Legendary sportswriter Frank Deford has written some classic pieces in a career that has spanned more than 50 years. One of the better features, though, focuses on former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson. The story ‘Got to do Some Coachin’ appeared in the March 7, 1988 edition of Sports Illustrated.
What made the piece unique was it was written as a play.
“It just kind of hit me,” Deford says of the idea to write the feature in script form. “I never sat around and thought, ‘Gee, I should write a story in the form of a stage play. Suddenly, when I began working on it, I saw these characters, and I could see them on stage. It just seemed to me to be a different way of doing it, and the story lent itself to that kind of drama. Sometimes … I hate to use a fancy word like inspiration, but it really was. It was an inspiration to write it as a play.”
Deford was masterful in his depiction of Richardson’s grandmother, who went by Ol’ Mama, with her mannerisms and dialect. He also depicted other characters from Richardson’s life like he had interviewed them. He gathered the information from Richardson and others and brought them to life.
“I had to ask [Richardson] if I could do that,” says Deford, who spoke in Little Rock Thursday night.. “Ol’ Mama was no longer with us, but I wanted to have her say a few things. She doesn’t say anything controversial, but she says some things [Richardson] told me she would say. Whenever you make a movie or a play about life, you have to dream up some things to make it work in a dramatic way. I asked [Richardson] if I could do that, and he was OK with it.”
The other character that came to life was Richardson’s 15-year-old daughter Yvonne Richardson, who had died the year before after battling leukemia. Deford sympathized with the Hogs coach. He lost his eight-year-old daughter, Alex, to cystic fibrosis in 1980.
“There is no question [there was a bond]. On the other hand I’ve never done another piece like that,” Deford says. “I’ve never done another piece about a father who has lost a child. I said to myself, ‘I can do one more.’ I thought Nolan Richardson was the perfect one to do, but after that … I’ve had other people ask me and I say, ‘No, I’ve done that.’”
Deford, who chronicled his own experience in the book Alex: The LIfe of a Child, said writing about Yvonne Richardson was emotional.
“It was [draining], but it was also liberating. I knew how [Richardson] was feeling, and he knew how I felt,” Deford says. “We shared something.”
Former University of Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles has some interesting lines in the piece, including this one.
BROYLES: Nolan, you had a five-year contract with us when you first came to Arkansas. I want you to know that all of us believe that the first two years didn’t count. So as far as we’re concerned, beginning right now, with the 1987-88 season, you’re starting the first year of your five-year contract with the University of Arkansas.
In Richardson’s biography — 40 Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson — Richardson tells of how Broyles was less than supportive as his team struggled and Yvonne deteriorated.
“Broyles wasn’t very helpful,” Deford says. “He might have said he was for Nolan Richardson, but he didn’t really do it with any great enthusiasm. He sort of went through the motions. I never thought he was a great Nolan Richardson fan.”
Richardson loved the piece and his time with Deford so much, he invited the six-time Sportswriter of the Year to speak at the team banquet.
“I don’t think he would have done that, if he didn’t appreciate the story,” Deford says. “I was honored. That’s exactly the word. I could say things to the players about how we felt, that he couldn’t say. He might have felt like he was using his grief too much, and he didn’t want to do that, but I could do that. I could say, ‘I know how your coach felt.’ It was a wonderful experience.”