Successful coaches do not need to have played college basketball. Intercollegiate basketball can be utterly absent from their undergraduate experience. To borrow from Pope Francis, their alma mater could have considered athletics the dung of the devil.
Yet such barren ground can produce remarkable basketball achievement.
Asbury University, take a bow. It is the alma mater of such coaches as:
Steve Smith, winner of 1,000 games for Oak Hill Academy and a nominee for induction in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Scott Chalk, who led Paul Laurence Dunbar to the Kentucky Sweet Sixten state championship this year.
George Barber, a former graduate assistant at Kentucky who became the winningest coach in Greenville (Ill.) College history.
Larry Davis, the associate head coach at Cincinnati. He guided the Bearcats to the 2015 NCAA Tournament after illness sidelined Mick Cronin. His basketball résumé also includes being an assistant on Clem Haskins’ staff when Minnesota reached the 1997 Final Four and the recruitment of Tim Duncan for Wake Forest.
These men cut their coaching teeth in what Asbury called “class ball.” Each class — freshman, sophomore, junior and senior — had men’s and women’s teams. There were uniforms, cheerleaders and referees (including future coordinator of Southeastern Conference officials, Jake Bell).
“It was glorified intramurals,” said Barber, who coached a women’s team.
Chalk, who played as a freshman and sophomore on class teams coached by Smith, recalled it as “really a neat kind of thing, at least as a substitute for the real thing.”
Winston Smith, the father of Steve and twin brother Stuart, could be called the Adolph Rupp of Asbury class ball. It was going on when he attended Asbury from 1946 to 1950. But after he coached at Taylor University, Malone College and Los Angeles Pacific, he returned to Asbury as a professor in 1965 and made class ball memorable.
To put it politely, Asbury’s long-standing president at the time did not share the elder Smith’s enthusiasm for athletics. Neither did the new president who arrived a year later.
Mark Perdue, the athletics director at Asbury the past five years, explained. As a Christian liberal arts institution in the Wesleyan heritage, Asbury’s leaders frowned on athletics. They believed it glorified the body, thus it detracted from the worship of God. They also believed it distracted students from academic pursuits.
The elder Smith, who taught biology, focused his athletic interests in class ball, which he recalled as “a pretty high-spirited affair.” The teams practiced more than once a week. He ultimately organized the best players from the four classes into a travel team that played competition off campus.
As an interim step toward intercollegiate competition, the elder Smith got permission to organize a Thanksgiving tournament.
In the early 1990s, Asbury finally began an intercollegiate basketball program. The school plays in NAIA Division II.
“I think the teachers started seeing that it brought discipline to (athletes’) studies,” Perdue said of the growing acceptance of athletics. “It brought discipline to their lives.”
Of Asbury’s 311 student-athletes in the 2015 fall semester, 206 had a grade-point average of 3.0 or better, Perdue said.
Chalk attributed the link between class ball and accomplished coaches to “real fraternity of people who really loved basketball.”
Effective teachers of basketball are not always the fruit from some iconic coach’s so-called “tree.” Chalk suggested it might be better to study a wide range of coaches rather than be a devotee of one way.
“When I watch a game, I watch with a pen and paper,” he said. “Still do.”
To ask how the coaching success sprang from such humble beginnings is to hear about what sounds like divine intervention.
Barber marvels at how in 10 years he went from coach of a women’s class ball team to graduate assistant on UK’s 1996 national champions.
“Of course, it’s a Christian school, so all decisions are tied to faith,” he said of Asbury. “‘Lord, I’ll do whatever you want me to do, but I really want to coach.’ And the Lord’s really blessed me. How can a kid that’s not that good, probably better at baseball, be on the staff at Kentucky when they win a national championship? So that was a huge blessing and surprise.”
No surprise that Perdue is proud of what the coaching alums have achieved.
“I think it’s awesome,” the Asbury athletics director said. “God’s got their hand and He’s given them a foundation of coming to Asbury.”
New start at Vandy
Besides Kentucky, no SEC school is identified with basketball more than Vanderbilt. But when it comes to attention-grabbing success, the Commodores have been something of a tease.
For all its tradition (Memorial Gym Magic, Clyde Lee, Perry Wallace, the F Troop, etc.) Vandy has had little postseason success. Only four times have the Commodores advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. Its record in those games is 0-4.
