|Thursday, February 28
Updated: March 1, 7:36 PM ET
Richardson: 'I'm supposed to make a difference'
At 36 of 323 Division I colleges, graduation rates for black college basketball players have hit rock bottom: zero percent. According to a 2001 NCAA study of the players entering school between 1990 and 1994, not a single black scholarship player at those schools graduated within six years. That's five straight years of recruiting classes.
Richardson was bought out of his contract after making inflammatory comments the past week. He criticized the lack of black reporters assigned to cover the team, the lack of black coaches at the school, the social atmosphere for black athletes in the college town. When the reports of a possible buyout of his contract emerged, he said, he told his players not to fret for him.
"If I get to leave the University of Arkansas, I graduated -- and I did it my way," he said.
Before the controversy arose, ESPN's Kelly Neal spoke to Richardson about his zero-percent graduation rate since the NCAA began issuing its annual report. Below are excerpts of an edited conversation with Richardson, who has been one of the leading voices in college sports about the circumstances and challenges facing black athletes.
ESPN: Why didn't your players graduate?
Richardson: When you're talking about the black African-American kid who comes to college, the No. 1 thing in their mind is the NBA. And because of the window of opportunity is so small, they choose not to graduate simply because they want to have that opportunity. So what happens then is that (come) the end of March, they won't even attend classes after that point simply because they are preparing themselves with agents to go on to the next level where they can make a living.
When I look at the list of kids that I had, every single kid that didn't (graduate), if he didn't make the NBA, he was in Switzerland, somewhere in Europe or any place that they had (professional) basketball. Or even here, in the CBA. So when you talk about all these African-American kids, the saddest thing about it is that they have the biggest dream.
Richardson: No. What I'm saying is that because he has NBA aspirations, there's more to it than him (and) the coach. There's got to be the parents involved. I'll give you an example, Corliss Williams's parents, whom I love. His sophomore year, I got a call from (his mother) and she says ‘Coach, keep him in school. Tell him he ain't ready.' I said OK. Corliss walks in (and says), ‘Coach what you think?' I said, ‘Well, I don't think your maturity level is there yet, Corliss.' He said 'OK.' We went through the next year and we get beat in the ('95 NCAA) finals. I talked to the parents (who said) ‘I don't know if we could keep him, coach.' Corliss walks in, he said ‘Coach, what you think?' I said I think your degree is important, Corliss, but I know what you're gonna do.'
ESPN: How much responsibility is it of yours and of the school to make sure these kids graduate?
Richardson: Now how can you say ‘how much responsibility?' I think the responsibility doesn't necessarily rely all on the coach. Are you telling me that you can send me your kid who doesn't want to go to school, but you brought him up here, and that it's my responsibility to make him like it when you (failed to do so in high school)?
I think it's the total responsibility of the coach to make everything possible. For example -- mandatory study hall, we do that. Academic advisor -- we got that. Tutors -- we have that. You know, Old Granny would say you can take the mule to the water but he don't have to drink.
Why would Vince Carter or Michael Jordan go back to school (to get their degrees at North Carolina) or anyone go back to school? You think it was because of Dean Smith or Mike Kryzewski? I don't think so. I think the important thing is who's in control here. Are the parents in control? Are the kids in control of their life some? Where do you stop blaming the coach, the institution?
The thing that really bothers me is when they say ‘What is your graduation rate?' Well, you know what I always said is that anyone that wants to graduate will graduate. That's the rate. It'll always be that rate.
ESPN: But many other Division I schools were able to graduate an African-American student scholarship athlete. So you seem a little hands off, almost like you don't really have control if they don't wanna get a degree.
Richardson: I did, too.
ESPN: An African-American scholarship player?
Richardson: You said I didn't graduate one?
ESPN: Not in that time period. … How were other coaches and schools able to graduate players?
Richardson: I wish I knew. Maybe they had players that wanted to get a degree.
ESPN: Do you feel like you are doing the same thing that they're doing or do you feel like your kids are different, that your kids have NBA aspirations and kids recruited to other schools are more degree-oriented?
Richardson: Do you realize that 80 percent of my kids that come here to play basketball come from a single parent? Did you realize that?
They hired me in every job to win. I'd never heard anybody ask me anything about my graduation rates and yet I always wanted it to happen without them asking me because of where I came from.
You know, (graduation rates) stats can work any way you want them to work -- what's up and what's down, what's good, what's bad. I don't think what we've done here is all bad. As a matter of fact, I feel so good inside that the kids go to a job. You know what would kill me is if they go out there and they don't have a job.”
ESPN: Is there any way you could explain to some of the players without an NBA future that they could make a lot more money in the long run with a degree?
Richardson: Absolutely. I have talked to them, not ‘til I'm black in the face but maybe white in the face that ‘You gotta look at what's ahead.' But how many young 16, 17, 18 and 19-year-old kids, 20- and 21-year-old kids are thinking ahead?
“I'm supposed to make a difference in the life of the young men that come through me. And I'm disappointed that I don't make that difference. I'm disappointed that my experience, that my talking to them, that I go back and relate stories, I'm disappointed that more of them don't take advantage of that.”