The tallest building for 15 miles around, Ashland College's Clayton Hall interrupts the smooth undulations of the northern Ohio countryside with its sharp-edged abruptness. A modern nine-story men's dormitory, it stands wide but very thin, almost a mere facade. Late on a Wednesday afternoon last January, Clayton's bland exterior of red brick and gray concrete was suddenly masked by a brilliant cascade of gold and purple, the school's colors. And from windows thrown open to the drab winter day at either end of the sixth floor, two stereos blared over and over but in near perfect synchronization the rock tune that has all but taken over as the college's fight song:
Keep the ball rollin'
Keep the ball rollin'
Girl, the name of the game....
The driving music echoed off the two women's dormitories across the way where girls piled into rooms to paint gold and purple signs on the insides of their windows. The sound rolled tow aid the gym and permeated the entire neat campus with promises of great things a few hours ahead. That night the Ashland Eagles, the nation's stingiest basketball team and No. 1 ranked among NCAA small colleges at the end of regular season play, would unleash their special psychological warfare against undefeated Wittenberg University. Their followers among the colleges 2,200 students and Ashland, Ohio's 20,000 citizens were starting the ball rolling, preparing, proclaimed one coed dressed in gold from pretty head to toes, to go "AB-so-lute-ly-IN-sane."
Ashland's enthusiasm, reminiscent of homecoming football weekends at other Midwestern colleges of an earlier era—there was even an old-fashioned pan tie raid the night before—was pitched at no higher key for the important Wittenberg game, one seemingly perpetually astonished upperclassman claimed, than for any other that the team has played during the past three seasons. The Eagles have had a 71-13 record over those years, but it is not merely winning that has inspired such mad devotion and it certainly is not the way the Eagles play the game—some of the team's wildest backers have been known almost to fall asleep watching their brand of slowdown ball. It is the way the team gets ready to play. The Ashland Eagles are college basketball's greatest showboaters. It is their pregame act that drives the people wild and causes a kind of collective schizophrenia that in the minutes between warmups and the game turns Eagle players from troupers to grinding, selfless defensive robots and their fans from carefree shriekers to tense nail-biters.
The scriptwriter for the show is Bill Musselman, 29, a bright man in his fifth season whose short muscular frame and light close-cropped hair are archetypal of proper coachly appearance, even if his scenario is not. Musselman blends a pregame ritual of crowd hysteria, raucous music and Harlem Globetrotter drills with a game plan of sticky defense and tightly controlled offense that results in neither the Eagles nor their rivals scoring many baskets. Going to see Ashland play is like being hotly huckstered into a girlie show only to have the lights blow just as the act begins.
In college Musselman played at Wittenberg under Ray Mears, who later moved to the University of Tennessee, where he has made pregame antics, rugged defenses and ponderous offenses a success in the tough Southeastern Conference. Musselman amplified his old coach's philosophy by radically stepping up the showmanship and markedly knocking down the scoring totals. He convinced his followers to cheer themselves into emotional exhaustion before the game started and sold them on the notion that defense is the best part of the game. At Ashland it is. The Eagles led the nation in defense the past three seasons, allowing only 33.9 points per game in 1969.
Since it is not unusual for the Eagles to hold the ball for as long as 40 seconds before they shoot and the fast break is definitely not in their repertoire, some of the defensive credit belongs to the offense. Still, the defense is hardly without merit. Ashland press agents call it a hyperbolic paraboloid transition floating zone, a description that will never stick but is a fair indication of the complexity of Musselman's scrambling combination man-for-man zone defense.
"I teach a lot of offensive patterns and variations and then, to make the defense work, everyone must know exactly where he should be in every situation. If I want to coach that many things, I can only work with one team at a time, so I stick with the same five guys almost all year," Musselman says.
With four members of last year's starling lineup that included a frontcourt averaging 6'8" and a long-armed, quick-handed 6'5" guard. Kevin Wilson, returning, Musselman can stay with a set five again this year. Wilson, whose girl friend introduced him to Christian Science and who plays without having any treatment for his injuries except soothing readings from Mary Baker Eddy, is the key player for Ashland. An exceptional ballhandler, he controls the offense tightly and his wide arm-span gives Musselman a tough man at the point of his defense. Although he may be too slow and not quite shooter enough to make the pros. Wilson gives the Eagles an edge toward winning the small-college championship they have fallen just shy of the past two seasons.
National titles or even the thought of them are something new to Ashland. The town has distinguished itself mainly as the balloon capital of the world, and the college, which was founded 91 years ago by the strict Brethren Church, is just now escaping tight sectarianism. It was not long ago that students had to hide in the woods across the road to smoke a cigarette, and the first dance on campus was not held until 1962. Last semester one of the hottest issues was President Glenn Clayton's veto of a student petition to put a cigarette machine on campus. He later relented.
Even so, the Brethren must be startled by the modern buildings that have sprung up across the campus and the cast-iron eagles that stand in front of each one. The birds, which campus mythology says fly in each time a new structure is completed, have been swiped from Case tractor dealerships throughout the Midwest and then painted purple with gold heads. Ashland girls are predictably miniskirted and the boys wear sideburns. Not only do they dance together, but they slosh down sizable quantities of 3.2 beer at dingy hangouts like the Dugout and Act III. "This place is getting liberal," said the editor of the student newspaper.