Enter new coach Bryce Drew.
When asked about the potential of Vandy basketball, Drew said, “Obviously, that’s our goal. To break through to that next level.”
Besides the attraction of living in Nashville, Drew touted Vandy’s reputation as a top academic school as a tool in recruiting. “We’re looking for a unique player who wants that fit,” he said.
Drew has a tough act to follow. Kevin Stallings was the winningest coach in Vandy history when he left this spring for Pittsburgh.
When asked about replacing the school’s winningest coach, Drew said with a chuckle, “I’ve done it once before with my dad at Valpo.”
His father, Homer Drew, was the winningest coach in Valparaiso history.
“I try not to compare myself to others,” the younger Drew said. “I want to be my own coach moving forward.
“My dad gave me some great advice when I was blessed to be able to take over from him. Just to be myself. That’s something I’ll take into this job.”
In five seasons as Valpo’s coach, Drew averaged 25 victories. He was a three-time winner of the Horizon League Coach of the Year award. Two of his teams played in the NCAA Tournament.
Then there’s Memorial Gym and the benches behind the baselines. Every other court in college basketball has its benches along the sideline.
When asked if a new coach might mean a new location for the benches, Drew chuckled again and said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen. I know some other coaches in the league have tried to make it happen.”
Drew acknowledged the “unique setup” at Vanderbilt, then said, “I’m a Chicago Cubs fan. I love Wrigley Field. I kind of compare it to one of those historic baseball stadiums that are unique.”
Prince and the paper
The death of music star Prince this past week led to a blog posting by ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, who wrote about the time Prince met Minneapolis sportswriting icon Sid Hartman.
It was 2007 and Hartman had learned that Prince would be playing at the Super Bowl. Hartman asked Bob Hagan, a public relations director with the Minnesota Vikings, to help arrange a meeting.
Hartman, still an active columnist in his 84th year working for a Minneapolis newspaper, met Hagan at the Miami Convention Center. They hoped to find Prince before a scheduled news conference announcing the Super Bowl appearance.
Hartman and Hagan talked their way past security and saw Prince at a distance. Hagan recalled Hartman calling out “Hey, Prince! Hey, Prince!”
Here’s how Seifert took it from there.
The bodyguards looked over and saw an 87-year-old sportswriter trying to get a little personal time with one of the quirkiest celebrities of our times.
“The seas just parted,” Hagan said. “And Prince turned around, really slow, to see who this was.”
Prince looked at Sid.
Sid looked at Prince.
“Hello, Mr. Hartman,” Prince said. “How are you?”
Everyone — the bodyguards, other staffers, Hagan — stood there, mouths agape. They couldn’t decide whether it was more stunning that someone had the audacity to chase down Prince, or that Prince had responded in kind.
Sid and Prince stood there and chatted for what Hagan remembers was three or four minutes.
“Prince was very polite and they had a very, very cordial talk,” Hagan said. “I think Prince brought up some local sports with him.”
Dread the Drake?
The rapper Drake is gaining a reputation as a jinx. A story in The New York Times last week detailed the latest example.
Drake (real name Aubrey Drake Graham) is a fan of the Toronto Raptors. He attended the first game of Toronto’s playoff series against Indiana. The Raptors lost.
And, as The Times reported, Drake started spending time with Serena Williams shortly before she lost in the U.S. Open last year.
A Kentucky basketball fan of some renown, he was also involved in a secondary rules violation at a Big Blue Madness.
The Times also said that Drake has been blamed for struggles by the Liverpool soccer club and Johnny Manziel.
To EJ Floreal, Dominique Hawkins and Alex Poythress. They made the SEC’s Spring Academic Honor Roll. Floreal and Hawkins major in communications, while Poythress pursued a master’s degree in sports leadership.
UK’s women’s team also had three players on the honor roll: Janee Thompson (journalism/communications), Alyssa Rice (business management) and Ivana Jakubcova (psychology).
To Ryan Harrow. He turned 25 on Friday. … To Fred Cowan. He turned 58 on Saturday. … To Bob McCowan. He turned 67 on Saturday. … To Todd Bearup. He turns 49 on Monday. … To former UK assistant coach David Hobbs. He turns 67 on Monday. … To Bob Tallent. He turns 70 on Tuesday.