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.