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From The Nest To The Nationals
Roger Jackson
November 20, 1985
No team ever rose like Tampa, thanks to the Birdman's gilded cagers
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November 20, 1985

From The Nest To The Nationals

No team ever rose like Tampa, thanks to the Birdman's gilded cagers

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DIVISION II

1

Virginia Union

2

Wright State

3

Tampa

4

Kentucky Wesleyan

5

Mount St. Mary's

6

Millersville

7

Norfolk State

8

Florida Southern

9

Jacksonville State

10

District of Columbia

They call University of Tampa basketball coach Richard Schmidt the Birdman, and for good reason. When Schmidt isn't breeding success with the Spartans, who have become top contenders for the Division II national championship just two seasons after the school reintroduced basketball, he's an avid aviculturist who tends a flock of more than 50 African touracos, mynahs and parrots and a pair of ornery black swans in the backyard of his lakeside home in Lutz, Fla. "I have birds that you won't see anywhere else," says Schmidt. "I got into exotic birds about six years ago. I spend most of my time away from the court with them. Guess you could just call me a birdbrain."

You could also call Schmidt a hoopaculturist, a bird dog adept at nurturing that most fragile of all basketball species, the Late-Blooming Sleeper. He has a knack for putting together teams from scratch, as he did when he created a dynasty at Ballard High in Louisville in the mid-1970s. In 1977, after Ballard won the Kentucky state championship, two of the team's stars, Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker, accompanied Schmidt to Virginia, where for two years he served as an assistant to Terry Holland. He became head coach at Vanderbilt in 1979, but was fired after two mediocre and rancorous seasons there. "I've tried to wipe those days out of my mind," he says.

Schmidt took the Tampa job in the summer of 1982, and spent a year preparing for the Spartans' 1983-84 debut. His mission was to revive a program that had been dead since the university's board of trustees, citing abysmal attendance and a lack of funds, dropped it in 1971. To that point, the Spartans had had but six winning seasons in 20 years, and had never been to a postseason tournament. Tampa did have three straight winning seasons, beginning with 1967-68, under Dana Kirk, who's now at Memphis State, but few fans in Tampa had noticed. "A lot of coaches would have shied away from a new situation like this," says Schmidt. "Most of them want to move right in and get it on. They don't want to worry about schedules and uniforms. Sometimes it means you have to change your philosophy. Coaching is a lot like breeding birds. It's a challenge and it's competitive, so you have to stay on top of things. It takes a lot of time and preparation if you want to breed something rare."

Under Schmidt, Tampa became a rare bird indeed. The upstart Spartans made the NCAA tournament field in their first two seasons of competition, a feat no NCAA basketball team had ever achieved. In 1983-84, with four freshmen in the starting lineup, Tampa went 20-11, won the Sunshine State Conference tournament title and earned a berth in the NCAA South Regional. Last season the Spartans improved to 23-8, won their second straight SSC title and advanced to the South Regional final in Jacksonville, Ala., where they lost to eventual national champion Jacksonville State. "In our first year we were just happy to be there," says Todd Linder, Tampa's junior forward, "but last year we wanted to make it to the Final Four."

The Spartans, quick and balanced, can make that trip this season to Springfield, the regular site of the Division II Final Four, if they can keep their front line of Linder, junior Johnny Jones and wispy sophomore Nate Johnston healthy. Linder, a 6'7" skywalker, averaged 17.3 points per game, 6.7 rebounds and hit a phenomenal 71.6% of his shots from the field last season, tops in Division II. If he isn't the best player in small college ball, he is certainly the most explosive. "We key everything in our attack to him," says Spartan assistant coach Don Bostic. "He's the quickest and best leaper I've seen. He's a wide-receiver type."

Funny Bostic should mention that, because Linder didn't play high school basketball until his junior year. Growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla., he thought of himself as the next Tony Dorsett. Only his 6'4", 160-pound sophomore frame was not built for breaking tackles. The next year he tried wide receiver. The new Harold Carmichael? No. Linder quit the team. "A guy could get punished going across the middle for a pass," he says.

"Todd didn't know how to play the game when he came to us," says Schmidt. "If he'd signed with a Division I school, he would have gotten lost."

Jones is a self-professed cartoon fanatic; his favorite show is He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. "I'm just a cartoon sort of person," he says. At 6'4" and 225, he's he-man enough to guard the opposition's biggest man, yet versatile enough to lead Tampa in assists, as he did last season, while finishing third in scoring. "He's the only player I've had who can open the game at center and finish it at the point," says Schmidt.

The most intriguing Spartan is the 18-year-old Johnston, who at 6'8" and 190 pounds is 25 pounds heavier than he was as a freshman. Johnston grew up on a sugar plantation in Belle Glade, Fla.—"miles from nowhere," says Schmidt—where his grandmother, who raised him, worked in the sugarcane fields. "I wanted to go to college to get a suit-and-tie job," says Johnston. "I didn't want to have to work in those fields." At Belle Glade High, Johnston couldn't even crack the starting lineup of the jayvee team. But last season he averaged 9.3 points and 5.3 rebounds for the Spartans, and was the only player besides Linder to start all 31 games. Now he has earned his wings, and Schmidt has reason to expect a whole flock of Spartan victories.

Trips to the Division II Final Four are becoming almost as familiar to MOUNT ST. MARY'S fans as the bow ties worn by Mounties coach Jim Phelan for the last three decades. Last season's appearance—the Mounties lost to South Dakota State in the semis—was the team's fifth under Phelan, and with nine lettermen back, including 6'9" shot-blocker Mike Grimes, the Mounties are likely to make a sixth. "But there's a lot of luck involved," says Phelan. "Last year there was no question in my mind that Virginia Union was the best team in the division. But it lost in the first round and opened the way for us."

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