Tilting his hat back as is his custom, but with just a touch of the rakishness of those who do that sort of thing in the movies, Ralph Miller prepared to duck into the new family station wagon he had just bought. The color of the wagon was—thank you, Detroit—"Tahoe Turquoise," and it had backseat speakers and a stereo tape player. The dealer had been able to find only one sample tape, which turned out to be a group of twanging selections by Chet Atkins on his electric guitar.
Miller, despite a musical heritage acquired as a boy in Chanute, Kans., persisted in referring to the instrument as a banjo. In Chanute music teachers enjoyed such high prestige that Miller—like every other mother's son in town—was required to battle the violin and the baritone sax for many years, though he was practically tone deaf, before he was permitted to concentrate on sports. Then he quickly became a first-rate high school athlete. He was outstanding in college, later became one of the country's best coaches at Wichita State and now enjoys the same status at Iowa (see cover).
Settled in the station wagon, Miller flipped off Chet Atkins, put a cigarette into his mouth, released the brake and headed out of the auto showroom toward Iowa City. The odometer read: 007. There was significance in that coincidence, as Iowa's rival that night (Northwestern) would discover. For Miller is just about equal parts Chanute and double-0 seven—relaxed and dry-witted in the best small-town way, but as commanding and articulate as any Ian Fleming character.
Miller arrived in Iowa City in March 1964, after a dozen consecutive winning seasons at Wichita State. He picked up a junior college star, Chris Pervall, and a good sophomore, Gerry Jones, but basically the team he inherited was the same slow-styled powerhouse that was 8-15 the year before and 3-11 in the Big Ten. Miller promptly assembled his players and told them they could win with his game of pressure basketball. "I know nothing about any of you now," he said, "but I'll find out all I want to know when practice starts. If I have to change my style to win in the Big Ten, then something is wrong with my style. And," he concluded, a sardonic smile under his crew cut, "I don't think that's true."
January 24, 1966
His confidence in the pressure game, which features an all-court defense, a fast break and a patterned offense that produces 85% of his team's shots from within 10 feet, is catching—so much so that his players' faith in Miller sometimes brought a victory when the system itself seemed to be failing. Lanny Van Eman, the Iowa freshman coach who played for Miller at Wichita, recalls a game in his sophomore year. "We were five points behind with only two minutes left, and Ralph called a time-out. We came over to huddle and, as soon as we all got there, he broke into this big smile and said: 'O.K., now we got 'em where we want 'em.' I couldn't believe it. I had to look up at the scoreboard to see if I was playing in the same game. I really did. And there it was—we were five points down with two minutes to go. But he was right. We sure did have 'em. We won going away."
Miller had sensed that one of his pet theories was about to be proved out, as it had been in similar situations. He believes that the pressure game renders an opponent especially vulnerable for a few two-to four-minute stretches in each game. If he can keep his men in relentless pursuit, victory will be won in those brief bursts. With this conviction and his ability to persuade players to accept it, Miller brought Iowa a winning record in his first year there (including a victory over national champion UCLA).
This year, with four starters and the sixth man back, Iowa has a good chance to take the conference title. But even if the Hawkeyes do not win, Miller has succeeded in awakening the Big Ten; the whole league is shining with new styles and disciplines. The most recent example of this revival is Michigan State, where John Benington—a refugee, like Miller, from the Missouri Valley and one of three new Big Ten coaches—has installed his own tough defensive system and has cut 26 points a game from last year's record. Upsetting preseason estimates, this has put Michigan State squarely into perhaps the closest race in the country. Defending Champion Michigan had a rocky December, but started off league play with its first win over Ohio State at Columbus since 1947, and thus regained its position as the morning-line favorite. Iowa suffered an inexcusable loss to Wisconsin in its conference debut, but remains the top challenger. Nine of the Big Ten coaches quiver as they await the signal that Ohio State is ready to play up to its potential. Fred Taylor should see to that soon. And Northwestern's juniors, when they settle down to the pattern ball that Coach Larry Glass advocates, may well play back to their high school hotshot form.
