The ESPN documentary, “40 Minutes of Hell” brought back a lot of heaven to Corliss Williamson.
He hopes it may fuse his past, present and future — from a highly recruited high school McDonald’s All-American at Russellville who was a change-agent player on the 1994 Arkansas Razorback NCAA championship team to his current role as men’s basketball coach at the University of Central Arkansas.
“It was powerful,” said Williamson who had already seen it twice before taking his Bears to Wednesday night’s game at Huntsville, Texas. “To me, it’s like a good movie. I’ll watch a good movie three or four times in a row. My wife would be laughing when I watched it a second time and at some of the scenes saying, “That’s my coach (Nolan Richardson)!’
“I like the way it was put together and presented. I watch myself saying, “I went up to the University of Arkansas as a boy and came out a man. That was what happened. And it has a powerful effect on who I am today. It re-energized me as a coach.”
Williamson intended to show the UCA team the documentary before the game against Sam Houston State — for several reasons, including to clarify some of the things he tries to do in his second season as head coach of the Bears.
“I want them (the UCA players) to see what it takes to be a champion — the mentality, the hard work, the dedication,” he said. “Sometimes, I think my players may think I’m the meanest coach in the world, but I want them to realize what it takes to play the style of basketball I want to play. I think it will clarify some things about what I do and why I do them. I want them to see what kind of basketball background I came from. I can talk to them for hours and maybe not have as much impact as showing them that video.
“I want them to see how coach (Richardson) kept pushing us and pushing us and holding us accountable and teaching responsibility to each other and that it takes everyone — all pieces coming together and playing their roles to best of their ability — to be successful. The first time I watched it, I wanted to get out and practice right then.”
He did spend the next afternoon in a vigorous pickup game that left him sore the next morning.
Williamson wants his players to view firsthand a bit of what he went through as a college basketball player at their age.
“I tell them I’m not asking them to do anything I haven’t done or experienced when I was playing,” he said. “I was pushed hard, we were pushed hard and I learned a lot from that. We saw the reward of that kind of dedication and hard work.”
Did he realize at the time what kind of history those Razorbacks were making?
“We were college kids,” he said. “College kids usually don’t see two minutes ahead of them. We didn’t understand at that point the history of what we were doing. When you’ve had a long time to reflect, you realize what we accomplished was a big part in that era of basketball and in Arkansas basketball history and you begin to really appreciate that.”
He also said he learned some things he didn’t know about Richardson, his mentor.
“I knew some things about coach Richardson but I was impressed with his background and the community (El Paso, Texas) he grew up in and how that influenced him and the things he fought through and the obstacles he overcame to get to where he was,” he said. “As players, we though he was one of the meanest persons in the world at times. I didn’t fully appreciate coach Richardson for what he did when I was a player going through his program.
“Now that I’m a coach, I understand more of why he did some of the things he did. I understand how effort reflects on the overall product. I saw coach Richardson better as who he was and why he was that way.”
Even when the documentary took on the darkside of Richardson’s public outbursts that led to his fall from grace and eventual firing, Williamson latched onto the positive.
“I don’t think the players understood the kind of things and pressure he was going through,” Williamson said. “But he stood up and spoke his mind when it wasn’t always what people wanted to hear. Believe me, he spoke his mind to us and told us things we didn’t always want to hear.
“But I admired him for speaking his mind and telling you what he thought, Frankly, I wish more people were like that.”
When Richardson was leading Tulsa to an NIT title or the Hogs to the NCAA championship, African-American head coaches in college basketball were a rarity, anamolies. Now, they are scattered throughout college basketball — and are respected.
Saturday, while the documentary debuted in Fayetteville, Mike Anderson, an African-American and Richardson’s right-hand man as assistant coach of the Razorbacks at the time, led the Hogs to a victory of South Carolina, continuing the longest home winning streak in UA history. Much of the team that Anderson recruited and left for his dream job at the UA (highly ranked Missouri) handed Baylor only its fourth loss of the season.
And in Conway, two teams coached by African-American coaches, Williamson and McNeese State’s Dave Simmons, hooked it up at the Farris Center.
A lot has changed in the culture. Almost insurmountable racial barriers and stereotypes are going the way of the underhand free throw.
Williamson tell you without hesitation he will run through a brick wall for Nolan Richardson.
“He was a pioneer and fought a lot of battles; somebody had to fight the battles,” Williamson said. “As a coach today, I appreciate some of the things coach Richardson took on, paving the way for a lot of us.”
In a new era at a different institution with a fresh challenge, Willliamson looked over his shoulder and sees how a lot of things are being paid forward.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)