Richardson began his coaching career at Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas. He then moved to Western Texas College where he won the national Junior College Championship in 1980.
University of Tulsa
He was the head coach at Tulsa from 1981 to 1985, leading Tulsa to the NIT Championship in 1981. This was the first time an African-American coach won an NIT championship. Nolan Richardson is credited with bringing the Tulsa program to national prominence when hired in 1980, and he led the school to the aforementioned 1981 NIT Championship as well as season conference championships in 1984 and 1985, along with conference tournament titles in 1982 and 1984. Nolan had a .763 winning percentage at the school. He became the first coach in NCAA history to win 50 games in his first two seasons. While coaching at Tulsa, Richardson became known for wearing an assortment of polka dot ties. This trademark eventually led Tulsa students to don polka dots during home games.
University of Arkansas
In 1985, Richardson became the head coach at the University of Arkansas after Eddie Sutton left for Kentucky. Richardson became the first African-American coach at a major university in the South, and the first African-American head coach of a men’s program in the SWC. He inherited a team and program that was used to Sutton’s halfcourt-oriented, walk-it-up-the-court style. Richardson’s frenetic, up-tempo system was something new to Arkansas fans, and people questioned it after finishing 12-16 his first season. However, by year two he had Arkansas back in the post season with an NIT berth. By year three he had Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament. The Hogs would stay there for 13 of the next 15 seasons. In all, Arkansas under Richardson enjoyed 15 post season appearances during the 17 seasons of his tenure.
He led Arkansas to three Final Fours—losing to Duke in the semifinals in 1990, winning the National Championship in 1994 against Duke, and losing in the Championship game to UCLA in 1995. He was named the National Coach of the Year in 1994. Richardson’s Arkansas teams averaged 27 wins per season during the decade of the 1990s, they were the winningest team of the decade until 1997, and their 270 wins from 1990 to 1999 were more than all but four programs in the NCAA. Nolan’s legendary Arkansas teams recorded a 20 win season twelve times as well as four 30 win seasons during his 17 years.
His teams typically played an up tempo game with intense pressure defense – a style that was known as “40 Minutes of Hell.” In 2012 his coaching philosophy was featured in the documentary “40 Minutes of Hell” on ESPN as part of the network’s SEC Storied series. He is the winningest Basketball coach in Arkansas history, compiling a 389-169 (.697) record in 17 seasons. He is the only head coach to win a Junior College National Championship, the NIT Championship, and the NCAA Championship. Nolan Richardson is also among an elite group of coaches as the only head coaches to win 365 games in 15 seasons or less.