The Man Who Said 'Control the Ball'

December 04, 1967

For a basketball player, there really is no season. All it takes is the availability of a ball and a basket. For the addicted, the urge to put that ball in that basket is irresistible. By NCAA legislation, however, the 15th of October is the day—the awful, wonderful, magic day of reckoning when basketball coaches are allowed to summon their squads and begin preparing them for a season. For six weeks the tallest boys on campus huff up and down steps of empty arenas, race up and down courts and strain through calisthenics, all this soundless except for the squeak of sneakers on polished floors and the exasperated cries of coaches who see disaster in every double dribble. Turn that bunch into a team in six weeks? Oh, brother.

At Oklahoma State University, fall practice is a very special time. Though the ritual is being performed on campuses all over the country, there is a distinctive urgency to it at OSU. There has been for 34 years.

In 1934 Henry Payne Iba came to the land-grant university at Stillwater—it was called Oklahoma A&M then—to coach basketball, and there has been nothing casual about the game there since. (Acquaintances of Iba's impress their friends by calling him Hank. Intimates call him Henry. Players and graduates never stop calling him Mr. Iba.) An easygoing, country-boy aura surrounds Henry Iba, but do not let that fool you if you coach this game. Watch the eyes—those clear, steady, gray eyes. They miss nothing, and while he is charming you with an impish smile, he is figuring out a way to beat your brains out on a basketball court. It is a single-minded and uncompromising approach that has brought him 731 victories (619 at OSU, 112 others at Colorado University, where he coached for a year, and Maryville College in Missouri, where he coached for four years), two national championships and 15 conference championships. Among active coaches, only Adolph Rupp has won more (760).

There is obvious distinction to winning 731 games, but what makes Iba's reign memorable is how he won them. The term now is ball control—or slowdown or stall—depending on whether you are a critic or a fan. No matter. Henry Iba invented it, polished it and displayed it, and its influence on the game has been so pervasive that all you have to say about a team in Maine, Moscow or Manila is that it plays Iba-style ball and everyone knows what you're talking about. And a lot of teams have been playing it since the Iba philosophy began to be carried out of the Southwest by converts and OSU graduates. In recent years Texas Western used it to win the NCAA title, and Cincinnati upset the fine Ohio State teams of 1961 and 1962 the same way for the same championship.

Still, the cry of the run-and-shoot set is, "Who needs it?" The go-go-goers think of the Iba shuffle along with bathtub gin and boop-boop-a-doop. "Iba gets a three-point lead," they also say, "and he lets the air out of the ball." There is truth in both views.

It was 40 years ago that Iba decided he was going to control the game. "We're not going to play them," is the first thing he tells his team every year. "They're going to play us." Faced with such a foe, opposing coaches who are wild to set scoring records often find themselves forced into trying to beat Iba at his own game, which is hard to do when you haven't practiced it. Having lost the ball, they then have to sit there slowly ulcerating for the five minutes OSU spends setting up a basket—preferably a layup.

If they find that exasperating, they are hardly better off when they get the ball. Then they have to contend with a team that spends as much time practicing defense as offense. Getting off a shot against a representative OSU team is an accomplishment. As for garbage points—forget it. Iba does not always have the tall, quick shooters and jumpers you need to win championships but, runt or giant, an OSU player rarely makes a mistake. He is sloppy only once—before he is yanked out of the game—and never, never is he caught in a listless pose.

It is a question of discipline. It starts on the opening day of practice when Iba lets his players know exactly what is expected of them. There is a short talk, and that is the last time the players will sit down in old Gallagher Hall for the next six weeks. From then on there will be motion—up stairs, down stairs; up court with ball, without ball, singly, in pairs, in a crowd—and always at full speed. The Iba style is physically demanding, and it is his theory that the fit are not born, they are made. Of course, any good team is well conditioned. Iba simply carries the idea several steps further.

OSU players spend hours learning plays that include the setting up of picks and screens, all with the idea of getting one man free for only the easiest kind of shot. "It's free lance with screens," says Iba, but there is very little free lance involved. Let a player ignore the master plan, and Iba reacts immediately. "Cut that out," is the preamble, and it is followed by an in-depth critique of what the player did wrong. "I'm not against shooting," Iba insists. "I'm against bad shooting. I want my boys to shoot. I love my boys to shoot. But glory be, make it a good shot—his shot."

A sloppy play on a basketball court—anyone's basketball court—makes Iba physically ill. "I've seen Mr. Iba cringe," says his assistant, Sam Aubrey, "when the other team makes a mistake."

If that seems to hint at a philosophical approach toward losing, it is misleading. Twenty-four years ago Iba came to Washington, D.C. for a game with George Washington University with what was then his best team, led by Bob Kurland, the first of the good seven-footers. The next year this team won the NCAA title, but that night GW upset it by four points and the crowd literally went berserk. Fans swarmed out of the stands and onto the court, laughing, crying, singing, hugging players while the band pumped out Happy Days Are Here Again—18 straight times.

Later that night on the train back to Chicago, Iba was slumped in a seat, his hat pulled over his eyes. Suddenly he sat up and said, "Those people sure were happy [pause]. I don't believe I've ever seen a happier group of people [pause]. Hell, we can't go around the country making people happy."

