Rock Island. It is one of those resonant names that ring in the American consciousness. Rock Island, that "mighty fine line." Notorious Rock Island, Ill., the Union equivalent of Andersonville, where many a Confederate soldier ended his war. Rock Island, where a maladroit young surveyor named Abraham Lincoln once worked. But the world has not heard a lot from Rock Island recently, ostentation being a kind of Lutheran sin eschewed by the gentle Swedes who largely settled the region. Together with Moline and East Moline on the Illinois side of the river and Davenport on the Iowa side, Rock Islanders, almost unnoticed, have been making half the world's tractors and farm implements and raising and shipping a very respectable proportion of its grain, beef and pork. Not glamour stuff, but handy if you like to eat.
Least obtrusive of all is the city's little citadel of Lutheranism, Augustana College. For generations the pastors of rural churches throughout Illinois and Iowa sent the brightest of their flocks to the alma mater on the bluffs above the Mississippi. From thence they returned, quieter and more thoughtful than ever, to lead their useful, quiet lives. And unobtrusiveness was carried to the extreme of absolute invisibility by Augustana's athletic teams. In 70 years of basketball Augustana had exactly three seasons in which it won 20 games. The 1-13 and 3-14 and 7-17 seasons were far more common. The first time in many years that the college's antique Swedish victory bell was rung was when Augustana won a national championship in debate against the Ivy League. The entire student body met the team at the station and escorted the conquering heroes to the bell tower. In an area that raves about its high school basketball, Augustana would get mentioned in a tag-end newspaper paragraph after page upon page of high school stories.
The college, in several words, had become just plain old Augie, a nice reassuring neighbor but no more stimulating than the girl next door. But without Augustana itself being particularly aware of it, there had been considerable change in recent years. The Swedish farmers and shippers and implement-makers were growing modestly prosperous—and their sons were growing taller. It seemed logical to hire a new basketball coach and to build a huge new field house. The first the outside world really knew of this was last March when the resurrected Vikings of Augustana burst upon the Kansas City NAIA small-college tournament. It was like recess in a mead hall. The effect to one un-forewarned observer was of a whole team of 7-foot Max von Sydows suddenly running onto the floor in warmup pants, von Sydows who were quick, had fine moves and could shoot from outside. Behind them came half a dozen Liv Ullmanns and Ann-Margrets as cheerleaders—one even named Mary Moline—and from up in the stands came an enormous, awesome noise. A thousand demented Norsemen, as berserk as their ancestors ever had been, had a team to cheer about at last.
The unheralded Vikings, who do include some Dutchmen and Germans among their cast, pushed No. 1-rated Eau Claire of Wisconsin to the edge of tournament extinction before bowing out, their first loss in 18 games. They started the 1972-73 season with a 10-game streak, then lost to second-ranked Sam Houston State by a point on a highly disputed call in the finals of the Quincy (Ill.) Holiday Tournament.
January 22, 1973
Orchestrating all this has been a reddish blond, sometimes madman named Jim Borcherding, an Eric the Red reincarnated. Borcherding has two blond post men, John Laing and Bruce Hamming. Laing, 7 feet tall, and Hamming, almost that high, both tower academically, with nearly perfect grade averages. The two whipsaw top-grade competition unmercifully, either in a double stack power offense or a double low post 2-2-1. Among the rest, Chuck Menzer is only 6'6", but has a way of hitting 50% of his shots from beyond 20 feet. Mark Brooks, the other wingman, is also a good shot and plays fine defense. And the man who holds it all together is 6', slightly bald Drew Boster, who never seems to lose his composure. The Vikings even have that big-school luxury, a genuine supersub, Jim VanDeCasteele, who really does come into games and swish the 25-foot last-second shot in overtime.
