From The Nest To The Nationals

No team ever rose like Tampa, thanks to the Birdman's gilded cagers
November 20, 1985

They call University of Tampa basketball coach Richard Schmidt the Birdman, and for good reason. When Schmidt isn't breeding success with the Spartans, who have become top contenders for the Division II national championship just two seasons after the school reintroduced basketball, he's an avid aviculturist who tends a flock of more than 50 African touracos, mynahs and parrots and a pair of ornery black swans in the backyard of his lakeside home in Lutz, Fla. "I have birds that you won't see anywhere else," says Schmidt. "I got into exotic birds about six years ago. I spend most of my time away from the court with them. Guess you could just call me a birdbrain."

You could also call Schmidt a hoopaculturist, a bird dog adept at nurturing that most fragile of all basketball species, the Late-Blooming Sleeper. He has a knack for putting together teams from scratch, as he did when he created a dynasty at Ballard High in Louisville in the mid-1970s. In 1977, after Ballard won the Kentucky state championship, two of the team's stars, Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker, accompanied Schmidt to Virginia, where for two years he served as an assistant to Terry Holland. He became head coach at Vanderbilt in 1979, but was fired after two mediocre and rancorous seasons there. "I've tried to wipe those days out of my mind," he says.

Schmidt took the Tampa job in the summer of 1982, and spent a year preparing for the Spartans' 1983-84 debut. His mission was to revive a program that had been dead since the university's board of trustees, citing abysmal attendance and a lack of funds, dropped it in 1971. To that point, the Spartans had had but six winning seasons in 20 years, and had never been to a postseason tournament. Tampa did have three straight winning seasons, beginning with 1967-68, under Dana Kirk, who's now at Memphis State, but few fans in Tampa had noticed. "A lot of coaches would have shied away from a new situation like this," says Schmidt. "Most of them want to move right in and get it on. They don't want to worry about schedules and uniforms. Sometimes it means you have to change your philosophy. Coaching is a lot like breeding birds. It's a challenge and it's competitive, so you have to stay on top of things. It takes a lot of time and preparation if you want to breed something rare."

Under Schmidt, Tampa became a rare bird indeed. The upstart Spartans made the NCAA tournament field in their first two seasons of competition, a feat no NCAA basketball team had ever achieved. In 1983-84, with four freshmen in the starting lineup, Tampa went 20-11, won the Sunshine State Conference tournament title and earned a berth in the NCAA South Regional. Last season the Spartans improved to 23-8, won their second straight SSC title and advanced to the South Regional final in Jacksonville, Ala., where they lost to eventual national champion Jacksonville State. "In our first year we were just happy to be there," says Todd Linder, Tampa's junior forward, "but last year we wanted to make it to the Final Four."

The Spartans, quick and balanced, can make that trip this season to Springfield, the regular site of the Division II Final Four, if they can keep their front line of Linder, junior Johnny Jones and wispy sophomore Nate Johnston healthy. Linder, a 6'7" skywalker, averaged 17.3 points per game, 6.7 rebounds and hit a phenomenal 71.6% of his shots from the field last season, tops in Division II. If he isn't the best player in small college ball, he is certainly the most explosive. "We key everything in our attack to him," says Spartan assistant coach Don Bostic. "He's the quickest and best leaper I've seen. He's a wide-receiver type."

Funny Bostic should mention that, because Linder didn't play high school basketball until his junior year. Growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla., he thought of himself as the next Tony Dorsett. Only his 6'4", 160-pound sophomore frame was not built for breaking tackles. The next year he tried wide receiver. The new Harold Carmichael? No. Linder quit the team. "A guy could get punished going across the middle for a pass," he says.

"Todd didn't know how to play the game when he came to us," says Schmidt. "If he'd signed with a Division I school, he would have gotten lost."

Jones is a self-professed cartoon fanatic; his favorite show is He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. "I'm just a cartoon sort of person," he says. At 6'4" and 225, he's he-man enough to guard the opposition's biggest man, yet versatile enough to lead Tampa in assists, as he did last season, while finishing third in scoring. "He's the only player I've had who can open the game at center and finish it at the point," says Schmidt.

