Arkansas basketball Coach Nolan Richardson thought he knew what it meant to be tough. In the late 1950s, he was the first black to play a sport at Bowie High School in Texas. In the late 1960s, he was that school's first black coach. In 1980, he was the first of his race to coach the Tulsa University baskeball team.

But long after breaking those barriers and achieving considerable professional success, Richardson learned what toughness really meant.

His teacher was his teen-age daughter, Yvonne, who embodied the word before she died of leukemia earlier this year.

Richardson says he believes that strength comes from adversity, but the past year has been one of torment sometimes too great to bear.

"If somebody would've asked me five years ago, 'Would you be at Arkansas?,' I would've said, 'No,' " said Richardson, whose Razorbacks play 6-2 Maryland tonight at Cole Field House.

"I think more than me coming to Arkansas, maybe my little girl had a lot to do with it. She thought it was time that I moved on."

After the 1986-87 season in which Richardson's attention was split between his family and his coaching, he's been able to focus on basketball this season, and it has paid dividends for the Razorbacks, who have won seven straight games after a 1-1 start.

The Razorbacks are led by 6-foot-11 senior center Andrew Lang, who has blocked 33 shots in nine games, and 6-6 sophomore swingman Ron Huery, who leads the team in scoring with an 11.9 points-per-game average.

Although Arkansas has shot just less than 50 percent from the floor and just 65 percent from the line, the Razorbacks have limited their last six opponents to less than 40 percent field goal shooting.

"They depend on their pressure to create their offense," said Maryland Coach Bob Wade. "They score a lot of points off their defensive pressure."

"I watched them play against Alabama {an 80-55 Razorbacks win last Wednesday}," said University of Texas-El Paso Coach Don Haskins, Richardson's college coach. "It looked like his teams at Tulsa. He's been practicing every day. They look different."

"If I had to do it all over again," Richardson said of last season, "I wouldn't have coached basketball. If they wanted the job, they could have had it . . . I kept trying to do both {coach and be with his family}, and I didn't do either worth a crap."

Richardson's coaching career reads like a book of firsts. After playing at UTEP (and being versatile enough to be invited to the training camps of both the American Basketball Association's Dallas Chaparrals and American Football League's San Diego Chargers), he was the first black head coach at Bowie High in 1967. There, he went 190-80 in 10 seasons. He then moved to Western Texas Junior College and went 101-13, winning the national junior college championship his final season with a 37-0 team.

In 1980 he took over at Tulsa. Richardson's teams there made appearances in three NCAA tournaments and two NITs, winning the latter in 1981. With the Golden Hurricane, Richardson produced such players as Paul Pressey (now with the Milwaukee Bucks) and Steve Harris (a Golden State Warrior).

Richardson said there were some people who caused him problems because of his race, but said they were few.

"I look at myself in terms of a coach that happens to be black," he said. "Pioneer? It's destiny, I think. I don't know about pioneer. When everybody starts, there's something there, and maybe under my star, this was just something I had to do."

But shortly after taking the Arkansas job in April 1985, his joy was immediately tempered when it was discovered that his 13-year-old daughter was seriously ill. He didn't want to take the job, but she upbraided him.

"My little girl was pretty intelligent," Richardson told The New York Times earlier this month, "and when I told her I was considering not taking the job, she said, 'Dad, you've been here {at Tulsa} five years, right? When you came here all they wanted you to do was beat Oral Roberts, right? Now they want you to win the NCAA championship. You need to go to a big university where you have your own gym and get the best players.' "

The first season was rough, with the Razorbacks stumbling to a 12-16 record, the team's fewest number of wins since 1974. Replacing Eddie Sutton was difficult enough, but two of Richardson's top players had drug problems.

And Richardson's daughter got worse. He commuted between Minneapolis (where she was hospitalized), Tulsa and Fayetteville.

"It was hard for him to be here, worrying about the progress of this team, while on the other hand, seeing his daughter get worse," said senior guard Alli Freeman. "It took a big man to try and deal with it."

Yvonne Richardson died in Tulsa Jan. 22. She was 15. Arkansas was scheduled to play SMU on the day of her burial, but the game was pushed back a day for Richardson. He was on the bench the next night, and for the rest of the season, as the Razorbacks went 19-14.

The pain of personal loss always lingers, but Richardson is gradually working his way through. And his players, most of whom are his recruits, have tried to make this season mean a little more.

In other local action, 18th-ranked Georgetown ends its hiatus with a 7:30 game against Florida International at Sunblazer Arena in Miami. The Hoyas (7-1) have won four straight. Senior forward Perry McDonald leads the team at 12.6 points per game.

George Mason travels to West Virginia to face the Mountaineers, George Washington plays host to Indiana (Pa.) at Smith Center, and UDC is on the road against Gannon (Pa.).