On the second night of school this fall, the incoming basketball hopefuls at Wittenberg in Springfield, Ohio, were invited to a casual affair at an apartment house where some of the senior members of the team lived. The offer conjured up visions of brews and pizzas and the chance to rub elbows with Brad Baldridge, the Tigers' 6'9", 205-pound Division III All-America center. But instead of getting the welcome mat, they were called on the carpet by Baldridge, who harangued the newcomers about the importance of winning. "I told them they were going to have to improve themselves, stay focused and perform if they were called upon," he later said, "because the thought of losing makes me sick to my stomach."
Fortunately for Baldridge's innards, Wittenberg doesn't lose very often. Since joining Division III in 1974-75, the Tigers have reached the national semis five times and gone all the way once, in 1976-77. This season Wittenberg has three starters back from a team that went 29-2 in 1989-90 and reached the final eight.
Established in 1845 in central Ohio, along the railroad tracks running the 200 miles between Cincinnati to the south and Sandusky to the north, Wittenberg is a respected liberal-arts school of 2,300 students that traces its success in athletics to its hardy Lutheran founders from Germany. "They were worried that after their children left the farm they would get puny," says William Kinnison, the university's president. "So part of the educational philosophy has always been that it's hard to do well at anything if you're physically small."
Taking its cue from the Lutheran pioneers, the women's team has undergone a recent reformation and has learned the virtues of playing big. After going 25-51 in coach Pam Evans's first three years, the Tigers put together a 26-3 record last season, when Wittenberg's basketball program had the best combined male-female mark of any school at any level. "The guys gave us something to look up to; they supported us," says senior guard Michele Ames.
Winning has been a tradition for the men at Wittenberg in part because the coaching has been excellent. Before Dan Hipsher, 35, arrived last season, the Tigers' four most recent coaches had moved on to Tennessee (Ray Mears), Ohio State (Eldon Miller), Navy (Bob Hamilton) and Ohio (Larry Hunter). That helped convince Hipsher, a former assistant at Division I Dayton, that he could live with the limitations of coaching in Division III. He would have no scholarships to give; he would have a recruiting budget of $4,000, or about what the Flyers spent on stamps; and in addition to coaching, he would have to teach a couple of phys-ed courses. So, he teaches Frisbee. Honest. "Hey, it's a great course," says Hipsher.
The Tigers haven't had a losing season since 1955-56. That is nice bait for Hipsher's recruiting hook. "I've been at Dayton and tried to outrecruit Indiana," he says. "But on this level, we're Indiana."
Wittenberg's athletic reputation—the Tigers have won more football games than any other Division III school—carries weight throughout the state, which provides the school with 48% of the student body. Wittenberg has become not only a cradle of basketball coaches but also a nursery for their families. The sons of former Dayton coach Don Donoher (Brian) and former Miami of Ohio coach Jerry Peirson (Mike), along with Hipsher's baby brother (Ryan), are newcomers to the Tigers this season.
Baldridge quickly showed all of the first-year prospects just how serious he is about maintaining the Tigers' winning tradition. "I remember my first game here," says Baldridge. "Some of the younger guys were getting dressed, and they were joking around. But the seniors had these looks of stone on their faces. It was like they were saying, 'We play to win and there's no other way about it,' without really saying it."
Such memories—as well as the fresher recollection of last season's 63-59 playoff loss to Calvin, a team the Tigers had stomped by 25 points during the regular season—motivated the players to get up two days a week at 6:30 a.m. for weight training in the weeks before the team started practices.
Baldridge went 50 miles west to Springfield from Dublin, Ohio, just outside Columbus. Some small Division I schools expressed interest in him, but he wanted a chance to play for a national title. Hence, Wittenberg. Last season Baldridge averaged 17.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks for the Tigers, who depend on him as an eraser in their man-to-man defensive scheme, even though he's built more like a pencil.
Hipsher insists that Baldridge is no pushover, however. "Brad's a lot stronger than you'd think," he says. "He jumps very well, can run like a deer, and has great hands and a soft touch. He's everything you'd want in a big man."
When Hunter left for Ohio before last season, Baldridge thought about accompanying the coach. It was perfect: a Division I school, a coach who appreciated his skills, a redshirt season in which to get bigger, a fifth year in which to get his M.B.A. But Baldridge chose to stay put. "It would have been a really selfish decision to leave my teammates," he says. "Besides, why fix something that isn't broken?"
The women's program was in dire need of fixing when Evans, 31, arrived. When she graduated from Wittenberg in '82, she was the school's all-time leading female scorer. She coached at high schools in Ohio and New Jersey but kept her Wittenberg ties. Evans believed that her alma mater, with its quiet charm and its scholastic reputation, could become a mighty mite in women's basketball. "Women's sports used to be considered play day," she says. "But with the success of the men and with the high school talent in Ohio getting better and better, I knew it could happen."
When Evans arrived in Springfield she had no tradition to peddle; the record of the women's team over the preceding seven years was 38-94. So Evans sold recruits a twist on the message from the voice in Field of Dreams: If you come, you can build it. Says Ann Brokaw, a 5'8" forward who as a junior was the Tigers' third-leading scorer (9.4 ppg) and rebounder (6.2), "The tradition hasn't been established yet, but the excitement is there—the excitement of maybe a tradition starting."
Now, both teams are moving forward. The women have set their sights on winning their first North Coast Athletic Conference crown, the men on reaching the Final Four, which will be held in their own campus arena. Both teams hope their graduation rate will be 100%, as it has been since 1975. "For us, success in athletics enhances what we already have," says Kinnison.
It also lays to rest whatever fears the school's founding fathers had about puniness, for today Wittenberg is a Division III giant.
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