Georgia Tech, an Atlanta institution celebrated for its fine schools of engineering, has had one of the 10 best basketball teams in the nation since the start of the current season. The team has now won 17 of 20 games, including victories over Duke and Louisville, has beaten Kentucky twice and is apparently on the way to Tech's first Southeastern Conference championship in 22 years. Since mid-December, Tech has played eight games before capacity crowds of 7,000 in its beautiful Alexander Memorial Coliseum, which was built three years ago solely for basketball.
All of this is a considerable shock to veteran fans everywhere, who still cling to the notion—once true enough—that Tech is strictly a football school. The notion is certainly reasonable. In the last decade alone, Tech has won six straight bowl games. This year's success in basketball, however, is hardly an accident. It is the result of a program begun in 1951 when Tech hired a new basketball coach, John Hyder, and decided to give him enough scholarships to enable him to recruit good players. The Tech engineering schools have always drawn excellent students from every state in the country; now the basketball team is attracting players from areas like Indiana and Kentucky, where the best are produced.
John Hyder is a tall, slim Georgian of diffident manner and conservative taste. He is known through the South as "Whack." ("There were eight of us kids," he explains in an accent as thick as sorghum molasses, "and we were all nicknamed by a favorite aunt. There's Den, Jim, Bunk, Whack, Rat, Jet, Snooks and Skeezix.") In the face of decades of apathy, Hyder has made basketball a truly major sport at his school.
In part, he has succeeded because he is a good basketball coach. But he is also a man of genuine warmth and generous spirit, who treats his players with the affection and trust of a father—and this is an incalculable asset in persuading the good high school players to come to Georgia Tech. It is instantly clear to the most cynical observer that Whack Hyder believes basketball to be an activity provided by the university for the benefit of the students and not to serve the ambitions of the coach.
This year at Christmas, Hyder sent each of his boys home for the holiday with a note. After the usual season's wishes, he wrote, "and be kind to everyone you meet on the way." Not a player felt that this was mere mawkish sentiment, and they reflect it in their behavior.
At the heart of Hyder's team this year are two exceptional athletes, two of the best college players in the nation—Dave Denton and Roger Kaiser. On court, both have that easy, thorough control of thought and action that is nearly always the mark of superior playing ability. Out of uniform, they are completely different. Dave Denton is a pixyish, harum-scarum senior whose light-hearted approach to Tech's tough academic requirements has kept him ineligible for part of every season so far. He forgets classes and exams, even forgets to show up for pregame meals. In Lubbock, Texas this year, before a game with Texas Tech, Denton was missing when the team assembled in the hotel lobby. They found him, eventually, in one of the hotel's empty ballrooms, banging away happily at the piano, which he plays by ear with more enthusiasm than ability. In a game, however, he seldom forgets anything. He knows how to play with his teammates because he remembers exactly what they can and cannot do, and he remembers a rival's abilities, too. Only 6 feet 1½, he is his team's best re-bounder and a reliable scorer, with extremely deceptive moves at close range. He is Tech's "Mr. Inside" to Roger Kaiser's "Mr. Outside."
If Denton often tries Whack Hyder's patience, Kaiser is the answer to a coach's prayers. Raised in Indiana, where little boys dream of growing up to be basketball players and generally do, he is the soul of reliability, in or out of uniform. He controls the Tech team both as floor general and by the example of his own cool, imaginative play. He is also one of the very best outside shooters in college basketball, and he has a style startlingly similar to the Boston Celtics' Bill Sharman (as high a compliment as can be paid anyone). It is his particular skill, too, to come through with long-range baskets precisely at those times when Tech is being tightly defended in close. Against a scrambling North Carolina State defense this year, he hit six of seven field-goal attempts (and nine for nine free throws) and simply demoralized State. Last week, against Auburn, Tech was two points behind with three minutes to go to half time. Kaiser hit on three straight shots and the Bulldogs walked off the court four points ahead.
After Kaiser and Denton, there is a considerable falling-off in talent on this Tech team. At guard with Kaiser is speedy Bobby Dews, who gambles excessively at stealing the ball and is an erratic shooter. Center Jim Riley is tall enough (6 feet 7½) but lacks the aggressive instinct that forces a player like Denton relentlessly toward the basket. Riley takes less than a half dozen shots per game, is averaging only four points thus far—to Kaiser's 22. The fifth regular, tall, handsome Wayne Richards, makes many defensive and ball-handling errors but is the kind of player a coach keeps in a game because he never stops trying. The Tech bench is reasonably reliable, though short on size and muscle, and includes one hungry sophomore from a Kentucky farm named Josh Powell who eats a dozen eggs for breakfast.
The record this crew has achieved is easily as much a tribute to the coaching of Whack Hyder and the scouting of his assistant, Byron Gilbreath, as it is to individual player ability. Hyder teaches a sound, conservative ball-control game that automatically contributes to an athlete's self-discipline. Tech works the ball patiently for the good shot; it is Hyder's misfortune that only Kaiser and Denton can be expected, game after game, to turn the good shot into two points. At the same time, Hyder must fashion an offense that takes into account his team's most serious weakness; except for Denton, he has no reliable rebounder. Tech gets possession of the ball, after a missed shot, much less frequently than the opposing team, which means that it must convert possession into points at a much greater rate. In the first game with Kentucky this season, Kentucky had 20 more rebounds than Tech. This translates into 20 more opportunities to score, but Tech won 62-54. What happened was that Hyder's control tactics on offense forced the good shots, and his defense, based on good scouting, forced Kentucky into numerous errors. This has been the pattern in nearly all of Tech's victories this season. They have 62 fewer rebounds than all their opponents but they are averaging 11 points more per game.
In two games last week, against Auburn and Tulane, all of Tech's assets and handicaps were exposed. At the half, as noted, Georgia Tech led Auburn by four points, chiefly because it had actually outrebounded Auburn. During the intermission, Hyder toyed with the idea of playing a more free-shooting offense than he normally does, in the hope that his players would continue to control the rebounding. But he decided to stick to ball control, play very deliberately and protect his lead. It didn't work, Tech lost 48-45 and, though his players had unaccountably committed some atrocious errors, Hyder—typically—insisted that it was his strategy that caused the defeat. In the dressing room after the game he told his players: "You did just what I asked you to do. I don't know why I thought we would win that way but I did.... One thing more. You've shown you could win like champions. Now show people you can lose like champions."
Saturday, with Denton driving in strongly and Kaiser hitting from far out with his usual accuracy, Tech looked like a champion as it beat Tulane easily 74-55.
This Georgia Tech team is not going to win the NCAA championship this year; Roger Kaiser and Dave Denton are not enough. But don't bet that Whack Hyder won't pull it off in the next few seasons.