At Bradley there is a coach whose mother wrote The Flying Nun and whose grandfather, he claims, introduced broccoli to America. The coach says his players' brawls in the locker room—the media are asked to leave on these occasions—merely indicate their "school spirit."
At Tulsa there is a scorekeeper who might duke it out with the devil—forget school spirit—or anybody else who wants to question his foul count. Meanwhile, the student section is equipped with mop wigs, black suits, gorilla outfits and violin cases, the better to portray a certain rival head coach and his assistant as members of the Mafia.
At Drake a player named Pop until this season ran out for the intros popping a finger as a warning to the opponents' bench. And then he popped kisses on his teammates right there at center court. At Southern Illinois scores of fans behind the backboard wave miniature backboards at opposing foul shooters. In the midst of the confusion waves a sign reading PICK ONE.
At Wichita State two young and gifted forwards unload astonishing dunk shots while reporters unload astonishing charges of coaches financing everything from clothes to a player's former girl friend's abortion. According to The Kansas City Times, the Wheatshockers lead the nation in sham as well as slam.
Well, now, if it isn't the Missouri Valley Conference alive and kicking again. All 10 schools, eight states and three time zones. Sprawling as it does all over the Midwest, "the Valley" has long been the passion pit of college basketball, lending the game spectacle and scandal, a couple of two-time national championship teams and characters ranging from the unforgettable Oscar Robertson to the forgotten Levern (Jelly) Tart. My goodness, old Ronnie (Jelly Bean) Reagan, himself, even did some play-by-play in the conference way back before he discovered Frank Sinatra.
But then hard times befell the Valley. The railroad died or something. But with the arrival of Larry Bird, new coaches and aggressive recruiting came a commitment to get the conference amovin' again.
To set the record straight, there is no valley in the Valley anymore; today there isn't even a league member in the state of Missouri. Its heart and soul lie in places like Peoria and Des Moines, which are favorite buzz words in the routines of stand-up comedians. Look, lady, they loved me in Des Moines
. Haw, haw, haw. Oh, but the people in the Missouri Valley Conference do enjoy their college basketball.
After a season brimming over with surprise and controversy and the usual junior-college transfers, the Missouri Valley headed into this week's postseason tournament with five teams hopeful of bids to the NCAA or NIT tournaments, three of those staring at the possibility of 20 or more victories, and one fully capable of challenging for the national championship. That is, if Wichita State doesn't stumble and trip over all the Monopoly money being hurled its way by witty fans conversant with the NCAA investigations.
By the time the regular season reached its crescendo in Peoria last Thursday with a booster luncheon featuring Howard Cosell, Al McGuire and Marlon Brando, a student pep rally attended by the deceased General George C. Patton, and then the big game in Robertson Memorial Field House between Bradley and Wichita State, the Missouri Valley had come all-the way back to a prominence it last attained before schools like Louisville and Cincinnati went high tone and left the league.
In truth, Cosell, McGuire, Brando and George C. Scott (as Patton) weren't on hand in Peoria, but a talented local TV guy name of Dave Snell, who does wunnerful impersonations, was. Snell's wide-ranging repertoire also included the schools' curly-perm coaches, Dick Versace of Bradley and Gene Smithson of Wichita State.