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Richardson sues university, claims discrimination, violation of free speech rights

LITTLE ROCK (AP) _ The pressures of a subpar season led Nolan Richardson to lash out at fans and reporters in a tirade that ultimately led to his firing as Arkansas' basketball coach, a federal by the ex-coach lawsuit says.

Richardson sued three top university officials Thursday, claiming he was discriminated against because he is black and arguing that his free speech rights were violated. He wants to be reinstated as Arkansas' coach.

Richardson named Alan Sugg, university president, Arkansas Chancellor John A. White and athletic director Frank Broyles in a federal suit filed in the eastern district of Arkansas.

White fired Richardson on March 1 after the longtime basketball coach complained that he was being treated differently because he was black and that the school could buy out the remaining six years on his contract if it desired.

In the suit, Richardson contends he did not asked to be fired on Feb. 25 when he said he had earned the right to have the type of season he was having. Two days earlier, the Razorbacks lost at Kentucky to drop to 13-13 and they lost in Richardson's final game two days later at Mississippi State.

``In late February 2002...Richardson several times alluded to the content...of his contract concerning his dismissal,'' the suit says. ``Richardson did not request that his contract be terminated pursuant to this provision.''

White refused to comment on the suit Thursday night at an Arkansas women's basketball game, however the suit attributes a quote to White on his impression of Richardson's comments.

``I could only conclude that it must have been a product of 'heat of the moment' following the loss to Kentucky and was the result of cumulative frustration from a very difficult basketball season,'' White said.

The former coach said in the lawsuit that he was under tremendous pressure when he said he wanted his contract bought out.

``As the season neared completion, the chances for the team to participate in post-season competition were clearly in jeopardy,'' the lawsuit says. ``This situation caused pressure and tension for the plaintiff Richardson, a perfectionist, driven to achieve with players and other staff each year, the successful season, which the citizenry of the state had come to expect.''

He said White dismissed him when he tried to set the record straight.

University system lawyer Fred H. Harrison pledged the school would fight the lawsuit, and denied Richardson's accusations.

``I am confident that the claims asserted by Mr. Richardson ... will be shown to be groundless and without merit,'' Harrison said. ``The complaint is simply a one-sided rendering by Mr. Richardson's attorneys of their view of the facts, a view with which the university strongly disagrees.''

He added that ``the university also believes that, at the end of the day, it will be shown to have dealt more than fairly with Mr. Richardson.''

The lawsuit also says that Richardson's basketball teams brought national prominence to the university and led donors to make significant financial contributions to the school.

Richardson said in the suit that Broyles and White told him ``important boosters'' had called and expressed disappointment in his comments.

The university fired Richardson, agreeing to pay him up to $3 million over the remaining years of what started as a seven-year pact.

Richardson coached the Razorbacks to an NCAA championship in 1994 and the title game in 1995. He was head coach at the Fayetteville campus for 17 years _ until White fired him with one game left in the 2001-2002 regular season.

Assistant coach Mike Anderson coached the team for two games, then Arkansas hired Stan Heath from Kent State to take over the team for this year. Heath declined comment.

Richardson wants a federal judge to declare that the university punished him for exercising his freedom of speech and subjected him to racial discrimination in employment _ including retaliation for imposing limitations on future employment elsewhere.

In addition to seeking reinstatement, Richardson is seeking lost wages and damages for harm to his reputation, mental and emotional stress, and legal fees.

Richardson claims that his outspokenness on racial discrimination matters as they related to his job and society upset the school, particularly Broyles, and contributed to his termination.

Sugg upheld White's decision to fire Richardson, agreeing with the chancellor's decision that a change was necessary.

In 22 years as a head coach, including five years at Tulsa, Richardson finished his Arkansas tenure with a 509-205 record while at NCAA Division I schools. He had led the Razorbacks to the postseason in all but one of his 16 previous seasons. Arkansas made the NCAA tournament 15 times.

At Tulsa and Western Texas Junior College, he won NIT and national junior college titles.

His Arkansas teams won five conference championships _ three in the Southwest Conference and two in the Southeastern Conference. The Razorbacks also won three SWC tournaments and one SEC tournament.

But Richardson was often controversial.

Amid a flap with Broyles in 2000, guard Jason Gilbert, who is white, quit the team after being labeled by assistant coach Nolan Richardson Jr. as ``part of the problem'' with the team. Richardson said he told his son he didn't have to put up with undetermined ``redneck SOBs.''

In 1995, Richardson called critics a pair of crude names after his team, the defending national champion, lost to Alabama and fell to 15-4. Arkansas was ranked No. 9 at the time.

In a New York Daily News article on the difficulties of being a black coach in the South, Richardson said in 1994 that, ``If I was white and I did what I've done here, they'd build statues to me. ... Eddie Sutton did the same thing here and he became God.''
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