THE LONG GOODBYE
For a lame-duck coach, Vanderbilt's C.M. Newton is getting an extraordinary effort out of his 32nd—and probably final—college team. A rather astonishing 108-74 home-court victory over LSU and freshman phenom Chris Jackson last Saturday gave the Commodores a 10-4 Southeastern Conference record and pulled them into a three-way tie with LSU and Florida for the league lead. Said guard Barry Booker, "This is the game we've been waiting for...now we've just got to take care of business and we could be league champs."
The Commodore players were dismayed in late January after the 59-year-old Newton, now in his eighth season at Vanderbilt, announced that he was resigning, effective April 1, to become athletic director at Kentucky, his alma mater. Only a few weeks earlier, after all, Newton had told his team that he wasn't interested in the Kentucky job. After he changed his mind, the Commodores weren't the only ones in Nashville who were disappointed. Veteran columnist John Bibb of The Tennessean wrote that Newton should resign immediately to avoid a conflict of interest.
But after Vanderbilt beat Kentucky by 30 points on Feb. 8—the Commodores' biggest win ever over the Wildcats—Bibb leaned out of the press box near the top of Memorial Gymnasium, waved a white handkerchief at Newton down on the floor, and bellowed, "I surrender!" The players also were quick to forgive their coach, whose honesty and integrity are the very reasons Kentucky decided he was the man to clean up the Wildcats' basketball program when a highly publicized NCAA investigation is finally complete. "Nobody on the team wanted coach Newton to resign," said Barry Goheen, the Commodores' clutch-shooting senior guard. "All that stuff did was make us more determined to win."
The Commodores can make Newton's swan song even sweeter by beating Florida in Gainesville on Saturday. In the teams' first game in Nashville, Vandy had a 72-70 lead and possession of the ball with only two seconds remaining. Incredibly, the Commodores ended up with an 81-78 overtime loss, thanks to fans who pelted Gator star Dwayne Schintzius with tennis balls, an incident that led the refs to call a technical foul on Vanderbilt. Two Schintzius free throws tied the game in regulation. Said Newton, "That was the most bitter loss I've ever been associated with."
February Fever is a malady that reaches epidemic levels among college basketball coaches every year as tournament time nears. The most obvious symptoms are climbing blood pressure and hyperactive vocal cords. In extreme cases coaches have been known to rip off articles of clothing in public, stomp and kick violently and whine incessantly about the lamentable state of officiating.
The disease is mainly caused by the intense competition for berths in the 64-team NCAA tournament. Under pressure, coaches usually take out their frustrations on the officials. Last week, for example, TCU coach Moe Iba was reprimanded by the Southwest Conference for getting into a shouting match with referee Bob Vetkoetter as Iba left the floor at halftime of the game with Arkansas, which the Horned Frogs lost 100-60.
Hank Nichols, the outstanding referee who works part-time for the NCAA as coordinator of officials, understands the pressure, but he feels that if the coaches really want better officiating, they must get off the refs' backs. "The officials have to deal with the bench too much instead of concentrating on refereeing the games," says Nichols. "It becomes ludicrous. Indeed, coaches should take the responsibility of living with the officials' mistakes, which are as much a part of basketball as a missed layup or a bad coaching move. This is especially true with young, new officials. Coaches need to let them make their mistakes and survive. When the day comes that the officials don't have to worry about extraneous pressure from the bench and the stands, the officiating will automatically improve."
Good heavens! Coaches concentrating on coaching instead of posturing for the crowds and the TV cameras? Somebody take this man's temperature immediately. It could be a new strain of February Fever.