Before too long—anywhere from 48 hours to 72 days after the season begins—the scores will start filtering across the Continental Divide from schools in the Western Athletic Conference, and we will find out what mysterious events are occurring this time in college basketball's version of Death Wish.
The mad WAC, somewhere out there in the mesquite between Saskatchewan and Juarez, doesn't really play in a ghost time zone when everyone else is asleep. Neither do the teams score 500 points in games that go on for months before finally being decided by referees with knives in their teeth. Nor does the league hire gypsies, tramps and thieves to scour the countryside looking for young student athletes who can shoot, rebound, pass junior-college whittling and rob liquor stores. It only seems that way.
It has always seemed, in fact, that the lowest thing on the face of the earth, other than a turnip, is the reputation of the Western Athletic Conference.
Correct this if it's wrong, but isn't the WAC the place where every year some dude with a name like Tyrone (Ice Cream) Kone comes out of Our Lady of Perpetual Humiliation High School in the Bronx and is supposed to turn around the program at the Desperado School of Engineering and Mines in Ragsdale, Utah? Kone scored 77 points a game as a prepster, grabbed 62 rebounds per contest and received 19,438 scholarship offers; his agent, Louie (The Shuffler) Zaccato, counted 'em personally.
But, having failed to attain a G average in chutes and ladders, isn't Kone left with only two choices? He can opt for the junior-college ranks by enrolling at Rio de Cucaracha Community College, which is located among several tepees on the Yavapai Indian reservation, or he can head for the WAC.
And doesn't he choose the WAC because it promises him jobs for all 36 of his brothers and sisters? And, once he gets out there, doesn't he languish on the bench at basketball games because he finds the adjustment to desert living too hard to handle? Kone spends his freshman year losing his socks in the campus laundry, getting so homesick he calls back to New York four times an hour and regularly flunking his current-affairs test because he does not know whether Ben-Veniste is a new antihistamine or the drummer for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
As a sophomore, doesn't Tyrone get involved in a series of events that shake the sport? He goes for 97 points in his first start in the WAC and immediately signs a lifetime, no-cut, no-work, professional-hardship draft contract in return for three stolen credit cards from General Manager Kuyang (Hammerin') Tongs of the Mekong Delta Dawns in the new World Basketball League. Before he can get off campus, isn't Kone's career ended by a dislocated terminal pull-tear spasm of the ear?
Isn't this what happens in the WAC?
For a long time now the WAC has suffered from that kind of generalization and misinformation about its players, its teams and its brand of basketball. Nobody is exactly sure why this has come about, but the fact that WAC territory encompasses 98% of the mountains and only 3% of the population in America has not aided the search for reality. Since distance breeds skepticism, and people are never entirely sure of something they have never seen, there is still a pervasive Wild West folklore about the conference. It confers on the league an aura of danger, romance and excitement unlike any other in the NCAA.
The WAC is the newest conference playing both major-college football and basketball. Only once has its basketball champion emerged into the light of the national final four to be observed firsthand by the semiomniscient national media, not to mention a few million regular-type people.
Though three of its schools have won national titles, two of those—Wyoming's in 1943 and Utah's in 1944—came long before the league was founded, and the third was won under an assumed name. That would be the 1966 title taken by Texas Western, which was once the Texas School of Mines and is now the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).
In the early 1960s, as the old Border and Skyline conferences were foundering, their larger members must have suddenly decided that nobody knew or cared whether Hardin-Simmons was an institution of higher learning or a candy bar. So the basketball-strong, growing schools shucked H-S and the rest and merged into the Western Athletic Conference in 1962. Today it consists of the six charter members—Wyoming, Utah, Brigham Young, New Mexico, Arizona and Arizona State—along with UTEP and Colorado State, which joined five years ago.
In the early days of the conference, skid-'n'-shoot offense was as customary as disdain for defense among WAC teams. The runnin'-gunnin' crews of Arizona State, BYU and Utah were stunnin' until they got into postseason playoffs. Then there was no funnin'.
