Games are for fun," Jerry Welsh, coach of Potsdam College, was musing last Saturday, a few hours before the Division III basketball final in Grand Rapids. "But darn it, they keep score." And that, in Welsh's view, can cut down substantially on the enjoyment.
Still, if any team in America has reason to love gazing at the scoreboard, it's the Bears. That's because when all the hollering stopped following Potsdam's 76-73 championship win over LeMoyne-Owen of Memphis, the Bears' season record was an unsullied 32-0. No other NCAA team in the land has gone undefeated this year—or in any other since Indiana did in 1975-76.
When Welsh screamed after the win, "It's a miracle!" he got it right. Welsh pretty much always screams, which causes some confusion when he's discussing a subject that doesn't require screaming, like, say, the weather. And when he screamed again, "It's like winning the lottery," he got it right again.
Potsdam's success in Division III is becoming not just miraculous but legendary. Five times in the past eight years, Potsdam—located in upstate New York, 20 miles from the Canadian border—has been in the championship final; twice, in '81 and '86, the Bears have won. We seem to be talking near-dynasty here, if not near Dallas.
March 24, 1986
After all, the 290 Division III basketball teams labor pretty much in obscurity. Which is about the way their Final Four went at Calvin College's fieldhouse, where perhaps 2,000 fans showed up each night. Even ESPN opted out, choosing instead the international mixed pairs championships in gymnastics. Whatever that is.
But that's O.K. Obscurity is a way of life in Division III; hell, it is Division III. Just college kids with no athletic scholarships, who don't live in athletic dorms and—you'll never believe this—who don't even seem to get many of the usual inducements such as cash and drugs and Datsun 280Zs. They just like to play basketball. It's quaint and old-fashioned, but there are people, forgive them, who enjoy it this way.
And while the 32-game win streak is special (it's still far short of the likes of the 88 straight by UCLA in 1971-74 and San Francisco's 60 from 1955 to 1957), it is disconcerting to Welsh. "If it should go on," he says, "I think I'd have to get out of coaching. See, I'd end up being concerned about winning, while I always teach that you can be successful without a tremendous record and that giving your best, honest and wholehearted effort is more important than winning."
Perfect. Too much winning might be a bad thing in Division III, where coaches are almost never fired. In 17 years, Welsh has, if you'll excuse him, a fine record of 367-118. And he has not produced a single player who ended up in the NBA. Of course, nothing could be further from Division III philosophy than the NBA.
Yet, because Potsdam is spread-eagling the field (the Bears were ranked No. 1 wire-to-wire this season), the sniping is picking up. Mostly in private, of course. But rival coaches gossip about all kinds of petty skulduggery that they imagine goes on at Potsdam.
These days, for instance, rival coaches are mad that Welsh has three former Division I players on his team. That's not illegal, just not in the spirit of Division III. say Welsh's critics. Phooey, says Welsh. All of the players are from nearby and none of them were playing Division I ball when they fell out of a tree onto the Potsdam campus. Welsh says all he did was shake the tree a bit. Brendan Mitchell, a 6'5" forward from Schenectady and Division III All-America did play at North Carolina A & T but was so unhappy at not playing that he left and joined the Army. He was told he could play on the all-Army basketball team, but ended up a cook at Fort Knox, where spaghetti was his specialty. "The secret to making good spaghetti," he says, "is there is no secret." A friend of Welsh's mentioned Mitchell to the Potsdam coach, and the connection was made; he became the Bears' leading scorer with 15.3 points per game.
Another former big-school player is 6'5" John Leonard from Troy, N.Y., who felt unwanted at Fairfield (Conn.) University and then just showed up on the banks of the Raquette River. The third player is Troy Turner, a 6'2" guard from Albany, who played at Siena but had a falling-out with the coach. They are all typical, frankly, of players in Division III, where the philosophy is to take problems and overlooks and too shorts and too slows and where, as Welsh says, "We don't hope they'll improve, we expect it."
Welsh, who in all these years has never been voted coach of the year by his peers in the State University of New York Athletic Conference, had two close calls during last weekend's games. In the semifinal, with 2:33 remaining, it took a three-point play on a dipsy-doodle drive by the Bears' other All-America, guard Roosevelt Bullock, followed shortly by two free throws by Mitchell, to ice a 91-89 win over lightly regarded Jersey City State College.
At the Saturday night championship, the Bears came out, well, O.K., growling. They essentially buried LeMoyne-Owen in the first half, shooting 67.9% from the floor. The opposing Magicians desperately needed, well, O.K., to pull a rabbit out of a hat. The score at intermission was 44-33 Bears, and so totally was Potsdam in control that the only thing Welsh could find to criticize at the half was his club's somewhat poor effort on long rebounds. Meanwhile, LeMoyne-Owen coach Jerry Johnson told his team they stank, and sent them back out to spend halftime practicing their shooting.
Good move. Initially, LeMoyne-Owen fell further behind, and was 16 points in the dumper with 9:38 to go. But 6'6" star forward Michael Neal hit three quick baskets and assorted Magicians chipped in more. Meanwhile, the Bears went 6 minutes 36 seconds without a field goal and managed only two free throws. Suddenly, with 47 seconds left, Potsdam was down to a two-point lead, 69-67. With their offense still in hibernation and their free throw attempts bouncing crazily, the Bears were in trouble, but 6'3" Tim Harris came to the rescue. He banged home a tough shot close in, following another missed free throw, of course, and was fouled himself. Normally only a 67% free throw shooter, Harris made that free throw, then hit four more. "I knew my shots would go in," said Harris, "because I put them up myself."
As for Welsh, he was naturally thinking about not winning: "I'm the luckiest guy in the world if I don't win another game. We'll just try our best to improve, and that's success to me." Now, if Potsdam improves on a perfect season, is that in line with Division III philosophy?