A bunch of Big Red what-ifs

This week is the 50th anniversary of one of the strangest incidents in the history of UW athletics, summarized by Madison.com:

In 1968, the University of Wisconsin interviewed seven finalists for its vacant head basketball coaching position, before choosing Army coach Robert Knight, 27. The UW Athletic Board was searching for a replacement for John Erickson, who resigned to accept the position of general manager of the NBA’s new franchise in Milwaukee.

Knight, announced as the new coach on April 25, renounced his selection in anger 2 days later, over the premature release of his acceptance.

John Powless, the number two choice, and an assistant under Erickson since 1963, was then selected after an emergency meeting of the Athletic Board.

The rest of the “first four” besides Knight were UW–Milwaukee coach Ray Krzoska, Southern Illinois coach Jack Hartman, and Earl Lloyd, who played in the NBA in the 1950s and after this coached the Detroit Pistons.

Hartman might have been a good choice. (Read on for why I write “might.”) He got Southern Illinois from the NCAA’s Division II to Division I, moved on to Kansas State, and between junior college, the Salukis and the Wildcats won 578 games in 24 seasons, getting to the D1 Elite Eight four times and the Sweet Sixteen twice at K-State. Krzoska went 86–87 in seven seasons at UWM, and left two seasons after applying at UW. Lloyd went 22–55 with the Pistons.

The “last three” included two UW assistants, John Powless and Dave Brown.

Also included was a guy with some similarities to Knight, Jim Harding, the coach at La Salle in Philadelphia. Harding coached one season at La Salle and went 20–8, though La Salle was then placed on NCAA probation over two players’ revoked scholarships, and Harding was fired. One of his players, eventual American Basketball Association player Roland “Fatty” Taylor, said, “Forty years later, if I saw him today sitting in a wheelchair, I’d walk over and smack him.”

Instead of going to Wisconsin (or to the Bucks, where he reportedly was a candidate for their coaching position), Harding then went to the American Basketball Association’s Minnesota Pipers, and, well, here’s what happened there, according to Stew Thornley:

The Pipers would open the season in Minnesota with a new leader. Vince Cazzetta, who had coached the Pipers to the championship, resigned after Erickson and Rubin refused to give him a raise to cover moving his wife and six children to the Twin Cities. Hired to replace Cazzetta was 39-year old Jim Harding, who had compiled a 93-28 record in five seasons at LaSalle College in Philadelphia.

Harding had been equally successful in coaching tenures at two other colleges, but he left behind a trail of NCAA violations and endless turmoil, the latter a pattern that followed him to the professional ranks. …

The tension between Harding and the players came to a head after an altercation between the coach and center Tom Hoover. Unhappy that the incident was reported in the newspapers, Harding ordered his players not to talk to sportswriters and closed all practices to the press. The Minnesota management, in turn, refused to back Harding and all restrictions on the press were lifted.

During the next week, Harding began experiencing chest pains and underwent an electrocardiogram. Just before the team was to fly to Houston for a December 20 game, it was announced that Harding would not be making the trip. Concerned by the coach’s chest pains and dangerously-high blood pressure, doctors ordered Harding to take an indefinite leave of absence.

[General manager Vern] Mikkelsen assumed the coaching duties in the interim. The Pipers won only six of thirteen during that time but still maintained the lead in the division. Originally, Harding was to be gone for six weeks, and the Pipers said Mikkelsen would take his place as coach of the East squad in the All- Star Game. Harding, however, returned three weeks early and was back on the bench in mid-January. …

Harding was angered, however, by Washington and Williams absence at a banquet the night before the All-Star Game and attempted to fine them $500 each. His anger increased when he was overruled by team officials, and he sought out part-owner Gabe Rubin.

The result was a bloody midnight confrontation that left Rubin with a welt on his temple (and Harding with a scratched face). Harding was immediately relieved of his All-Star duties by Commissioner [George] Mikan; two days later, he was fired as coach of the Pipers.