Also part of the WAC style was the ease with which junior-college players infiltrated the campuses, even though their academic backgrounds tended to be heavy on things like checkers.
Other areas of college life provided diversion for those recruits who found classroom life a bit limiting. One youngster at Colorado State was caught stealing funds from a turkey raffle for Vietnam orphans. One lad from New Mexico was ticketed for driving his auto while watching a backseat TV through the rear-view mirror. Another Lobo player was apprehended, nude and wielding a butcher knife, in the midst of an inadvertent LSD trip. Arizona State once enrolled a prospect equipped with expertise in the practice of assault and battery. And even this year one of New Mexico's prize JC players was picked up on a rape charge the same day he signed a grant-in-aid.
Some of the league's better-known four-year students have not exactly uplifted academic standards. Billy (The Hill) McGill departed Utah a year before the WAC was formed, but his classroom weaknesses were so well-known the university was forced to tighten entrance requirements. A standing joke among Wyoming alumni concerns the search to find anyone who attended a class with Flynn Robinson; Flynn spent most of his time at Laramie as the doorman at Poor Bill's, a nifty after-hours establishment.
In defense of the WAC, it must be pointed out that the league is hardly alone in providing a haven for educational no-accounts, athletic hoodlums and NCAA scholarship violators who spend their senior years living in motel rooms—as the WAC's most recent All-America did. The league's most beleaguered school, UTEP, is the constant target of unconfirmed allegations and stupid racial ridicule about its 1966 national champions, a mostly black contingent that whipped Kentucky's all-white squad in the finals. Contrary to recent charges, no member of that team is in jail, and all but two have been graduated from college.
In contrast to all of this are WAC graduates' contributions in government, business, education, religion and the arts. Barry Goldwater, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Vonda Kay Van Dyke attended conference schools; Johnny Miller developed his golf at BYU; Jack Anderson learned his journalism at Utah; and Geraldo Rivera was just plain Jerry when he attended Arizona.
As a result of the WAC's travail in other areas, its considerable accomplishments on the basketball court and at the gate also have gone largely unnoticed.
Strength? Two years ago five WAC teams won 16 games or more. Last year five won 18 or more, and the WAC was one of two leagues to send representatives to the three postseason tournaments. Its record vs. nonconference opponents was 65-30.
Talent? Last season the NBA drafted three hardship cases from the WAC, all with two years of eligibility left. This year Arizona has Bob Elliott, one of the best big men in college; Utah has the amazing shooter, Luther (Ticky) Burden; and Arizona State, led by Lionel (Train) Hollins, may win the league title.
Contrast? This is a conference where one team can score 106 points and lose by 15 (which Arizona did), and another team can score only 11 baskets and be applauded (which Wyoming did and was). UTEP has been the NCAA leader in defense two years running, but the Miners had one of those typically wacky WAC point-spread differentials with Arizona State last season. UTEP lost at Tempe 73-53, and then won at El Paso 82-48—-a cool spread of 54 big ones.
Balance? The WAC has always been the most balanced of conferences. In 1966 Brigham Young finished 6-4 in the league, yet won the NIT in New York. Only four times in the WAC's 12-year history has the championship been decided earlier than the final day of the season, and just once in the last six years has the champion lost fewer than four games.
Road victories are considered such rarities that the WAC keeps a separate set of statistics entitled "break-throughs." There were 17 last year. The best road record over 12 seasons is owned by Brigham Young, which has won 25 of 70 such league games for an unsparkling .357 percentage. Nobody else is close.
The WAC normally needs a slide rule to compute the playoff possibilities stemming from the conference race. Last March five teams went into the final weekend with a shot at the championship, and if UTEP had beaten New Mexico there would have been a quintuple tie. The year before, four schools were involved in the race on the final day.
Again this winter five schools have a chance at the championship. Arizona probably still has the most physical talent. Arizona State's backcourt is second only to Maryland's in the country. New Mexico has enough intense, hustling types to defend its title with gusto. Colorado State, the dark horse, has inside depth returning from a team that lost five WAC games by a total of 10 points. And UTEP has nasty defense, playground quickness and some of the best coaching anywhere.
