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

Go Get 'em, Coaches!

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

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When Chico Vaughn of the St. Louis Hawks was a high school basketball star in Illinois and fancied by college coaches everywhere, Coach Chuck Orsborn of Bradley, in Peoria, persuaded him-that Bradley was the place he ought to go to make educational hay and baskets. Vaughn, however, did not seem to be a youth of unshakable convictions, so a Bradley player-was" assigned, to, be his buddy until Chico had successfully registered and was in class. "Whatever you do," the buddy was instructed, "don't let Vaughn out of your sight." After three days, however, Vaughn's company began to wear, and his custodian stole out for a late date. Faster than a wallet grab, Coach Tom Blackburn of the University of Dayton materialized. Whisshhh! Chico Vaughn was on his way to Dayton before morning.

It-was-little comfort for Coach Orsborn that Vaughn skipped out of Dayton, too, and wound up, before he became too much older, at Southern Illinois. What did concern Orsborn was that where once he had a large plus (Vaughn) on his freshman roster he now had a large minus (no Vaughn), and the season for signing hotshot high school basketball players was practically over. One last hope was Chet (The Jet) Walker.

Walker, a Michigan high school star, at that moment was preparing to take the train to the University of Nebraska, where he already had sent his trunk of clothes. How Orsborn learned of this is not known, though it is believed that most successful coaches have occult powers. In any case, Walker says that when, en route to Nebraska, he stopped off in Chicago to visit a friend, there to advise him on the remainder of the trip was Coach Chuck Orsborn of Bradley. The next day a friendly police chief in Peoria arranged with a friendly police chief in Nebraska to have his trunk reshipped to Bradley. To Orsborn's immense satisfaction, Walker became an All-America; Vaughn became one of the better small-college players.

Not every story of a high school basketball player willing to allow a college to give him a $10,000 scholarship is quite so rich in melodrama, of course, and these two may have acquired a little extra as they made the rounds. But the significant thing about most tall stories of tall boys is that they usually illuminate the brilliance, ingenuity and clever footwork of the coach instead of the player. The reason for this is significant, too: there is no such thing as a successful coach who is not also a successful recruiter. Like it or not, recruiting is the essence of modern coaching. Bones McKinney, head basketball coach at Wake Forest, offers this illustration: "When I coached the golf team here one year I had for my six players the six sons of six golf professionals. The sixth man won a match by shooting a 66. One of the six was Arnold Palmer. Now, you can coach boys like that."

Every year, from April to September, thousands of high school basketball players are flattered, coaxed, poked at, preached at, catered to and won over by college basketball coaches who have checked and rechecked their height, weight, scoring average, intelligence quotient, medical history, boiling point, Rorschach, generator, carburetor and behind their ears. But the pursuit of the really talented ones is especially frenetic. "You play from November to March," says one coach. "But you win from April to September."

Recruiting is only as reprehensible as you make it, most coaches believe, and the better ones do not seem to mind it at all. "I'm a good recruiter," says Utah's Jack Gardner, "and I'm proud of it." Gardner calls it "the American way"—the competition of salesmanship. He once had a boy salesmanshipped smack out of the dormitory by a rival coach, and bit his lip a hundred times thereafter as the boy went on to make All-America. Another time he had an appointment in Arizona with a prospect, only to discover on his arrival that he had been preceded by a coach with a private airplane. The coach had the flighty boy off joyriding.

Generally, however, most of the infighting is done by innuendo ("You can't make their team." "You wouldn't want to go to a school that small, would you?" "Did you know they make you go to preaching five times a week?"). And most of the hysterics come from coaches who have just been scooped, not burglarized. Kentucky's Adolph Rupp confronted the Army coach at a Louisville cocktail party not long ago and threatened to call his Congressman because Army had won a very talented boy out of Kentucky—and out from under Rupp's very sensitive nose. It is not easy to forgive being scooped.

The boy who is hip to the routine contributes to the coach's wretchedness. He lets himself be indulged by every recruiter who makes a pitch. He is allowed by NCAA rule one expenses-paid trip to any school that will have him. One boy had been visiting schools every weekend for two and a half months when Bones McKinney finally got to him. " 'I'm seeing the country, Coach,' he told me," McKinney recalls. " 'Sure is big, ain't it?' "

In their quest, coaches send out detailed questionnaires, write hundreds of letters, make thousands of telephone calls. They make speeches at high school banquets. On visits to the homes of prospects they endure great gobs of cornstarch pie. They smile and nod through innocuous conversations. They sit pinioned in cramped high school gymnasiums and trust their eardrums to the screeching of teen-agers. They ride leaky ferries, stand in the rain, catch the grippe in the snow, laugh at and tell bad jokes, get lost on strange roads.

Tex Winter of Kansas State, a former Navy pilot who was provided with a plane by K-State fans to facilitate his movements, traveled 1,550 air miles in a three-day trip last spring. He saw seven prospects, table-hopping from Pittsburg, Kans. to Erie, Kans. to Mount Vernon, 111. to St. Louis to Potosi, Mo. to Chicago to Milwaukee and back to Manhattan, Kans. "Then you have to be an actor," says Abe Lemons of Oklahoma City University. "You travel 900 miles in a rented car to see a couple prospects and you act like you just happened to drop in."

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