Things would be even more complicated if Minnesota had not suffered two grave losses: Don Yates flunked out and Lou Hudson fractured the navicular bone at the base of his right thumb. That probably destroyed the Gophers' chances. But if Hudson can come back and play regularly without a cast on his shooting hand (he had 20 points against Indiana last week while wearing the cast), Minnesota will certainly upset somebody or two.
That upsets may be the order of the season became apparent when Wisconsin, figured for the cellar, beat Iowa 69-68. In that game it was the Hawkeyes who endured those short stretches of critical vulnerability. They roared out to a 24-12 lead, but when Center George Peeples—the keystone of the team's defense—went out because of foul trouble, Iowa let Wisconsin get off the floor, and soon even fell behind.
Iowa managed to come back, although still playing poorly. A point down with two seconds to play, the Hawkeyes had Forward Gary Olson on the foul line with two shots. Olson is the team's best free-throw shooter. Four years ago, in the Iowa high school tournament, he sank 23 in one game, a record. At Wisconsin he hit the front rim twice.
The loss took on added importance when on the same afternoon Michigan won at Ohio State. The Wolverines are neither as strong nor as deep as they were last year and, as was the case at Columbus, the team requires fresh flights of excellence from Cazzie Russell to win any game. Russell gets help, but seldom from more than one teammate at a time. Against Ohio State, Captain Oliver Darden came through with 25 points.
Michigan took the lead late in the game only after it shifted to a zone—a 1-2-2 which, ironically, the Buckeyes had been working on all week. It has been that way so far for Ohio State; most of the early problems have been solved, but the supposedly sure things have gone sour. Still, the Buckeyes got one lift against Michigan when 6-foot-7 Bill Hosket established himself as the league's best sophomore, second as an all-round player, some think, only to Russell. An honor student, Hosket is married and a new father, though he has just turned 19. He is a quiet, almost withdrawn young man. On the court, however, he plays with a sturdy confidence, and has become the darling of the home crowds. "He smashed Darden with an elbow," one Big Ten scout says, shaking his head, "and the whole place boos Darden. The referee warns Hosket, they boo the referee. They love him, but then he does everything right." Hosket's specialty is his corner jumper. "That's the first time," said Purdue's new coach, George King, "I ever saw a dunk shot from 30 feet out."
Iowa, after the loss to Wisconsin, returned home to beat Northwestern 70-58, turning a tie game into a rout when the pressure style suddenly took its toll. Miller and his team accepted the victory as just another exercise in their normally hectic routine. The players seem to operate on a curious set of premises: a) they really are not very good but b) they are not so bad either and c) their mediocrity should inspire them to beat those who are better. "It's tough to get overconfident," Captain Dennis Pauling says, apparently pleased at the opportunity for self-deprecation, "when a man like Coach Miller keeps telling you that you're not worth a damn. I mean," he adds, qualifying that a bit, "he reads it off—if you don't do this and this and this, block out and rebound and defense and so on, you'll just never be anything but an average team."
Pauling is the prototype of the kind of player Miller most admires. He gets maybe a couple of baskets a game, is not very fast or especially agile, but he plays defense ferociously. Scarred knees are his badge of honor. "For defense," Miller says, "we have borrowed a word from the offense—attack. That's what our defense does, it attacks. Really, our whole game is a package. And the kids have begun to enjoy this. Since all youngsters have a natural pride, you capitalize on that, too. The way a boy plays defense tells you all you need to know about him. It gives you an insight into his character."
On offense, Peeples and Pervall are the leading scorers, but the only non-senior on the starting team, Gerry Jones, a junior forward, may develop into the biggest threat. He went to Carver High School in Chicago, where he played with Cazzie Russell and big Joe Allen of Bradley. On that team he was just a guy named Jones, hardly permitted to shoot except to loosen up particular zone defenses. Jones had to learn the driving moves he uses now on the playgrounds after school and then discipline himself to forget them in Carver's games.