Brigham Young, too, enters the 20th century. The Cougars, who pride themselves on recruiting foreign athletes, have gone so foreign this time that Californian Gary Batiste will be the first black basketball player ever at Provo.
Such competition has inspired vast audiences and necessitated the construction of huge, glimmering basketball palaces. Four WAC teams were among the 11 NCAA home-attendance leaders last season. Brigham Young, with the nation's largest (22,670 seats) on-campus facility, led the country two years ago. New Mexico's "Pit" led in 1974. UNM was one of only two schools that drew more than 200,000 at home; the other was UCLA. Overall, the WAC attracted close to one million for home games in 1973-74.
Irv Brown, a much-respected referee from Denver who officiated two of the last three NCAA finals, says, "They do everything in the WAC but ice the puck. The quality of play isn't any better than some places and it isn't any tougher. But they run there, scatter, hold it, fire it, coach the hell out of it, defend it and make noise like crazy. It's my favorite because they have the most fun."
For nine years the WAC stagnated because there were no coaching changes. Then a new breed came in, and Arizona State's Ned Wulk, the lone survivor of the original coaches, started to work harder, primarily on defense. Now, what one of the new leaders calls the WAC's "sagebrush image" is passé.
It is impossible to replace it with a single new image because the conference covers too much area, sprawling through two time zones, temperature changes from plus 100° to minus 30°, and altitudinal differences ranging from the Tucson desert to the high-plains plateau at 7,200-foot Laramie ("the terminal of the four winds"). But three men—two new, one old—represent the flavor of the WAC better than any others. They are sometimes known, Aesop-style, as The Fox, The Hippie and The Bear.
Fred Snowden of Arizona, The Fox, was the first black head coach at a major school, "the fly in the buttermilk of Tucson" as he still puts it. In charming self-parody, he also refers to himself as "Ego King," and he is not far wrong. Snowden's teams dazzle the opposition on the break, then wave at them on the defensive end. "We let you play with it because we want it back in a hurry," he says.
The Fox has a preference for white shoes, the word "syndrome" and large phrases that he mixes with his hip street slang. He calls the university president "a good cat" and says he has "body vibes" that this is Arizona's year. The Fox has a large opulent office with red velveteen wallpaper and dim lighting all around. He is of the opinion Arizona does not get enough attention.
"Some coaches get rated because of who they are," says The Fox. "Knight, he's one. Indiana and Knight get rated every year just because he's Bobby Knight. I figure I should get rated because I'm The Fox. I'm going to be up there every year because my contacts get me people to stay up.
"The man at UCLA," adds The Fox, referring to John Wooden, "now when he goes, you know who's getting all the dudes from L.A.? You looking at him: The Fox."
Snowden is from Detroit and grew up with the Four Tops and the Temptations. He used to run sandwiches up to Charlie Parker at the Bluebird Inn and sit at the knee of Joe Louis. Tucson was a big change.
"It isn't my life-style," says The Fox, "but it's where I had to come to get a chance. I miss the little black things. Having my hair styled by my own guy. Listening to my sounds on a black station. My daughter misses Soul Train and the black dancers. I love Soul Train.
"My man, Tucson folk are the greatest in the world, but we had to work like hell to get them. I didn't come all this way to lose, can you dig it? People need to get rid of their cowboy syndrome about this league. I was assistant at Michigan, and you telling me the Big Ten is as tough as the WAC? We had four teams that would kick Indiana's butt at the end of last season. Put that down. Put down The Fox was one of them."
Norm Ellenberger of New Mexico, The Hippie, has a beauteous wife named Judy, some children, a pet timber wolf named Sasha, an adobe hacienda to put them all in and many irons in the fire of the burgeoning business of Indian jewelry. The Hippie is the Newman-Redford among coaches, a man of such striking looks and charisma that his picture, hanging in Albuquerque restaurants, must be guarded lest it be defaced with scribbled I love hims.