The most intriguing Spartan is the 18-year-old Johnston, who at 6'8" and 190 pounds is 25 pounds heavier than he was as a freshman. Johnston grew up on a sugar plantation in Belle Glade, Fla.—"miles from nowhere," says Schmidt—where his grandmother, who raised him, worked in the sugarcane fields. "I wanted to go to college to get a suit-and-tie job," says Johnston. "I didn't want to have to work in those fields." At Belle Glade High, Johnston couldn't even crack the starting lineup of the jayvee team. But last season he averaged 9.3 points and 5.3 rebounds for the Spartans, and was the only player besides Linder to start all 31 games. Now he has earned his wings, and Schmidt has reason to expect a whole flock of Spartan victories.

Trips to the Division II Final Four are becoming almost as familiar to MOUNT ST. MARY'S fans as the bow ties worn by Mounties coach Jim Phelan for the last three decades. Last season's appearance—the Mounties lost to South Dakota State in the semis—was the team's fifth under Phelan, and with nine lettermen back, including 6'9" shot-blocker Mike Grimes, the Mounties are likely to make a sixth. "But there's a lot of luck involved," says Phelan. "Last year there was no question in my mind that Virginia Union was the best team in the division. But it lost in the first round and opened the way for us."

Virginia Union presented Mount St. Mary's its free trip to Springfield, Mass. by making just one of eight possible free-throw attempts in the final two minutes of its 44-42 loss to CIAA rival Winston-Salem State, and this in Richmond Arena, the Panthers' home court. Union's awful performance from the line so upset coach Dave Robbins that he spent most of the summer inventing a contraption he calls the Robbins Retriever. The Retriever catches free throws, both made and missed, and returns them to the shooter, eliminating the need for a human retriever. What better lab rats to test the device than the Panthers, who shot a collective 60% from the line last year.

Union is again the team to beat for the Division II title, and this season no one should expect any favors. Three starters return, most notably junior forward Jamie Waller, a 20.8 points-per-game scorer last season. Robbins has also found a replacement for All-America center Charles Oakley in 6'9" Terry Davis. Says Georgia coach Hugh Durham, who wanted Davis badly, "Terry is already a very good player who's going to be outstanding."

The most entertaining hoop in Norfolk, Va. isn't at Old Dominion but across town at NORFOLK STATE. The main attraction is 6'1" junior guard Ralph (Mr. T) Tally. Tally averaged 21.0 points per game last season and dished out his 114 assists with more panache than a blackjack dealer at Atlantic City's Golden Nugget, where he has worked for the past three summers as a delicatessen counterman. The Spartans, 24-7 and losers to Cal State-Hayward in the first round of the NCAA West Regional, hope that Mr. T deals them a little better hand this season.

Wright State of Dayton will not only play its defense close to the vest—"We'll press coming off the team bus," says coach Ralph Underhill—but also its offense. That's forward Mark Vest, the Raiders' leading scorer with 18.4 points a game last season. Underhill, who guided Wright to the Division II championship in 1983, would like to nail down one more before the Raiders jump to the big time for 1987-88. With all five starters returning, this is probably his last chance.

At Pennsylvania's MILLERSVILLE, 6'9" junior center John Fox and senior forward Rob Lawton hope to deliver to their coach, former Maryland assistant John Kochan, something his old boss, Lefty Driesell, has never gotten—a trip to a Final Four. The Marauders might have made it last season had Lawton not suffered a stress fracture in his right foot in mid-February. With him in the lineup, Millersville was 22-1.

It looks as if Michael Graham, who fled Georgetown last fall after failing to cut John Thompson's academic mustard, will not be eligible to play this season; otherwise the UNIVERSITY OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA would have been a potential No. 1 team. As it is, the Firebirds will be red hot, with superb junior guard Lyndon DeBellotte plus outstanding recruits, such as 6'10" Brian Tucker and 6'6" John Jones. Tucker had intended to go to Villanova but his grades didn't pan out. The Wildcats' loss is UDC's gain.

