Small-college basketball is an often-neglected, much-maligned activity that is as scattered in location as it is varied in purpose. There are factories and academies, big schools and small, outlaws and angels. There are more small colleges, in fact, than anyone dares to count.
The quality of the game played by these myriad institutions has been held in little esteem outside of their home provinces until recently, when the rosters of professional teams began filling up with names from the hinterlands, names like: Earl Monroe (Baltimore) of Winston-Salem, Jerry Sloan (Chicago) of Evansville, Zelmo Beaty (Atlanta) of Prairie View and Phil Jackson (New York) of North Dakota.
There are, as the song says, many more where these came from, and the evidence suggests that this is the season small-college basketball may finally receive the recognition it deserves. The following are just a few of the schools to watch this winter:
Kentucky Wesleyan (Owensboro, Ky.), which has won the NCAA College Division title two of the last three years and has four starters returning this season.
December 2, 1968
Cheyney State (Cheyney, Pa.), where Coach Hal Blitman's teams have won 100 games over the past four years and the Eastern Regionals of the NCAA College Division the past two. Hal Booker, 6'11", is a pro prospect.
Trinity (San Antonio), whose Larry Jeffries averaged 29.6 points last year as the Tigers finished third in the land. He and nine other lettermen are back.
Central State (Wilberforce, Ohio), where Coach Bill Lucas is so deep in good rookies that he could win again with the players who took last year's NAIA championship sitting on the bench.
Ashland (Ashland, Ohio), which walks to victory while others run. The Eagles, who consistently lead the country in defense, gave up only 38.8 points a game last season.
And Long Beach State (Long Beach, Calif.), which is the new home of Jerry Tarkinian, formerly of the junior-college ranks. Three JC stars, including the legendary Sam Robinson, came along with the coach, and their talents foretell an awesome future.
While many of these and other colleges have neither the look nor the design of a minor basketball program (Long Beach State has 22,000 students), it is still true that most of the College Division schools cherish their position and desire no other. Such a school is Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
Over the river and through the woods and past grandmother's house, young men come to Gambier, Ohio. They come with lofty classroom grades, all the proer extracurriculars, their hair combed and their stately college-board scores held as escutcheons. Founded in 1824 by Episcopal Bishop Philander Chase, Kenyon sits on a hilltop on the western rim of the Allegheny foothills where the school is, today, 809 students strong and the hotbed of Academe in the Midwest. Of glowing distinction in and outside of the halls of education is the Kenyon Review, one of the finest of the literary quarterlies, and the Kenyon Plan, an advanced-placement program for talented freshmen.
Because old Bishop Chase built the school to isolate his men from the evils of society, a second hill, west of Gambier, separates the campus from the nearest town of Mount Vernon and is called "The Bishop's Backbone." If any of Bishop Chase's men went into town, it would be over the hill and, of course, over the Bishop's dead body.
Until a few years ago, Kenyon would only have had a winning basketball team over anybody's dead body. The Lords once lost 36 games in a row and were beaten by a staggering 87 points. While this was happening there was some question as to how hard Kenyon or anyone else in the 14-school Ohio Athletic Conference could work to win games anyway. The league is one of the few remaining citadels of honest amateurism.
Recruiting controls are stringent. There are no athletic scholarships in the league; grants-in-aid are issued solely on need. Further, no personal contact with high school students is allowed a coach until the student has made a visit to the campus. After the one visit (paid for by the student) a coach may not visit a boy's home until he has enrolled in school and spent a day in classes. It was only in the past two years that OAC coaches could even write or telephone prospects to invite them to the campus. Even now, much of the recruiting contacts are done by alumni, of whose number at Kenyon the most celebrated, Actor Paul Newman and Poet Robert Lowell, have yet to be involved.
Ten years ago Kenyon hired Bob Harrison, a former NBA guard, to coach the basketball team. Its fortunes brightened, but it was not until 1965 and 1966—when first 6-footer John Dunlop from nearby Coshocton, Ohio, and then 5'9" John Rinka from Milwaukee arrived—that things began to turn about. In Dunlop's first year (freshmen are eligible in the College Division), Kenyon won 10 games, and the following season, with both Little Johns in the backcourt, the Lords were 18-6. Last winter Kenyon made like UCLA. Rinka averaged 31.8 points and Dunlop 24.4 while the Lords set eight conference records, scored at a 98.6 point clip, led the country in free-throw percentage with 79.7 and finished with a record of 23 and 5.
