Owensboro, Ky., a community of 55,000 on the Ohio River, bills itself as the city of "Barbeque, Banjos, Bourbon & Beethoven" and "Boats, Burgoos, Banquets & Business." But the biggest "B" in Owensboro is Basketball, specifically Kentucky Wesleyan basketball. As one local businessman and longtime Panther supporter put it recently, "You don't pick up the newspaper to see Kentucky Wesleyan's choir ranked third in the nation. What the people in this town want is a good basketball team."
The good citizens will get what they want this season, and then some. Four senior starters, including All-Americas Rod (Big Daddy) Drake, a brutish 6'2" guard, and Dwight (T.N.T.) Higgs, a wispy 6'5" forward, form the nucleus of the team that went 22-8 in 1982-83 and came within two points of beating the eventual NCAA Division II champion, Wright State, in the Great Lakes Regional final. With the addition of junior Guard Ray Harper, who returned to his old Muhlenburg County, Ky. home after two years of homesickness on the range at Texas, Wesleyan is a leading candidate to win a record-tying fifth national title.
That prospect pleases 40-year-old Mike Pollio, Wesleyan's fast-talking coach and athletic director, who in just three years has resurrected a program that had fallen on hard times and coaxed the fans back to the 5,611-seat Owensboro Sportscenter.
"I can tell in the fall what kind of season it's going to be," says Pollio. Since taking over before the 1980-81 campaign, Pollio has guided the Panthers to a 65-25 record, a Final Four Division II appearance in 1982 and another NCAA berth last season. "I told the kids there's nothing so far that's made me depressed in the least."
Although the Panthers won four national championships in 1966, '68, '69 and '73, their four losing seasons between 1975-80 robbed them of their national prestige and virtually turned the Sportscenter into just another convention hall. Folks became content to sit at home while Kentucky and Louisville were piped in on Owensboro Cablevision. Says Drake, an Owensboro boy who, along with his childhood friend Higgs, led Owensboro to the state high school championship in 1979: "Wesleyan games were a place husbands could go after they had fights with their wives."
An Owensboro coal executive, Tom Green, who played at the University of Miami from 1965 to '69 and has been a Wesleyan fan since 1960, adds, "You could fire a shotgun in the Sportscenter and nobody would get hurt." Nobody except the college, of course, which was an estimated $750,000 in the red by 1978 and facing rumors of extinction.
For President Luther White III the choice was clear. "The president knew that if the people of Owensboro were going to get behind Wesleyan," says Robert Cockrum, the school's NCAA faculty representative, "they were going to have to get behind Wesleyan athletics. And Wesleyan athletics is basketball." After the fourth game of the 1979-80 season, White told 39-year-old Coach Bob Jones that he'd be replaced at the end of the season. Jones had guided Wesleyan to its last NCAA title, but he'd been hampered late in his career by a serious circulatory ailment and charges of unenthusiastic recruiting. One local prospect who went elsewhere was Jones's son, Jeff, who enrolled at Virginia and twice led the ACC in assists.
"It is always tough to make personnel decisions, because you are dealing with human beings, decent human beings," says White. "But sometimes you have to do what has to be done. I knew that the people of Owensboro wanted a better team than they had been getting." To White, Pollio seemed the perfect replacement. In eight seasons as a high school coach in Florida and Kentucky and seven years as an assistant and chief recruiter at Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion, he had displayed a flair for promotion and a dynamic recruiting style.
"We were looking for a coach who would excite the fans," says White. But White told his new coach he didn't expect to win back the fans' loyalty overnight. "He told me that we'd never fill this place again," says Pollio, who set out to prove White wrong. When Pollio took over officially as head coach, his first task was to mend fences with several of the area's high school coaches, who had felt snubbed by Wesleyan for years. He also told skeptical fans and players that Wesleyan would win, and win right away. "The smart thing would have been to ask them to give me three years," he says. "But I told them, 'Hey, we're gonna win, and we're gonna win now.' How could I recruit quality people unless I told them we're gonna win now?"
And how could he bring the fans back to the Sportscenter unless he could dislodge them from Owensboro Cablevision? Simple. "We told them we'd take care of their kids," says Pollio, "with discounted tickets, free T shirts and group seating. And we'd have a giveaway every night." Pollio enlisted the help of the All-American Club, a group of businessmen, civic leaders and just plain townspeople, in building what he called "a Division I program at a Division II school." He pushed ticket plans for businesses, arranged for each firm in the area to sponsor at least one game per season and concocted additional ticket plans for families.
Fortunately, there's something special for people to see. Higgs and Drake have been close friends since first grade. As kids they used to ride around town on their bikes in search of playground games. At night they'd go watch Wesleyan play and cash in the free burger coupons in the game programs others left in the stands. But when it came time to choose a place of their own to play, the two local schoolboy heroes signed conference letters of intent with Murray State, a Division I school in Murray, Ky. Then the two heard rumors—unfounded, as it turned out—that Racer Coach Ron Greene might quit to take the head coaching job at Purdue, so they decided to remain at home.
Drake is an intimidating defensive player and clutch rebounder. "I love Rod Drake," says Pollio. "I have to make up things to yell at him in practice so I won't look like I'm playing favorites." Drake is dubbed Big Daddy for obvious reasons: At 215 pounds he overpowers most of his smaller Division II opponents in the backcourt. Last year he averaged just 12.3 points and 4.1 assists per game, but it's turnovers, or lack of them, that tell the story: He made just 60.
Higgs, a player with uncanny inside moves, scored 22 points and had five assists in Wesleyan's 79-58 loss to Louisville last season. He packs a mere 165 pounds on his 6'5" frame and has bird legs that would make a flamingo blush, but he jockeys for every inch of inside position. As a result, the man who Associate Coach Wayne Chapman jokes, looks "deceptively like a basketball player," holds the Great Lakes Valley Conference career records for points (627), free throws (173) and free-throw attempts (236). He averaged 16.0 points a game last season.
Wesleyan has another unexpected find in 6'11" Center Henk Pieterse (pronounced Hank Peters). Pieterse, easily Wesleyan's tallest player ever, is a native of Amsterdam who began playing basketball when he was 17, after he suddenly sprouted five inches to 6'8". Pieterse came to Wesleyan on the recommendation of a friend from Amsterdam, former Old Dominion Center Bert Kragtwijk. Pieterse had wanted to follow Kragtwijk and another Dutch friend to the Virginia school, but Kragtwijk suggested he contact his former assistant coach, Pollio, over in Kentucky. Pieterse was just coming into his own last season when he broke the fibula in his left leg in the seventh game. But he recovered to play well for the Netherlands in the European Cup tournament in Nantes, France, where he led his team to a surprising fourth-place finish.
Harper, who led Texas in assists as a freshman in 1980-81, is back in Kentucky simply because he missed his parents—his hometown is Bremen, Ky., a 40-minute drive from Wesleyan—and his girl friend, Tracy Tucker, a student at Western Kentucky, 65 miles away in Bowling Green. "I got lost in Austin," Harper says. "I didn't find a class my first three days." The Longhorns' collapse during his sophomore season after a 14-0 start, and the subsequent firing of Abe Lemons, the coach who had recruited him, didn't help either. He will start in the backcourt and share the play-making duties with Drake.
"We have accomplished all of the goals we set for ourselves except one," says Pollio. That one is No. 1, as in Best. Certainly nobody in Owensboro would mind putting that "B" in the town's bonnet.