Coach Dave Vander Meulen has an embarrassment of riches at WISCONSIN-WHITEWATER. Four starters are back from a team that lost the Great Lakes Regional final to eventual Division III champion North Park by two points in overtime. And, six games into the season, transfers Dwayne Johnson, Marquette's top scorer and rebounder in '83-84, and former Wisconsin forward Robert Barnes, the state's top high school player two years ago, will become eligible. As Vander Meulen says, "I'd rather have too many pins to juggle than none at all."

North Central of Naperville, Ill. is a heavy favorite to win the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin, so pardon Cardinals' coach Bill Warden if he sometimes casts a wary eye ahead to March and the Great Lakes Regional tournament, where Wisconsin-Whitewater would be the probable opponent. North Central has four starters back, three of them seniors, from a team that went 20-7 and was the winningest in school history. Warden, who coached basketball at Morgan Park High on Chicago's South Side for 20 years and still teaches physical education there, says, "There are a lot of teams capable of getting to the tournament. But if we play up to our potential we will be difficult to beat."

North Central's top returning player is 6'1" forward—yes, forward—Tony Jordan, an all-league selection who led the Cards in scoring (15.4 points per game) and even played guard in emergencies. The frontcourt was strengthened when Warden brought in 6'8" banger Mike Bohannon, a transfer from Lakeland J.C. in Mattoon, Ill.

The NEBRASKA WESLEYAN Plainsmen rolled to the Final Four last season because 6'9" senior Dana Janssen kept putting his best foot forward. Janssen, who averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds per game, is called Skis by his teammates because he wears size 16 sneakers. His feet are so big, jokes coach Jerry Schmutte, that "he doesn't need all that equipment when he goes water skiing." With Janssen anchoring the middle, Wesleyan should stay one giant step ahead of the opposition again this season.

No matter how well WIDENER does, coach C. Alan Rowe always keeps the home fans happy. He has two starters, 6'5" sophomore Lou Stevens, the leading scorer, and senior guard Joe Barr, back from a team that lost to Potsdam State in the national semifinals last season. Even if the Pioneers fail to make the NCAA tournament this time around, though, Rowe is guaranteed a sweet season. He owns a Dairy Queen in nearby Springfield.

The team at LEMOYNEOWEN has won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title each of the last four years. It also has one of best nicknames in the country. The problem is, the Magicians have a tendency to go poof with foul trouble. They lost the championship game of the Southern Regional to Centre of Kentucky because of it. Says coach Jerry Johnson, "If we get our chemistry right and stay out of foul trouble, I think we might win it." Might he mean alchemy?

Wittenberg, which fell to North Park 73-71 in the national quarterfinals last year, will challenge if it finds a replacement for Division III Player of the Year Tim Casey.

At neighboring OTTERBEIN, the question is: Who will keep all of the Cards' 55% shooters happy? Junior Steve Brown, the sixth man a year ago, should be the main assistant. "We do have some strong lads who can play," says Otterbein coach Dick Reynolds. "But it's a matter of getting them to play together and finding enough basketballs. They're all shooters."

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TWO PHOTOSLANE STEWARTLinder's 6'7" frame was built for flying, not for football. So Schmidt (below) added the species All-America skywalker to his exotic aviary. PHOTOLANE STEWARTThe way Edwards figures, as long as Phelan keeps wearing his bow tie, Mount St. Mary's will go to the NCAA tournament. PHOTOLANE STEWARTWhen a Widener player like Stevens gets DQ'd, it means a trip to Rowe's ice cream store.

DIVISION II

1

Virginia Union

2

Wright State

3

Tampa

4

Kentucky Wesleyan

5

Mount St. Mary's

6

Millersville

7

Norfolk State

8

Florida Southern

9

Jacksonville State

10

District of Columbia

DIVISION III

1

Wisconsin-Whitewater

2

Nebraska Wesleyan

3

Wittenberg

4

Widener

5

LeMoyne-Owen

6

Potsdam State

7

North Central

8

Hope

9

Clark College

10

Otterbein

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)