After the prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance and during the sausage, sauerkraut, cornbread, biscuits and pumpkin pie, song leader Glenn Wright of the Weatherford (Okla.) Rotary Club announced that it was time to entertain the evening's special guests, the two-time NAIA champion Southwestern Oklahoma State University women's basketball team.
"We've got people here from the college who are world and internationally famous," Wright declared. "Let's impress them with our singing." With that, the Weatherford Rotarians fast-broke into a rousing rendition of that Czechoslovakian favorite Stodola Pumpa.
"Why is it, in the 200 years that I've been with this club," Wright asked, catching his breath three verses later, "every time we have a celebration, we always serve kraut and wienies?"
John Loftin, the Lady Bulldogs' coach, laughed. This was the third time in three years that the club had invited him to give a preseason speech, and he certainly was full up to here with kraut and wienies.
He remembered his first speech, back in 1981, when he was new in town. "If we win half our games," said Loftin then, "we'll be lucky." Sheepishly, he sank back into his kraut. However, the Lady Bulldogs went 34-0 and won the NAIA title, and he was named Coach of the Year.
He thought about his second speech in 1982. "It'll be darn near impossible to repeat," Loftin had said in his Tulia, Texas accent. The wienies beckoned; he cut his speech short. But the Lady Bulldogs went 30-4 and won the NAIA title, and he was named Coach of the Year.
This season, the coach would throw caution to the wind. "Three in a row? Could be," Loftin said. "What's your secret?" the Rotarians begged. "Hard work," he said. "Hard work never hurt anybody." The Rotarians gave him a standing ovation.
Weatherford (pop. 9,640) is 69 miles west of Oklahoma City, and it's the kind of place where people leave their keys in their cars—with the motors running—when they're shopping downtown. The town sits in the Anadarko Oil and Gas Basin, site of the 1980 boom and the '81 bust. There were 900 rigs in the old days: Now there are just 230. Weatherford is smack in the middle of prime wheat-and cotton-farming and cattle-ranching country. But with the lack of rain the last couple of years, the money in that has dried up, too. "People around here needed something to believe in," says Doyle Jackson, a local businessman.
Say hello to John Loftin. Weatherford hasn't been the same since he arrived.
Fay Jackson, Doyle's wife, has worked overtime behind the stove. She's been baking cinnamon rolls hand over fist and firing up pots of chili for team dinners. Shirley and A.B. Cook haven't sat still a minute either. They're too busy following the team around the state to watch scrimmages and games. "We've spent more money trying to see Kelli Litsch play than we've spent on our own kids," Shirley says. And Pickle Ice, a farmer from nearby Fay (pop. 150), has become a Lady Bulldog fiend. "I'll sell a cow if I have to, to get myself to the Nationals," he says.
All this excitement began in early 1981 when Dr. Leonard Campbell, Southwestern's president, decided he wanted a competitive women's basketball program. "We don't do everything comprehensive universities do," said Campbell, "but what we do, we do well."
Southwestern Oklahoma, which has 5,000 students, seceded from the AIAW, joined the NAIA, established six scholarships, and, on April Fools' Day, Campbell hired Loftin, who had an overall record of 243-65 in his 14 years of coaching mostly women's teams—eight at Texas high schools and six at Murray State Junior College in Tishomingo, Okla. Later that afternoon, Litsch, a high school All-America out of Thomas, a town just 17 miles up the road, told Loftin that she was turning down USC and Louisiana Tech to attend Southwestern. "I couldn't leave the people who've been watching me play since second grade," she said.
Loftin knew that assembling the rest of his team wouldn't be quite so easy. Armed with a $400 recruiting budget, the new coach spent much of the next four months on the phone, contacting about 80 prospects. When he wasn't dialing, he was behind the wheel of his 1980 Chevy Citation, combing the Oklahoma and Texas junior colleges. "I ruined that car," says Loftin, who logged 10,000 miles and spent $700 of his own money on gas. "On Thursdays, I'd drive to Dallas to catch summer league games." That's a five-hour round trip. "I'd get home about 3 a.m., and I'd have to teach summer school at eight." No wonder his CB handle is The Road Runner.
