"Tracy Tripucka is neither a football player nor a Notre Dame student. A decade ago it would have been a good bet that he would have become both. "I remember Saturday mornings when my father would wake the family—and the entire neighborhood—by playing a recording of The Notre Dame Victory March," Tracy says. "Of course, that would be only for the big games. He would say, 'We're going to win this one.' "
When Tracy played football as a junior high school student in New Jersey, he was the quarterback. "You are his son," he recalls people saying. "That means you play quarterback." He took his position in life seriously for a while and once matter-of-factly told a guidance counselor that he intended to become a "professional football player." Then young Tripucka discovered how accurately he could shoot a basketball, and his identity crisis began to dissolve. "I decided I would never be as good a football player as my father," he says, "and the idea didn't bother me. My father never put any pressure on me. I appreciate what that has meant."
This explains how the eldest of the six sons of Frank Tripucka, former Notre Dame (1945-48) and professional (AFL, NFL and Canada) quarterback, has become Tracy Tripucka of Lafayette College, the leading scorer (26 points a game) returning in major college basketball this year and possibly the purest undergraduate shooter in the country. Firing mostly from the 15- to 20-foot range, the 6'5" Tripucka hit .524 of his shots last season and has a .519 average for two years. Rick Mount's career mark was .484. After four games this year Tripucka is averaging 27.3 points and has a .563 percentage.
He has achieved his remarkable accuracy despite playing his home games in Lafayette's Alumni Gymnasium where, Jack Ramsay of the Philadelphia 76ers claims, light never penetrates. "A photographer could develop his pictures there on the court," Ramsay once said. What Tripucka developed there was his shooting, largely by practicing alone until midnight or so.
That Tripucka showed up at Lafayette at all is a matter of blind luck. In his junior year at New Jersey's Bloomfield High School, he scored just 78 points, but he must have impressed somebody—certainly it was not himself—and the following fall Tracy Tripucka's name appeared on a pulp magazine list of the 500 top high school seniors.
Coach Hal Wissel, who had never before recruited a player for Lafayette, heard about Tripucka and wrote to him. When he saw the boy's name on the list of 500, Wissel began bird-dogging in earnest. "I didn't realize he was Frank's son," Wissel says. "I was pronouncing the last name incorrectly [it is Trip-u-ka]. If I had, I would have assumed that he was going to Notre Dame, as I guess all the other coaches did."
Wissel's recruiting pitch was direct—Tracy would start as a sophomore. Notre Dame was about to send an outstanding freshman team to the varsity, including another remarkable shooter Tripucka probably would have had to play behind for two years—Austin Carr. Frank Tripucka knows the feeling. He operated for two years as a sub behind Johnny Lujack before leading Notre Dame to a 9-0-1 season. Mark Tripucka, Tracy's next younger brother, knows the feeling too. A sophomore, he is playing behind Piel Pennington, the best quarter-back at the University of Massachusetts since Greg Landry.
Tracy may have escaped the substitute's cross, but Wissel gave him another to bear. The coach left Lafayette for Fordham at the end of last season. "My immediate reaction was one of rejection," says Tripucka. "I felt he was letting me down. I was like one of his family. He felt funny, too. Before he made up his mind to go he got awfully nervous. One night I was at his home watching television and a telephone rang in the program. Coach Wissel got up to answer. He thought it was his own phone."
Wissel and Lafayette's new coach, Tom Davis, both have made Tripucka, a forward, concentrate on his ball handling, defense and rebounding to complement his shooting. And Frank Tripucka also helps. "If I have a good game, he makes sure he deflates my ego," Tracy says. "But when I play poorly, he's the first one to lift my spirits." "If it is possible to learn something, Tracy will," Wissel says of his first recruit. "It may take him eight hours to assimilate what another player gets in two, but Tracy is a success because he is always willing to put in those eight hours."
Neither Wissel before, nor Davis now, has directed the Lafayette offense strictly toward Tripucka, but Wissel's philosophy was, "If I could get Tracy to shoot an uncontested shot from behind a screen at 20 feet, I considered it a layup."
Wissel was taking no chances on such layups when Fordham met Lafayette recently. He contested Tripucka all over Madison Square Garden, and for the first 9½ minutes Tracy did not score. He finally got 22 points as Lafayette suffered its only loss in four games, 81-75. "I wanted to beat him because I respect him so much," Tripucka said afterward. "I hope Lafayette wins the rest of its games," said Wissel.
Tripucka wants to play pro basketball. He suspects he will not be a high draft pick, but feels he will not be outclassed. "I think I can help in a team situation, the way Bill Bradley or Dave Wohl of the 76ers does," he says.
With teammates Jay Mottola and George Weaver running the offense and Tripucka supplying the points, Lafayette had its first winning season (17-9) in six years in 1970-71. Tripucka remembers one of the losses. "A teammate who was singing in the shower was reprimanded by Coach Wissel. When the coach left, my friend turned to me and said, 'But it was a sad song.' " For sure, it was not The Notre Dame Victory March.