SI Vault
John Underwood
December 09, 1963
Hunting for tall, talented athletes, the college basketball coach becomes the sharpest-toothed tiger in the jungle
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 09, 1963

Go Get 'em, Coaches!

Hunting for tall, talented athletes, the college basketball coach becomes the sharpest-toothed tiger in the jungle

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

The successful recruiter knows moments of utter joy. When Kansas State's Winter signed Nick (The Stick) Pino, a 7-foot-1 Santa Fe, N. Mex. hotshot pursued by 83 schools, he unblushingly called it "the happiest moment of my coaching career." Later, when he lost a boy he thought was in the bag, he was desolated. "I never get used to losing a good prospect," he said. "It's different from just losing a game. You can't fight back." There are times of unanimous frustration: right this minute there is a 6-foot-7, 235-pound midwestern boy known for his remarkable ability and scraggly goatee—and his IQ of 78. At other times there is such a confusion of emotion that the recruiter does not know what face to put on. Winter and his wife recently visited a Missouri boy's father who was dying of heart disease. "Don't worry," the father whispered as Winter bent over him. "My son has made up his mind to go to Kansas State."

Recruiting technique varies from coach to coach and from boy to boy. "You have to treat 'em alike and deal with 'em differently," says Wake Forest's McKinney. McKinney is a Baptist lay preacher and turns the heads of mothers and fathers with his clerical rhetoric and hell's-fire-red socks. He is the down-home type. Tex Winter is more a jet-setter. Jack Gardner tools around in a Cadillac and is ver-ry smooth. Gene Gibson of Texas Tech is a back-slapping, percolating pitchman, handsome and winning.

One of a small but inexhaustible breed of free-lance recruiters is Donald (Quack) Butler, who lays technique aside and says it is all in finding "The Key." Butler, bushy-browed, double-chinned and immoderately devoted to basketball, is an Owensboro, Ky. broker who has sent upward of 100 players to colleges from Mississippi to Colorado (he calls it "finding a five-foot-10-inch hole for a five-foot-10-inch boy. Making 'em fit, admiral.") Butler says his correspondence is equaled only by Ann Landers', and his telephone bill has more digits than his telephone number. He is an expert on the backwoods country ("I know every man and dog on both sides of the Ohio River"), and he says there is only one fast rule: you positively "never storm into somebody's home and make a recruiting pitch sound like the Gettysburg Address. No, sir. You find The Key. After that it's easy as eating fried chicken."

Butler tells of the signing of Tommy Kron, a 6-foot-6 Kentuckian who had moved as a boy to Tell City, Ind. "When Tommy was 12 years old I watched him play Little League. I sent him a Kentucky brochure and told him he ought to think about going to UK. He wrote me back: 'Mr. Butler, I hope someday I'll be good enough to play for Kentucky.' When he graduated from Tell City High two years ago, every coach in the free world was after him. He'd go good in the Big Ring [Butlerese for major college basketball]. When I spotted him in the hotel lobby at the NCAA finals in Louisville, he was surrounded by big-name coaches. All I did was walk up to him, pull out his letter and say, 'How about it, son?' First he was stunned. You get the picture. Then he blushed and said, 'It still goes, Mr. Butler.' " Sophomore Tommy Kron will start for the Kentucky varsity this year—and so will three other boys, including All-America Cotton Nash, recruited for Adolph Rupp by Quack Butler.

If there is a surefire advantage in recruiting, it goes to those who know the cut of a prospect's jib, right down to the last thread. Coach Vic Bubas of Duke is often called the outstanding recruiter in the business—and other things, too, by those he outrecruits. He keeps his trail well covered. But in a casual test of reconnaissance he reveals an astounding knowledge of the landscape and what is on it. Sitting in a hotel lounge with a coaching friend one night, Bubas submitted to a modest wager. The friend described a high school prospect: "Six feet 8, great hands, mother and father divorced, sister likes Fanny Farmer cherries." Bubas had to name him: "Ezra Bekeldorf, Dyspepsia, Ill." "Right," said his friend.

This went on for 10 minutes more—Bubas unerringly putting the scraps of information together—until his friend described a boy 6 feet 10,240 pounds, averaged 32.1 points a game, an orphan with one gold tooth in front. Bubas scowled. Finally he said,' "There is no such person." "Right," sighed his friend.

A basketball coach is considerably more alone in his search than the posse of coaches that goes out after the school's football material every year, but he is helped some by alumni, by newspapers, former players, freelancers like Butler, by accommodating high school coaches and by a publication known as Bones, a graded line on hundreds of high school athletes published strictly for coaches by Dave Bones Publications of Toledo. In the end, however, he must win his prize face-to-face, and usually in the boy's home or home town. At this crucial confrontation the coach conducts the services, because he is, after all, the coach. But all the letters written and the miles traveled are as time wasted if he overacts, undersells, develops conversational paralysis or uses the wrong fork.

On a day last spring, four prominent college coaches went out to make what they hoped would be that final successful pitch—Gene Gibson of Texas Tech, young and emotional; Bones McKinney of Wake Forest, older, wiser, more relaxed; Jack Gardner of Utah, smooth as apple butter; Tex Winter of Kansas State, a class entry. Each had picked out a boy he calculated would make a major contribution to the varsity in the next two or three years.

Tex Winter drove the 120 miles from Manhattan to Kansas City, Mo. in a one-year-old Chevrolet that belonged to the school's athletic department and had already given 63,000 miles to the cause. His wife, Nancy, was along on this trip, indicating a major campaign. "A great asset," said Tex. "She helps me get across to parents that a college coach is a family man, too."

They checked into the Hotel Muehlebach, and Nancy went off to scout the display windows of Harzfeld's. When she was gone, Winter loosened his tie and sprawled across the bed with a pile of file cards. The card he held out was that of Ron Franz, age 17, 6 feet 5, forward, 20-point average, Ward High School. Franz was still growing and was the best prospect in the area. Winter had already sent Ron Franz applications for admittance to the school and a grant-in-aid (scholarship), had phoned him twice and had made a dinner date for the evening.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8