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A Life in the Shadows

Feb. 14, 1994
Feb. 14, 1994

Table of Contents
Feb. 14, 1994

Games
Upsets
The Kerrigan Assault
Golf
Sarajevo Revisited
Swimsuits '94
Andy Benes
Emmitt Smith
SI 40th Anniversary
Dick Baldwin
Point After

A Life in the Shadows

Since 1947 Dick Baldwin has shunned the big time to coach small-college hoops in upstate New York

Someone has chosen this afternoon to darken the doorway of Dick Baldwin's tiny, cramped office with a problem. A characteristic late-20th-century college basketball problem. A shoe problem.

This is an article from the Feb. 14, 1994 issue Original Layout

But in a quaint, peculiarly small-college twist, the problem isn't borne by some beady-eyed compliance officer, come to inform Baldwin that he stands accused of funneling sneakers to his players at the State University of New York at Binghamton so they might resell the shoes for pocket money. Nor is the problem represented by a Maserati-driving shoe executive, calling to convey regrets that he can offer only a million a year and not that promised seat on the company board.

The problem, rather, is this: The Binghamton players have been trying on shoes of a certain style. They will buy the shoes with their own money, except for a $50 subsidy from the school for each pair. But the team's ambivalent. "We like the fit and the feel," says one of the tricaptains, a senior guard with the decidedly Division III name of Jeremy Greenberg. "But what would you think about...black shoes?"

Now, Baldwin is the winningest college basketball coach ever. He's also, at 72, the oldest coach still wielding a clipboard. What is such a man to do? Be a fuddy-duddy and say no? Or go back on his pronouncement not an hour earlier that this year the Colonials would be shod in white, as they were last season?

"Fine with me," Baldwin says. "We want happy feet."

As his assuaged tricaptain pads down the hall, Baldwin smiles. "Some pro team must be wearing black," he says.

You have just witnessed the quintessential Dick Baldwin moment. Bending is how a coach prospers in the bushes, where Baldwin has won 933 games. The first 879 victories came at Broome Community College in Binghamton, where Baldwin coached from 1947 to '87. The other 54 occurred across town at SUNY-Binghamton, a.k.a. Binghamton University, where Baldwin has coached since ending a four-year retirement in '91.

When Baldwin took over at Binghamton, the Colonials had failed to win 10 games in any of their previous four seasons. They were lucky to draw a few hundred spectators per game—despite not charging admission. Even with Baldwin on the bench, the team lost five of its first six games in '91. But it went on to win 19, more than any SUNY-B team ever. Last season the Colonials went 19-9 and won their second division title in a row. As of Sunday they were 16-4 for '93-94, and late this season or early next they should give Baldwin his 939th victory, breaking Red Auerbach's mark of 938, which leads all basketball coaches, college or pro.

When players hear instructions from this man who rarely raises his voice, who played the game when you still jumped center after every basket, who is mantled in all those victories, they can't help but take the floor with a spring of confidence in their step. Baldwin has done the chalk; surely they can walk the walk. "My sophomore year we were in a lot of games tied or down at the half, and then in the first few minutes of the second half we'd just overrun them," says Greenberg. "It was always just one or two things he'd tell us."

In one of those halftime talks, Baldwin found occasion to quote another Colonial—Ben Franklin, who at the signing of the Declaration of Independence said, "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

"No, I wasn't there when he said it," Baldwin added.

Yet you could reissue a chunk of the collegiate record book under the name Poor Richard's Almanack. Baldwin has won in six decades. He has never missed a game. Only twice in 42 seasons has one of his teams finished below .500. As a junior-college coach he went 64-24 against four-year schools. "You know," he says, "I can never remember the losses."

If Baldwin were in the big time, no one would let him forget the losses. All he has to do is look up the New York State Thruway to see how Jim Boeheim gets chewed on at Syracuse. But the Division I merry-go-round never held much appeal for this denizen of greater Binghamton, the Carousel Capital of the World, which sits astride the Susquehanna River just north of the Pennsylvania line. There was a brief stretch during the early 1950s when Baldwin looked into openings at St. Bonaventure and Cornell, but he quickly determined that he could do better at Broome. "As Sinatra puts it, 'My regrets are few,' " Baldwin says. "Except one. I would have kept my college nickname, Biggie. It had euphony to it. It would have been a good public-relations gimmick."

Today Binghamton athletic director Joel Thirer, who hired Baldwin, acts like a homeowner who has just discovered black crude under the Charm-Glo. "Dick doesn't have a sleep-in-your-car mentality," says Thirer. "He's a teacher whose roles as a father and a husband take precedence." Just so you understand: Thirer means those things are good.

