Hey, Vern. Bet you don't know who's playing the best basketball west of Dean Smith and south of the Big Ten these days. Bet you don't, Vern. Think it's Eddie Sutton's Kentucky Wildcats? Aw, you know better than that. You want to say Florida? Louisville? Cat got your tongue, Vern? No comment? Hey...you're not Vern. You're Wimp Sanderson, the Alabama coach. Pleased to meet-cha! Let me wipe this axle grease off my palm and shake your hand. My name is Ernest T.... Yeeoouch! Say, Wimp, you want to get this windowsill off my knuckles? Wimp? You there, Wimp?
Wimp is there, all right. Wimp Sanderson has arrived. In fact, the Alabama basketball coach deserves a one-kazoo salute at the very least. So what if nobody in that football-mad state is cheering. Wimp prefers the noise generated by his surprising Crimson Tide, which is turning the SEC round-robin into a personal turkey shoot. Entering this week's showdown against second-place Florida in Gainesville, Alabama had ripped off 12 wins in a row. After putting Auburn and Tennessee in their places last week, 88-82 and 82-71, respectively, Wimp's Shrimps were 8-0 in the SEC. They may forever occupy the No. 2 spot in the collective heart of Alabama sports fans, but at least they have a fighting chance to go higher than that in the basketball polls.
"I was a no-name coach. I guess I still am," said Sanderson, tucked away in an office in Memorial Coliseum that was once occupied by Bear Bryant. A few hours later, the Tide would blister Auburn with a breathtaking 42-12 first-half run and score another victory for 'Bama's no-name team.
With his grouchy courtside manner, concave shoulders and hangdog expressions of grief, Sanderson just happens to have the perfect qualifications to run Alabama's no-name program. Now in his seventh season, Wimp says he hasn't done much as coach, "if you don't count bein' in five straight NCAAs, and in the SEC tournament finals four of the last six years, and the NCAA sweet 16 three of the last five."
Sanderson is getting by this season with three seniors, a junior and a sophomore who play together like five fingers of the same hand and seem to take seriously Wimp's halftime urgings of "Don't you die on me!" So far, they haven't and don't seem likely to. "I said all along that Alabama is the best team in the conference," says Auburn coach Sonny Smith. "Ain't no question. They're the best, and they're well-coached. I'm not saying that to put any pressure on them. Besides, they've got McKey."
If not exactly a superstar, Derrick McKey is Alabama's one real McCoy, a 6'9" junior center who, with the helpful muscle of 6'7", 215-pound sophomore strong forward Michael (He's No Angel) Ansley, has taken the chill out of Wimp's winter. McKey has developed into the conference's most dominating player, a deuce on the loose (18 points per game) when he gets the ball in the low post from either wingman, Jim Farmer or Mark Gottfried, or from point guard Terry Coner. When the defense doubles down against McKey, he adroitly flicks the ball back outside, where the perimeter players know what to do with it. "Put it straight down," in the words of Gottfried. All five starters hit double figures against Auburn. In fact, all five average double figures. This is a sneaky good team, an accurate reflection of its coach.
"Some people have questioned my coachin'," declares the folksy Sanderson. "Vitale and all them, they talk about the so-called big-name coaches. Well, I can't remember the last time we didn't win 17 games."
The fact is that Alabama has never won fewer than 18 games since Wimp succeeded C.M. Newton in 1980. Wimp was pretty slick as Newton's assistant coach, too. After the Tide reached the NIT in 1973, Sanderson snookered the assistant coach of another NIT team, Virginia Tech's Sonny Smith, when they were fighting over a hot prospect by the name of Boonie Russell. Figuring the less said about Virginia Tech the better, Wimp tore the page featuring the Hokies out of the NIT program before showing it to Boonie. Wimp got Boonie, all right, but he also became tight buddies with Sonny.
Sanderson was still getting the better of Smith last Thursday night when Alabama won behind McKey's 19 points and six blocked shots. "McKey intimidated both our big men," said Smith. "He just beat us down." It was more of the same on Saturday when McKey had 16 points and two blocks in the win at Tennessee.
