If a poll were taken among the numerous major-college assistant coaches who have flown into Pensacola, Fla. in recent months to scout the wealth of junior-college basketball talent there, most of them would admit that when they left town the next day, they did so against their own free will.
Almost all were met at the airport by a man fresh from the paddleball court who drove up in a yellow Corvette. He claimed to be Pensacola Junior College Coach Rich Daly, but looked so much like Actor Jack Nicholson that there was only one way a visitor could be sure he had the right man. If the welcomer wore a green baseball cap to conceal a hair transplant and talked of going to the dog races, the odds are it was Daly.
What generally followed was a tour of PJC's sprawling campus, a glimpse of the school's 9,000 students and then a couple of hours on "the world's whitest beaches." In most cases, this was sufficient to convince a recruiter from the biggest of the big schools that his 33-year-old juco host had some rather special recruiting inducements of his own. The proof was the young talent Daly trotted out for his 3:15 practice. His roster, which includes a high-jumping forward named David Thompson, is so loaded that PJC could become this year's National Junior College Athletic Association champion, although first it must win the tough local playoffs down in Florida.
For the particularly skeptical visitor still not drooling over Pensacola, Daly's clinchers included a plate of fresh crab legs and an after-dinner cocktail at the PJC president's home overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. "A lot of guys end up spending the night on our sofa on account of we stay up so late talking basketball," Daly says. "That's when I usually hear that it's no mystery how we get players from the North down here and how I've got it better at PJC than the big-name guys they work for. I guess they're not far wrong, either."
Now how can that possibly be, since for years one of the tenets of university division basketball was that the only thing lower than a junior-college player was a junior-college coach? Most major-college coaches believed they could not win consistently with juco transfers because kids unable to make C's in high school could not be expected to understand the X's and O's of a sophisticated chalk-talk. These same men accused JC coaches of things far worse than being unable to read and write. They called their junior college colleagues "the coaches who hope the seniors flunk."
Well, times have changed: the only thing big-time coaches are yelling at juco men these days is "Help!" With universities no longer certain of a player's services for four years because of the pros' undergraduate drafts, and the pressure to win spiraling higher than inflation, the junior-college shortcut has become the most important new tool in major-college recruiting. Want to turn around a bad team overnight the way Bill Musselman did at Minnesota? Need a big guard as badly as Norm Sloan did to make North Carolina State a national champ? Get yourself some jucos. Three of last year's NCAA semifinalists—N.C. State, Marquette and Kansas—started JC transfers. John Wooden built the UCLA dynasty with the help of players such as Wicks, Vallely, Erickson and Hirsch. They all came from two-year schools in California, which has America's biggest JC system.
And the brightest new star in professional basketball last year was a former juco. Buffalo's Bob McAdoo, the NBA's leading scorer, played for the Vincennes ( Ind.) 1970 NJCAA champions before taking North Carolina to the 1972 NCAA semifinals and turning pro.
Even junior-college coaches have begun to gain some respect. The Atlanta Hawks' Cotton Fitzsimmons spent nine seasons at Moberly (Mo.) JC, and a couple of juco coaches named Jerry Hale and Joedy Gardner have just moved up to the head jobs at Oral Roberts and West Virginia University. All of which indicates that junior college men should be crossed off the list of oppressed minorities. They're all the rage now.
Few of them have found life quite as kind as Daly has. Born in Missouri, he had succeeded Fitzsimmons as coach of the local junior college by the time he was 26. Not that Moberly is just the local junior college. The Greyhounds have gone to the nationals in Hutchinson, Kans. more times than any other school and have won a record four titles.
Fitzsimmons was a difficult act to follow, even for a local boy, but Daly was a winner from the start. He brought in five black starters without checking with anyone but his wife Denny. "We both knew that wouldn't sit too well with the staid, white Moberly community," she says. "But before I realized what was happening, Rich had talked me into letting them live with us. With our four kids, that made 11 in one house. We made our basement into a dormitory and somehow became one big happy family."