Claude Retherford, the new coach at Idaho State University, has two natural parts on either side of the head "that the good Lord gave me," a pompadour in the middle that appears to have been poured out of a frozen custard spigot down at the Dairy Queen, an orange carnation in his lapel, 30 vests in his wardrobe, 40 suits on the rack and 35 pairs of shoes on the floor. Claude also has a basketball team that has six wins, 14 losses, hardly any rebounds, and the worst defensive record in the country. But it is so popular that every game in Pocatello is a sellout, and the band once showed up in the middle of the night to welcome the team back to Poky after two straight losses. Claude, who just turned 40, is about to become a father for the first lime—"me and Cary Grant; it must be the Poky air"—and he plays one-on-one with the university president before practice. The president's moves are pretty good, too; it was only three years ago that he was a football coach with a 2-8 record.
But then, at ISU Cinderella would just be three to a flush, because there is also Dave Wagnon, the rugged preacher's son from Weiser, Idaho. Wagnon, who came to Idaho State on a why-not half scholarship and who was still a substitute some of last season, has suddenly become the second most famous Idaho citizen—after Patricia Kennedy Lawford of the Sun Valley Kennedys—and the second leading scorer in the country, with 30.6 points a game. The Bengals play a home schedule from here on, which gives Wagnon an excellent chance to become the most obscure athlete ever to win the title. Already he is the best surprise out of Weiser since 1907, when a traveling salesman dropped the Washington Senators a note about a kid pitcher he saw there named Walter Johnson.
Walt Simon, who played on Claude Retherford's Fullerton Junior College team, was the nation's highest JC scorer last year, so if Wagnon wins the major-college title, it would mean a record long-shot double for Claude. He has been looking for that kind of action ever since the University of Nebraska, where he played his basketball, got him a summer job posting odds at the local racetrack. Wagnon is also a speculator, but his plans call for making it big in real estate in Washington, D.C. He has been led to such thinking by his D.C. roommate, a sidekick the likes of which no western film ever had. The roommate is Milford Erick Evans III, or "Slick" to everyone since he was 7.
Slick travels with the team in his official capacity as English tutor to most Bengal athletes, but he is primarily known as Wagnon's secretary, because he handles Dave's publicity and their joint financial projects. After the D.C. killing, Slick says he will come back to Poky to build housing for married students. Recently, Claude stopped interviewing Dave on his TV show long enough to ask if Dave could get Slick to cut him in on some of that one.
February 21, 1966
Since Claude—"The Dude," as they call him—hit town, all of Poky has gotten pretty camp, and that doesn't mean a pup tent set out by the Snake River, baby. Claude played and coached all his life in Indiana and Nebraska, but as soon as he hit California in 1955 you could forget the Midwest bit. Or, as they say in the race charts, "throw last out." It was no happenstance that The Dude's first California job was at Morningside High, located across the street from Hollywood Park. Chasing the action, Claude traded in convertibles, got a screen test and moved on to higher salaries at Tulare High and then Fullerton.
He remained too flamboyant for the big time, however, even for Reno. "I walked in to be interviewed for the University of Nevada job, but I could see right away they didn't think I looked any more like a coach than that I could fly a jet, and I haven't done that yet. I didn't have that coach's crew cut, and I come on with the jewelry," Claude says, flashing the diamond on the left pinky and the monster onyx on the right ring finger. The Dude gets his jewelry at discount and custom-made, just like his clothes. He has a ski nose, an expressive jaw, crinkly cheeks and bright eyes that spray light when he goes with a punch line. With the hairdo, Claude looks a little bit like a ventriloquist's dummy. "I'm just racy," is what he says.
Having suffered through several losing seasons of slow-down basketball, Idaho State figured it was ready for Retherford's showmanship and run-and-shoot style. "Are you serious about coming here?" the regents asked him. "Serious?" Claude replied. "Why, I'll give up tenure, my house and my swimming pool." He was hired. ISU, growing rapidly, also has a new football coach and athletic director, and a vigorous, bright young president, Dr. William E. Davis, who is a former high school coach. A few years ago, when there was trouble in the University of Colorado football program, Dr. Davis was brought over from the alumni office to hold the line for a year as coach, an experience he enjoys talking about more than his academic, literary or administrative accomplishments. Retherford acclaims his versatility. "The man has worked both sides of the street," Claude says, chomping on another cigar.
