Remember when most college coaches had a team barber and the players weren't petitioning to make the athletic dorms coeducational? Remember when cheerleaders could be counted on for sis-boom-bah instead of the funky Broadway? Remember when you wondered who was going to be the national champion? Remember when all of this was relevant, or at least seemed to be?
Those were simple, unadulterated days when men could live by the rules. A colege coach, for example, always understood never to snub alumni, never to eat in the student union and never to play any of that ungainly breed: sophomores. Everyone agreed that you couldn't win with sophomores. They made sophomore mistakes, suffered sophomore jitters and were prone to sophomore slumps. They couldn't remember the school song or how to run the pregame warmup drill. They were shy, awkward, and their girl friends wore bobby socks. Sophomores were just juniors waiting to grow up. Of course, that was before the dawn of precocious youth, back before parents started asking their kids if Mom and Dad could borrow the family two-door for a night out; back when you didn't need your third-grade son to tune in the television set. Everybody knows that they are bigger, stronger and smarter than we were, having been fed a fortified diet of breakfasts of champions, isometrics and Captain Kangaroo, and a lot more perspicacious, meaning you can fool some of them some of the time, but don't count on it.
And nowhere was this copious infusion of young talent more aptly displayed than at the Steel Bowl basketball tournament in Pittsburgh last weekend. Three tournament teams, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and Duquesne, all were given a chance at the title, mostly because of some exciting sophomores, and the fourth entry, Southern Illinois University, bannered a sophomore as its best player. In the end, Duquesne's young bunch proved fittest as the Dukes won the title with an 82-73 victory over Jacksonville Saturday night and placed two sophomores on the all-tournament team. It was the 17th time in the 22 years the tournament has been played that a Pittsburgh team had won the Steel Bowl, sending visiting clubs home with coal dust on their faces. Pitt finished third and Southern Illinois, predictably, was last. Just not enough sophomores.
In the tourney's opening game Friday night Jacksonville got off to a slow start but took control midway in the opening half as Leon Benbow and Jimmie Clark, a sophomore, came off the bench to apply defensive pressure, and the Dolphins went on to an 89-77 victory over Southern Illinois. "I knew they were a good team but I didn't know they were that good," said SIU's big sophomore center, Joe Meriweather.
December 18, 1972
Then everybody leaned forward to listen to the sound of falling bodies in the second game as Duquesne met the University of Pittsburgh. When these two crosstown rivals play each other you can be assured of all the rancorous emotions of a game between North and South Vietnam, since basketball is the premier sport at both schools. Duquesne does not have a football team, and it has been suggested that neither does Pitt.
Pittsburgh hoped for a Knight to remember, counting on its star Billy Knight, who averaged 21 points a game as a sophomore last season. But instead it turned into a Knight to forget. Duquesne Coach Red Manning, who has shepherded the Dukes to postseason tournaments in four of the last five years, soldered Jack Wojdowski and Ruben Montanez to Knight on the outside, forcing the 6'6" youngster to handle the ball in order to get open. It was choreography that Knight never mastered, and he went until the last 45 seconds of the first half before his first field goal. His failure infected the rest of the Pitt team, which made only eight of its first 40 shots. "Knight's basically a jump shooter and we forced him to drive and put it down," explained Montanez, a Puerto Rican.
Tom Wasdin, coach of Jacksonville, sat glumly at courtside and watched the Pitt-Duquesne game, dismayed by the malevolent style of play. "This is nothing but a street fight," he muttered at one point after a brief scuffle broke out on the floor. On a few other occasions players were guilty of tackling after the ballcarrier already was downed. "I don't know if my little kids can handle this."
Manning and Duquesne's strong center, Lionel Billingy, saw the championship game differently. "We've only got one guy on the boards, Lionel, and he's going to have three guys piling on him and that has to take its toll," said the coach. "They're all jumpers," said Billingy. "We'll have to jump with them."
As much as anything, the game seemed destined to determine which school had the better freshmen last year when the Dukes claimed the title of top-scoring freshmen in the nation at 109.6 points a game. Jacksonville's freshmen, nicknamed the Super Six, rang up 93 points in one half and averaged 109.2 for 25 games, and the move to the varsity hasn't made any of the youngsters nervous. Manning starts two sophomores, Kip McLane and Oscar Jackson, and counts five of them among his first eight players, while Wasdin alternates his lineup, always using at least two sophomores in the first five.
The best of the Super Six a year later is Henry Williams, a 6'6" guard who sank 15 of 23 shots in his first varsity game. Roy Rubin, the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, watched Jacksonville work out earlier in the week and concluded he could find a place for Williams on the 76er roster right now.
All of the Super Six made high school All-America teams and Wasdin also has junior Benbow, another All-America in high school, and Abe Steward and Butch Taylor, two junior college All-Americas. "We run and we try to play a pro-type game," says Wasdin, explaining Jacksonville's attraction for exceptional players. "We've had nine players drafted in the pros in the last three years. We've never had a junior college player who hasn't started and who hasn't been drafted."
Manning is confronted with much the opposite situation. Each year he takes tepid talent and heats it into a sizzling record, and his players revere him for it. "We call him Dad sometimes—behind his back," says Wojdowski, a senior on the team. "We don't have much talent but we've got a lot of heart. We only have one big man but we put a lot of our insides into it. We're like a big family. We can tell each other when we're wrong."
Duquesne fell behind by six points at halftime, but Jacksonville's inability to bury some easy inside shots forecast its eventual doom. The Dolphins hit only 24% from the floor in the second half, and Billingy dominated the boards while two of the Duquesne sophomores, Jackson and McLane, provided the winning touch. Jackson scored 14 points in the last 22 minutes and McLane contained Abe Steward, the Jacksonville forward who had been shooting 64% from the floor.
"We don't look like much on paper," conceded Wojdowski in the Dukes' jubilant dressing room, surrounded by teammates pouring soft drinks on each other and leading the squad in cheers—acting in general like a bunch of young sophomores. "But paper doesn't mean anything to us. We like to scrap. We like to run. We'll play any way as long as we win. The Dukes are real."