Coming home to Philadelphia with the Cornell basketball team a couple of weeks ago, Doug Murken looked forward to facing Penn at the Palestra. Though a sub, he felt he might play a fair amount in front of his family and friends. Realistically, Penn figured to have the game out of reach early.
Murken wasn't bothered that he didn't play in the first half—he never does. But as the minutes crept by and the margin of Penn's certain victory became irrelevant to everyone but point-spread bettors, he began to fume on the bench. At last Coach Tony Coma asked Murken to replace someone. By now thoroughly exasperated and embarrassed, Murken refused.
Afterward Philadelphia columnist Frank Dolson stopped by the Cornell locker room to speak with Murken, and found Murken and his teammates practically lined up to talk. "Tonight in the locker room at halftime he called us a bunch of spoiled brats," Murken said. "Nobody on the team agreed with his game plan," said Guard John O'Neill. "He wanted the final score to be 12-10." "To play a stall," Murken added, "you have to practice it. We didn't. Not one second."
After Dolson's story was printed, Coma called a team meeting. There followed, in the words of one player, a "long rap." To no one's surprise, Murken was kicked off the team. With injuries and other problems, that left Cornell facing its next game with a roster that numbered exactly eight.
As player-coach face-offs go, the Murken-Coma tiff was no great barn burner. It was, however, one more incident in what must be the most dismal coach-player situation existing in major college basketball today. The pitiful part is that at the beginning of the season everybody at Cornell had such high hopes. The way up for Big Red basketball could not have been clearer: the team hadn't had a winning season since 1968; last year it went five and 19, losing the last 10 in a row with a squad shattered by racial tensions. Five out of six black players had quit because, among other things, they believed the coach was using a quota system for starting the blacks.
So Jerry Lace was kicked upstairs to an administrative job and Coma was brought in from Cheyney (Pa.) State, a college with a heavy black enrollment and, under Coma, a sensational basketball record. That was last summer. Onward and upward, Cornell!
But now, with the mortified Murken out and three-quarters of the season gone, Cornell is in worse shape than ever, if possible, and seems to have swapped one set of problems for another. It has won just three of 22 games. And the squad—well, this is not the first time this year that the squad has verged on the nonexistent.
After five games Brian Wright, one of the boycott leaders but this season the team's leading scorer and rebounder, quit following an acrid encounter with Coma. Cornell was a hopeful 2-3 at the time. Two games later O'Neill suffered a broken wrist, costing him three weeks of play. At the beginning of the second semester Stan Mason and Gerry New-by—by then the leading scorers—were gone, said to be academic casualties, though they were also known to be unhappy with Coma. More recently Captain John Coles fell over an opponent and injured his ankle. The only player on the squad to start every contest, Center Lynn Loncki, has knees that balloon after each game. At one point this season Coma was down to six men and had to recruit a lacrosse player who had not played basketball since high school.
For all this, Cornell has not been that bad. Coma's men have beaten Penn State, Arkansas and Florida Southern, three teams with winning records, and six of their losses have been by six points or less. The failure to win more often has to do with factors other than grades or height or talent or even injuries.
Coma, 41, was hired by Cornell in part because he had coached blacks successfully. But in the fall he learned that he would have to do without two key Cornell blacks, Skeeder Stewart and Jeff Howard, who had left the team while Lace was still coach. In addition, two of Lace's black prospects decided to go elsewhere, partially on the advice of the boy-cotters. Gene Shy and Keith Starr this year are playing regularly at Florida and Pitt, respectively.
When practice started, Coma also discovered that it is one thing to impose coaching discipline on borderline academic cases who come from needy families and don't wish to jeopardize possible pro careers and quite another to handle Ivy Leaguers who regard sport as essentially no more than an extracurricular activity. "I always thought I had a way with basketball players, black and white," says Coma. "I thought I would never have a discipline problem. But the road to laissez fake has been taken for so long here that the biggest problem is to establish discipline."
Coma's players—the "freethinkers," he calls them—have a different notion of "the biggest problem.' They call it communication—or the almost total lack of it. Coma sees himself as hard-nosed (interestingly, he is a serious amateur violinist) and old-fashioned. But the team regards him as a martinet, defensive of his authority and hostile to suggestions from his players about how the game should be played. Coma, in turn, senses the lack of a certain spirit in his men. "At Cheyney they feel they're going to win every game," he says. "At Cornell when the moment of truth comes—even now that we're playing to our fullest potential with what we've got—at the last minute we can't make a one-and-one or a layup."
The players say they are so sick of losing they would do almost anything to win. Guard Jimmy Willmot, who refused to cut his hair for Lace, did so willingly for Coma. And even when Coma benched Willmot for helping up an opponent during a scrimmage, the team shrugged and went along with it.
But the ouster/resignation of high-strung Brian Wright was less excusable in their eyes. After losing his cool in the Rochester game back in December, Wright reacted bitterly to being dressed down by Coma in front of the team. "The coach could have handled it in a different way," says Coles. "He got Brian in front of the team, and then it was a matter of brinkmanship. Brian couldn't back down because everyone else was there."
The team still had hopes for a good season when it started the Ivy schedule at Brown after a 3-6 mark in tough non-conference play. But at halftime, with Brown leading by six, Coma told the players, by their account, that he owed them nothing and would recruit junior-college transfers to replace them next season. Brown went on to win 102-79.
"Who was this guy, threatening us as if we had nothing to live for but basketball?" asks one player. Adds Murken, "On one hand he blasts us and tells the papers he has no use for us. On the other he tells us to believe in ourselves. I think he's more concerned with his image than us."
So Coma and the "freethinkers" are no longer getting through to each other at all. There have been hassles over practice time and meal money as well as over more substantial issues. In Philadelphia a wild rumor circulated that the team would refuse to take the court in the second half. That didn't happen. But last week, against Penn at home, Coma took John O'Neill out of the game. They had words. O'Neill threw a towel at Coma and stalked off the court and out of the gym. That left Coma to finish the game, which Cornell eventually lost 78-48, with a bench reduced to only two. Before it had ended, Cornell's season probably was over, too, and perhaps next year's as well.