Claude came to Poky last June in his Mercedes 190 SL with his new bride, Reatha, a fashion model who, he says, is still "in shock" after trading Orange County for Pocatello. A drowsy little transportation center, Poky draws considerable pride from the fact that it is "the only Pocatello in the world," a modest enough claim. The place was named for Chief Pocatello of the Shoshoni tribe, who hardly ever ventured out of the Portneuf Valley and never made the columns at all. Nevertheless, if there is a Pocatello, Del., keep it quiet, please, or you will break a lot of hearts around the Poky Chamber of Commerce.
Claude hit the weekend races at Pocatello Downs, "but my alligators got dusty, so I left," and then he set about building interest and/or a winner in basketball. Hidden on the roster was Wag-non, a 6-foot-2, 187-pound senior guard, who had averaged a bit more than a dozen points a game the year before and had failed to impress anyone but the folks back home in Weiser—and Slick. If nothing else, Retherford liked Wag-non's gumption. He had to explain carefully to Dave that fighting led to getting kicked out of games, but no one had any remote appreciation of what Wagnon was going to accomplish. This includes the Rev. Joseph Wagnon, who earned a speeding ticket the other Saturday night hustling the 335 miles back from a game to Weiser to preach. But especially dumfounded by it all—all 30 points a game—is Dave. "The coach taught me some moves and how to dribble with my left better," he says, "but that's the only difference, really. Mostly, I suppose, it's just confidence, in myself and in the style of play. The first game this year, I got 30. I was so tired I felt like I had played three games, and I remember thinking, those guys who make 30—it really is hard. But the confidence came, and I kept hitting 30. It became, well, Jiminy Christmas, it got easy. Easy to make 30! One time I had a bad game and I still got 30. So after that, I just don't know what to say."
"Dave's disposition has changed this year," Slick says. "He never complains anymore, even like when he got back from the Seattle game and was literally black and blue. We don't talk about it. Before the Weber State game I said something about scoring a lot. He took more shots than he ever had before, and he was off, and they really beat him up, too, and we lost. I saw him in the locker room after the game, and he was real low. All he did was look up and say, 'Don't mention points, Slick.' That was the last we talked about it."
Wagnon, Dave Schellhase of Purdue and Dave Bing of Syracuse are less than a point apart in the race for the scoring crown. Strangely, Wagnon does not have a particularly good outside shot and gets most of his points on twisting drives. He is double- and triple-teamed now, but this is a new honor and he has not yet learned to pass off quickly when that happens. Other teams are roughing him up unmercifully. He has averaged 16.5 free throws in the last six games.
Wagnon does not have the qualities that the pros crave, but his courage and toughness are such that they might carry him anyway, even if he does not continue to be a prolific scorer. He is a remarkably game athlete. Last Friday, midway through the first half of a 111-84 loss to Montana, Wagnon drove the court full speed, made the layup, and then was knocked down, bounced off the backboard stanchion by a strong body and bitten by a good set of molars. There were clear teeth imprints when they put three stitches in his head after the game. Blood flooding down over his forehead, Wagnon marched to the bench after the incident muttering, "Tape it, tape it. You don't take me out of this game." Temporarily patched up, he went back, sank the one-and-one for a four-point play and added 18 more points. He finished with 32 though he was obviously, as Retherford said, "dizzy as a billy goat from then on."
Wagnon's success is even more surprising because he has never really worked at basketball. "This is where I missed out, I guess," he says. "In all my life, I don't suppose that I ever touched a basketball more than two or three times between seasons." He did average 23 points as a senior at Weiser, but no one was very interested, and he was so unimpressive at Boise Junior College that the University of Idaho wrote him that "you are not capable of playing in this competition." In his sprint for the scoring title now, Wagnon will face Idaho twice in his team's last six games.
Claude is as ready as Dave to get back home to Poky, for it is especially tough losing on the road in this area. There must be moments of tender memories of swimming pools and Holly Park when he is driving in a bus over the icy, snowy Lost Trail Pass, a ghastly 380 miles from Pocatello to Missoula, Mont., skirting frightening unguarded precipices much of the way. In a Missoula motel the other day, lounging with a cigar, in soft-leather slippers, firehouse-red pajamas and gold robe, Claude spoke of how even a disastrous losing season could be tempered by Dave Wagnon's amazing personal accomplishment. Two doors down the hall, official English tutor and star player were asleep and dreaming by now. A national scoring champion sure would spice up the basketball program at Idaho State beautifully, Retherford mused. And what might this pair do to the real estate game in Washington, D.C.!