The Hippie wears faded jeans, a mustache and shades "to keep the image." The walls of his remodeled office are covered with white shag carpet; there are several mirrors on one of them. "Rule One is: No player can look better than the coach," says The Hippie. "If I don't like his hair or clothes, they're out."
Ellenberger favors turquoise rings, silver bracelets, heishi-shell necklaces and deep-decolletage gaucho shirts as game outfits. He put turquoise into the Lobo uniforms and around the court, then won the WAC last year despite internal difficulties that included one player being arrested for stealing a bicycle and another picked up for shoplifting.
"We weren't a flaky bunch," says The Hippie. "We had substance. We were winners before anything else. Nothing happened on this team that surprised us. 'Know thyself is the proper phrase.
"Look, I'm no rehabilitator, I'm just a small-town Indiana farm guy who coached in a station-wagon league before this. I thought I'd have to apply for a visa to come to New Mexico, but when I saw it I knew this was what I had been looking for all my life."
In two years Ellenberger has speeded up the Lobo offense and played tight D. His practices are efficient and tough, and he uses 10 men a game.
"First thing I told them was, 'We are going upstream and everyone better have a paddle,' " he says. "They all contribute. If they don't, they're gone.
"The WAC has no gloss to it. When we recruit, mother thinks son is going oft to the end of the world like Columbus. Nobody grows up wanting to go to New Mexico. But look at this—our last open spaces. You got to love it."
The Hippie is going home to feed the wolf. He finishes, "Where else can you find a live mascot who hates referees?"
He should know better than anyone. In El Paso.
Don Haskins of UTEP, The Bear, is a mammoth man, going to 280 pounds during the season. The Bear has been known to eat four dinners on game night. He chain-smokes on the practice floor. He plays scratch golf with Lee Trevino. He runs whole pool racks backhanded.
The Bear can explain 58 ways his team will lose its opener to Sul Ross State. He probably holds the national record for technical fouls and getting kicked out in a career, a game, a minute. WAC referees are under special orders not to let him intimidate them. Fat chance. At taking street players and molding them into workable defensive units, The Bear might be the best who ever lived.
"You look like a damn junior-high team. Get the damn bass drum out here," Haskins roars at his young troops.
"Sure I get on 'em," he says. "I get on officials, too. But I deserve about halt my reputation. If I'm not gettin' on 'em, my trainer is antagonizin' me enough to get on 'em. And then if I don't, he does."
Antagonizin' UTEP trainer Ross Moore was once almost expelled from a game himself. "You throwin' my trainer out?" The Bear cried to the referee. "Sack up the balls," he called to the manager. The trainer stayed.
An Oklahoma State player under Hank Iba, The Bear coached in the Texas truck stops of Benjamin, Hedley and Dumas before coming to El Paso. Once he got there, a local man told him, "You can kick rear against Arizona State. They don't cover nobody." Then Haskins looked up the previous year's score: ASU 119, UTEP 103. It has been defense at UTEP ever since.
That defense finished in the top five nationally in Haskins' first four years. Then he won the 1966 national championship in a shocking upset, only to be trailed by such abuse since then that, he says, "Sometimes I wish we had finished second."
The Bear says of defense: "If you get five guys who can pick up their feet and run down the floor and hustle, nobody should get 90 off you—nobody. Hell, we could be playing like a sack o' cats and still stop people from getting the cheap ones on breaks and stuff.
"They talk bad about our league in the East? Damn. When we joined the WAC I knew how tough it was. In '66 we played just about everybody in it. New Mexico had us down 16 at half up there, and we came back to win in overtime. We got to the finals against this Kentucky, which was scoring a whole bunch, 88 points a game, and I saw them and said if we stop the break, they won't get 65. Which is exactly what they got, and they shouldn't have got that.
"I tell you what," says The Bear. "I'd rather play Kentucky three times a week than play New Mexico at all."
Somewhere across the mountains one can almost hear The Fox and The Hippie and a few other mad WAC addicts whooping it up over that one, with cowboy hats flying, Indian beads dancing and six-guns smoking.