High Hopes For Miami Hoops

After 14 years without basketball, the 'Canes are back on the court
January 06, 1986

Before basketball at the University of Miami swaps its peach fuzz for some Crockett-and-Tubbs stubble—before it becomes a program, rather than the delightfully unpredictable adventure that a caboodle of freshmen, transfers and walk-ons has made it thus far this season—let's roll some highlights from the salad days of Hurricane hoops.

•1960—Coach Bruce Hale, frustrated in his attempts to get an arena built on campus, tells his players to take out insurance policies before they fly out of a Midwest airport in a snowstorm. He asks each Hurricane to list his beneficiary as "University of Miami field house." If the plane goes down, Hale figures, at least something good will come of it.

•1965—Forward Don Patrican, angered at the preferential treatment Hale accords Miami star Rick Barry, who is engaged to Hale's daughter, writes a poem of protest and slips it under the coach's door. The last couplet reads: None can risk a slip or flaw/Unless he be the coach's son-in-law.

•1967—Center Mike Wittman, told to check into a game, reports to the scorer's table and says, "Wittman in for debauchery."

It is a documented fact that no one by the name of DeBauchery has ever played for the Hurricanes. In fact, for 14 seasons after 1970-71, no one of any name did, because of the decision to suspend the sport "temporarily." Since then, Miami has won national championships in football and baseball. The school has fielded a women's basketball team for each of those 14 seasons. Yet, until the Mad Serb, the Fertilizer Salesman's Son and the Basketball Orphans got together to do something about it, you could find men in short pants doing just about everything imaginable around the Miami campus—except playing major college basketball.

The Mad Serb is Miami athletic director Sam Jankovich. He left his job as A.D. at Washington State in 1983 on the express condition that Miami commit itself to bringing back hoops. "Sam's the kind of guy whose coat is off and shirttail's out by noon," says Bill Foster, the Hurricanes' coach, whom Jankovich hired away from Clemson of the hoity-toity ACC.

Foster, the son of the fertilizer salesman, is the man who has implanted Division I basketball at North Carolina-Charlotte in 1970, then began selling the sport to the football-crazed folks at Clemson five years later. Now 49 and professionally secure, Foster was Jankovich's first choice to coach the 'Canes. He wouldn't overreact after a premature win, like Miami's 81-78 defeat of Georgia on Nov. 30 (though he did say it "ranks as one of the top three or four with me"). Nor would he overreact after a blowout loss, like the Hurricanes' 109-64 debacle at UCLA on Dec. 21 (though he did call a morning practice after the 'Canes' red-eye flight home).

With Foster in hand, Jankovich needed to foster some funding for the team. Enter the Basketball Orphans. They're South Floridians, many of them migrants from the Northeast who grew up with the Big Five in the Palestra, or college triple-headers in Madison Square Garden. "They'd liked it and kind of missed it," Foster says. "Most of them think they know the game. They're opinionated, but I can live with that."

He can certainly abide the $50,000 that each of 19 high rollers has pledged to donate over a four-year period. At a fund-raiser during which 14 of those boosters came forward, toastmaster Al McGuire said, "If this were a Catholic school, you'd all be ordained cardinals." Says Foster, "They're all hitters. And those 19 have helped us bring in a lot of others."

When Foster arrived on campus in March 1984, Jankovich took him by the armory, the university's old ROTC training site, to see if it might be a suitable practice facility. "Depression immediately set in," Foster says. "You couldn't conduct a good practice in it. And you couldn't have gotten anyone to practice in it."

So Jankovich set up a meeting with Miami's president, an austere Yalie named Edward Foote. The president wondered whether Foster couldn't perhaps make do with a roof erected over an open-air floor. Courteously, Foster asked Foote whether any Miami professors taught in classrooms without walls. And that was that. Jankovich waved his shirt-tail in a few faces, and James L. Knight—the fellow whose name graces the downtown concert hall where Miami now plays—kicked in a million to build a practice gym and office complex on campus.

•1981—An anonymous donor offers Miami $400,000 over four years to renew basketball. There's one catch: The Hurricanes must hire one Harold Tonick, who had been the would-be sugar daddy's coach at Brooklyn College, to run the show. Miami passes on the offer.

•1984—Two weeks after his arrival on campus, Foster's Olds-mobile is stolen.

•1985—Only after forward Tim Dawson poses for a team picture does anyone realize he has been wearing No. 24, Barry's number, which has been retired. Dawson is quickly assigned No. 34.

The Hurricanes are a skinny and scrappy bunch. By beating Manhattan 79-61 in the consolation game of their Orange Bowl tournament on Saturday night, they boosted their record to 6-4. They lost 62-61 to Brown in the tourney opener, but when you haven't played for nearly a decade and a half, it's easy to forget the first rule of hosting a Christmas tournament: Always play the weakest team in the first round of your own tourney.

At 5'11", Kevin Presto was literally overlooked as a high school senior in Richland, Wash. Then he sprang for 69 points in two games at an AAU tournament in Jacksonville, and Foster couldn't shake the visions of the Muggsy Bogueses and Mark Prices and Spud Webbs who had bedeviled him in the ACC. Besides, as his assistant, Clint Bryant, pointed out, "It would sound great at the Knight Center—'Kevin Prrrrr-esto!' " So Foster offered a scholarship; in return Presto has supplied an intrepid attitude and some good outside shooting. "Ain't he cute?" Foster says. "Hey, everybody thinks we can't do it, either."

