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Chuck Noe broke his leg sliding into home plate 15 years ago in Tucson, Ariz. That finished his career as a promising second baseman in the Boston Red Sox chain and started him on another as a basketball coach. Now 35 years old, Noe is in his sixth season at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He has a wife, four children, a shock of brown hair turning steel gray in spots, a wide, boyish face, and a basketball team that will beat West Virginia for the Southern Conference title, something no one has done for six years.
Tech has become more of a conference threat every winter since 1955 when Noe arrived and converted a team that had lost 20 of 27 games into one that won 14 of 25. "You can always tell when you're making progress," says Noe, his blue eyes sparkling like a new electric scoreboard. "Used to be opponents always welcomed us with open arms and big steaks. Now we get dirty looks. They used to put their arms around me and say, 'How's your wife? How's the kids?' Now they just say the game starts at 8:15. I reckon that's progress." A more concrete gauge of this progress is Noe's record at Tech. He's won 78 of 117 games, mainly on the road. Rivals are loath to schedule games on the Blacksburg campus because of its small gym and violently partisan crowd. As a result, Tech played only six home games last year—and won them all—during a 20-6 season. A 10,000-seat field house is now being built at VPI, which means that Noe will no longer have to change the subject when prospective recruits want to see the gym. "When they ask about the gym," he says, "we look surprised and say 'Are you interested in facilities or are you here to get an education?' "Noe's quick smile and "country" humor arc useful recruiting assets, but they are by no means his only ones. He is an intelligent, aggressive man who revels in the challenge and excitement of competition. And he has the knack of generating a positive, winning attitude.
Thus, when Tech flew to Alabama last week to play in the Birmingham Classic, no one discussed the possibility that the team might be tired after a week of staying up late to study for final exams or might be handicapped because an injured starter was left at home. And when the flight was four hours late, no one complained about getting to bed at 3 a.m.
Tired and short-handed, Tech lost its first game to Auburn, 76-73. This was hardly a disgrace, since Auburn has essentially the same team that led the Southeastern Conference last year, beating such clubs as Kentucky and Georgia Tech. Furthermore, Noe's boys were way ahead of Auburn in field goals (32 to 20) and in rebounds (46 to 35). They lost because they committed 29 fouls, and it is a good bet that this won't happen again this season to Tech.
Clearly the best performer on the floor was Tech's 6-foot-6 center Chris Smith, who scored 24 points and had 21 rebounds. The next night he led Tech to an 81-54 victory over Baylor and was chosen the Classic's most valuable player. He is a square-jawed, crew-cut, rugged battler whose sheer strength and spring will surely bring him All-America honors this year. In both games he had first-class support from an agile, deadpan shooter named Bob Ayersman and Guard Bucky Keller, who has the lithe, eager muscles of a high jumper. These three are surrounded by a cluster of aggressive sophomores and juniors.
Noe's formula for winning basketball has not changed since the day he began coaching. The key word is "pressure." His guards penetrate quickly, applying instant pressure to opponents. There is little scrimmaging at a Tech practice. One drill after another pits man against man until each has been in a hundred separate battles. "Get it, get it, get it!" Noe shouts, as a guard sprints up and down the court trying to steal the ball from a lone dribbler. "All athletics are games of habit," Noe says. "We try to form good habits here. No drill is over until someone has gained or lost possession."
A valuable fringe benefit is the competitiveness which also becomes habit. "An aggressive defense," Noe says,' 'suits the instincts of a real competitive boy. Most of all, I never want to hem a boy in. Give him freedom, follow certain basics, and drill him so he's confident he can beat his man."