It is a place of monuments, parks and bridges that recall dusty history. There on the Wabash River two centuries ago pioneer America opened the way to the Northwest Territory. There young Abraham Lincoln moved closer to the White House by passing with his family into Illinois. And there, some time later, a young Red Skelton passed into a circus troupe with his mother's blessing. More recently, however, Vincennes, Ind. has found fame of another sort, brought by people coming in, not going out. No longer is it an obscure hollow suitable for fighting Indians, planting watermelons and manufacturing crypts. Its junior-college basketball team has lately shown signs of dynasticism.
The Vincennes Trailblazers won their second national championship in three years last season (and third since 1965) with an unprecedented 33-0 record. Their leader was a short owlish man whose look and manner suggest more a devotion to binomial equations than to a game of size, speed and agility. They should. Allen L. Bradfield is chairman of the Vincennes math department and he never, never played basketball. But—shazzam!—he has won 76% of the games he has coached at Vincennes, has suffered only one losing season in 20 years and three times has been named junior-college Coach of the Year. The paradox is reflected daily in a metamorphosis of personality that sees the modest classroom demeanor give way suddenly to the frantic yelping and carrying on at practice of a frenzied fox terrier. Bradfield also owns a 600-pound touring bike (one of five motorcycles in his fleet) and has been known to set out with his wife on 1,700-mile journeys through Americana.
When Bradfield, who began his athletic career as a courtside attendant, exchanged his scorekeeper's book for a playbook, Vincennes had not won a game in 21 years. In truth, it had not played in 19 of those, but the challenge was no less great. "I had always loved basketball, ever since I saw my first game as a kid—between two elementary-school teams," he says. "When I got a chance to coach I tried to learn all I could by reading every available book." As a mark of his progress, Bradfield reads none of them these days and attends coaching clinics only when invited to lecture. "In those early years," he says, "my hardest job was convincing players that I knew what I was talking about. It took a lot of bluff and bluster and feigned confidence to get by."
After 421 wins and 133 losses, the bluff and bluster have mellowed into a strong feeling of mission accomplished. Success has become so routine that Bradfield almost retired last summer. "It wasn't because basketball takes that much away from my teaching duties. I wouldn't be a bit better instructor if I had nothing else to do. It's just that I didn't know if I wanted to go on as I was. But I decided that being a full-time college professor with only a few papers to grade would be like going out to pasture. That's why I decided to stay, and I never want to go anyplace else."
November 27, 1972
This year's team was worth coming back for. In the Vincennes tradition there appears to be no one dominant player but there are enough good ones to encourage the Trailblazers' ambition of repeating as national champion. As is par for the course in two-year junior-college basketball, only one starter returns, Forward Harold Miles. The others have scattered to Louisville, Wake Forest, West Georgia College and Southern Illinois. Miles will be joined by three other sophomores with talent and suitable experience, Forward Mike Darrett, the only walk-on ever to win a scholarship, and Guards Dave Edmonds and Eartha Faust. The center is 6'8" freshman Phil Spence, a heady six inches taller than last year's talented but tiny pivotman. Bradfield will depend primarily on these five in his patient offensive and pressing defensive games. Boyd Batts, a temperamental but well-considered 6'8" freshman, will also fill in at guard and forward.
It is not unusual that none of these players draws the early notice of a Carlos Bermudez, Morris Rivers, Willie Williams or Greg Hill. The four, already famous in JC circles, are expected to lead Ferrum (Va.), Gulf Coast (Fla.), Southern Idaho and Hutchinson (Kan.) respectively, the junior colleges considered most likely to unseat Vincennes if unseated it is to be. For all its victories, Vincennes has produced only two junior-college All-Americas and none on the major college level. It has won not through individual brilliance but with competitiveness and teamwork and a singular sense of purpose difficult to find within the chaotic JC ranks.
"We were all very close," says one former team member, "but very competitive, too. There were so many good players on the team that everybody tried hard just to keep from looking bad." While they try, Bradfield directs them on their way more by his passion for success, his attention to detail and his ability to maintain discipline among an ever-changing flow of talented but crude players than by any subtleties in tactics.
Recruiting in junior colleges, as Floyd Wagstaff of Tyler once said, is finding "the best players among those with the worst grades." Vincennes signed nine of them this year but only four showed up on campus in late August. "We all steal from each other," Bradfield admits, "but I've never bought a player. If I were in the boondocks I'd have to take what they sent me from the ghetto. But not here." Once the players are signed and accepted (any high school graduate will be), the athletic and academic indoctrination begins.
"We start them playing basketball as soon as they get here," says Assistant Coach Dan Sparks, more accessible to the players than Bradfield, who is "a tense little man" by his own description. "Then we put them in remedial English and reading classes. If they need tutoring we get them that also."
It is a system that suits players like Phil Spence perfectly. As an athlete, he has the potential to draw acclaim and as a young man he can develop also. "I'm not ready mentally, physically or fundamentally to face four-year competition," he says candidly. "This will give me a chance to mature as a person and become a man. I knew a junior college would be best for this and Vincennes is the only one I considered. People told me, 'If you want to learn about basketball go there.' This isn't the best place in the world, but it is good for playing basketball."
The game at Vincennes, which is the oldest junior college in the U.S., is played with little ornamentation. There is radio coverage and home television on the school's educational channel, and the team will follow this season's wide-ranging schedule in a bus because the Student Senate, in the euphoria of last year's success, put up half the money. Such things that would be regarded as routine at most four-year schools are considered luxury items at a junior college.
Bradfield gets the players because he and Sparks go out and look for them and because Vincennes, as junior colleges go, is a better stopping off place than most. The campus is a modest mishmash of the modern mingling with a brewery, an ice plant and former Air Force buildings, all renovated for educational purposes. The 1,600-seat gym, built by the school's chief benefactor in 1961, will be replaced next year by a larger one financed through federal funds. Robert Green, a construction executive, will continue to make his $5,000 annual gift to the athletic budget begun the year of the first national championship. "It was a satisfactory return on my investment," he admits. That sum, and $2,500 appropriated by the Student Senate, constitute the team's scholarship and recruiting chest.
Vincennes not only recruits on a national basis—this year's freshmen come from New York, North Carolina and Illinois—it also plays a national schedule. Last year the Trailblazers won five games against teams that later won berths in the national finals.
"We should be nationally competitive again this time," says Bradfield. "Right now we are better than we were a year ago. I just hope these boys work as hard and play as aggressively as last year's did. They didn't play 10 bad minutes all season."
Bradfield prefers defending territory won to having to take it away from someone else. "It gives you a psychological advantage," he says. And the professor, as he has ably demonstrated, knows all the angles.