In 1975, at the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention in San Diego, Baldwin was supposed to lead a clinic when he and his wife, Janet, learned that one of their daughters had just given birth to their first grandchild. "Let's go," Janet said, and she and Dick left. To stand in for Baldwin, organizers conscripted a man who happened to be in San Diego because his old team, Kentucky, was in the Final Four. Twelve years later, when Broome gave Baldwin his 877th victory, he took Adolph Rupp's place at the top of the college coaches' victory list. But Rupp had once taken Baldwin's place at a clinic because, in the end, there's something more important than basketball.

For the past 45 years, Dick and Janet have shared the same house in the Binghamton suburb of Chenango Bridge. That's where they raised their three daughters, Judy, Sandy and Debbie. Dick has always confounded stereotypes of male coaches, and the women in his life appreciate him for it. "He'd never be angry or sullen after a big loss," says Sandy. "If things weren't going well he'd look at what he was doing, not at what the kids weren't picking up."

Before the 1980s got hold of the profession and deformed it, coaching wasn't a control-freak show for primpers and preeners. It entailed making do, enabling, finding effective ways to jawbone young men who were hormonally (and often academically) jumbled into accepting their roles on a team. "From the first time he walked into the gym, Coach Baldwin didn't speak loud or stomp his feet," says star senior tricaptain Sherwin Telford. "But there was something about the way he spoke and carried himself. You had no choice but to respect him."

Baldwin doesn't remember where he was when he heard the news, nor does he recall who told him. (I never remember the losses.) But in 1931 his father, Allen, a lawyer in Olean, N.Y., was killed in a hunting accident. Dick was nine years old.

Dick's mother, Opal, opened a beauty parlor in their home at 808 Main Street to support Dick and his younger brother, Allen Jr. In the meantime the DeVeaux School, a military academy in Niagara Falls, offered Dick a scholarship reserved for fatherless boys. Dick lettered in baseball, basketball, golf, soccer and tennis, sang in the choir, made the honor roll and served as student council president. In his senior year he won a scholarship to the University of Rochester.

In college Baldwin played football and golf in addition to basketball. A 5'8" forward, he was described in accounts of the time as "the little guy with the eagle eye." He learned much from his coach, Lou Alexander. Some lessons were by counterexample: When Alexander upbraided his players for turnovers, Baldwin intuitively understood the negative effect. Today he is still sensitive to his players' feelings. Come garbage time he won't send a substitute into the game without asking him if he wants to play, lest the young man's pride be hurt.

By his junior year at Rochester, Baldwin had become a contributor on perhaps the greatest basketball team in the school's history, a squad that went 16-0. Baldwin was elected captain for the '42-43 season, but during the summer before that school year he was drafted into the Army. While serving with the Army Air Forces in England as a bomb-sight mechanic and autopilot technician, he kept in touch with his brother, whom everyone called Babe. He was on the Continent in the infantry. One day one of Dick's letters to Babe came back marked DECEASED.

Back in Olean, at 806 Main Street next door to the Baldwins, Janet Reitz was 15. She remembers a teacher telling students that Babe Baldwin, her brother's best friend, had stepped on a land mine at the Battle of the Bulge. Janet also remembers, from card games the Reitz and Baldwin families had played together, how furious Dick became when he got the Old Maid. "By the time I got back, she'd grown up," says Dick, who got not the Old Maid but the girl next door.

He finished up his last year at Rochester, then brought his bride to Binghamton, where he took a job at the State Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences, one of the first in a crop of two-year schools sprouting up after the war. Baldwin coached basketball, golf and baseball, served as athletic director, taught communications skills, even did a turn as the school's public-relations director. When the basketball team lost its first three games, some people wondered if the new man was stretched too thin.

"When I started out I told myself, We'll only play man-to-man," Baldwin says. "After those first three games I switched to a zone. The first thing I learned was that there are no certainties in coaching. Ever since then I've been very flexible."

No team better exemplifies Baldwin's resourcefulness than his 1961 regional champions. Like most of Baldwin's squads, this one had virtually no height. No player came from more than a couple of miles outside the Binghamton city limits. Baldwin found players in CYO leagues and YMCAs and even one behind a cash register at the A&P. Broome, as the institute had come to be named, won 30 games that season.

"There was no such thing as a rebuilding year," Baldwin says of coaching in junior college, where such talent as there was turned over every two years. "Offensively and defensively, we tried just about everything." One year Baldwin threw at the Cornell freshmen something he calls the orbit offense. He left a basket hanger at one end of the floor and played defense with a triangle zone and a chaser on the opposition's ball handler.

All over greater Binghamton, with its population of perhaps a quarter million, there are men aged 17 to 71 who have played basketball for Baldwin. Several sets of fathers and sons have played for him. His daughters Sandy and Debbie led cheers at Broome. During one blowout, Sandy passed a note down the bench: Dad. We have a new cheer. How about a timeout? Dad got Sandy her TO, baby.

