Not long ago, the Missouri Valley Conference appeared to be running a fast break to extinction, but now, with an infusion of outstanding players and coaches, the far-flung league is reviving memories of its glorious past
March 09, 1981

At Bradley there is a coach whose mother wrote The Flying Nun and whose grandfather, he claims, introduced broccoli to America. The coach says his players' brawls in the locker room—the media are asked to leave on these occasions—merely indicate their "school spirit."

At Tulsa there is a scorekeeper who might duke it out with the devil—forget school spirit—or anybody else who wants to question his foul count. Meanwhile, the student section is equipped with mop wigs, black suits, gorilla outfits and violin cases, the better to portray a certain rival head coach and his assistant as members of the Mafia.

At Drake a player named Pop until this season ran out for the intros popping a finger as a warning to the opponents' bench. And then he popped kisses on his teammates right there at center court. At Southern Illinois scores of fans behind the backboard wave miniature backboards at opposing foul shooters. In the midst of the confusion waves a sign reading PICK ONE.

At Wichita State two young and gifted forwards unload astonishing dunk shots while reporters unload astonishing charges of coaches financing everything from clothes to a player's former girl friend's abortion. According to The Kansas City Times, the Wheatshockers lead the nation in sham as well as slam.

Well, now, if it isn't the Missouri Valley Conference alive and kicking again. All 10 schools, eight states and three time zones. Sprawling as it does all over the Midwest, "the Valley" has long been the passion pit of college basketball, lending the game spectacle and scandal, a couple of two-time national championship teams and characters ranging from the unforgettable Oscar Robertson to the forgotten Levern (Jelly) Tart. My goodness, old Ronnie (Jelly Bean) Reagan, himself, even did some play-by-play in the conference way back before he discovered Frank Sinatra.

But then hard times befell the Valley. The railroad died or something. But with the arrival of Larry Bird, new coaches and aggressive recruiting came a commitment to get the conference amovin' again.

To set the record straight, there is no valley in the Valley anymore; today there isn't even a league member in the state of Missouri. Its heart and soul lie in places like Peoria and Des Moines, which are favorite buzz words in the routines of stand-up comedians. Look, lady, they loved me in Des Moines. Haw, haw, haw. Oh, but the people in the Missouri Valley Conference do enjoy their college basketball.

After a season brimming over with surprise and controversy and the usual junior-college transfers, the Missouri Valley headed into this week's postseason tournament with five teams hopeful of bids to the NCAA or NIT tournaments, three of those staring at the possibility of 20 or more victories, and one fully capable of challenging for the national championship. That is, if Wichita State doesn't stumble and trip over all the Monopoly money being hurled its way by witty fans conversant with the NCAA investigations.

By the time the regular season reached its crescendo in Peoria last Thursday with a booster luncheon featuring Howard Cosell, Al McGuire and Marlon Brando, a student pep rally attended by the deceased General George C. Patton, and then the big game in Robertson Memorial Field House between Bradley and Wichita State, the Missouri Valley had come all-the way back to a prominence it last attained before schools like Louisville and Cincinnati went high tone and left the league.

In truth, Cosell, McGuire, Brando and George C. Scott (as Patton) weren't on hand in Peoria, but a talented local TV guy name of Dave Snell, who does wunnerful impersonations, was. Snell's wide-ranging repertoire also included the schools' curly-perm coaches, Dick Versace of Bradley and Gene Smithson of Wichita State.

The real Versace and Smithson, old friends from high school coaching days around Chicago, chided each other back and forth. On Wichita losing two of its previous three games and a virtual lock on the league title, Versace said, "I'm giving Gene a crate of apples to replace the ones which got stuck in his guys' throats." On Versace's use of multisyllabic words, Smithson said: "Sometimes what emits from Dick's oral cavity is nothing more than fecal material."

Addressing the coaches' appearance, league Commissioner David Price called the game "the battle of the hairdressers." But what it turned out to be was a showcase for the Shockers' brilliant corner tandem of Cliff Levingston, who controlled the boards, and Antoine Carr, who made nine of 11 shots and scored 20 points in Wichita's 70-57 going-away win. It was the visitors' 21st victory in 25 games and it halted a Bradley home-court winning streak of 30. More important, the victory gave the Shockers the MVC regular-season championship and what seems likely to be a schedule of four home games (three in the MVC playoffs, then a probable first-round bye followed by a second-round game in the NCAA tournament) en route to the Midwest Regional in New Orleans, "where we will get recognized and, ahem, established," quoth Levingston.

The Wichita-Bradley clash, along with those schools' bitter battles with revitalized, second-place Tulsa, has elicited as much nostalgia for the old days as excitement in the new. The Missouri Valley is one of the oldest conferences going, the first intercollegiate athletic organization west of the Mississippi when it was formed in 1907 by, among others, Dr. James Naismith, always a handy fellow to have around, his having invented basketball and all.

