On a warm October afternoon, Oral Roberts the man stands watching Oral Roberts the team. Poised at courtside, wearing a gaudy green sport jacket, he folds his arms across his chest as basketball coach Ken Trickey leads the Titans through a fast-break drill. "This game here brought our university to the attention of the nation back in the seventies," says Roberts. "It can happen again."
Roberts wanders the sideline, past a sentence painted on the Mabee Center's floor: EXPECT A MIRACLE. This season, divine intervention will hardly be necessary. The Titans went 36-6 in 1989-90, their first NAIA season, and are ready to vie for a national title. "We have an awful lot of talent," says Trickey. "Six or seven of these players could play big-time Division I basketball."
No surprise there, because as recently as 1988-89 the Titans themselves were playing big-time Division I basketball. Or at least trying to. They went 8-20 that season, after offering themselves up as sacrificial lambs to the likes of Oklahoma, Georgetown, Memphis State and Texas. But both the university and the basketball program had taken their biggest beatings away from the court during perhaps the most troubling period since Roberts founded the institution in 1963.
In 1987, Roberts was deeply disturbed by the university's precarious financial condition, so he holed himself up for 10 days in the school's space-needle-like prayer tower, claiming that unless his faithful flock anted up $8 million by April 1, God was going to "call me me home." The press had a field day with the story, and Roberts became fodder for comedians, cartoonists, talk-show hosts, columnists and editorial writers across the country. He got his money by the deadline, but the damage to his image and university had been done.
"Things got real tough for us," says Trickey, who had coached the Titans for five seasons, from 1969 to '74, before returning to the university three years ago. "It was hard on recruiting. Giving was also down. The president [Roberts] came to me and said he might have to shut down athletics."
To worsen matters, the NCAA had begun a preliminary inquiry into alleged violations committed under Ted Owens, the former Kansas coach who had guided Oral Roberts in 1985-86 and '86-87. In '86, several recruits had allegedly held a raucous $1,200 party—paid for by the school—at a local Sheraton. Reports also surfaced of players receiving airplane tickets, using coaching-staff cars and charging nearly $50,000 in telephone calls to credit cards belonging to assistant coaches. Before the NCAA could launch a full-fledged probe, Oral Roberts bolted to the NAIA.
"I swear before my maker that the NCAA had nothing to do with [moving to the NAIA]," says Trickey. "To be a member of the NCAA, a school must have six men's teams and six women's teams—plus all that traveling. It just got too expensive."
The troubles in Oral Roberts' athletic department didn't begin during Owens' tenure. In 1974, after the Titans upset Louisville at the Mabee Center in the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament, Trickey decided to celebrate the victory at a local bar. He was later pulled over by Tulsa police and charged with DWI. Trickey eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of careless driving and received a suspended sentence, plus a $100 fine and a $25 fee for court costs. This incident was especially embarrassing for the university, where spirits violate not only school spirit but the honor code as well. The Titans lost 93-90 in overtime to Kansas in the next round, and Trickey, under pressure, departed for Iowa State, because, he says, "ORU got snooty."
Over the next 13 seasons, Oral Roberts went through five coaches and reams of bad publicity. The team endured a one-year NCAA probation in 1980-81 under coach Ken Hayes for recruiting and other violations committed during previous coaching regimes, and school officials were accused of lacking holiday cheer for firing Hayes a week before Christmas 1982. Two years later, the Titans finally thought they had the right man in Owens. However, after two scandal-marred seasons, the university was doing everything it could to get rid of him.
"They did a lot of very cruel things to try and get me to resign," says Owens, now the director of development at the Metro Christian Academy in Tulsa. Oral Roberts bought out Owens's contract and brought Trickey back.
Sitting on a table inside the enormous aspirin tablet that is the Mabee Center, Roberts, 72, talks of his school's past headaches. "It's difficult raising all that money," he says. "It's a hard deal. Flying—that's major money, man."
He adjusts himself while trainer Glenn Smith massages his shoulders with ultrasound. Roberts has had rotator surgery on both shoulders for injuries resulting from 43 years of continuously raising and lowering his arms to bless the faithful. "The sports page is like a Bible," he says. "Forty million men read it daily. We're trying to get our message out, and sports bring it down to the level of the people."
The message is easier to get out if you're a winner, and this season the Titans will do a lot of winning. They are led by long-armed guard Greg Sutton, who scored 30.6 points per game last season as a junior and has the green light. Trickey's charges also include two promising transfers: Anthony Jones, a 6'7" forward from Connors (Okla.) State and Sebastian Neal, a 6'6" swingman who attended both Georgia and Connors State before settling at Oral Roberts.
In 1971-72 and 1972-73 the Titans led the nation in scoring, and the addition of Jones and Neal should put them back on the fast track. "Athletics is entertainment, and people want to see a fast-paced game with a lot of points," says Trickey.
To most of the players, the squeaky-clean life-style that Oral Roberts demands is a sobering experience. Before enrolling, all students must agree in writing not to smoke, drink or swear. The school also requires men to wear ties to class and to attend twice-weekly chapel services. "Being an athlete, I've been around lots of free-living types of people," says Neal. "ORU has a midnight curfew for all women—and a curfew for them is a curfew for us. It's also different here because there's a lot of hypocrisy. On campus some of the students wear a halo, but off campus you see them drunk."
The conduct that Oral Roberts requires can also serve to set some students straight. "It took time to get used to things here, but I like it," says senior forward Howard Logan. "The discipline prepares you for the real world. Besides, I like Coach Trickey. I've known him so long that he's got me listed on his income-tax returns."
Back in his office, Trickey leans over his immense desk and points to a photograph of sold-out Mabee Center during the 1974 loss to Kansas in the NCAA tournament. "This is what President Roberts measures everything by," he says. "If he can build a whole university, how can I not put together a winning basketball program?"
NAIA TOP 10
DAVID LIPSCOMB (TENN.)