Tilting his hat back as is his custom, but with just a touch of the rakishness of those who do that sort of thing in the movies, Ralph Miller prepared to duck into the new family station wagon he had just bought. The color of the wagon was—thank you, Detroit—"Tahoe Turquoise," and it had backseat speakers and a stereo tape player. The dealer had been able to find only one sample tape, which turned out to be a group of twanging selections by Chet Atkins on his electric guitar.
Miller, despite a musical heritage acquired as a boy in Chanute, Kans., persisted in referring to the instrument as a banjo. In Chanute music teachers enjoyed such high prestige that Miller—like every other mother's son in town—was required to battle the violin and the baritone sax for many years, though he was practically tone deaf, before he was permitted to concentrate on sports. Then he quickly became a first-rate high school athlete. He was outstanding in college, later became one of the country's best coaches at Wichita State and now enjoys the same status at Iowa (see cover).
Settled in the station wagon, Miller flipped off Chet Atkins, put a cigarette into his mouth, released the brake and headed out of the auto showroom toward Iowa City. The odometer read: 007. There was significance in that coincidence, as Iowa's rival that night (Northwestern) would discover. For Miller is just about equal parts Chanute and double-0 seven—relaxed and dry-witted in the best small-town way, but as commanding and articulate as any Ian Fleming character.
Miller arrived in Iowa City in March 1964, after a dozen consecutive winning seasons at Wichita State. He picked up a junior college star, Chris Pervall, and a good sophomore, Gerry Jones, but basically the team he inherited was the same slow-styled powerhouse that was 8-15 the year before and 3-11 in the Big Ten. Miller promptly assembled his players and told them they could win with his game of pressure basketball. "I know nothing about any of you now," he said, "but I'll find out all I want to know when practice starts. If I have to change my style to win in the Big Ten, then something is wrong with my style. And," he concluded, a sardonic smile under his crew cut, "I don't think that's true."
His confidence in the pressure game, which features an all-court defense, a fast break and a patterned offense that produces 85% of his team's shots from within 10 feet, is catching—so much so that his players' faith in Miller sometimes brought a victory when the system itself seemed to be failing. Lanny Van Eman, the Iowa freshman coach who played for Miller at Wichita, recalls a game in his sophomore year. "We were five points behind with only two minutes left, and Ralph called a time-out. We came over to huddle and, as soon as we all got there, he broke into this big smile and said: 'O.K., now we got 'em where we want 'em.' I couldn't believe it. I had to look up at the scoreboard to see if I was playing in the same game. I really did. And there it was—we were five points down with two minutes to go. But he was right. We sure did have 'em. We won going away."
Miller had sensed that one of his pet theories was about to be proved out, as it had been in similar situations. He believes that the pressure game renders an opponent especially vulnerable for a few two-to four-minute stretches in each game. If he can keep his men in relentless pursuit, victory will be won in those brief bursts. With this conviction and his ability to persuade players to accept it, Miller brought Iowa a winning record in his first year there (including a victory over national champion UCLA).
This year, with four starters and the sixth man back, Iowa has a good chance to take the conference title. But even if the Hawkeyes do not win, Miller has succeeded in awakening the Big Ten; the whole league is shining with new styles and disciplines. The most recent example of this revival is Michigan State, where John Benington—a refugee, like Miller, from the Missouri Valley and one of three new Big Ten coaches—has installed his own tough defensive system and has cut 26 points a game from last year's record. Upsetting preseason estimates, this has put Michigan State squarely into perhaps the closest race in the country. Defending Champion Michigan had a rocky December, but started off league play with its first win over Ohio State at Columbus since 1947, and thus regained its position as the morning-line favorite. Iowa suffered an inexcusable loss to Wisconsin in its conference debut, but remains the top challenger. Nine of the Big Ten coaches quiver as they await the signal that Ohio State is ready to play up to its potential. Fred Taylor should see to that soon. And Northwestern's juniors, when they settle down to the pattern ball that Coach Larry Glass advocates, may well play back to their high school hotshot form.
Things would be even more complicated if Minnesota had not suffered two grave losses: Don Yates flunked out and Lou Hudson fractured the navicular bone at the base of his right thumb. That probably destroyed the Gophers' chances. But if Hudson can come back and play regularly without a cast on his shooting hand (he had 20 points against Indiana last week while wearing the cast), Minnesota will certainly upset somebody or two.
That upsets may be the order of the season became apparent when Wisconsin, figured for the cellar, beat Iowa 69-68. In that game it was the Hawkeyes who endured those short stretches of critical vulnerability. They roared out to a 24-12 lead, but when Center George Peeples—the keystone of the team's defense—went out because of foul trouble, Iowa let Wisconsin get off the floor, and soon even fell behind.
Iowa managed to come back, although still playing poorly. A point down with two seconds to play, the Hawkeyes had Forward Gary Olson on the foul line with two shots. Olson is the team's best free-throw shooter. Four years ago, in the Iowa high school tournament, he sank 23 in one game, a record. At Wisconsin he hit the front rim twice.