An 8-0 start that includes a victory over Kentucky has Dayton's fortunes soaring
Sometimes a kiss is not just a kiss. Take the night of Nov. 29, when unranked Dayton knocked off then No. 13 Kentucky 68-66 at the Firstar Center in Cincinnati. Flyers athletic director Ted Kissell, swept up in the hullabaloo loosed by Dayton's first win against a ranked team in more than nine seasons, rushed the floor along with hundreds of other Flyers fans. When he finally reached coach Oliver Purnell, he kissed Purnell on the cheek. "We worked so hard to make this happen," Kissell says. "It felt great being the ones running on the floor." Then he adds glumly, "He didn't kiss me back."
It's not that Purnell wasn't excited. "It was one of those surreal moments, very satisfying," he says. It's just that given how far Dayton has to go to regain the national prominence it enjoyed in the 1960s and '70s, Purnell knows that excessive celebration can be the kiss of death. "We try to teach our guys to deal with success and adversity the same way," he says. "If you're not careful, either one can bring you down."
Purnell has dealt with much more adversity than success in his six years at Dayton, so the Flyers' 8-0 record through Sunday—their best start in 34 years—represents a welcome change. He suffered his first defeat before he had even coached his first game there. In the fall of 1994, just months after he was hired, the Great Midwest Conference announced it was disbanding, and Dayton was the only member of the seven-team league that wasn't asked to join the new Conference USA. "I remember saying to my wife, 'What have we gotten ourselves into?' " Purnell says.
Dayton, which joined the Atlantic 10 the following season, hasn't made it to the NCAA tournament since 1990. It came close two seasons ago, with a 21-12 record, but then fell to 11-17 in a season marked by injuries, player suspensions and other turmoil. That was capped off last summer by news that a university trustee had given a $32,000 loan to the father of the Flyers' top recruit, forward Brooks Hall. (The loan was repaid, and the NCAA ruled that Hall could sign with Dayton—he's averaging 12.0 points—but the Flyers still could face sanctions over the incident.)
However, as 6'2" senior guard Edwin Young says, "It helps when you're winning." Dayton opened the season by defeating New Mexico 70-57 in Albuquerque, snapping the Lobos' 41-game home winning streak against nonconference foes. Three players who are starting for the third straight year—Young, 6'10" senior center Mark Ashman and 6'4" junior guard Tony Stanley—give the Flyers an experienced nucleus, and Purnell is going to great lengths to foster harmony. Several times he has shown his players highlight tapes of the reserves cheering from the bench.
"Everybody's putting his ego in his pocket," Young says. "Why not? We're undefeated. Whatever coach says is the gospel."
Buffalo's Wild Week
Welcome to the Big Time, Coach
Three years ago Reggie Witherspoon was the basketball coach at Sweet Home High in Buffalo. Three weeks ago he was the coach at Erie Community College. On Dec. 4 Witherspoon was named the interim coach at Buffalo and last week began his Division I coaching career by facing North Carolina and Indiana in his first two games. How's that for a vertical leap? "I feel like I've gone inside my TV screen," Witherspoon says. "My previous reality has been completely taken away."
His new players know how he feels. Their reality was first altered in October, when Buffalo reported to the Mid-American Conference that undisclosed infractions had been committed in the basketball program. ( The Buffalo News later reported that coach Tim Cohane had allegedly conducted an illicit tryout for a recruit.) That led to an open feud between Cohane and assistant coach Eric (Rock) Eisenberg over Eisenberg's purported cooperation with conference investigators. The two sat at opposite ends of the bench during the first five games, and the players were driven into opposing camps. On Dec. 1 eight players reportedly told Buffalo's president and athletic director that they might boycott the North Carolina game if Cohane wasn't removed.