Iba has never been known as a bundle of laughs in the enemy camp. And it is one of his traits to be at his most unsettling against teams he has no business beating. Kansas, for instance, came into Stillwater 10 years ago with Wilt Chamberlain on its team and a national championship on its mind. "We can gang up on Wilt," Iba told his players, "and slough off the others. Or, we can give Wilt his 30 and hound the other four right into the floor." Iba decided on the latter. With three minutes left in the game, Wilt had his 32 points. And the rest of the Kansas players had gotten the Iba treatment and a total of 22. Kansas had been averaging 73 points a game, but its 54 was the same as OSU's. At that point the Jayhawks still had Chamberlain but OSU had the ball, and this situation never has done much for a rival's national ranking. Kansas knew what was coming—mostly nothing, until an OSU player would have a shot he almost never missed. With two seconds left, OSU had worked Mel Wright free at the top of the circle. Zap, he had the ball. Zap, he let go his jumper, a shot he made nine out of 10 times in practice. And Kansas was beaten.

The past two seasons have not been winning ones at OSU, and the murmuring has begun that Iba has lost his touch, that ball control is old-fashioned. While everyone is following UCLA's lead with varieties of pressing defenses all over the court, Henry is still back there defending on his half of the floor only. The sport, say his critics, has passed old Henry by. (The U.S. Olympic Committee, incidentally, doesn't quite agree. It made Iba head coach in 1964.) Finally, even Iba's friends ask, "Where are all the good players that used to show up regularly at the OSU campus?"

Iba's answer to the last point is: "In the old days, the name of the game was coaching. Now? now, it's recruiting. And I've been lazy. I used to be able to see a boy in June, ask him to come to OSU and, by golly, there he'd be come fall. Now, after I see a boy, I've got to hound him and flatter him, flatter his parents, flood him with letters. God help us—don't let him forget old OSU! Truthfully, I haven't done the job until recently. But I'm not ready to retire. No, sir. If recruiting is the game, then I'll recruit."

There really is no point in asking Henry Iba if he is also going to switch to run-and-shoot basketball, just because it is now fashionable—if he is going to let his players go hell-for-leather down the floor ready to get off any kind of shot as quickly as possible. "Cut that out," he will say. Several years ago, after a losing game at Missouri in which OSU had given up 82 points—about what rivals used to get in a whole season against him—Iba decided what had to be done. Before the next game, also on the road at Kansas, he hustled his players into the gym and said, "Gents, this is a basketball. For the next three hours you are going to dribble it. You are going to pass it. And you will be allowed to shoot it exactly 30 times. So make them good shots. Make them very good shots."

The following night OSU took 19 very good shots in the first half and 18 very good shots in the second half. The score was OSU 54-Kansas 49. That's what Henry Iba still thinks about ball control.

As for the new pressing defenses, Iba has a surprise for his opponents this year. "I think the new defenses are terrific," he told a stunned audience the other day. Could this be the same man who, only months ago, had castigated the press and insisted that if referees called fouls correctly, pressing defenders would foul out of games within minutes? Would he actually use the press himself?

"Why not?" said Iba. "What I didn't like was all the fouling that went with it. It was a new thing and players were grabbing and banging, and because it also was new to the referees they were not calling the fouls. The refs are used to it now, and so are the players. Actually, I would have come out with it before, except we didn't have the guards to handle it."

Two years ago only one player returned from the OSU squad that had won the Big Eight Conference in 1965. "We tried the press in practice," said Iba, "and my guards were left looking at each other at the wrong end of the floor. Last year we also lost our starting guards [Ken O'Neal had grade trouble, and Jack Herron came down with mononucleosis] and we not only couldn't press, we couldn't even play defense the conventional way. This year Herron is back, and we are generally faster and deeper. Oh, yes, we'll come out and get'em this year." The conference is on notice.

Those who wish to interpret Iba's willingness to forswear his old principles about defense as a sign of mellowing should be on notice, too. Henry Iba still does not care to go around the country making people happy by losing. That never was and still is not a cheerful experience for OSU players. "You might get a Hershey bar on the way home," said Wilbur (Sparky) Stalcup, who played for Iba between 1929 and 1931 and is now the assistant athletic director at Missouri, "or you might not. No dinner. And I bet his disposition isn't any better now. We were coming back once after getting beat, in this old bus, and the kid who was driving—Henry was a menace behind the wheel—told the coach we needed gas. 'You're the driver, period,' Henry told him. 'I'll tell you when we need gas.' Five miles later the motor coughed, gurgled and quit. 'O.K., kid,' said Henry. 'Now I'm the driver. All of you, out. And push.'

"But don't let anyone ever tell you we didn't think highly of him. I'll tell you something about Henry Iba. He won't listen to a single bad word about any kid who ever played basketball for him. I once raised a question about one of his old boys, and Henry looked me straight in the eye and said: 'Wilbur, he played for us, didn't he?' "

ILLUSTRATIONROBERT WEAVER ILLUSTRATIONROBERT WEAVERHigh priest of a basketball cult, Henry Iba demands that his teams complement their disciplined style with superior conditioning. The result: 619 Oklahoma State wins—after some very strenuous workouts. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT WEAVERAcross central campus, passing the Student Union, basketball star Joe Smith escorts a coed to her next classroom. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT WEAVERA believer in competition even in drills, Iba pairs players for wind sprints. Player running up and down steps will be called by Iba if he skips just one. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT WEAVERKnowing what is expected of them, OSU athletes get in shape before formal practice begins. Jack Herron and Herb Westmoreland work out on Lewis Field. ILLUSTRATIONROBERT WEAVERWestmoreland relaxes in dorm overlooking "beef barn," campus landmark at OSU, which stresses agriculture studies.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)