An apocryphal story is making the rounds in Normal, home of the high-flying (17-2 through last weekend) Redbirds of Illinois State. Two Illinois State players are sitting in a local eatery, and three appealing young women walk in. "What'll we do?" asks one of the players. "There's three of them and only two of us." "Relax," says the other, "we'll play a zone." But that's not the punch line. The kicker is that Coach Bob Donewald immediately suspends the two players for uttering the word zone in public. Illinois State never uses a zone, thank you.
At week's end the Redbirds were at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference, tied with Wichita State, because of just one thing—a clinging, clawing man-to-man defense that leaves opponents bruised and sometimes bitter. "If you take away their cheap shots, I'd say they're the best defensive team we've faced," said Wichita State Forward Antoine Carr after being battered in a recent 54-53 loss. "That's the best defense we've played against all season," said Drake Coach Gary Garner after a 65-59 defeat on Feb. 3. Asked to name the second best, Garner replied, "No one else is close."
"I've heard us referred to as a blue-collar basketball team," says Donewald. "I think that's pretty accurate. We dig and scratch for about everything we get."
As Illinois State's victories accumulate, so do complaints about the physical pounding its opponents have had to endure from its bump 'n' no run defense. On Jan. 24 at the Redbirds' Horton Field House, Tulsa Coach Nolan Richardson, suffering through what would be a 61-55 loss, became so worked up that he got into a shoving match on the floor with Rick Lamb, the Illinois State center and premier enforcer. After the game Donewald, adding insult to injury, said of Richardson, "They ought to do something about that thug in the polka-dot shirt."
"This place is a zoo," was what Richardson had to say.
It can be argued that the Redbirds are merely doing what they had to do to survive. The tallest starter, Forward Mark Zwarts, stands only 6'8". The leading scorer, the 6'7" Lamb, was averaging only 13.5 points a game through last Saturday. "If this team became soft it would become mediocre very quickly," says Donewald. "Somehow we just keep making enough good plays to enjoy some success. We're not an overly gifted team." But the Redbirds' lack of outstanding natural ability is considered an asset by Donewald, who says he has neither the time nor the inclination to deal with runaway egos: "I'd much rather have players who will be a part of the program than more talented players who won't listen."
The main influence on Donewald's basketball philosophy was the five years he spent as an assistant to Bobby Knight at Indiana, during which the Hoosiers won the 1976 NCAA championship. Besides developing a taste for defense and the motion offense, which in Illinois State's case looks like five guys cruising around looking for trouble, Donewald says he learned "how a successful program should be run."
What he means by program is best demonstrated in the Redbirds' closed practices. These often make a better show than the games. Donewald and his assistants brandish their clipboards like swords, and their goading voices echo throughout the building. The players respond by knocking the stuffing out of each other; rarely is a whistle blown. Recently, Forward Hank Cornley has taken to wearing a set of futuristic-looking goggles to protect a broken orbital bone under his right eye, the result of a UFE (unidentified flying elbow) thrown in practice.
"At the beginning of the year I tell the players that I will get on them as athletes but never as individuals, as people," says Donewald. "I have no right to do that, but they should demand that I criticize them as a coach to help their own development.
"It was a bit difficult for them to adjust to the intensity at first, but now it's something they're aware of when they come into the program. If intensity, concentration and purpose weren't characteristics that were already there in a player, then I wouldn't want him here anyway."