There are two ways of assessing Roger Phegley's unusual athletic career at Bradley University. As a pitcher on the baseball team he has been a disappointment, barely worth the effort it took to sign him to a scholarship in the spring of 1974. But as a basketball player he has been a surprise of a different sort. One might even call him the best and most versatile basketball player that Bradley never recruited.
Phegley was the Player of the Year in the Missouri Valley Conference last season, averaging 27.4 points a game, breaking Chet Walker's school single-season scoring record and making 87.4% of his free throws for another school record. This year the 6'7" senior guard (at least he is a guard when he is not playing forward or center) is shooting better than ever. Last Saturday night at home against Illinois Wesleyan, Phegley helped the Braves even their record at 2-2 by scoring 26 points in an 80-64 victory. If you do not regard that as a stern enough test, then consider this: he pumped in 29 during an earlier 91-90 loss at Las Vegas, and Reggie Theus, the Rebels' All-America candidate, fouled out trying to stop him.
Performances such as these have helped Bradley fans overlook Phegley's pitching career. Although he three-hit New Mexico State in the semifinals of the MVC tournament last spring, injuries and inconsistency have limited his three-year record to four wins, five losses and a 4.89 ERA.
Baseball Coach Chuck Buescher was hoping for a lot more when he signed Phegley. The most valuable player in the Illinois high school tournament, while pitching for nearby East Peoria High, Phegley enrolled at Bradley only after turning down a modest contract offered by the Cincinnati Reds. Nobody cared much that Phegley was also all-conference in basketball. He did attract the attention of small schools like Illinois' John Brown University and Monmouth College and Missouri's Culver Stockton, but his home state's perennial Division II power, Augustana, did not want Phegley even as a walk-on. Bradley Coach Joe Stowell considered him no better than a "fringe player," a good shooter who was too small for forward, too slow for guard and too passive in his style of play.
December 19, 1977
Since the days when Stowell and every other major-college coach ignored or rejected him, Phegley has grown two inches, gained 25 pounds, quickened his pace and gritted his teeth. Although he began his freshman season as a walk-on, he was a starter by the fourth game, when he scored 20 points and had 15 rebounds against Loyola of Chicago. "Before then, I was just a good player," he says. "Now I try to dominate, to take charge."
Phegley is a silent-running destroyer, methodically popping jumpers and slithering into the middle for layups. His favorite tactic is to take a smaller player down low and shoot over him. And his scoring average is not the result of the number of shots he takes (15 a game on the average) but his accuracy (59%) and the frequency with which he is fouled (14 free throws a game).
Although Stowell calls Phegley "the best big guard in the country," the coach is just as likely to use him at forward, where Phegley spent most of his freshman and sophomore seasons, or at center, where he sets up when a quicker lineup is needed. Wherever he happens to be, the Braves' playbook is filled with passes, picks and screens to get him the ball. "Playing three positions is not difficult at all," says Phegley. "I'm amazed at the number of guys who only know how to play their own position. This way I'm aware of where every man on the team is going to be on every one of our patterns."
Although Bradley did not give him a basketball scholarship until after he was a starter, Phegley feels a deep sense of gratitude to Stowell, who unlike a lot of major-college coaches was willing to let a walk-on try out. When Stowell was on the verge of losing his job during last year's 9-18 season, Phegley led the team in appealing for support from the local press and the university president. "The man gave me the opportunity to show what I could do," says Phegley. "He was fair to me. I only needed a chance, and he was willing to provide it."
Phegley's biggest show of gratitude would be leading the Braves to 15 or 16 victories this winter, because Stowell, who is in his 13th season at Bradley, probably needs that many to retain his job next year. By then, Phegley will be trying to make it as a professional—in basketball, of course. As for baseball, he admits, "I'm disappointed I couldn't have done better because that's what I originally came to school for. But the way it's turned out, it's been kind of a Cinderella story. It sort of proves you can be whatever you want to be, if you only get the chance to do it."