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.