Archive for Sunday, March 18, 2001

Kansas imprints all over tourney

From Naismith to Manning, Jayhawks have made mark on NCAAs

March 18, 2001


Please pardon the awe and pride this Kansas native feels each March about the monumental footprint Kansas University and its people have planted on the fabric of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The longer you read about it, the more prominently it looms.

No matter whether Jayhawks win or lose in any given event, there forever will be splashes of Crimson and Blue paint all over the NCAA bandwagon.

Long before the tournament could evolve, somebody had to invent the game. A guy did that at Springfield, Mass., then shifted to Kansas for a long education-oriented tenure prior to his death in 1939. James Naismith in 1898 arrived as a physical education instructor, was KU's first coach and later had a pupil named Forrest Allen. So unenchanted was Dr. Jim about the game that he told Allen, "Forrest, you don't coach basketball, you just play it."

The low-key Naismith didn't make some road trips with his teams and now and then officiated when a referee didn't show up. When he turned the team over to Phog Allen in 1907, Naismith's record was 55-60, establishing him as the only losing coach on the Mount Oread books. No matter, the devout Naismith preferred a role as a teacher and spiritual adviser.

Phog Allen coached here awhile, took time off to become an osteopath and also coached at Haskell, Baker and Central Missouri State. He could tutor any sport, including football, and often did. This incomparable individual wheeled-and-dealed his way to greatness in coaching and was one of the finest all-around citizens (draft board, community chest, you name it) this area has ever known.

He'd long felt basketball should be an Olympic sport. In 1936 Phog was the key man in getting it accepted as such. He was supposed to help coach the Yanks, but he had a falling out with Olympic tyrants and dropped out.

Then Phog got the notion college basketball not only needed a championship tournament but that the NCAA could make money from such. Folks often doubted Phog and wound up with egg on their face. The early going made the skeptics look good.

Total attendance, at all sites, for the first tourney in 1939 was 15,025; the title game drew 5,500. There was only about $100 each for the finalists (Oregon beat Ohio State). Next year, Phog the promoter helped convince coaches they ought to have a national convention. They had the first of many in Kansas City, where Indiana beat Phog's Jayhawks 60-42. Total attendance at all the tourney venues was 38,880. There were 10,000 in KC's Municipal Auditorium with KU the lure, and each team took home $750.

Nowadays, teams get something like $280,000 for each game they play, thanks mainly to a $1.75 billion (that's "b") contract with CBS that runs through 2002. All the while, Dutch Lonborg, first as Northwestern basketball coach and later as Kansas athletics director, was one of the main functionaries on the NCAA Tournament Committee. Dutch, from Horton, was one of the greatest all-around athletes KU ever turned out and worked wonders with Phog on behalf of the tournament.

Too often overlooked in the assignments of praise is NCAA boss Walt Byers, who was a visionary like Phog and Dutch, dreamed big and laid the groundwork for today's Circus Maximus. Byers, Phog and Dutch had their differences but knew how to get things done.

There's no way in one column to cite all the KU influences on the tournament. But Jayhawks and ex-Jayhawks pop up every time you turn a corner. And Kansas State, with its Jack Gardner, Tex Winter, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Jack Hartman, Lon Kruger, et al, contributions, has had 22 years of tourney time with a 27-26 record against KU's 59-29. Kansas State finished second in 1951, against Kentucky, and was for my money the No. 2 best team in the land in '52 when KU won the title for the first time.

Bluegrass Baron Adolph Rupp left Halstead and KU for Kentucky and became a legend, winning four titles while establishing a reputation as a fierce competitor.

Phog and KU won in 1952, came within a point in 1953. Wilt Chamberlain, coach Dick Harp and Co. were one point shy in triple overtime in 1957. That gut-wrencher in Kansas City drew the greatest media horde in college history, 64 newspaper guys, an 11-station television hookup and live radio broadcasts on 73 stations in 11 states. You think Kansas and Chamberlain had anything to do with it?

Meanwhile, there was a one-time KU substitute named Dean Smith about to burst upon the scene and become, at North Carolina, the winningest coach in college annals passing en route, would you guess it, megastars Phog Allen and Adolph Rupp.

Danny Manning, Larry Brown and The Miracles came home with the gold in 1988. More beak-marks.

You could write all night about players such as Wilt, Clyde Lovellette, B.H. Born, Manning, Bobby Allen, Ralph Miller, Howard Engleman, Al and Dean Kelley counting this year's squad, more than 100 Jayhawks have taken part in the tournament. So many have contributed so much, and Roy Williams and his guys have kept the Kansas flavor strong. Roy's clubs have Final Four-ed in 1991 and 1993 and one of his crews also is likely to go all the way one day.

KU's Smith and Dick Harp are two of only six guys ever to head-coach and play in the Final Four. There are countless other indelible impacts.

Anywhere you look, you see feathers indicating that Jayhawks, like the mysterious World War II Kilroy, have been there. Why shouldn't Kansans be a little puffed up with pride during March Madness? Some mighty sane Sunflower guys brought all about.

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