Cincinnati and San Francisco went at each other last Saturday in a game that had all the ingredients of modern basketball: freshmen flashes, full-court defenses, Beau Brummel coaches, national television, seven-footers rebounding in the ozone, 76 trombones and wall-to-wall strategy.
It was a game between a team not old enough to drive (San Francisco) and one that had its learner's permit (Cincinnati). Last year Cincinnati started four freshmen and won 23 games. This year San Francisco came visiting with three freshmen starters and a 22-5 record.
In the end, experience (relative) won out. Cincinnati sophomore Pat Cummings sank an 18-foot jump shot with five seconds remaining in overtime to give the Bearcats an 89-88 victory over USF, thereby drying all the sweaty palms in Cincinnati Gardens and upping the team's record to 21-4.
Back in the days when women, not men, wore the hair curlers, San Francisco and Cincinnati each won back-to-back NCAA championships. Some 15 to 20 years later the game has changed as much as fashions, and the coaches have kept pace. Most have suede-smooth tongues, dress like Sammy Davis Jr. and know the latest way to shake hands. Bob Gaillard of San Francisco and Gale Catlett of Cincinnati are no exception. On Saturday, Gaillard wore a three-piece white-flannel suit with a pinstripe, while Catlett countered with his brown check, the one with the three-inch cuffs. Gaillard had on two-tone high-heeled shoes, Catlett fought back with two-tone patent leathers. Overall, Gaillard was best in show. He wore no tie. Game, set and match.
Cincinnati does not know what to make of Catlett. His glib manner does not sit well in a community still fighting the perils of fluoridation. "They don't like me because I wear white boots in the wintertime," he says. Weary of rebuke, Catlett once mocked his detractors by saying, "I don't need the job. My wife has $5 million." Indeed, her family is loaded, as are her husband's teams—with talent. He has averaged 20 wins for each of his four seasons at Cincinnati and, more important, he has dusted off a program that was growing senile while surviving on memories. Along the way he has changed everything from the mascot's attire to the pregame drills, while living each day with gusto. For instance, he passes out what he considers a foolproof system for winning at blackjack, and carries a pocketful of Australian pennies. "They work just like dimes in candy machines," he says.
He also has softened the Cincinnati schedule so much that several visiting opponents should have stayed in kennels rather than motels. Catlett listens to scores of college games on the radio until the wee hours of the morning and records them in a book, subscribes to scouting services and tries to schedule a lot of teams with hyphens in their names. "Otherwise you can get beat," he says.
Whatever, he has one of the best and youngest teams in the country, and one that is peaking at just the right time. Last year the Bearcats won their final 16 games before losing to Louisville in the NCAA playoffs. This year the team has won nine of its last 10. And over four years, the club has won 46 straight on its campus homecourt, the Armory-Field-house, the longest major-college streak in the nation.
People like Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds and former UC star Oscar Robertson help recruit. Bob Miller, the team's 6'10" sophomore center, came to school because his mother grew up in Indianapolis as a fan of Robertson's. "Oscar's name is magic," says Catlett, more than grateful to anyone who can land him a center with a 42-inch vertical jump and fine scoring and rebounding stats.
Cincinnati reflects the exuberant spirit of its coach and of its youth. Teammates reward a good play by running downcourt with their fists raised and signal to the crowd for added encouragement and applause. On Saturday, Forward Mike Jones turned to San Francisco's Winford Boynes at the foul line and said, "There's a lot of people watching. Let's give 'em a show." The team even has an unofficial halftime shooter, alumnus Mark Shoner, who wanders out and fires away.
Catlett was worried about USF for lots of good reasons. He had been an assistant coach under Adolph Rupp, and the Baron was scheduled to attend the game Saturday. Illness prevented him from showing, and perhaps that was fortunate since the only time he had seen UC play, the team lost, Catlett's only defeat in Cincinnati. And with all three of his point guards sick or injured, Catlett did not need any bad omens.
As it was, the team had its share of bad luck, but won, anyway. Cincinnati built a 13-point lead in the second half, but frittered it away when the guards threw the ball around as if it were infected, and the game went into overtime. Then Cummings drilled in his game-winner. Afterward, the UC doctor lectured the team about proper nutrition. It seems the players have been skipping dinner and pocketing their meal money. This week Cincinnati plays in the Metro Six tournament, hoping to qualify for the NCAA. The team better eat, or it might get feasted on.