After Eddie Sutton left Arkansas for SEC rival Kentucky following the 1984-85 season, the Razorbacks turned to an up-and-coming 43-year-old coach named Nolan Richardson.
A Texas-El Paso grad who played for the NFL’s San Diego Chargers as well as the American Basketball Association’s Dallas Chaparrals, Richardson had been in coaching at El Paso’s Bowie High less than a decade prior.
But after leading Western Texas to a 37-0 mark and a national junior college title, Richardson got his “big break” when Tulsa hired him to lead its program in 1980. Over a five-year run at Tulsa, Richardson won 76 percent of his games, guided the Golden Hurricane to three NCAA appearances, claimed an NIT title, and cultivated NBA talent.
Arkansas’ 1984 hiring of Richardson to replace Sutton was a groundbreaking one, as Richardson became the first African-American to lead a men’s sport in Southwest Conference (SWC) history.
In his first public words as Arkansas coach, the enterprising, never-back-down Richardson announced that the days of deliberate, low-scoring games were over in Fayetteville.
“I’m an up-tempo type of basketball coach. I like fast breaks. I like presses. I like changing up the defense,” Richardson said. “It’s going to be a shock to some people from what they’ve been used to.”
And then Richardson gave his brand of basketball a clever name in line with the Razorback brand: “Hawgball.”
“This team,” Richardson promised, “is a time bomb. It’s just waiting to explode.”
Unfortunately for Richardson and the Razorbacks, it took a while for that bomb to detonate.
Though Arkansas entered Richardson’s first season as the SWC favorite, Hawgball appeared to be hogwash. Arkansas labored to a 12-16 record and finished seventh in the SWC.
“I know that Eddie Sutton built the monster. I have to feed it. I just don’t have the food for it yet,” Richardson said at the close of his opening campaign in Fayetteville.
Still, Richardson stayed committed to Hawgball, convinced a fast-paced, aggressive style would translate into wins on the court and on the recruiting trail.
In year two, the Razorbacks improved to 19-14, yet still missed the Tournament. In year three, Arkansas secured a spot in March Madness and finished 21-9.
Hawgball was gaining steam, especially amid college basketball’s adoption of the three-point line and a shot clock.
In year four, 1988-1989, Richardson leaned on an eight-man rotation that featured six first-year Razorbacks, including three standout freshmen in Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, and Oliver Miller. Putting up nearly 90 points per game, Hawgball propelled Arkansas to the SWC regular season and tournament crowns as well as Richardson’s first NCAA Tournament victory as Arkansas coach.
By year’s end, Hawgball got rebranded, too: 40 Minutes of Hell.
Heading into the 1989-1990 season, the Razorbacks were a consensus top 10 team.
“The Razorbacks call their run-and-stun game ‘40 minutes of hell,’ and it will definitely be so playing against coach Nolan Richardson’s team,” veteran sportswriter Jere Longman reported in his pre-season rankings.
That it was, as Arkansas basketball began its most impressive run in program history. Seven straight league titles, even as the Razorbacks graduated from the SWC into the SEC. A #1 national ranking. Final Four appearances in 1990, 1994, and 1995 and, most impressive, the 1994 NCAA Title.
After Scotty Thurman’s three clinched Arkansas’ first national title, a memorable 76-72 victory over Duke, Richardson found himself in heaven.
“I’ve had a lot of great feelings in my life,” Richardson said. “But this is one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had.”