In certain respects it has been a rotten season for Joseph R. Stowell, the new basketball coach at Bradley University. First, unsympathetic sportswriters put him on the spot by picking the Braves to win the championship of the Missouri Valley Conference, a chain of tough teams and inhospitable gyms stretching from Cincinnati to Denton, Texas. The day before his first road trip, he sprained his left ankle in a half-court game against his own players. He pounded on the floor in one game and broke the band on his wristwatch. At Oklahoma, after a nick-of-time victory, he leaped joyfully from the bench and caught an exultant player's elbow under his right eye. Two stitches. Joe's wife Marilyn listened to the Oklahoma game on the radio and got so nervous she put seven pounds of her homemade, delicious hard candy into the wrong container and ruined it. Through all this anguish, rookie Coach Stowell lost 17 pounds—but only one basketball game.
Bradley was 11-1 for the season (9-0 at home in Peoria) before Missouri Valley mayhem started in earnest last week. Some of the victories were against pushovers, but the victims also included Creighton, Butler and St. Louis, the latter the only league foe in the first 12 games. The only loss was to Indiana in neutral Chicago Stadium on New Year's Eve. Last week Bradley proved itself worthy not only of league but high national rating as well by coming from behind to win a tough conference game on the road and, to nobody's surprise, winning again at home.
Bradley has a lot going for it in its field house. There are Coach Stowell's inspirational signs in the locker room. ("When God measures a man, he puts the tape around the heart instead of the head.") There is usually a packed house and those fans who cannot get tickets listen to their choice of two radio stations, one of which rebroadcasts the play-by-play at midnight for night-shift workers just getting home and for people who just want to savor it all over again. Marilyn Stowell keeps her fingers crossed from start to finish. And the clincher is the ardent lady fan who sprinkles mustard seed on and around the Bradley bench before every home game, drawing her faith from a biblical quotation: "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, nothing shall be impossible unto you"—Matthew 17:20. This lady once had her husband, also a red-hot fan, take a packet of seed to the National Invitation Tournament in New York City. He was too bashful to do any sowing, so he set, his briefcase, containing the packet, near the Brave bench. Bradley won the tournament. No wonder Cincinnati has won only twice in Peoria since 1957—never with Oscar Robertson—and Wichita State has won only once.
That once was not last Thursday night, when more than 7,400 Peorians jammed the field house to see the Braves entertain Wichita, which featured a bald guard named Kelly Pete (no, not Pete Kelly) who looks like a slender Mr. Clean. Wichita is the defending league champion, but Stowell's Bradley team picked it apart like a zoologist dissecting a frog. Junior Guards Tom Campbell and Alex McNutt lobbed neat passes underneath the basket to Center Joe Allen, and McNutt cashed in frequently on free throws to give Bradley a 10-point half-time lead. The lead was increased to 19 points in the second half—at which time Stowell started substituting. The 91-65 final score did not truly indicate the measure of Bradley's superiority.
Allen has been Stowell's leading scorer all season. He is a 6-foot-6½, 230-pound sophomore who at first glance seems almost as agile as an ox. More lengthy examination reveals that that estimate would libel the ox. On a team of sleek sprinters, he has to hobble up and down the court with his left leg encased thigh to ankle in a brace that looks like Grandma's corset. But Allen is all guts and muscle. When his teammates get the ball to him under the hoop he is strong enough to leap up and shoot despite three or four opponents chopping at his arms with karate blows.
Allen played with Michigan's Cazzie Russell at Carver High School in Chicago, but most college coaches considered him too slow and clumsy to make good in top-level competition. Besides, he had a bad right leg. Bradley took a chance on him, and the gamble soon proved unfortunate. After his second frosh game, Allen's leg locked—his left leg. He dropped out of school, had a knee operation, developed a postsurgery infection and stayed in the hospital four months getting fat. "The leg was a terrible sight," said Stowell. "No muscle left. We used to go in to Chicago to see him, and it was pitiful."
The conference ruled that Allen could start his freshman season over again and he came back to give it a try, but his first practice session was so discouraging that he left for home. Stowell got on the phone and convinced him that even if he could not play any more basketball, he should keep the scholarship and complete his education. Back he came. He did leg lifts with Stowell holding his shoulders, sit-ups with Stowell holding his legs and helped melt off five pounds of suet by jogging up and down the field-house steps. He averaged 22 points a game for the frosh. "As long as Joe can stand," said Stowell, "he'll be a credit to the team."
But sophomore exploits and victories in Peoria will only be part of the story if Bradley is to become conference kingpin and an NCAA title contender. The Braves have to go out on a grim circuit: to Tulsa, winner of the Rainbow Tournament; to Wichita State, third in the All-College tournament; to Louisville, winner of the Hurricane Classic; to Drake, winner of the Queen City tournament. Missouri Valley teams lost just one game to outside opponents over Christmas.
The first road test came last Saturday night against Drake. Bradley had lost for three straight years in Des Moines' Veterans Memorial Auditorium, and Drake, a mediocre team, jumped off to a 27-20 lead, effectively stopping Bradley with a zone defense. The Braves' outside men—Campbell, McNutt, Eddie Jackson and Ernie Thompson—were not shooting well enough to draw the Drake defenders out and, therefore, could not lob the ball in to Allen. Bradley made less than a third of its shots in the first half but held its own in rebounds, 18-18. Drake led at the half 34-25.
Drake got as much as 12 ahead in the second half, but Stowell started his team pressing early. Usually a slow, set-'em-up team, Drake began playing even slower whenever it got past the press, and lost its momentum. With slightly more than 10 minutes left, Campbell's jump shot tied the game 44-44, but Drake pulled away again by five. Many thought Bradley should concede right then and catch the next bus for Illinois. But the Bradley zone press, led by the amazingly calm Campbell and McNutt, rattled Drake again so that even its defense fell apart. Bradley was at last able to feed Allen and won easily, or so it seemed at the end, 64-52.
In the happy locker room Joe Stowell, still taking it easy on the left ankle and sporting a small scar under his right eye, described his elation with some vivid, inspirational-sign prose: "The kids just had a ton of guts out there. I'm awful proud of these kids. We think five or six teams can win in the Missouri Valley, and we're one of them."
At assorted way stations from Cincinnati to Denton, Texas, sales of mustard seed rose 50% overnight.