LITTLE ROCK -- A federal judge denied the University of Arkansas' final request to dismiss former basketball coach Nolan Richardson's lawsuit against it Monday.
The denial clears the way for Richardson's non-jury trial against the university, its leaders and the Razorback Foundation to begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday in front of U.S. District Judge William R. Wilson Jr.
"The parties have submitted a groundslide-load of documents in support of their respective positions," Wilson wrote. "A thorough review of all of them at this late date has been difficult, but, we are where we are, and the motions must be decided."
Richardson wants Wilson to declare that the university punished him for exercising his freedom of speech and subjected him to racial discrimination - including retaliation for imposing limitations on future employment.
Arkansas officials said Richardson was fired because he showed a lack of faith in his program.
The university filed an original request for summary judgment in April 2003 and a second request on March 18, adding the issue of qualified immunity. The plaintiffs filed their response on April 27.
Wilson wrote Monday that the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cautions that summary judgment should be granted seldomly in employment discrimination cases because they are inherently fact-based.
In the ruling, Wilson said there were material facts left to dispute. Those are whether Richardson was fired for statements he made after the Kentucky basketball game or for comments he made over a period of time regarding his position as assistant athletic director, treatment of other black coaches and other race matters.
"In other words, are the reasons given for his termination the real reasons?" Wilson wrote.
The university claims Richardson was fired for the statements made after the Kentucky game. Richardson claims he made similar statements in 1995 and was not terminated. He also disputes the university's position that a press conference "only triggered consideration of termination, and that the decision to terminate him did not come until after his press conference."
Wilson emphasized that denying summary judgment does not go to the merits of the case.
"It is simply an initial decision that must be made when a party seeks a summary dismissal of the case without the other party getting 'his day in court,"' Wilson wrote.
Richardson seeks reinstatement as Arkansas' coach, lost wages and damages for harm to his reputation, mental and emotional stress, and legal fees. However, Richardson has said he wouldn't return if Chancellor John A. White and athletic director Frank Broyles still had their jobs.
Richardson's base salary was $1.03 million and his firing called for a buyout of $500,000 a year until 2008. He currently receives a monthly check for $41,667.
The Razorback Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the university's athletic department, covered the buyout and has countersued. It claims Richardson violated the terms of the buyout by suing - and wants to have the money returned.
Richardson was fired on March 1, 2002, after coaching Arkansas for 17 years, leading the Razorbacks to 389 wins, three Final Fours and the 1994 national title.