They used to call it "the valley of death, the place you went when you were on your way to somewhere else." And that is exactly where a lot of member schools have gone over the years. More than half a century ago some disgruntled state universities pulled out of the Valley. Their conference is now known as the Big Eight. Six years ago some other former members created the Metro Conference. Uncertainty, change, turmoil, ambivalence toward football; all these have contributed to the ebb and flow of tides in a league that's about as far away from real tides as a league can get. Twenty-nine different schools have been members of the Missouri Valley Conference over the years, including Oklahoma A&M and Cincinnati, both of which won back-to-back NCAA titles when they belonged.

Iowa (current leader in the Big Ten), Missouri and Kansas State (first and second in the Big Eight), Houston (a power in the Southwest Conference), Louisville (the defending national champion), Grinnell (Grinnell?)—all played in the Valley. In 36 NCAA tournaments, Valley teams have won their way to the final four 17 times.

Valley basketball fortunes declined in the '70s as other leagues began recruiting the Southern black athlete, who had been the backbone of the conference. In 1973 Memphis State reached the NCAA finals with Larry Kenon, then left the league. In 1975 Louisville made it to the final four with Junior Bridgeman and also departed. The Valley began its latest recovery three seasons ago when two strong basketball schools—Creighton and Indiana State—became eligible for conference play. With the Apke brothers (Tom coaching, Rick playing), Creighton immediately won the conference. The following season there were Larry Bird and Indiana State, and people discovered the Valley all over again.

Last season two more terrific players caused notice all by themselves. One of them was West Texas State's 5'9" transfer, Terry Adolph, who had established assist records at Portland State while feeding Freeman Williams, the two-time national scoring champion. Adolph came into his own, leading the nation in steals, according to unofficial statistics, and performing so impressively on the NIT's summer all-star tour that officials changed the eligibility rule so he could tour this year even if West Texas didn't make the tournament. Last December, after Adolph scored 25 points and added 10 assists against Nevada-Las Vegas, Rebel Coach Jerry Tarkanian called him "the best point guard in the country."

Drake's 6'6" Lewis Lloyd, who once said his goal was to be "a car mechanic," was hitting on all cylinders in 1979-80, finishing second in the country in both scoring and rebounding. Though hampered by a broken right leg early this season, Lloyd has recovered to rank fourth in scoring with a 26.1 average. He scored 37 of Drake's 59 points in regulation time—and 41 overall—against Creighton on Feb. 19, and two nights later he got 37 (while Pop Wright was popping baskets for 39 more) as Drake upset Tulsa 107-87. Secure in his talent, Lloyd once was introduced to President Jimmy Carter. "Hello," he said. "I'm Lewis Lloyd, the Magic Man."

The main reason folks don't know Adolph and Lloyd from Stiller and Meara is that the Missouri Valley operates without a conference television package. Breaking all nonappearance records, the Valley also has not once showed up on the cable sports network, ESPN, though this week's tournament will finally take care of that oversight.

Both Versace and Smithson arrived at their respective schools three years ago with controversial backgrounds and massive winning totals—not to mention quivering hair dryers—wagging behind them. Versace had been an Army brat, a college boxer, a streetwise hustler, a high school English teacher and a basketball coach at nearly all the levels. He quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson and listened to Jackie Wilson. His mother, the author Terè Rios, sent him miniature dragons from all over the world. He called himself "the last of the pirates." His first Bradley team went 9-17.

Versace raged in the papers at home, charged the stands' at Tulsa and once issued a warning about a longtime fan (who wore a swallowtail coat) at Drake: "If that undertaker comes near my huddle, he'll need a coffin for himself."

On another memorable occasion, Versace was slapped by a female coach for his abusive language. Another woman, in a lounge, was more gentle. "She walked over to the bar and said she'd always wanted to do two things," Versace remembers. "Touch my hair and let me know I was a horse's ass."

Last season Versace showed his true colors. He often dressed completely in black, got a perm clip, notified everyone it was "silver hair, not gray" and brought in "the Sheriff," David Third-kill, along with a passel of other junior college transfers to help his marvelous scorer, Mitchell Anderson, take the Braves to their first outright conference championship in 30 years.

When the stocky Versace—long a, soft c, silent e—("Dixie to my friends; Al McGuire calls me that.") and his associate coach, Tony Barone, a swarthy, squat chap who used to be a batboy for the Cubs, come swaggering and sneering into Valley arenas, it looks like The Godfather III is about to begin. Unfortunately, the 18-8 Braves haven't played up to last season and Versace's self-described "capers" have been confined to Bradley's split decisions with Tulsa.