McKey is the typical Alabama basketball recruit. A pretty good shortstop as well as a basketball player at Meridian (Miss.) High, 88 miles southwest of Tuscaloosa, McKey had all of three major-college hoops offers. "Meridian is a baseball town," says McKey. "Gil Can Boyd is from there. And I came to Alabama knowing that football was the big deal." McKey was 6'8" and fairly mobile as a prep, but he weighed 188 pounds. If he turned sideways, he disappeared. Now he's up around 198 pounds. "I did try drinking Nutrament," he says. "Didn't work. But I'm quicker than the other centers in the league." Quicker by far. Says Auburn center Jeff Moore: "He's so agile. He can do everything. And he's really playing out of position. He's a small forward—at least he will be when he gets to the NBA."
Big-name prospects don't usually give Sanderson the time of day because they know how unseriously basketball is taken at Alabama. If the basketball team were to play for the national championship, the student body might build a bonfire—as long as it didn't endanger the football complex. The Tide filled Memorial Coliseum (capacity 15,043) for the Auburn game, but that has been the only home sellout so far. The players deserve better: Their only losses—to Duke and Florida State—occurred while Coner was out with a bad knee, and they have won 11 straight since he returned from arthroscopic surgery. Now the Tide is rolling, thanks to Coner, McKey and the nonstop motion of Farmer, Gottfried and backup point guard James Jackson.
The 6'4" Farmer is a reconstructed football player who once told Bear Bryant that he would play for Bryant someday. "It was at an athletic banquet in my hometown, Dothan," says Farmer. "I was in grammar school. But then I injured my knee in the ninth grade and had surgery, and I turned to basketball."
Farmer, who averages 17.3 points per game, is a fully matured fifth-year senior. "Our secret is that we're a veteran team," he says. "We seem to know what each of us is going to do before we do it."
Lining up for the opening tip before 'Bama's 14-point road win over Kentucky on Jan. 7, Gottfried and Farmer circled the Wildcats' star freshman guard, Rex Chapman. "We looked at his face," says Gottfried, the team's designated three-point bomber, "and Jim and I pretty much felt that hey, he's gonna be great, but right now he's still a boy." Farmer scored 20 in the second half as the Tide won going away. Chapman scored nine.
Sanderson was seen on his knees with his head on the floor in mock supplication to the officials after a charging call had nullified a three-pointer by Farmer. "Look at him!" screamed SEC television commentator Joe Dean. "Look at Wimp Sanderson! Think he doesn't want this game?"
That he does. Sanderson didn't exactly arrive at Alabama with a trumpet flourish. They save that kind of behavior for incoming football honchos: Wimp came to Alabama as a graduate assistant to Hayden Riley 27 years ago. "To tell the truth, I had only planned to stay for one year," says Wimp. But one year became 20, and when Newton left for Vanderbilt in 1980, he recommended Sanderson to athletic director Bryant. The Bear didn't care all that much about basketball, as if that's any surprise, so he went along with Newton's suggestion. But Sanderson didn't think of basketball as a time killer between football seasons. "I had to prove something to the alumni," says Sanderson. "And I had to prove something to myself." The no-name, but savvy, assistant became the no-name, but savvier, head coach. "I came in here, stood right on this very spot, and thanked Coach Bryant for giving me the chance," says Sanderson. "He said, 'Wimp, I didn't have nothing to do with it. But I damn sure could've stopped it if I wanted to.' "
Seven years later Sanderson is not quite an Alabama institution, but he's working on it. When the Birmingham Post-Herald invited Sanderson, Smith and UAB coach Gene Bartow to write columns for each Monday's paper, no one suspected that Wimp would have so much fun. To wit:
"I read some of the columns in last week's papers and I'm convinced I've got a better chance of being a successful sportswriter than most of the sportswriters who think they may be able to coach," he wrote after the Tide beat Kentucky. "I don't know if you're having a hard time sleeping, but if you are...go to your kitchen, get a warm glass of milk and read...Gene Bartow and Sonny Smith's articles. You probably won't wake up until noon the next day."
As for his being caught on his knees in the Kentucky game, Wimp wrote, "I figure the best place for a coach to be is on his knees." Not bad for a guy who claims he "flunked English in four states." If Coner's knee holds up—he was limping noticeably last week—Wimp could be turning phrases from now until April.