth curve in women's basketball. Part of the problem may have been that the women's championship game was played Easter afternoon, a family time.
CBS considers Sunday nights, when ``60 Minutes'' and other ratings heavyweights air, off limits to the title game, which Susan Kerr, CBS director of communications, says ``has got a ways to go before it's a prime-time event....''
Maybe so, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if the women played on Monday night, a week before the men's final. For this to work, the women might have to start their season early, but the benefits could be worthwhile.