A man going into Eau Claire, Wis. in search of a small-college basketball team—or even a small college—is in for a massive disappointment. There is a school there, but it has 8,650 students, a large campus on the banks of the Chippewa River and a name to match. Little ol' Eau Claire recently became part of the newly created state university system, with the unfortunate result that it is now the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire. As for the basketball team, it is large, too. When Coach Ken Anderson says "we're physical," he means that the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire might just have the biggest, baddest outfit west of the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Blugolds—the nickname sounds like an esoteric strain of marijuana—come at you with two forwards who are built like lumberjacks. One, 6'8", is a straight-A student, while the other, 6'5", has such a penchant for aggressiveness that he is known as The Bruiser. Their leader is a tough street kid who would mug his own mother if she tried to take away the special ball marked John Roche (after the former South Carolina guard from New York's East Side) that he uses in practice. And in the middle of these frightening gentlemen is a baby bull of a center who likes Shakespeare and is known, simply, as The King.
His majesty's real name is Mike Ratliff and he is the main reason why Eau Claire's slaughterhouse five has won 51 of 55 games over the past two years, terrified the Wisconsin State University Conference and been ranked among the top teams in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. At 6'10" and 230 pounds Ratliff is one of the best centers in the small-college ranks—sort of a littles' big man—and the latest in a growing line of talented NAIA giants, following such pros as Luke Jackson, Willis Reed and Elmore Smith. Thanks in part to his 40-inch arms ("they just keep getting longer," says Ratliff), he is an intimidating rebounder and shot-blocker as well as a 20-point scorer. And since he is the youngest member of Eau Claire's starting lineup, having turned 20 only last June, he is still short of his full potential.
Anderson is careful to emphasize that Ratliff is not a one-man team, which is true, but he is the man who enables Eau Claire to become more than just another good club. His value to the Blugolds was painfully obvious last March, when they went to Kansas City for the NAIA's gala, week-long, 32-team championship tournament. The Blugolds came to town with a glittering 25-1 record, their only loss being a four-pointer at the hands of defending champion Kentucky State in late December. With some 2,000 loyalists on hand to lend support, Eau Claire quickly disposed of two opponents. When the Blugolds zipped to an 11-point halftime lead, they thought they had also buried their quarterfinal foe—Eastern Michigan—which they had drubbed by 13 points during the season. But early in the second half Ratliff picked up his fourth personal foul. "When Mike got in trouble it didn't hurt us as much as it fired up Eastern Michigan," recalls Forward Tom Jackson. Indeed, with Ratliff watching glumly from the bench, the Michigan team went slightly berserk. At the end the underdogs had won by seven points and the rabid fans filed home to the woodland country around Eau Claire to begin making plans for next year.
November 29, 1971
Well, next year is here. Ratliff is ready—"We've talked so much that I'm really anxious for the season to start," he says—and Guard Frank Schade, the team leader, is ready, too. "We've got two strikes against us," says Schade, "and we don't intend to strike out." With all six of last year's top players back, plus a superbly talented 6'4" transfer named Duke Nash, Eau Claire has the size, depth, talent and experience to win the NAIA title next March in Kansas City. Some even think it could hold its own in Los Angeles, scene of the NCAA major-college finals, or New York City, home of the NIT. "Sure, we'd like to try some of the big schools," says Anderson. "I think we can play well against anybody."
If the basketball team cannot, surely the campus can. Eau Claire is located 90 miles due east of Minneapolis in the modest industrial community (pop. 42,000) of the same name. All but 26 of its 301 acres consist of a dense woodland known as Putnam Park. The so-called upper campus, mainly residence halls and recreation areas, sits on a bluff overlooking the Chippewa River. The lower campus, where most of the academic buildings are located, is split by the river itself. Students journey to and from classes over a 700-foot bridge spanning the Chippewa. On good days they loaf on the river banks or along the little Niagara Creek that meanders through the campus and under the science building. When a new building is planned, the first considerations are mainly esthetic. How many trees will have to be cut down? What vistas will be destroyed?
Academically, Eau Claire is not the Harvard of the Midwest, but neither is it a jock shop. In fact, there is no such thing as an athletic scholarship; only those based on need and academic excellence are offered. The same standards are required of athletes as of all students, and they are more demanding than at most NAIA schools. The members of Eau Claire's varsity are bright, articulate, well-informed and congenial and they fit in neatly with a student body that cares far more for pep rallies than protest meetings. Even with a winning football team early this fall, the place was bubbling with basketball talk.
Not too far in the future the Blugolds hope to be playing in a new 10,000-seat arena, but for now they will have to make do with their tiny, 3,500-seat fieldhouse, where each game is a happening. Usually the students snap up basketball tickets so quickly that none are left to sell at the door. Once inside, the students are whipped into a frenzy by a squad of 18 cheerleaders. "There is so much noise before a game that the only way we know when to get on the floor for introductions is by lip-reading what the P.A. man is saying," says Anderson. "And it's traditional for everyone to stand and yell until we make our first basket. One game last year we didn't score for three minutes."