Even with smoking and drinking privileges, basketball remains the favorite entertainment at Ashland. During the week of the Wittenberg game coeds were more concerned about lining up dates for the game than for the Diana Ross and The Supremes concert two nights later. "Why not," said Jay Hoover, the 10th man on the team, who earned his spot by learning to spin a basketball on the end of his forefinger. "This isn't a team, it's a circus."
Musselman's team spends 15 minutes of every practice session polishing its warmup drills. While a record player blares deafening versions of Keep the Hall Rollin', Sweet Georgia Brown and Higher and Higher, his players, all budding Pete Maraviches (SI, Dec. 1 ), juggle basketballs, spin them on their fingertips, roll them around their waists and necks and Hick them with then elbows, knees and insteps. They also learn to dribble between their legs while doing a duckwalk, to perform tricky passing drills and, for those who are tall enough, to shoot reverse dunk shots.
"This isn't just for fun," explains Musselman. "It promotes interest in the team by our students and by kids I'd like to recruit. It helps my players warm up and learn ball control, too. Mostly, though," he says with a grin, "it psychs out the other team."
On the night of the Wittenberg game, as at all home games, the fans were hardly less prepared than the team. Well ahead of starting time, the gym was draped so heavily with banners that a boy who was hanging his latest creation turned to an older stranger standing nearby and nervously asked, "Are you the spy from Myer's Laundry Service?"
Ashland signs underline the essentially negative bent of the Eagles' rooters. Rarely do they read BEAT THIS SCHOOL or SMASH THAT BADGER. Instead they have the ring of recent foreign policy: CONTAIN 'EM, one might say, or SHUT THE TIGERS OUT. Although Ashland has never held a team to fewer than 14 points, Musselman hungers for a shutout as the crowning testament to his coaching philosophy. Wilson sincerely believes that with a little luck his team might pull one off this year.
Half an hour before game time, the 4,000-seat gym was packed, mostly with students in all-gold costumes. The gold team bench, with NATION'S NO. 1 DEFENSE painted in purple across the back, and the gold rug that lies in front of it were in place, and the cheering, which had built steadily through the second half of the preliminary JV game, reached full pitch. The team broke onto the floor accompanied by Keep the Ball Rollin', Musselman in a bright gold blazer and Assistant Coach Lou Markle in hideous, gold spray-painted crepe-soled shoes. While the crowd stood, clapped rhythmically and howled, as it would do continuously for the next 25 minutes, the Eagles began their routine, juggling, dribbling, passing and shooting in unison. The roaring grew loudest as the act built toward the individual highlights Ashland crowds have come to anticipate. Wilson and Hoover spun balls on their fingertips. Then Wilson twirled two, a stunt that Hallie Bryant of the Globetrotters told Hoover none of his Trotter teammates could ever master. Substitute Forward Gary Youmans juggled three balls and teammates snapped them away in midair, then drove in for dunks. After 10 minutes Center Jim Williams closed the display with the last of his clashing dunkers and Ashland settled into the routine of shooting layups.
Wittenberg Coach Eldon Miller was a college teammate of Musselman and Miller's wife roomed with Kristine Musselman in school, so the Tigers knew about Ashland's antics. They ignored the opening minutes of the Eagles' drills, but the temptation to look was too much. One by one they turned toward the far end of the gym. Before the show was over, five Wittenberg players had forgotten their own warmups and were standing in a line at half-court, staring. Even before the game had begun, the Eagles had taken the lead.
Ashland returned to its dressing room, but just as the crowd seemed ready to settle down, a student dressed in a purple velvet eagle suit with gold spats and claws Happed onto the floor. Musselman who knows the value of sustained enthusiasm, traded a used rebounding machine and $50 for the suit. It is a hit every time.
After completing his loops around the court, the eagle joined 12 pompon girls and six cheerleaders lined up in front of a huge plywood basketball with a curtain-covered hole in the middle. Down went the houselights and on went a spotlight that flashed furiously around the gym. It created an effect somewhere between a Hollywood premiere and the opening of a used-car lot.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Ashland College basketball, and now introducing the nation's No. 1 defensive team, the Ashland College Eagles...." The rest of the announcement was drowned out by the loudest cheers of the night as the team, one at a time, charged through the spotlight-illuminated basketball and onto the floor. Then came the anticlimax—the game.
Ashland took its first shot a minute and 54 seconds after the opening tap, forced turnovers the first four times Wittenberg had the ball and had a 9-2 lead before the Tigers made their first field goal. Nine minutes had elapsed. There would be no shutout and, with the opposition playing an essentially slowdown game, too, the Eagles would have little trouble holding down the score. The Ashland fans did not sit on their hands, but the cheers were hoarser and fewer.
Up in the stands Kevin Wilson's girl friend Nancy worried about him running the offense and convinced herself silently, "There's no imperfection in perfection. Since the world is perfection, there can be no turnovers." Ashland's games are slow enough that a person can do that sort of thinking. Ashland won 35-28. Back at Clayton Hall the banners were pulled into the windows and. next day, everybody went quietly about the business of getting ready for the next show, which of course would include a game.