They were denied a share of the conference championship when another school refused to reschedule a game that had been postponed, and they lost a berth in the national playoffs when they were knocked out of their own OAC tournament. Kenyon's scoring and free-throw averages still were higher than those of any major college, and Rinka, who takes the majority of his shots from 17 feet out, had a better shooting percentage (48.5%) than any of last year's three major-college sophomore scoring machines, Calvin Murphy, Rick Mount or Pete Maravich.
Kenyon's success has severely taxed the durability of Wertheimer Field-house, a converted Navy drill hall whose transport from the Norfolk Naval Air Station in 1942 cost more than its purchase. Last December one section of the stands made a gentle buck and sway before completely collapsing forward onto the court, injuring one person, terrifying many and canceling the night's contest. "I used to go down there and count 50 people watching our games," says Thomas Edwards, the dean of students. "Now people stand in line. Some nights we have 2,500, standing room only."
Both Rinka, an excitingly bold and boisterous player whose dedication drives him to practice shooting alone for more than two hours every day, and Dunlop truly could play anywhere in America. Most teams would also be happy to see Marty Hunt, a 6'3" freshman forward with excellent potential, and Kip Marty, a skinny cornerman who can jump. But the other Lords are young and so limited that OAC observers doubt the team can match last year's record or wrest the title from the deep teams at Wittenberg and Baldwin-Wallace.
One intangible to be considered is Kenyon's adjustment to a new coach. After Harrison resigned last year to go to Harvard, Bob Brannum, the husky forward who used to police the grounds for the Boston Celtics, was brought in. Brannum, after six years at Norwich University in Vermont, is at home in a small-college atmosphere. The other day he sat by the fire in the living room of his farmhouse and talked about it.
"The Kenyon program is what college is all about," Brannum said. "The administration keeps athletics in perspective, and I buy that. If Kenyon could continue to win with the type of boys we get, it would be the greatest thing in the world. I don't really think that's possible. When I came here I knew that Kenyon was what I wanted. I don't need the big-time atmosphere and pressure. None of our kids do. This is one great time, and we're just having fun."
Small-college life at Kenyon is many things for Brannum. It is coaching soccer and golf in addition to basketball. It is having an ex-Notre Dame fullback and an Air Force ROTC sergeant for assistants. It is hearing about the Betas, who dress up like loons for their cheering assignments and whose outbursts once became raw enough to cause old rival Denison to withdraw from the Kenyon schedule. And it is watching the "J-Twins," the little chipmunks Rinka and Dunlop, throw in baskets from all over the court.
Rinka is a big enough treat in himself. A history major who can sit down at any given lunch hour and discourse on Camus' existentialism in The Stranger or on Yeats's The Gyres, Rinka came to Kenyon, contrary to the prevailing opinion, because nobody else wanted him. He would like to have played for his hometown Marquette, or Northwestern, but he received no offers because of his size and he ended up on a grant-in-aid at Kenyon. The son of a Polish schoolteacher and coach, he grew up in a tough neighborhood and learned basketball on the playgrounds.
"There are two different worlds for me," he says. "I play every day in the summer. 'Tiphorse,' 'Chicago Hustle,' 'Around the World,' you name it. I play with guys whose life is basketball. My God, some of those kids have to worry about where they're going to eat the next day. Then I come here and play with kids who are financially steady and stable. It's unbelievable, the difference.
"Basketball's my bag, but since coming here I've really cultivated an appreciation of education and of myself," Rinka says. "Driving for recognition and All-America and all that is over with. Now it's discipline, and it's a rational thing. But I really think every man has an art, and I look at my sport as an artist looks at art. This is me. Basketball has brought me out of myself and caused me to question who I am."
So there they are, among all those Wilson and Fulbright and Danforth scholars hurrying along Middle Path in Gambier, Ohio, the Kenyon star and the Kenyon coach. One questioning who he is, the other just having fun.