A No-Win Situation
The majestic Ben Franklin Bridge, which spans the Delaware River between Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, is clearly visible from Rutgers University's branch campus in Camden, N.J. And to his everlasting credit, Rutgers-Camden basketball coach Greg Ackles says he never thinks about leaping from it. By day Ackles supervises the counselors at the Juvenile Medium Security Facility in Borden-town, N.J., and by night he checks himself into a kind of self-imposed prison—coaching a team with the longest losing streak in NCAA men's basketball history. If you've got a New Year's wish left over, you could do worse than to ask for just one win for Greg Ackles and the Rutgers-Camden Pioneers.
"If we can get that one," says Ackles, "we can get that monkey off our back." Just one. But it didn't come on Dec. 7, when Richard Stockton beat Rutgers-Camden 74-60. Nor did it come three days later, when the Pioneers were routed 95-69 by Trenton State. It sure didn't come last Thursday, when the Division III Pioneers were trounced 79-42 on the road at Virginia State for their 69th straight defeat. That's 22 more losses—practically a whole season's worth—than the previous NCAA record held by sister school Rutgers-Newark, which lost 47 straight from November 1983 to November '85.
Just one. But when? The possibility exists that it will not happen this season. Ackles is a mechanically oriented fellow who says he has always been able "to take things apart and put them back together," but the skills required for this remodeling job may be beyond him. In truth the Pioneers have played worse than expected this season—and not much was expected. Last season against Ramapo they dropped a heartbreaking 77-75 overtime game that would have stopped the streak at 57. And it was against Ramapo that Rutgers-Camden last won a game, by a 74-73 score on Jan. 18, 1992, a date of incalculable sweetness in Ackles's life. But Ramapo has already blown out the Pioneers 85-59 this season. Rutgers-Newark took their measure 87-53 on Nov. 30. If the season ends in a 0-24 disaster, as it conceivably could, the streak would stand at 84 games, just two shy of the alltime collegiate streak endured by the University of Dallas, an NAIA school, from November 1985 to January '88.
Still the Pioneers persevere. Ackles has thrown two players off the team this year for rules violations, but otherwise the roster is the same as the one that opened the season...with a 76-31 loss to Widener. Though a petition from the school's student governing association to fire Ackles was recently presented to university provost Walter Gordon, the team has not mutinied. The Pioneers show up each day, practice hard, take the floor committed to turn things around on game night and play with determination, though not always with good sense.
Part of the team's burden is that it plays in the tough New Jersey Athletic Conference, which has sent five different representatives (Jersey City State, Richard Stockton, Ramapo, Rowan and Trenton State) to the Division III Final Four in the last nine years. Rutgers-Camden has fallen far behind its nine conference rivals, and an 0-18 league record is nearly a fait accompli. The Pioneers play some tough nonconference schools, too.
"I won't schedule someone just so that we can beat them," says athletic director Wilbur (Pony) Wilson. "That's not how we want to win." On that score, perhaps, Wilson should speak for himself.
There has been talk of scuttling the program, but the AD will not hear of it. "I'll resign before I let that happen," says Wilson, who was the coach when Rutgers-Camden last had a winning season—14-11 in '83-84. "The students and alums would have my neck. Believe it or not, we do have a strong basketball tradition at this school."
Student body president Louis Rivera, who drew up the anti-Ackles petition, agrees. "There's enough blame to go around here, in terms of student apathy and administration apathy," he says. "But by and large the student body wants a basketball team and wants it to be successful. It's time to turn things around."
That will require quite a bit of turning, to be sure. The Pioneers lose for any number of reasons. As a commuter school, Rutgers-Camden tends to have high student turnover, and that is reflected in the basketball team. Forward Ebon Flagg, who missed all of last season with a broken leg, is the only player who has been around for four seasons; that means he's also the only player to experience a win, having been a freshman on the '91-92 team that went 3-22. "We have no chemistry at all because we haven't been together," says Flagg. Then, too, Ackles is only a part-time coach with two part-time assistants. That means he does his recruiting after his eight-hour day job and his two-hour practice session—if he can keep his eyes open, that is.
But none of that fully explains the stark reality of 69 straight losses and counting. Though its location in the troubled city of Camden is hardly a recruiting plus, the campus is actually a pleasant, grassy oasis—"a city within a city," as Wilson proudly puts it. Rutgers-Newark has a similar image problem, and though it is no powerhouse, it has a far better record, 36-70, over the last five seasons.
Then, too, Rutgers-Camden has a fairly successful women's basketball program; the only banner hanging in the home gym celebrates that team's ECAC Metro New York/New Jersey Division III championship in 1992. The teams travel together to most road games, and sometimes, after the women have won and the men have gone down yet again, the atmosphere on the team bus is a little tense. "We feel for them," says Karla Robinson, an assistant for the Pioneer women. "We always let them pick the videos to watch on the bus."
No, the biggest reason for the streak may well be the streak itself. It hurts morale, keeps some recruits away and, at some point during each game, lowers itself, like a giant, smirking bully, onto the collective psyche of Ackles and his players. "A lot of us came from successful high school programs, so we knew how to win once," says leading scorer Doug Dreby. "But winning is a habit, like anything in sports, and the knowledge of how to win has gotten away from us a little bit. We get into tight situations and begin inventing ways to lose."
Then there is the matter of talent. The big players aren't strong enough, the small players aren't quick enough, and the in-between players are too in-between. Little wonder that transition defense is weak, ball handling errors abound (the Pioneers committed 33 turnovers against Virginia State), and offensive execution is shoddy. But somehow, someway, the Pioneers stay together, and Ackles stays on top of them. Though he doesn't do much screaming during the game, the coach frequently reams out his team in no uncertain terms behind closed doors. His harangue after the Virginia State game lasted a full 15 minutes, yet the Pioneers emerged with their heads up.
"I love Coach Ackles," says Dreby. "This is not his fault." Others aren't as squarely behind the coach, but still there is something noble, even quixotic, in the way Ackles has held up during nearly three straight years of losses. "He comes to practice every day and does the same things the same way," says Flagg, shaking his head. "That's kind of amazing."
Ackles says he draws his strength from the players. "The only time I've ever gotten down during this whole thing is when people say bad things about them," he says. "I tell my team all the time that just because they lose basketball games doesn't mean they're losers."
Flagg agrees. "Nobody has a win, but everybody has a heart," he says. "It's bound to pay off for us one of these days."
Just one. That's all they want.