At home Versace got into a verbal tussle with first-year Golden Hurricane Coach Nolan Richardson, who is given to doffing his jacket and flexing his considerable biceps. "No black bleeper bleeper shows his muscle and tells an Italian to go any bleeping place in his own bleeping house," says Versace. "I called Nolan a bleeper bleeping rookie." In the rematch at Tulsa, some of the students tried to emulate Versace by powdering their hair and wearing suits similar to his. It seemed that everybody but the scorekeeper was on him all night. The scorekeeper was cooling it; earlier in the season he had nearly come to blows with West Texas Coach Ken Edwards. With less than four minutes to go and his team behind by 16 points, Versace blew up at the refs and got himself heaved. "I thought I'd get shot," he said. "I wanted out real bad."

Two nights earlier Wichita State had administered an 87-65 pounding to Bradley—Carr and Levingston having combined for 38 points and 20 rebounds—and the Valley race seemed over. But suddenly the Shockers lay down and relaxed, losing two two-point games, to Tulsa and New Mexico State, and setting up last week's dramatic confrontation. A defeat at Bradley would have dropped them into a probable tie for the championship.

Smithson, however, had recruited too many horses for that, and his team had too much MTXE. This had been Smithson's slogan at Illinois State, where he won 66 games in three years and remained uninvited to the NCAA tournament. He still uses it at Wichita State. It stands for "mental toughness xtra effort," and Smithson has emblazoned it on pennants, towels, buttons and the team uniforms. He even had it copyrighted. In New York a wag saw Smithson's button and asked, "What's this idiot running for?" and in his first season at Wichita a local writer mocked Smithson's initials as "more turnovers xtra errors."

But then came the flood tide—last year's recruiting coup of Carr, the hometown phenom, and Californians Levingston and Center Ozell Jones—and Smithson was chuckling into his bushy mustache. Nonetheless, a year ago the Shockers were too young to make a move, and they finished in a three-way tie for second place, with a 17-12 overall record. But excessive youth was not the only handicap. The coach's son, Randy, slow and limited in everything but brains and guile, had too much responsibility in the backcourt. And Carr and Levingston competed against each other.

"It was all individualism to see who was the better player," says the 6'8" Levingston.

"I tried to stand out, make all the dunks, block every shot. I didn't want to share any of the limelight," says Carr, who stands an inch taller than his teammate.

This season, however, the two forwards have rapidly matured into team-oriented, all-round customers. In addition, the Shockers brought in Point Guard Tony Martin from Casper (Wyo.) J.C. who has been able to penetrate and deliver the ball to the sophomore dunkers as well as enable young Smithson to move out on the wing, where he's more effective. Randy Smithson and Martin combined for 29 points and 13 assists of their own in the shredding of Bradley.

For their part, Carr and Levingston have averaged a combined 33.3 points and 18 rebounds a game and the former has become an outstanding defensive player, with 48 blocks. Wichita State has been outscored in its five defeats by only one, seven, two, two and three points. The most recent setback occurred last Saturday in a meaningless 75-72 loss at Indiana State, whose emotional Sycamores played as if Bird were still there, especially after Carr got kicked out of the game for elbowing early in the second half. "The only times we lose are when we don't play hard," Randy Smithson said afterward.

Sadly, though, Wichita has lost something even when the team has played hard and won. Levingston's nickname—"Good News"—supplies the irony in the Shockers' roller-coaster season of success on the court and controversy off it.

The bad news is that, according to published reports, the former girl friend of a Wichita player had an abortion at the urging of the Wichita coaches, paid for by the athletic department, so that the player could remain in school.

Added to this messy business were assertions in The Kansas City Times by former Wichita players that the coaching staff regularly paid out crisp $100 bills for plane flights, clothes and parties. Wichita State Athletic Director Ted Bredehoft emphatically denied all, and last week Smithson begged off the subject, predicting that the emergence of his team and the league as a whole would make both Wichita and the Valley "household words."

Nevertheless, on Saturday the crowd in Terre Haute was shouting at Smithson, "Gene, if I get an Afro, will you slip me a hundred?"

At this point in the Missouri Valley's rejuvenation, the conference must wonder if becoming a household word again is worth the trouble.

PHOTOA flying tackle by Bradley's Donald Reese stops a drive to the basket by Wichita State's Jones. PHOTOAs Bradley's Anderson discovered, the Shockers can be very shocking at both ends of the court. PHOTOWichita's Smithson fouled Bradley's Rick Malnati even before Jay Jackson could inbound the ball. PHOTOAs long as he makes tomahawk dunks like these. Carr needn't worry about getting enough limelight. PHOTOLloyd: unafraid of opponents and Presidents. PHOTOAdolph is one of the nation's top playmakers. PHOTOWith Martin providing badly needed help at guard, Wichita won the MVC regular-season title. PHOTOBradley's Versace is the coach with the curls. PHOTOWichita's Smithson is the coach with the curls.