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Few people outside of Cincinnati had ever heard of Ed Jucker. He had been an outstanding basketball and baseball player at the university in 1939-40 before starting a coaching career in both sports that led him to Batavia (Ohio) High School, the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in up-state New York (where he met his wife) and finally, in 1953, back to Cincinnati as assistant basketball coach.
When Jucker took over as head coach, he made a bold, and seemingly suicidal, decision: to discard Cincinnati's popular run-and-shoot offense for a slower, more deliberate game accenting defense, a shift that of itself figured to make him about as popular in Cincinnati as a flood.
By the end of three weeks Cincinnati had lost three of its first eight games, one of them to St. Louis by 17 points. "He was using a 2-3 zone defense," says Coach John Benington of St. Louis. "After he lost to us he went up to Bradley and lost for the same reason. But when he got back home he showed how quickly he had learned his mistakes. He junked the zone play, and the next time we met he was using a pressing man-to-man. It was a different story."
Those early weeks were rough on Jucker. For the first time in years there were empty seats in the armory, and the fans who did show up—"those house apes," one coach calls them—rode Jucker hard. "Let 'em run, you bum," they yelled. Jucker's mail carried the same sweet message. "I'll admit I had some doubts," Jucker says, but it is a solid measure of the man that he never wavered. Cincinnati started to win, the hoots changed to cheers, and when the season ended the team was again the winner of the Missouri Valley Conference.
At the NCAA championship, Cincinnati met upstate rival Ohio State in the final. Ohio State had already been voted the top team in the country, and its coach, Fred Taylor, had been selected as Coach of the Year, but Cincinnati won in overtime, creating a rather awkward situation for the pollsters. To compound matters, Ohio Governor Mike DiSalle released a proclamation immediately following Cincinnati's victory, congratulating Ohio State on being chosen the top team of the year and bringing glory to Ohio. Basketball fans take such slights seriously, and the catcalls from Cincinnati could be heard all the way to the State House in Columbus. Last fall DiSalle ran for reelection and was defeated. It is a matter of record that he got little backing in Cincinnati.
Last season was almost a duplication of the year before. Again, after losing a couple of early games, Cincinnati won the rest to reach the NCAA final. Again it met Ohio State, a team that had been ranked tops in the country from the very beginning of the season. Again Taylor, not Jucker, had been selected Coach of the Year. And again Cincinnati won the championship.
The two Cincinnati-Ohio State finals, with one team getting the awards, the other the victories, have created a certain amount of cross-Ohio tension. Fred Taylor insists he is not bitter toward Ed Jucker but thinks Jucker is bitter toward him. Jucker denies this, but he is obviously delighted at twice being honored as the Columbus Touchdown Club's Coach of the Year, right there in Taylor's own backyard.
Banners and kittens
Jucker is even more delighted at the reception he has gotten each year when he has returned with the NCAA championship. His neighbors on Flora Avenue have decorated the street with banners, streamers, lanterns and signs, some of which have said: "The U.S.A. has John Glenn, we have Ed Jucker" and "Puff had kittens while you were away." Ed's neighbors also chipped in and bought him a large silver platter on which is inscribed: "Coach of the Year from his friends on Flora Avenue." No governor's proclamation could mean as much.
Besides, Jucker has no time to waste considering fortune's slights. His days are crowded with business: phone calls, interviews, public appearances, game-film study, strategy talks with his assistant, Tay Baker, and, of course, practice sessions with the team. Jucker arrives at his office early. Once he is at his desk it is almost impossible to talk with him for more than half a minute without being interrupted by a girl's voice booming out of the loudspeaker on the wall: "Coach Jucker, on 291." There are times when all six buttons on Jucker's phone are lit at once. "I don't see why he doesn't have the thing ripped out," says one member of the athletic department.