It is the front line, though, that makes the team go, particularly Laing. Only three days out of the infirmary, where he was recovering from mononucleosis, he outscored, outrebounded and out-blocked Eau Claire's ballyhooed Mike Ratliff. Laing has tremendous jumping ability, and for all his aggressive moves from the top of the lane, he is one of the gentlest men in basketball.
Augustana got Laing in a typical coup. One day John's sister Jean wandered into Borcherding's office and told the coach that she had a brother who played basketball. Borcherding didn't pay much attention until she mentioned that John was 6'8" and still growing. Unfortunately, Laing led his team to the state tournament, thereby causing big-time coaches like Ralph Miller of Iowa to pursue him. But he still went to Augie; his sister sold him on its academic virtues.
A sensation as a freshman—he came off the bench to score 22 points against Eau Claire—Hamming did not cost a mint to recruit, either. His father is a top-rated geography professor at Augustana. And Menzer came to Augie because his pastor said he should. He has scored over 1,000 points in three years. Brooks was almost ignored by recruiters. Like Menzer, he shoots almost 50% from outside and has scored well over 1,000 points. Boster was not even highly regarded by Augie, but he quietly does such essential things as getting 18 assists in one game.
Augustana's ascension—it is presently ranked sixth among small colleges—coincides with the arrival of Borcherding, who was hired as a baseball coach. He was pressed into service as head basketball coach for a typical Augie reason: his predecessor left to study for a doctorate. A fervent disciple of Miller, he is a compelling Billy Sunday type. "Borch has an incredible sense of timing about people," says Dr. Thomas Tredway, dean of Augustana. "He knows precisely when people need to be kicked and when they need to be told aw——, it's just a game."
The Vikings obey Borcherding's demands for team balance and unselfishness with such enthusiasm that they make Bill Bradley look like Pete Maravich. With relish they swallow rules that most coaches would blanch at: "Your squad membership is granted by the coach and can be revoked at any time.... We tolerate no insubordination. Address each member of the staff as 'Coach' or 'Mr.' You leave the squad if you fail once to show proper respect.... You will always be treated fairly here. If you think otherwise, come and see me, not anyone else.... No filth, profanity or dirty play will ever be tolerated.... The player with the ball is to create a shot for a teammate, not for himself." Etc., etc. Heaven forbid that an Augie player grandstand.
The Vikings say they take this and love it because the martinet in Borcherding is only a micron deep. Whatever the reason, it works, and Augustana marches on through competition both thick and thin. Its most recent games were supposed to be competitive. First came Illinois Wesleyan, toughest of the Vikings' rivals in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. Before last year, Augie had lost 10 straight at Wesleyan. Fans poured in for the game at Bloomington, and space was so limited that some sat on the bench when the players left it. The Vikings won by 13. Elmhurst, the foe on Thursday, was co-leader in the conference and averaging 100.3 points per game. Augustana shot 56.8% from the floor and Borcherding put in the subs when Augie went 30 points ahead. North Park, an Evangelical Covenant school from Chicago, came to Rock Island Saturday, and the field house again was packed with worried rooters. No need to worry. Augustana won 78-59.
Dean Tredway sat in his office high atop Zion Hill after the latest rout, watching the afternoon light dim over the International Harvester plant and the John Deere buildings in the valley. "There's a nervous guessing game in the valley called, 'When will the Big Ten steal Borcherding?' " he said. "Maybe it won't. Borch knows that basketball is not life, and he doesn't want to be trapped into winning, either. We all know that it will be like Bill Bradley's days at Princeton-nice, almost necessary, but over and done with finally. On the other hand, we also know that life is not all libraries and sheep grazing on green hills with J.S. Bach floating above it all.
"We are not playing basketball or winning because other people think it is the thing to do. There was resentment when this glossy athletic building was built. Some people thought the money should have gone into classrooms. But now even our most conservative old Swedes believe this bunch of kids are as good representatives morally and humanistically as they could hope for. That is why, although we know there is a value in winning games and a value in not winning games, this year we'd like to experience the virtues of winning."