The tallest building for 15 miles around, Ashland College's Clayton Hall interrupts the smooth undulations of the northern Ohio countryside with its sharp-edged abruptness. A modern nine-story men's dormitory, it stands wide but very thin, almost a mere facade. Late on a Wednesday afternoon last January, Clayton's bland exterior of red brick and gray concrete was suddenly masked by a brilliant cascade of gold and purple, the school's colors. And from windows thrown open to the drab winter day at either end of the sixth floor, two stereos blared over and over but in near perfect synchronization the rock tune that has all but taken over as the college's fight song:
Keep the ball rollin'
Keep the ball rollin'
Girl, the name of the game....
The driving music echoed off the two women's dormitories across the way where girls piled into rooms to paint gold and purple signs on the insides of their windows. The sound rolled tow aid the gym and permeated the entire neat campus with promises of great things a few hours ahead. That night the Ashland Eagles, the nation's stingiest basketball team and No. 1 ranked among NCAA small colleges at the end of regular season play, would unleash their special psychological warfare against undefeated Wittenberg University. Their followers among the colleges 2,200 students and Ashland, Ohio's 20,000 citizens were starting the ball rolling, preparing, proclaimed one coed dressed in gold from pretty head to toes, to go "AB-so-lute-ly-IN-sane."
Ashland's enthusiasm, reminiscent of homecoming football weekends at other Midwestern colleges of an earlier era—there was even an old-fashioned pan tie raid the night before—was pitched at no higher key for the important Wittenberg game, one seemingly perpetually astonished upperclassman claimed, than for any other that the team has played during the past three seasons. The Eagles have had a 71-13 record over those years, but it is not merely winning that has inspired such mad devotion and it certainly is not the way the Eagles play the game—some of the team's wildest backers have been known almost to fall asleep watching their brand of slowdown ball. It is the way the team gets ready to play. The Ashland Eagles are college basketball's greatest showboaters. It is their pregame act that drives the people wild and causes a kind of collective schizophrenia that in the minutes between warmups and the game turns Eagle players from troupers to grinding, selfless defensive robots and their fans from carefree shriekers to tense nail-biters.
The scriptwriter for the show is Bill Musselman, 29, a bright man in his fifth season whose short muscular frame and light close-cropped hair are archetypal of proper coachly appearance, even if his scenario is not. Musselman blends a pregame ritual of crowd hysteria, raucous music and Harlem Globetrotter drills with a game plan of sticky defense and tightly controlled offense that results in neither the Eagles nor their rivals scoring many baskets. Going to see Ashland play is like being hotly huckstered into a girlie show only to have the lights blow just as the act begins.
In college Musselman played at Wittenberg under Ray Mears, who later moved to the University of Tennessee, where he has made pregame antics, rugged defenses and ponderous offenses a success in the tough Southeastern Conference. Musselman amplified his old coach's philosophy by radically stepping up the showmanship and markedly knocking down the scoring totals. He convinced his followers to cheer themselves into emotional exhaustion before the game started and sold them on the notion that defense is the best part of the game. At Ashland it is. The Eagles led the nation in defense the past three seasons, allowing only 33.9 points per game in 1969.
Since it is not unusual for the Eagles to hold the ball for as long as 40 seconds before they shoot and the fast break is definitely not in their repertoire, some of the defensive credit belongs to the offense. Still, the defense is hardly without merit. Ashland press agents call it a hyperbolic paraboloid transition floating zone, a description that will never stick but is a fair indication of the complexity of Musselman's scrambling combination man-for-man zone defense.
"I teach a lot of offensive patterns and variations and then, to make the defense work, everyone must know exactly where he should be in every situation. If I want to coach that many things, I can only work with one team at a time, so I stick with the same five guys almost all year," Musselman says.
With four members of last year's starling lineup that included a frontcourt averaging 6'8" and a long-armed, quick-handed 6'5" guard. Kevin Wilson, returning, Musselman can stay with a set five again this year. Wilson, whose girl friend introduced him to Christian Science and who plays without having any treatment for his injuries except soothing readings from Mary Baker Eddy, is the key player for Ashland. An exceptional ballhandler, he controls the offense tightly and his wide arm-span gives Musselman a tough man at the point of his defense. Although he may be too slow and not quite shooter enough to make the pros. Wilson gives the Eagles an edge toward winning the small-college championship they have fallen just shy of the past two seasons.
National titles or even the thought of them are something new to Ashland. The town has distinguished itself mainly as the balloon capital of the world, and the college, which was founded 91 years ago by the strict Brethren Church, is just now escaping tight sectarianism. It was not long ago that students had to hide in the woods across the road to smoke a cigarette, and the first dance on campus was not held until 1962. Last semester one of the hottest issues was President Glenn Clayton's veto of a student petition to put a cigarette machine on campus. He later relented.