On a warm October afternoon, Oral Roberts the man stands watching Oral Roberts the team. Poised at courtside, wearing a gaudy green sport jacket, he folds his arms across his chest as basketball coach Ken Trickey leads the Titans through a fast-break drill. "This game here brought our university to the attention of the nation back in the seventies," says Roberts. "It can happen again."
Roberts wanders the sideline, past a sentence painted on the Mabee Center's floor: EXPECT A MIRACLE. This season, divine intervention will hardly be necessary. The Titans went 36-6 in 1989-90, their first NAIA season, and are ready to vie for a national title. "We have an awful lot of talent," says Trickey. "Six or seven of these players could play big-time Division I basketball."
No surprise there, because as recently as 1988-89 the Titans themselves were playing big-time Division I basketball. Or at least trying to. They went 8-20 that season, after offering themselves up as sacrificial lambs to the likes of Oklahoma, Georgetown, Memphis State and Texas. But both the university and the basketball program had taken their biggest beatings away from the court during perhaps the most troubling period since Roberts founded the institution in 1963.
In 1987, Roberts was deeply disturbed by the university's precarious financial condition, so he holed himself up for 10 days in the school's space-needle-like prayer tower, claiming that unless his faithful flock anted up $8 million by April 1, God was going to "call me me home." The press had a field day with the story, and Roberts became fodder for comedians, cartoonists, talk-show hosts, columnists and editorial writers across the country. He got his money by the deadline, but the damage to his image and university had been done.
"Things got real tough for us," says Trickey, who had coached the Titans for five seasons, from 1969 to '74, before returning to the university three years ago. "It was hard on recruiting. Giving was also down. The president [ Roberts] came to me and said he might have to shut down athletics."
To worsen matters, the NCAA had begun a preliminary inquiry into alleged violations committed under Ted Owens, the former Kansas coach who had guided Oral Roberts in 1985-86 and '86-87. In '86, several recruits had allegedly held a raucous $1,200 party—paid for by the school—at a local Sheraton. Reports also surfaced of players receiving airplane tickets, using coaching-staff cars and charging nearly $50,000 in telephone calls to credit cards belonging to assistant coaches. Before the NCAA could launch a full-fledged probe, Oral Roberts bolted to the NAIA.
"I swear before my maker that the NCAA had nothing to do with [moving to the NAIA]," says Trickey. "To be a member of the NCAA, a school must have six men's teams and six women's teams—plus all that traveling. It just got too expensive."
The troubles in Oral Roberts' athletic department didn't begin during Owens' tenure. In 1974, after the Titans upset Louisville at the Mabee Center in the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament, Trickey decided to celebrate the victory at a local bar. He was later pulled over by Tulsa police and charged with DWI. Trickey eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of careless driving and received a suspended sentence, plus a $100 fine and a $25 fee for court costs. This incident was especially embarrassing for the university, where spirits violate not only school spirit but the honor code as well. The Titans lost 93-90 in overtime to Kansas in the next round, and Trickey, under pressure, departed for Iowa State, because, he says, "ORU got snooty."
Over the next 13 seasons, Oral Roberts went through five coaches and reams of bad publicity. The team endured a one-year NCAA probation in 1980-81 under coach Ken Hayes for recruiting and other violations committed during previous coaching regimes, and school officials were accused of lacking holiday cheer for firing Hayes a week before Christmas 1982. Two years later, the Titans finally thought they had the right man in Owens. However, after two scandal-marred seasons, the university was doing everything it could to get rid of him.
"They did a lot of very cruel things to try and get me to resign," says Owens, now the director of development at the Metro Christian Academy in Tulsa. Oral Roberts bought out Owens's contract and brought Trickey back.