Harding then spent four years at Detroit Mercy (after being the Titans’ second choice when first-choice Don Haskins of Texas–El Paso quit two days after he was hired — yes, there’s a theme developing here), going 55–45 while apparently alienating all his players due to his methods to the point where, at the beginning of his second season, all of his players quit. Harding, who had coached high school basketball in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa before going to La Salle, had only one losing season in six years of college coaching, but never coached after leaving Detroit Mercy. (Harding’s eventual replacement: Dick Vitale. Really.) Harding eventually became athletic director at UW–Milwaukee from 1975 to 1980 and is in the Gannon University Athletic Hall of Fame.

So apparently Wisconsin had two, shall we say, volatile coaches to choose from. Their choice was Knight:

Here, however, is where things get murky. Madison.com’s version is that Knight quit due to anger over reporting of his hiring before he had a chance to tell his wife and his bosses. (That would not be the last time Knight had a run-in with the media, of course.)

A slightly different version comes from a coach named Bo but not Ryan — Bo Schembechler, a candidate to replace Milt Bruhn as UW football coach in 1967:

After we won our conference title in my third and fourth seasons at Miami–1965 & 1966–Wisconsin called. From the outside, it seemed like a pretty good job. Wisconsin’s a good school in a great league. It was about ten o’clock on a Sunday when I walk into this meeting room to face twenty guys sitting around–and some board member falls asleep, right there in front of me! Now what does that tell you?

They also had a student on the committee, and this kid asks me how I would handle Clem Turner, a Cincinnati kid, who was always in trouble. Well, how the heck do I know how I would handle Clem Turner? I’ve never met him! And that’s exactly what I told that kid. But I’m thinking, Who the hell’s running this show?

The whole thing lasted maybe forty minutes, and the second I was out that door I walked to the nearest pay phone and called Ivy Williamson, the Wisconsin athletic director, and told him to withdraw my name from consideration.

Jesse Temple adds:

“They brought in all the candidates at the same time but put us up at different hotels,” Schembechler said in the book. “Real secret agent stuff. They asked Johnny Ray and me to come down together, and he goes in first before the committee. I guess it’s about 10 (p.m.) before it’s my turn.

“You have to picture this. They’ve got 20 guys sitting around, and one of them — a board member, I guess — is sound asleep. He is sitting there asleep. I mean, how the hell would you feel? I’m mad. Really mad. I don’t even want to be there. I don’t want to answer any of their questions.”

According to author John U. Bacon, the entire interview lasted all of 40 minutes. Schembechler also wasn’t thrilled that a student seemed to relish asking smart-aleck questions during the interview. He promptly walked out the door, found the nearest pay phone and called Wisconsin athletics director Ivy Williamson to withdraw his name from consideration.

“I really got miffed when I got there,” he said. …

The story behind Knight’s near-hire is equally maddening for Badgers fans. In 1968, he was a coach on the rise at Army and arrived in Madison as one of seven candidates to appear before the athletics board for the vacant men’s basketball coaching position. The previous coach, John Erickson, had resigned to become general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Knight wowed the board and was offered the Wisconsin job. There is some dispute as to whether he outright accepted the position or whether he asked simply for more time to think about it upon his return to West Point — which he claimed was the case in his book, Knight: My Story. Either way, he was not prepared for school officials to leak any news of his hiring to a local newspaper. That move, however, is exactly what happened.

“Almost as soon as I left, they announced me as their new coach,” Knight said in his book. “When I arrived home at West Point, I heard what they had done. Now, I was in a hell of a spot. I was up all night trying to figure out what I should do.”

The only person Knight could think of to run his decision by was Schembechler, who was still coaching at Miami (Ohio). Schembechler had served as an assistant to Woody Hayes when Knight was in school at Ohio State, and Knight was aware of his situation one year earlier at Wisconsin.

“I told him how Wisconsin had released my name as the new coach before I’d had a chance to talk to them about what was necessary for them to do — that I’d have liked to take the job but I didn’t think I could, under those circumstances,” Knight said. “He listened to everything I said, then told me, ‘Just call them and tell them you have no interest in the job.’ I did.” …

Knight recalled that about 20 years after he spurned the Badgers, an alumnus of Wisconsin approached him at a golf course and asked for his version of what happened when he almost became Wisconsin’s coach. He told the man about his situation and the one a year earlier with Schembechler

“If Wisconsin had handled both situations a little better, Bo and I might have been coaching there together for a long time,” Knight told him.

After relaying the story, Knight could sense disgruntlement on the alum’s face. “I think the football part bothered him the most,” he said.

