Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Minnesota Angles on John Wooden

You can read it in our book, Minnesota Hoops, or you can check it out at my friend and co-author Stew Thornley's Web site at:

That, my friends, would be the story of how John Wooden almost became the Minnesota Gophers basketball coach in 1948 but instead ended up at UCLA where, well, you might have heard of him. Stew's the one who developed the story, so check it out on his Web site, but suffice it to say that the story that Wooden told about those events don't pass the smell test. Maybe it's because the Gopher AD, Frank McCormick, gave Wooden a line for whatever reason.

My own opinion is that the Gophers clearly would have wanted Ozzie Cowles as their coach at that time. Cowles was a Minnesota native and a Carleton grad--a college teammate with the great Joe Hutton and another future Gopher coach, Carl Nordly. Cowles had led Dartmouth to six straight Ivy League titles and 2nd place in the 1942 NCAA tournament. Then he came to Michigan and promptly led the Wolverines to their first Big Ten title in a generation and, heck, their first winning season in almost as long. It's totally plausible to me that McCormick wasn't sure he could get Cowles and so he had Wooden as leverage and/or a fall-back. But once Cowles came on board, there was no hurry with Wooden. That's what I think happened but, again, Stew has all the details.

The side story on Cowles, by the way, was that he was unhappy at Michigan because it was all football, all the time. One day athletic director and football coach Fritz Crisler stopped by Cowles' office and said, Hey, Oz, where ya been? Haven't seen you in awhile. Well, coach, Cowles had been in New York with his Wolverines for a week playing in the NIT. And the AD didn't know about it. So Cowles left and came to Minnesota, thus preventing us from getting the Wizard of Dinkytown...?

A decade later, they say that Cowles was let go as Gopher coach because he's been making a little too much of a profit off of his complementary tickets. It's been rumored for years, though I will admit that no tangible evidence of this has come to light.

Well, anyway, so much for the preamble. The real John Wooden angle to me is the fast break. Wooden's obit today said he brought an uptempo style to UCLA that was virtually unknown on the Pacific coast. Well, hell, the fast break was virtually unknown everywhere until after World War II. Except at Purdue where legendary coach Piggy Lambert had played it for a quarter-century. Purdue had been a doormat when Lambert came on board around 1918 or so. Everybody was playing a slow-down, ball-control style of play, and Lambert figured he might as well try something different. Indiana-Lite wasn't cutting it. Ergo, the fast break. 1932 was the big breakthrough with 6-6 center Stretch Murphy hitting the boards and getting the ball out to the fast break specialist, a guard named (you guessed it) John Wooden. Lambert, Murphy and Wooden claimed a mythical national title in that year.

Well, Lambert wrote a book which, bye and bye, fell into the hands of one completely unknown and unsung coach, Chet Bisel, at the tiny little town of Lynd, Minnesota. Bisel adopted the fast break and in 1946 brought his Panthers to the state high school tournament. Gopher fans had seen Lambert's fast break but no one had ever seen, or even contemplated, a high school team running it. People said all that running would be unhealthy for teenage boys. So, in all the run-up, the Lynd story was that it was one of if not the smallest town ever to send a team to the tournament. There was virtually nothing about the fast break.

And so, Lynd's 58-47 upset of perennial power Crosby-Ironton in the first round was one of those games that people talked about for decades. No one had every seen anything like it. They say that C-I took three timeouts in the first half just to catch their breath.

Lacking the element of surprise, Lynd struggled to beat Stillwater 45-39 in the semi's, but there was the tournament's first ever documented behind-the-back-pass by Lynd guard Casper Fisher. Lynd ran out of gas in the final--or, more like it, ran out of the rebounds that are needed to trigger the fast break--and lost to Austin 63-31.

This was Lambert's fast break and Bisel's team, not Wooden's. But as disciples of Piggy Lambert, Bisel and Wooden were brothers in arms. Both of them absolutely blew basketball fans away with the audacity and precision of a style of play that, to this day, causes the more fearful members of their profession to recoil.

1 comment:

  1. This is a movie in the making of small town life. I'm so proud to be from that town.