Like most college athletes, the basketball players at Murray State were eager to gauge just how much their lives were going to change under Tevester Anderson, who on the verge of 62 is the oldest rookie head coach in Division I hoops. So last March, when the team gathered to order its new uniforms, the players decided to test former assistant Anderson by secretly adding three inches of material to the cuffs of their shorts. When the new, ultra-hip unis showed up a few weeks later, forward Isaac Spencer tore open the box and held the gold-and-navy shorts up to his waist.
"Daisy Dukes," Spencer says now. "It looked like they mailed us Indiana's shorts by accident." Anderson, who's learned a trick or two during his 37 years on the sidelines, denies he had the order intercepted on its way to the tailor and had the pants shortened. The players are not so sure. Says Spencer, "We all just sat there, looking like, Uh-oh, what have we gotten into with this old guy?"
Anderson is giving new meaning to the adage "Better late than never." At week's end the Racers, who play good old-fashioned man-to-man pressure defense and decidedly modern up-tempo offense, were 23-4 and on course to win their 11th Ohio Valley Conference title since 1988. After they defeated Eastern Illinois 94-89 in double overtime last Saturday, they also owned the nation's longest current home court winning streak, 42 victories. Spencer, 6'6" in his too-short shorts, leads the team with 16.4 points and 7.0 rebounds a game. Murray State is the kind of mid-major team that emerges each March to play Cinderella at the Big Dance and waltz off with a victory or two, providing momentary celebrity for coach and team.
"The wait for a head coaching job was well worth it for me," says Anderson, who turns 62 on Feb. 26. "Now that I'm here, it feels better having happened the way it did. God just had a different kind of blueprint for me, I guess."
Indeed, after graduating from what is now Arkansas at Pine Bluff with a premed degree in 1962, Anderson passed on medical school and spent 18 seasons as a high school coach in Canton, Miss., and Atlanta, where he was a pioneer in helping integrate high school sports. "I learned you can save just as many lives as a coach and a teacher as you can as a doctor," he says. In 1970, in front of 10,000 fans at the Jackson (Miss.) Coliseum, Anderson's all-black team from Rogers High beat all-white South Leake 79-56 in a game that led to regular matchups between all-black and all-white teams. "To any kid who grew up in the South, Coach Anderson is a hero," says Spencer, a native of Montgomery, Ala. "That's what matters, not his age."
In 1980 Auburn coach Sonny Smith hired Anderson as an assistant. From 1986 to 1995 Anderson worked on Hugh Durham's staff at Georgia; then Mark Gottfried hired him as an assistant at Murray State. When Gottfried left to take the Alabama job last spring, Anderson, who has never applied for a coaching job in his life, was promoted to run the Racers.
The challenge hasn't aged him. Anderson works out on a stair climber for an hour every day, and for him 16-hour workdays are the norm. "Getting this job energized me," he says. "The day they named me head coach, my adrenaline started flowing, and it hasn't stopped yet. I want to coach eight to 10 more years at least." That would put him in good company in Division I basketball. There are 15 coaches older than Anderson roaming die sidelines, including UTEP's Don Haskins (68), Fresno State's Jerry Tarkanian (68) and Temple's John Chaney (67).
"He just got a late start," Durham says of his former assistant. "But he's a grinder; he just hung in there. [The hiring] showed that he was judged on his ability, not on his age."
Anderson's first act as a head coach was to hire Bill Hodges, 55, and former Kentucky assistant and Mississippi State coach Jim Hatfield, 56. Hatfield had been serving as athletic director at the University of the Virgin Islands. Anderson coaxed Hodges, who coached Indiana State to the national championship game in 1979, back to the college ranks. Hodges was in Fort Myers, Fla., teaching middle school and helping out with the local high school team when Anderson called him. Hodges was burned out on the college game and needed a pep talk from Anderson before committing. "The kids might call us all a bunch of old farts," says Hodges, "but what's happened this year has restored my faith in coaching and made me love basketball again."
Recently, while leafing through the Racers' media guide, Hodges was tickled to discover that his age had mistakenly been listed as 46. Maybe it wasn't much of an error. These days everyone at Murray State, including the old coaches, is feeling young.