And so …

So did Knight quit over the premature notice or because of what Schembechler said about why he turned down UW? We report, you decide.

This was not the last time UW had to get coach choice number two, or failed to hire the right coach. After Coatta was fired …

… UW offered the football job to North Dakota State coach Ron Ehrhardt, who turned UW down. (Ehrhardt went to the pros instead, becoming an assistant coach, then head coach of the New England Patriots. After his firing, he was hired as an assistant coach for the New York Giants under Ray Perkins, then Bill Parcells, then going to Pittsburgh, getting him three Super Bowl appearances and two wins as an offensive coordinator.)

UW ended up hiring UCLA assistant John Jardine, who had one winning season in eight years, but it was exciting:

Jardine was replaced (though to his credit he remained a UW football supporter until his death) by Dave McClain, who coached Wisconsin to the Badgers’ first bowl win …

… plus two other bowl games …

… including the only bowl game I got to march in …

… before his death of a heart attack at 48 in April 1986.

McClain was replaced by defensive coordinator Jim Hilles. UW had most of its starters back, including eight players who were drafted by the NFL — running backs Joe Armentrout and Larry Emery, linebackers Rick Graf, Tim Jordan (who was one year ahead of me at Madison La Follette), Michael Reid and Craig Raddatz, and defensive backs Nate Odomes and Bobby Taylor — plus five players who would be drafted in the next year’s draft.

That 1986 team might be one of the biggest what-ifs in UW athletic history. They played four nonconference games that were winnable, but went 1–3 instead, and they won only two games after that.

Would that have happened had McClain lived? Hilles was the logical choice to replace McClain since he was assistant head coach, but what if Hilles had, as some head coaches do, focused on his side of the ball and let the offensive coaches run the offense?

Hilles was quoted in the UW media guide that “I will take the responsibility for the offense, and I will also take the blame. We will definitely be more aggressive physically; we want to knock some people off the line of scrimmage — let them know who we are. Since we feel our strengths are in the offensive line and our running backs, we will first set out to be as strong a running team as we can be. An effective running game will open up the throwing game for us, and that’s how we’re going to approach things.”

That is not different from the approach UW had under McClain once McClain switched from the option to the pro set when quarterback Randy Wright transferred in from Notre Dame. They had the same two quarterbacks, Mike “The Springfield Rifle” Howard and Green Bay’s Bud Keyes, though they were minus their top two receivers from the 1985 season, tight end Scott Sharron and wide receiver/kick returner Tim Fullington and one of their offensive linemen, Bob Landsee, who preceded Gruber and Derby into the NFL.

In a sense, though, Hilles’ offensive problems predated Hilles’ one year as head coach. Wright was a good enough quarterback to play for the Packers. His best receiver was Al Toon, who also played in the NFL. The season after Wright graduated, the Badgers had Toon, plus two other good wide receivers, Michael Jones and Thad McFadden, plus tight end Bret Pearson, who was drafted (though did not play) by the San Diego Chargers. None of them arguably were capably replaced, and when a team can’t move the ball through the air, defense becomes easier for their opponent.

Once the 1986 season started going south, UW started looking for a new coach. The five semifinalists included Hilles, Wyoming coach Dennis Erickson (right after Wyoming beat Wisconsin in Madison in Erickson’s first season), West Virginia coach Don Nehlen, Northwestern coach Francis Peay (a former Packer offensive lineman), and Tulsa coach Don Morton.

That list includes one coach who won two national championships, Erickson, and another who coached in a national championship game, Nehlen, winner of 202 games in his career. Neither were finalists for the job. Morton was hired over Hilles, and it could be argued that neither choice was the right choice. Morton won six games in three years, and his ineptitude resulted in the death of the UW baseball and gymnastics teams and nearly the rest of the UW Athletic Department.

If that seems like a mess, the mess of four years earlier was even worse. Erickson’s (and Knight’s) replacement, Powless, had only two winning seasons in eight seasons as coach. Powless’ replacement was Virginia assistant Bill Cofield, who had only one winning season in six seasons as coach. (Cofield died of cancer two years after he coached his last game.)

