When I decided (hoped) to become a college coach, one of the reasons I did was because I felt a coach could have more of an impact on a player than a teacher can have on a student. I noticed this was true in the high school in which I was employed (which, coincidentally, happened to be the same high school I attended). The kid is coming to me, the coach, to do something he wanted to do, as opposed to coming to me, the math teacher, for something he had to do. Other thrills that inevitably accompany a college coaching career also enter into the decision but those are more an ancillary part of the experience. “Big games,” for one, are included among these thrills.
Putting together a winning streak is quite thrilling but, depending on where you’re working, the definition of a winning streak can vary greatly. That’s why ending a long winning streak is probably more gratifying. You have only a limited amount of time to get it accomplished e.g. 40 minutes, and if you succeed, it’s over! And there’s never a doubt who did it.
Baylor’s Lady Bears had its 42-game winning streak snapped by the Stanford Cardinal (is there such a thing as a Lady Cardinal, especially when it stands for a color - or a tree?) last night in an early season tournament in Hawaii. Everyone talks about parity in college basketball but that argument falls to pieces when the starting lineups are announced and only one team has Brittany Griner. I’m not quite old enough to remember George Mikan but I’m just a year younger than Lew Alcindor, the center from Power Memorial HS who set scholastic winning streaks before enrolling at UCLA and refusing to lose there too.
Bill Walton was a dominant UCLA center after the fellow who subsequently became Kareem Abdul Jabbar graduated and UCLA continued to put streaks together. Most notably, the 88-game winning streak that Notre Dame and its young coach Digger Phelps ended. While the Bruins didn’t have as powerful force in the middle, they continued to win at a remarkable pace, especially in the friendly confines of their home court, Pauley Pavilion.
They had gone 98 games at home without a loss, a streak that continued after John Wooden had retired as coach. Gene Bartow was the man who followed the legend and, as he later would admit, he never enjoyed winning at such a great rate less than the two years he spent at Westwood. It was 1975 and I was a lowly graduate assistant at the University of Oregon.
I arrived on the Ducks’ campus after three other GA years (two at Washington State and one at the University of Vermont). I made $1550 each year I was at WSU, a raise from the $1000 I got for 1972-73 school year at UVM. Both schools also paid my tuition for grad school, something I couldn’t have cared less about at the time but appreciated a great deal as I got older (matured). All three of the seasons before arriving in Eugene had produced losing campaigns. The Ducks were in the same league as WSU (at that time, the Pac-8) so I understood how good they were going to be during that 1975-76 season.
It seemed as though I brought bad luck with me as we suffered a couple of early upsets (Duquesne was one in particular I can recall), knocking us out of the Top 20. We opened Pac-8 play (the Arizona schools, nor other imposters weren’t in the league yet) at home against the mighty Bruins. Everyone in our locker room was absolutely certain we were going to knock off the Bruins. With just seconds to go, our superstar guard Ronnie Lee poked the ball away from one of their guys to one of ours who laid the ball in the basket, putting us up one. A late, phantom whistle - foul on Ronnie - not only took away the basket and kept us down one, but put them on the free throw line for a 1-and-1 (no double bonus back then either) and it was Ronnie’s fifth foul.
Mac Court (our arena back then) was rockin’. You couldn’t hear yourself think it was so loud. Naturally, their guy missed the free throw and our back up guard let one go from the side of half court that looked like it was going to bank straight in. Instead, it banked - and rimmed the hoop - before coming out. We’d lost our conference opener by one.
A month later we had to make the trip south to play USC on Friday and UCLA on Saturday. After defeating the Trojans, we read in the paper (there was no Internet then and the information super highway was a simple road under construction. We did see a press release that the Bruins had a 98-game home winning streak. The sting of the earlier one-point loss hadn’t gone away yet. When the word got around about their 98-game winning streak, you’d never seen a bunch of more confident guys - ready to play.
Bottom line: we were up 30-12 at the half. Only because they hit three deeeeeeep jumpers (no three-point shot then either) did they score double figures in the first half. They made a brief run, very early in the second half but not nearly enough. We beat them 65-45. Maybe the most remarkable thing about the game was with 7 minutes to go and us comfortably ahead, their fans started leaving! Talk about a spoiled group. Their fans couldn’t even sit through one game out of 100 (they won the next one after us) they didn’t win?
To this day, whenever any of us get together, the UCLA game at Pauley always comes up. It must be the old American adage (just kidding for those of you ultra-sensitive schmucks):
“It’s fun to win but it’s funner to screw someone else up.”