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Big-name prospects don't usually give Sanderson the time of day because they know how unseriously basketball is taken at Alabama. If the basketball team were to play for the national championship, the student body might build a bonfire—as long as it didn't endanger the football complex. The Tide filled Memorial Coliseum (capacity 15,043) for the Auburn game, but that has been the only home sellout so far. The players deserve better: Their only losses—to Duke and Florida State—occurred while Coner was out with a bad knee, and they have won 11 straight since he returned from arthroscopic surgery. Now the Tide is rolling, thanks to Coner, McKey and the nonstop motion of Farmer, Gottfried and backup point guard James Jackson.
The 6'4" Farmer is a reconstructed football player who once told Bear Bryant that he would play for Bryant someday. "It was at an athletic banquet in my hometown, Dothan," says Farmer. "I was in grammar school. But then I injured my knee in the ninth grade and had surgery, and I turned to basketball."
Farmer, who averages 17.3 points per game, is a fully matured fifth-year senior. "Our secret is that we're a veteran team," he says. "We seem to know what each of us is going to do before we do it."
Lining up for the opening tip before ' Bama's 14-point road win over Kentucky on Jan. 7, Gottfried and Farmer circled the Wildcats' star freshman guard, Rex Chapman. "We looked at his face," says Gottfried, the team's designated three-point bomber, "and Jim and I pretty much felt that hey, he's gonna be great, but right now he's still a boy." Farmer scored 20 in the second half as the Tide won going away. Chapman scored nine.
Sanderson was seen on his knees with his head on the floor in mock supplication to the officials after a charging call had nullified a three-pointer by Farmer. "Look at him!" screamed SEC television commentator Joe Dean. "Look at Wimp Sanderson! Think he doesn't want this game?"
That he does. Sanderson didn't exactly arrive at Alabama with a trumpet flourish. They save that kind of behavior for incoming football honchos: Wimp came to Alabama as a graduate assistant to Hayden Riley 27 years ago. "To tell the truth, I had only planned to stay for one year," says Wimp. But one year became 20, and when Newton left for Vanderbilt in 1980, he recommended Sanderson to athletic director Bryant. The Bear didn't care all that much about basketball, as if that's any surprise, so he went along with Newton's suggestion. But Sanderson didn't think of basketball as a time killer between football seasons. "I had to prove something to the alumni," says Sanderson. "And I had to prove something to myself." The no-name, but savvy, assistant became the no-name, but savvier, head coach. "I came in here, stood right on this very spot, and thanked Coach Bryant for giving me the chance," says Sanderson. "He said, 'Wimp, I didn't have nothing to do with it. But I damn sure could've stopped it if I wanted to.' "
Seven years later Sanderson is not quite an Alabama institution, but he's working on it. When the Birmingham Post-Herald invited Sanderson, Smith and UAB coach Gene Bartow to write columns for each Monday's paper, no one suspected that Wimp would have so much fun. To wit:
"I read some of the columns in last week's papers and I'm convinced I've got a better chance of being a successful sportswriter than most of the sportswriters who think they may be able to coach," he wrote after the Tide beat Kentucky. "I don't know if you're having a hard time sleeping, but if you are...go to your kitchen, get a warm glass of milk and read... Gene Bartow and Sonny Smith's articles. You probably won't wake up until noon the next day."
As for his being caught on his knees in the Kentucky game, Wimp wrote, "I figure the best place for a coach to be is on his knees." Not bad for a guy who claims he "flunked English in four states." If Coner's knee holds up—he was limping noticeably last week—Wimp could be turning phrases from now until April.