The options to replace Powless included Boston College coach Tom Davis, who grew up in Ridgeway and graduated from UW–Platteville. UW should have hired Davis, but didn’t. Davis went to Stanford, then to Iowa, where he beat on UW with regularity until he retired in 1999. Instead, UW hired UW–Eau Claire coach Ken Anderson, who then backed out of the job three days later. (One version of the reason was that he got wind of NCAA rule violations that resulted in the Badgers’ forfeiting all eight of their wins the next season; another is that he was making too much money as a landlord to UW–Eau Claire students to leave.) UW hired Ball State coach Steve Yoder, who at least got UW in a couple of NIT tournaments before he quit in 1991.

It should be pointed out that the fact that Schembechler was highly successful at Michigan (though he has two fewer Rose Bowl wins than UW), Knight was highly successful at Indiana (as in three national championships), Hartman was successful at Kansas State, Davis was highly successful at Stanford and Iowa, Nehlen was highly successful at West Virginia, and Erickson was highly successful at Miami (though not so in the NFL) does not necessarily mean any of them would have been successful at UW.

Two years after Schembechler declined to go to UW, he went to Michigan, replacing Bump Elliott (who ended up becoming Iowa’s athletic director and hiring football coach Hayden Fry as well as Davis). Michigan wasn’t at its usual standards, but Schembechler inherited the remainder of a team that had gone 8–2 the previous season. UW was five seasons removed from a Rose Bowl trip, but had finished tied for seventh in the three previous seasons before Schembechler was not hired.

Three years after Knight changed his mind about UW, he went to Indiana, inheriting a team that had gone 17–7 and had long-standing basketball tradition, though they had slipped in the seasons before Knight arrived. Erickson left of his own accord after two 13–11 seasons, but he had had only one other winning season in nine seasons.

UW had issues in the late 1960s that Michigan may not have had. In addition to more intense turmoil over the Vietnam War, The Cap Times chronicles 1968:

After threatening to boycott the final game of the season against Minnesota, 18 black Wisconsin football players skip the team’s season-ending banquet. The group earlier filed a list of grievances with the UW Athletic Board, saying the coaching staff lacked rapport with the black players and that coaches stacked black players at one position. Assistant coach Gene Felker resigns, complaining of “weak, frightened administrators, black athletes and their grievances.” The Athletic Board recommends establishment of a coach-player committee to address grievances, but it also gives unanimous endorsement to John Coatta, who was 0-19-1 in his first two seasons as head coach.

I’m sure Schembechler and Knight would have been successful somewhere besides Michigan and Indiana. I’m not sure they would have been successful at Wisconsin over the long run. I could see them sticking it out at Wisconsin for a few seasons, butting heads with faculty and administration because of their different views of who should be in charge (i.e. themselves) and, in Schembechler’s case, academic standards preventing certain players from admission (Knight never had that issue, but Michigan is not really a strong academic school, contrary to what Wolverine backers would like you to think), and leaving for greener pastures elsewhere. Irrespective of Knight’s late-1980s comments, I wonder if two big personalities like Schembechler and Knight could have coexisted on the same campus, given battles for resources.

Davis turned things around at Stanford somewhat (though his career record was 58–59), and inherited a better situation at Iowa than Yoder did at Wisconsin. Morton was a disastrously bad hire, and should have been fired after his second season. However, UW’s Athletic Department was a financial mess that was bolstered by decent football attendance before Morton got there. Once Morton drove the football program into the ground, the Athletic Department’s financial issues got exposed. (Read Rick Telander’s From Red Ink to Roses and you’ll see how bad things were.)

Nehlen probably would have been a success at Wisconsin. I’m not sure Dennis Erickson would have, given that his formula for revitalizing a program involved junior college transfers, something unlikely to work with UW’s academic tradition. Erickson clearly had the next level in mind since he left Wyoming after that season for Washington State and left Washington State for Miami after two seasons.

Here is a demonstration of how things eventually work out. Jardine hired as one of his assistants Madison Edgewood’s George Chryst. Chryst’s son, Paul, played for Wisconsin, was an assistant coach for Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema, and then was hired by AD Alvarez to be the Badgers’ coach. Cofield hired William Ryan as an assistant coach. You know Ryan as Bo, who was chosen to coach the Badgers in 2001 over more well known coaches including Milwaukee’s own Rick Majerus. Ryan had one more Final Four trip than Majerus.


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