In contrast, Dennis Burns, a 6'5" forward, "doesn't have that inner-city toughness," says Bryant. "There's still a lot of suburb in him." Indeed, he was yanked early against Manhattan on Saturday for a lack of aggressiveness. But Burns, an extroverted kid from Sicklerville, N.J., leads the team in dunks with 14. And dunks, Foster will tell you, sell better than fertilizer.

As for Eric Brown, the school's first blue-chip recruit, he knew nothing of Miami other than Barry, and then only "the way he shot his free throws." (Barry shot them granny style, so this probably wasn't much of a selling point.) Eric's mom, Yvette, knew nothing of Miami other than what she saw on Miami Vice every week. (The show makes Brown's native Brooklyn look positively paradisiacal by comparison, so this probably wasn't much of a selling point, either.) Brown enrolled anyway and, at a lissome 6'6", 185, has started at power forward. "Can you believe it?" he says.

The four current walk-ons on the roster hardly can. Most were discovered in the fall of 1984, when the coaching staff stuck a couple of portable goals next to the campus pool and roped passers-by into a three-on-three tournament. The 11 standouts were invited to join Burns, Presto, Dawson and Tim Harvey, a 6'10" transfer from Georgia Tech, in practice. Foster called the squad the F Troop, after the TV show "where they line up and kind of go off in different directions."

When the F Troop wasn't mustering, Foster was out peddling his feed seed. He spoke himself hoarse on the rubber-chicken circuit during 1984-85, sometimes addressing three civic groups a day. He hosted a weekly TV show—no mean feat for a coach with no team—and he used his contacts and clout to put together an '85-86 schedule. With 18 home games, the Hurricanes play host more often than Alistair Cooke. The danger is, by breaking their maiden on the likes of UCLA, Duke and Notre Dame, they may be breaking their spirit, too. Foster isn't so sure. "Other coaches figure there's nothing nicer than going into good weather and getting a W," he says, hopeful that opponents, who tend to blow into town early to bag some time on the beach, will suit up soft.

Indeed, Barry's 'Canes were virtually unbeatable at home, wherever that happened to be. But in 1965, after Barry left, things started to sour. First the crowds began to thin. "Sometimes there'd be more gamblers in the stands than fans," recalls Wittman. Then Hale, who had kept the program afloat with his irrepressible salesmanship, bailed out in 1967. Miami would win 17 games the following year, 14 the next, then nine, then seven. Only 75 fans bothered to track the team down for one home game in 1971. When the decision to drop basketball came, it was announced as a temporary suspension, "until such time as a permanent field house can be constructed on the main campus."

Of course, Miami still doesn't play on campus. With its auditorium configuration, the Knight Center is an incongruous site for big-time sports. There are permanent seats on only one side of the court, with a handful of temporary seats on the other. The plush carpeting and velour seats discourage good, clean collegiate rowdiness. Also, the university reserved most seats for fat cats. Many of the corporate tickets stay locked in desk drawers, so home games have been plagued by no-shows. "The people who do come just sort of lay back and say, 'Good shot,' " says Brown. "What they need is an on-campus gym," Wittman says. "Then there'll be fever."

So if we're to interpret the 1971 decision literally, the game won't really be back at Miami until it struts onto campus. A convocation center is in the school's master plan, and no Biscayne Babbitt will be spared the Mad Serb's fund-raising rap until it gets built.

•1987—Students brave the muggy tropical night outside the Knight Center to queue up for tickets to the Sun Belt Conference tournament, which Miami, the league's newest member, is hosting.

•1988—During the early signing period, the Hurricanes ink their first local studhorse, Miami's Enrico Yvon McGee, a 6'8" Cuban-Haitian-A fro-American who can dunk in three languages. The 'Canes crack most preseason Top 20s, and the sports publicity people send out posters that read VISIT MIAMI AND GO HOME EITHER BROWNED OR BURNED.

•1989—The Hurricanes maul UCLA 109-64 in the nationally televised dedication game at the Hale-Barry Center. Al McGuire mistakenly calls it the Hail-Mary Center.

•1990—In an emotional ceremony at the Center, the university retires the Mad Serb's shirttail.

TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERThe Brooklyn-bred Brown (left) is Miami's first blue-chip recruit, but Jersey's Burns (above) still has a lot of suburb in him. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERJankovich, who left Washington State after being assured there was basketball in Miami's future, has every reason to be cheerful. PHOTOWALTER IOOSE JR.Some years after Barry's number was retired, Dawson had to hang up 24 again. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER[See caption above.] THREE PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIER"Ain't he cute?" Foster (right) says of Presto (above), the 5'11" guard who, like the Hurricane mascot, adds a bit of dash. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIEREnjoying some of Miami's fringe benefits (from left): Joel Warren, Brown, Burns, Mike Noblet and Bryan Hughes catch the rays at poolside.