In so circumscribed a world, Baldwin met the few big-time tests that happened along. He beat an undefeated, Boeheim-coached Syracuse freshman team in 1964. He beat the St. Bonaventure frosh twice during the 1966-67 season, when Bob Lanier was leaving size 24 footprints on everything in his path. "Upstate New York, Upstate New York" doesn't suggest a song, and there's no evidence that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. But surely Baldwin could have stood up to major-college pressure.

Baldwin won 10 NJCAA Region III titles but none after 1970. Minor league hockey came to Binghamton and gouged out a chunk of Broome's attendance. In the early '80s, when the Big Hast began keeping people in front of their TV sets several nights a week, the crowds at Broome games dwindled to a few hundred. On the floor Broome struggled too, with back-to-back losing seasons from 1981 to '83. By the mid-'80s other coaches who admired Baldwin quietly hoped he would retire. In 1987, the year of his 40th wedding anniversary and 40th season as a coach, he did.

No one took much notice at the time, but Baldwin said he wouldn't rule out coaching again.

It would make for a good story if Baldwin, bored in retirement, suffered a late-life crisis and had an epiphany on the golf course: It's not really my place to be putting a ball in a hole but to teach others to do so. Something nice and tidy like that.

The real story is this: Baldwin was a scratch golfer. On his wedding day he broke the course record at Olean's Bartlett Country Club. ("I thought we got married at night because it was fashionable," Janet says.) Like any retiree, he immersed himself in the game, and the truth was revealed: His hands were arthritic. He could not hit the ball far anymore.

As his handicap crept into double figures, Baldwin realized his competitive fire needed a place to warm, and the golf course had become too damn big. In 1991 Frank Snupik, the captain of Baldwin"s first junior college team, persuaded him that there was no better place for him than the West Gym at Binghamton U, nè Triple Cities College—the school they had beaten in '47 for Baldwin's win No. 1.

Binghamton offers no athletic scholarships. Conflicts with classes guarantee that there are few practices with the entire team present. The best antidote is Baldwin's upbeat approach. "In practice it's never, 'You idiot! What you do is this!' " says senior tricaptain Jeff Merrill.

"But he'll never let anything go," says Greenberg. "He kind of smiles, then reminds and reminds and reminds."

Once Binghamton's gate depended on whether a few grad students set aside their Derrida and made the wind-whipped schlepp from the library. Now games are shown tape-delayed on the campus TV station. There's a booster club, a pep band, cheerleaders, even a kick line. Binghamton now ranks among the Top 10 Division III schools in home-game attendance, averaging 1,700. The school president, Lois DeFleur, comes to as many games as possible and lets students paint her face green and white.

At Binghamton, three-two is both a zone defense and the team's GPA. Greenberg, an English major who wants to be an actor, has starred in campus productions of The Heidi Chronicles and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (not, alas, in the role of Chief). Merrill, a philosophy major, was his high school's salutatorian. Baldwin's best player is Telford, a nursing student from Guyana by way of Brooklyn's Clara Barton High. The big time had the Doctor; Binghamton has the Nurse.

Every now and then Baldwin permits himself a reverie of what might have been had he coached in Division I-A. "I'd be a lot richer," he says. "The spotlight, the media attention, the shoe contracts. But there'd be the necessity to win. I have plenty of internal pressure already."

There was a time when we made people like this our coaches: men we could count on; men who never missed a game, rarely raised their voices, always put the team first; men who figuratively grew up on Main Street and figuratively married the girl next door.

The actuaries would tell Dick Baldwin, this man who literally grew up on Main Street, who literally married the girl next door, to stop right here. Seventy-two is the average life expectancy of the American male. But averages insult individuals. "Just a few weeks ago [Thirer] felt me out on how long I could keep going," Baldwin says. "I told him as long as my health is there and my wife's health is there. I don't have anything to prove anymore."

In '91, gung ho as ever, Baldwin opened the season in a man-to-man defense. The Colonials lost five of their first six. And then the funniest thing happened. Just as he had 44 years earlier, Baldwin switched out of that man, and the team started winning.

After 70 a man doesn't so much learn new lessons as relearn old ones.

PHOTODAVID BURNETTTWO PHOTOSCOURTESY OF DICK BALDWINAs Baldwin (3) rose from hoops player at DeVeaux to coach at Broome, his golf game sizzled.PHOTOBINGHAMTON SUNDAY PRESS[See caption above.]PHOTOJOHN HARTRICKLast season Baldwin's steadying hand guided his players to their second consecutive league title.PHOTODAVID BURNETT/CONTACTWith Dick, Janet went from neighbor to wife.