An apocryphal story is making the rounds in Normal, home of the high-flying (17-2 through last weekend) Redbirds of Illinois State. Two Illinois State players are sitting in a local eatery, and three appealing young women walk in. "What'll we do?" asks one of the players. "There's three of them and only two of us." "Relax," says the other, "we'll play a zone." But that's not the punch line. The kicker is that Coach Bob Donewald immediately suspends the two players for uttering the word zone in public. Illinois State never uses a zone, thank you.
At week's end the Redbirds were at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference, tied with Wichita State, because of just one thing—a clinging, clawing man-to-man defense that leaves opponents bruised and sometimes bitter. "If you take away their cheap shots, I'd say they're the best defensive team we've faced," said Wichita State Forward Antoine Carr after being battered in a recent 54-53 loss. "That's the best defense we've played against all season," said Drake Coach Gary Garner after a 65-59 defeat on Feb. 3. Asked to name the second best, Garner replied, "No one else is close."
"I've heard us referred to as a blue-collar basketball team," says Donewald. "I think that's pretty accurate. We dig and scratch for about everything we get."
As Illinois State's victories accumulate, so do complaints about the physical pounding its opponents have had to endure from its bump 'n' no run defense. On Jan. 24 at the Redbirds' Horton Field House, Tulsa Coach Nolan Richardson, suffering through what would be a 61-55 loss, became so worked up that he got into a shoving match on the floor with Rick Lamb, the Illinois State center and premier enforcer. After the game Donewald, adding insult to injury, said of Richardson, "They ought to do something about that thug in the polka-dot shirt."
"This place is a zoo," was what Richardson had to say.
It can be argued that the Redbirds are merely doing what they had to do to survive. The tallest starter, Forward Mark Zwarts, stands only 6'8". The leading scorer, the 6'7" Lamb, was averaging only 13.5 points a game through last Saturday. "If this team became soft it would become mediocre very quickly," says Donewald. "Somehow we just keep making enough good plays to enjoy some success. We're not an overly gifted team." But the Redbirds' lack of outstanding natural ability is considered an asset by Donewald, who says he has neither the time nor the inclination to deal with runaway egos: "I'd much rather have players who will be a part of the program than more talented players who won't listen."
The main influence on Donewald's basketball philosophy was the five years he spent as an assistant to Bobby Knight at Indiana, during which the Hoosiers won the 1976 NCAA championship. Besides developing a taste for defense and the motion offense, which in Illinois State's case looks like five guys cruising around looking for trouble, Donewald says he learned "how a successful program should be run."
What he means by program is best demonstrated in the Redbirds' closed practices. These often make a better show than the games. Donewald and his assistants brandish their clipboards like swords, and their goading voices echo throughout the building. The players respond by knocking the stuffing out of each other; rarely is a whistle blown. Recently, Forward Hank Cornley has taken to wearing a set of futuristic-looking goggles to protect a broken orbital bone under his right eye, the result of a UFE (unidentified flying elbow) thrown in practice.
"At the beginning of the year I tell the players that I will get on them as athletes but never as individuals, as people," says Donewald. "I have no right to do that, but they should demand that I criticize them as a coach to help their own development.
"It was a bit difficult for them to adjust to the intensity at first, but now it's something they're aware of when they come into the program. If intensity, concentration and purpose weren't characteristics that were already there in a player, then I wouldn't want him here anyway."
The players have come to agree. "Sometimes it seems like there's a fine line between his yelling helping or hurting us, but his intensity is really aimed at trying to make us better," says senior Guard Dwayne Tyus. "It's when he doesn't yell at you at all that you know he doesn't care about you."
Donewald apparently knows how to defuse intensity, too. A player who has been chewed out is allowed to relieve his frustrations on the helpless basketball by drop-kicking it into the field-house stands. So many balls get punished in this way that the student managers who have to shag them end up as tired as the players after practice. Donewald doesn't mind seeing the leather fly. "We're in a tension-filled environment from October to March, and always to suppress it isn't good," he says. "There are moments when a kid is frustrated with himself. It's psychologically healthy to allow him to release it." Though Donewald claims that the anger is never directed at the coaching staff, one can't help but wonder whether the players aren't symbolically projecting their mentors to the rafters. "Maybe," admits Forward Lou Stefanovic, who's been yelled at a lot more than once, "I'm going to kick one out of this place if I have to."
Another Donewald innovation is the traveling game film. In January, during a trip to New Mexico and West Texas State, the Redbirds were faced with a pair of long, boring bus rides, one of 2½ hours from Las Cruces to Ruidoso, N. Mex. and another of almost five hours from Ruidoso to Amarillo, Texas. Why not show an in-flight movie? With a portable generator powering a projector, the team was able to watch films of their upcoming opponents. Now the projector and a cardboard screen taped over a window are standard features on Illinois State buses. "It's not mandatory that the players watch the films," says Donewald. "A couple will watch for a while, then a couple more will watch."
Though it has been five years since Donewald took over the Redbird coaching job, Illinois State fans are still not used to the change in their team's style of play. From 1970 to '73 the team had All-America Doug Collins averaging 29.1 points per game. When Gene Smithson (since moved to Wichita State) took over in 1975, Illinois State played run-and-gun on what the fans in Normal used to call "light it up" nights at the field house. Smithson's teams scored 80 points or more in 53 of the 84 games he coached. Donewald's teams have scored 80 or more just a dozen times in the 75 games he has coached without Smithson-era starters. Smithson often wore an avocado-green leisure suit with the nickname RADAR embroidered above the chest pocket. Donewald has never owned a leisure suit; indeed, when he came his clothes looked as if they had been styled by the FBI. Smithson has had his hair done in a permanent. At Illinois State it is said that Donewald's first order of business was to call the state police and find out where they got their haircuts.
Dullsville—that was what Donewald's program was called at first. They said he had mechanical, wind-up players. The defense was needlessly pugnacious. It took a long while—until this season, really—for Donewald's methods to be fully appreciated. Says Southern Illinois-Carbondale's Allen Van Winkle, another coach whose team has been outmuscled by the Redbirds, "Your first impression is of Lamb and Cornley knocking people around inside, but Illinois State is nine players deep and plays with a lot more finesse than people give it credit for." It hasn't been finesse, however, that has enabled the Redbirds to prevail. This season Donewald had four of his five starters fitted with boxer's mouthpieces—the exception being the slender Tyus. Informed that the opinion at nearby University of Illinois, one of two teams to beat Illinois State this year, is that no Redbird is good enough to start for the Illini, Lamb said thoughtfully, "If someone told me that, I think I'd knock him down."
"We faced two very difficult games [against Wichita State and Tulsa] recently," says Donewald, "and I told our players we could come out of them in three ways: We could lose both and still be a close-knit group, lose both and become unsure of ourselves, or win both and get soft and too impressed with ourselves.
"I told them if I had only one of those three options, I'd take the first, and I meant that with all my heart."
Donewald didn't have to tell his battlers that there was a fourth possible outcome—win both and not get soft—which is of course what came to pass.