The snow was eight feet deep in the mountain passes around Logan in northern Utah last week. It had been falling, on and off, for 12 straight days before the heavy cloud cover began to break apart. But it could have snowed 12 more days for all the effect the weather had on the crowds pouring in across the Wasatch Range to the home of Utah State for the basketball game with the University of Utah.
The schools have been natural rivals for more than 50 years, but the game would settle more than an intrastate score. The winner almost surely would be this year's Skyline Conference champion and earn a place in the NCAA national championship tournament next month. In Salt Lake City, 80 miles away, tickets for the game were being scalped for $50 apiece.
Utah is one of the few areas in the country where basketball takes precedence over college football. Two of the state's three major universities—Brigham Young, Utah and Utah State—don't even bother to offer football season tickets, yet in most years basketball season tickets are sold out before the season opens.
There are various reasons for this, but the prime one is the winning brand of ball played at Utah's colleges under the direction of three of the nation's best coaches, Stan Watts at BYU, Cecil Baker at Utah State and Jack Gardner at Utah. In the last 11 seasons, either BYU or Utah has won the Skyline title seven times, and Utah State has been second or third in five of those years. This season Utah and Utah State came up to Saturday's game tied for first place in the Skyline with 10-1 records and with ratings as the fifth and eighth best teams in the nation, respectively.
It would be hard to imagine two more different personalities than Gardner and Baker. Utah's Jack Gardner is a voluble, peppy, outgoing man in his late 40s whose handsome features are beginning to show the ravages of 24 years of high-pressure coaching. Half of his teams, chiefly at Kansas State and Utah, have been conference champions, and six have placed second—a remarkable record. He is the first to admit that he is one of his profession's best and most tenacious recruiters. "More games are won," he says, "during the months of recruiting than during the weeks of the season's play. You've got to have good players to win, and you've got to recruit or you won't get them. I am a good recruiter, and I'm proud of it."
On Gardner's best team at Kansas State, the 1951 crew that went to the NCAA finals, four of the five starters were recruited from outside the state of Kansas. The same is true of this year's Utah team (three from California, one from Indiana), which may well be the best Gardner has had since he came to Utah in 1953.
The intensity Gardner brings to recruiting carries over into the way he coaches. All of Utah's practice sessions are planned to the minute the day before they are held and run off on a strict timetable. There will be five minutes devoted to one drill, 10 to another, two minutes for a talk by Gardner on the necessity of players drying their hair after showers so they don't catch cold, or for a general compliment to the squad on its improvement. At all Utah home games he has 13 statisticians (four on the road) keeping figures on every conceivable phase of the play. They note, under 27 different headings, precisely how every point was scored from the field—what play was used, the type of pass to the scorer, the kind of shot, where it was taken and so on.
All these figures and the minute-by-minute record of practice sessions are kept in a folder and bound into a book at the end of the season. Gardner can tell you, in a matter of seconds, what type of pass into the pivot man was the most effective during the 1953 season and why.
Utah State's Cecil Baker is a mild, blue-eyed, 60-year-old who was born on a Utah farm and still keeps a few sheep in the rear of his home near the State campus. He also fusses over a hundred-odd prize dahlias. He was raised in a leisurely home, and that is the way he likes to live and coach basketball. State's practice sessions are run with a light hand. Much of the time is spent in competitive shooting games like twenty-one. But Cec Baker also gets excellent results with his relaxed style, and his gentle, generous personality attracts good players to the State campus. As at Utah, four of his regulars are from out of state (two from California, two from Indiana).
It has been Baker's pattern for years to rely on five men for most of every game every season. He likes to say he would substitute more freely if he had the material, but the record and his own words belie that. "I played at a small high school," he says, "and I coached at some small ones, too. I found that when boys play together, game after game, they get to know each other's styles and habits so well that they play better."
IRON MEN OF STATE
The five starters on Baker's team this year have played the full 40 minutes of more than half their games. Just a few weeks ago they visited Utah in Salt Lake City, played the whole game with only one substitution, and gave Utah its only conference loss of the year 73-61. They did it with an offense run by a skinny, 5-foot-7 guard named Max Perry, who is one of the best players in college ball today. Perry gets the ball into the hands of three teammates—Cornell Green, Tyler Wilbon, and Jerry Schofield—in unbelievably close-in positions under the basket, and they feint their way beautifully into clear layups. His own fine outside shooting and that of State's other guard, Ralph Cullimore, keep the rival defense from collapsing around the three under the basket. It sounds very simple, but these five men execute the offense with brilliant precision; they are quick, the passes are crisp and accurate and ball-handling errors extremely few.
Jack Gardner's Utah team plays a different game. Gardner has a 6-foot-9 center named Billy McGill and he has built his offense around McGill in the pivot. The problem, of course, is to get the ball into McGill, and Utah's two shifty guards, Bill Cowan and Joe Morton, generally do a good job of this. The two forwards, Allen Holmes and Rich Ruffell, shoot well, and Holmes, especially, free-lances his way expertly into good scoring position.
At game time there was barely breathing room in Utah State's field-house. The crowd of 7,000 was 500 over normal capacity, and the cheering was continuous and deafening from the start. Utah State ran away to a 6-0 lead in the first few minutes in exactly the manner they had won before, with Perry feeding the ball in close. On defense, State put a man in front of McGill and one behind him. Utah could not get the ball to him. With the score 29-18 and State apparently on the way to another victory, Gardner called a time-out and made two changes in assignments. He switched McGill from his high post to a spot deep under the basket where State could hardly collapse around him without conceding even more shooting room. And he put his team in a man-to-man defense in the hope that it would prevent State's close-in teamwork. Whether this turned the trick or whether Utah State suddenly went cold is the sort of question that launches endless debate, but certainly Gardner's moves helped. In six short minutes before half time, Utah caught up quickly and walked off the floor only three points behind at 39-36.
Right at the start of the second half, Utah State failed to score in an easy three-on-one situation, and this was a sign of trouble to come. Utah took the lead for the first time at 40-39, and soon was in command at 52-44. More significant than the score, however, was the manner in which the team had solved its problems. The guards, Cowan and Morton, continually broke up State's quick-breaking plays, deflecting passes, often stealing the ball outright. On offense, both began to hit consistently from outside. McGill suddenly was being guarded by one man, and he suddenly was scoring.
To Utah State's credit, the five starters who played the whole game never lost their poise. They fought back repeatedly until with two and a half minutes to play they were only four points behind. This set the stage for a lovely surprise by Gardner. To stop State's momentum, Gardner called a time-out, and gave the order for a set play that Utah had been practicing all season and had been saving for just such a spot. A rapid series of feints and screens cut the speedy Holmes loose, and he went in for an easy layup. State still refused to give up. Behind by eight with a little over a minute to go, State managed to come to within two points of Utah before losing 77-75.
It was a game between two superb teams, each capable of beating the best in the country on any night. If they both get into the postseason national tournaments they should do very well indeed.