Those who cannot get in sit at home and listen to the voice of the Blugolds, Dave Kunz of station WBIZ. It was Kunz who first called Ratliff The King and Jackson The Bruiser. But those are only warmups. Kunz also has names for some of the others. Steve Johnson, the A student, is Stingy Steve because of his tight defense, usually against the opposition's top scorer. Tom Peck, a 6'8" junior forward, is Powder Keg because of his explosive rebounding. And Schade, a fine outside shooter, is The Machine. In Kunz' world the basketball is the "orange," the foul lane is the "oven" and the midcourt time line is the "equator." The students either love Kunz or hate him, but all listen to him.
The rise in Eau Claire's fortunes—"When I was in high school Eau Claire was a joke," says Jackson—is due mainly to the talents and efforts of Anderson, a blond, thin and seemingly easygoing man of 39 who in practice changes into Simon Legree. "I'm calm and collected during games," he says, "but I kind of go wild in practice. I like to test my players, to try to break them mentally and physically." The result is plenty of bruising work and an occasional bloodbath which Anderson regards as a healthy sign. There was the time last season, for instance, when "Roche" Schade squared off against Jackson.
"We really got into it," says Schade, "and Coach didn't try to stop us, either, which was good. It taught us to respect each other."
Anderson enjoys telling about the time Schade knocked out a 6'3" member of the diving team over dating a girl. But if the coach feels a certain kinship with his star guard, it is understandable. He has coached him for eight years, all through high school and college. Schade first went to Texas-El Paso, but quickly transferred to Eau Claire when Anderson accepted the head coaching job in 1968.
Anderson is picky about his recruiting: except for rare good fortune, only Wisconsin boys and only players who have been on winning teams. Shortly after coming to Eau Claire he landed three prime prospects—Jackson, Johnson and Guard James Lindsey. He also got Ratliff, but he was hardly considered a prize. Ratliff spent his youth bouncing around between parents, from Mississippi to Tennessee to Alabama. For four years, from the ages of 9 to 13, he lived on the south side of Philadelphia where, he says, "I could have gotten in trouble—or become a juvenile delinquent, as they say in the sociology books."
Finally Ratliff wound up with his father in Racine. As a gangling 5'11" high school freshman, he tried out for basketball but was promptly cut. That sufficiently discouraged him until his junior year in high school when he first was team manager, then a JV starter. He made the varsity as a senior but still averaged only 10 points and five rebounds a game as a 6'4" forward. The college scouts were not exactly beating a path to his door—except for Anderson.
When they arrived in Eau Claire, Ratliff and Johnson, the pride of a tiny Mississippi River town named Trempealeau, were both skinny, naive and quite horrified by the bloodlust exhibited by Jackson and Schade. Even in their sophomore year, when Powder Keg Peck joined the team, Ratliff and Johnson did not become "physical" until after one memorable game with archrival Stout University. "Both were bloodied up pretty good," recalls Anderson, "and Mike even had a tooth knocked back up in his head. I had to straighten it for him myself on the sideline. They both learned a lot that night. They never got pushed around again."
By the start of last season Ratliff had grown to 6'10". He came into his own, in Anderson's opinion, against Kentucky State's Elmore Smith, now with Buffalo in the NBA. They battled to a standstill, Ratliff scoring 15 points and grabbing 12 rebounds to Smith's 17 and 12. Ratliff has improved a lot since then. He wound up averaging 19 points and 14 rebounds and during the summer he and Marquette's Jim Chones, his neighbor six blocks removed in Racine, played a lot of one-on-one at the community center gym. "I learned plenty from him," says Ratliff, while Chones told friends, "Mike gives me the toughest competition of anyone I've ever played against."
Like Chones, Ratliff was approached by pro agents at the end of last season. None made a concrete offer, however, which was fine with Ratliff. "I don't think I could play pro ball this year," he says, candidly. "And besides, I'm really interested in finishing school."
Away from his court The King is a gentle giant. He majors in business administration and minors in English and his idea of a good time is listening to records, dancing and, especially, playing a card game called sheepshead. He shies from publicity but is so unselfconscious about his height that he sometimes wears high-heel boots.
"I used to get uptight when people stared at me in a restaurant, like I wasn't a human being or something," says Ratliff, "but I've learned to handle it. Everything's cool now."
Cool, that is, for everybody but the poor devils who have to play against Mike Ratliff and the Blugolds. It looks very much like a sorry winter in Oshkosh and Whitewater and all those other places where The King and his coterie will be holding court this season.