Iowa got Jones mostly because it really wanted Allen. Allen could not qualify but Jones, tagging along, liked the place and decided to stay. "I felt like Iowa would be good for me," he says. "It was far enough from everything that it would—it certainly should—be easier for me to study. Growing up in a big city like Chicago—well, there are just so many temptations that people out here are not even aware of. But having gone through that, I think I'm a better man for it."
Though Jones was the only player hitting at all in the Wisconsin game, Miller yanked him when his defense fell off and he was repeatedly back-doored. Miller starts his best five defensive players. Some shooters never get off the bench. "In our offense," he says, "the prime objective is for a player to get a teammate a shot. It may look like free lance, but it begins completely patterned, and then we key off the defense. We are not concerned with floor balance or continuity—if we're unbalanced, so are they. But we are, really, as patterned as anybody, even as much as Henry Iba's teams. The only difference is that I let the boy decide whether or not to take a shot. The object of coaching in basketball is to make the game wind up as completely automatic reflex action on the part of the players."
Miller's success at Iowa has revived interest all over the state, and full houses are commonplace for the first time in years. Sectional pride runs high in Iowa City, westernmost outpost of the Big Ten. There, now, one finds all the modern urban Midwest trappings—whiskey by the drink. Holiday Inns, Colonel Harland Sanders' quick ready-to-go fried chicken—but Iowa really has more kinship with the sparsely settled plains states about it. Thus, in the battles against big schools to the east, most Iowans wear a "shucks, we're only No. 10" air. This attitude is not just a result of geography, however. Miller recalls that a couple of years ago there were 58 high school seniors playing basketball in Chicago who were 6 feet 6 or over, but nary a one in the whole dang Hawkeye State. He has had plenty of practice in going east for players, from the days when he was making Wichita a national power.
Over the years he has taken as many as 14 out of little McKeesport, Pa. "Funny," he says, "kids from the East are usually first of all just impressed with the blue sky out here." ("And the friendly people," adds Pervall, from Newark. "When I first showed up at Coffeyville Junior College in Kansas, I could hardly believe it. You'd just walk down the street, and everyone would start waving at you and saying hello and carrying on. The towns out here are all so different. People care more about their own. Back home all the towns adjoin.")
Leaving Wichita was not easy for Miller, but neither was it a precipitous decision. Miller and his wife, Jean—they have four children, ranging in age all the way from 6 to 21—had often discussed possible moves. "I've heard the thought expressed that at 45 or so a coach begins to lose rapport with his players," he says, "and, of course, I've begun to look for such symptoms in myself. But so far I haven't seen any. If anything, kids are easier for me to get along with now. They're smarter.
"I could have been an athletic director, but I just never wanted it. That's sort of the mode of life now, looking for security, but I still want to be out there with the youngsters. I was 45 when the Iowa offer came. It was a watershed year. I had been around basketball for 20 years, and I had about 20 years ahead of me. A man at that point needs a new challenge. If not, you can get too secure—and pretty soon things pass you by."
Miller's consideration of options in his profession does not, however, include alternatives to pressure basketball—his basketball. "I am completely positive with regard to my own team," he says. "I will not adjust to my opponent. We've got a better chance by making him play with us. We are the ones who cause ourselves trouble. At Wisconsin, for instance, we lost on the defensive boards, not because Gary Olson just happened to miss two free throws with two seconds left. You don't lose games on account of shooting. There are only three ways you lose: your defense breaks down, your defensive rebounding breaks down or you give up too many balls on turnovers. It's really a very simple game."
If Miller is right, the only remaining question seems to be whether he can persuade his players that they really are mediocre enough to win. "The bad football season here made it tough for us," he says. "Everyone got anxious for basketball too soon. The players were getting little pats on the back even before we started practicing. That scared me. They were getting a little taste of it. So maybe losing a couple helped. Maybe they know now they don't have any friends out on the basketball court."
He paused. It was time to go home and take a nap before the Northwestern game. Miller sleeps very well, before and after games. A man must sleep well if he can make a big move at 45 and feel sure enough of himself not to change anything he's doing.