But Loftin, who grew up on a 600-acre wheat farm in the Texas panhandle, was searching for a special kind of player. He wanted somebody like him. "When I was 10," he says, "I started playing basketball after school on a dirt court, shooting at a goal I'd tacked up on the chicken house. I wouldn't go in for supper until I had made 500 baskets."
Loftin eventually signed 12 such hardworking women—eight junior-college transfers ("Mostly discontents," he says, "women who wanted a second chance at a degree") and four homegrown freshmen. Never mind that three of the transfers had been out of basketball for a year—they all became starters—and that the freshmen hadn't ever played the five-woman game. (Oklahoma and Iowa are the only states still playing six women on a team in high school.) A little work would go a long way.
Loftin found Mary Champion attending school, but not playing basketball, at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. She had been a star guard at Connors State Junior College in Warner, Okla. He found Chelly Belanger, another former junior-college player, at Colorado State University. He found two former high school teammates, Pat Jacques, a guard-forward, and Anita Foster, a center, playing in a Dallas summer league. A bank teller and the mother of a 2-year-old son, Tyrone, Foster had attended Stephen F. Austin and Navarro Junior College and wanted to get back into school. But no coach would offer her single-parent housing. "They wanted me to leave my son home," she says. Not Southwestern. The Fosters live in a mobile home parked on the edge of the campus, and Tyrone attends a daycare center at the university.
The Lady Bulldogs opened practice for the 1981-82 season the first week in September. Sometimes they didn't start their drills until 7 p.m., meaning they didn't finish until 9:30. "By that time the cafeteria was closed," Peggy Litsch, Kelli's mother, says, "so they often went without dinner." By the first week in January, the Lady Bulldogs were 11-0 and ranked No. 1. Loftin devastated opponents with his complicated system—six offenses and three defenses. The team averaged 73 points a game and outscored opponents by an average of 12. Weather-ford went whacko. Most of Thomas and Fay turned out to see Litsch. Those who couldn't, watched her on closed-circuit TV. The crowds in Southwestern's gym grew from 300 at the November season opener to 2,000-plus in January. "It was a fairy tale," Loftin says.
So was the '82-83 season. Dee Dee Woodfork, a former Murray State forward who had left school to have a baby (J.D., now two), was the top recruit. "The pressure to win was great," Loftin says. The team averaged 67.1 points and outscored opponents by 12.7. Litsch and Foster were named All-Americas, and Litsch was the NAIA Player of the Year. Three hundred townspeople toasted the team at an appreciation banquet. By season's end the Booster Club was born.
This season, Litsch, Foster, Woodfork and two other returnees are joined by seven newcomers. The Booster Club has raised $6,000. Loftin has three outstanding recruits: Nancy Hafterson, a 6'5" center from Phillips University in Enid, Okla., Carri Hayes, an All-America guard from Connors J.C. and Diana Dees, a guard who once played for Loftin at Murray State. She spent last year working in Wyoming as a pulpwood hauler, living in a tent with her husband.
So, what is the reason for Loftin's success? The team had a 3-0 record at the end of last week and was ranked No. 1 in the country. Could it be the kraut and wienies? "That seems as good a guess as any," says the coach. "He yells a lot," Foster says. Campbell thinks he knows. "An accrediting group recently told me the school has one weakness: Our faculty thinks of itself as parents to the students," he says. "I think that's a strength."
The team's staunchest fans, Edith Cook, 75, and Ruth Litsch, 79, Kelli's grandmothers, figure they know what's cooking. "Coach Loftin's the best thing that ever happened around here," Grandma Litsch says. "He's got all of us feeling like we're in tall cotton."
NCAA TOP TEN
2. LOUISIANA TECH
3. SOUTHERN CAL
6. LONG BEACH STATE
7. OLD DOMINION
10. KANSAS STATE
Based on a poll of Division I coaches.