Publish date:


Some basketball laurels have escaped Edwin Jucker of Cincinnati, but no national championship has. He's won two in two years and has an excellent chance to make it three

Edwin Lewis Jucker is one of those men so completely absorbed in his job that it almost seems he would not exist without it. His job is coaching the University of Cincinnati basketball team. Under his guidance it has become the best team in the country, and with it he is trying to do something no coach has ever done before—win three straight national championships. Jucker (right, with player Larry Elsasser) works at his job all of his waking hours, and these include many hours that people normally reserve for sleep. In stray moments of relaxation he will talk of politics, golf or bringing up children, but the path of such conversations returns inevitably to basketball. Should he forget the job for an instant, which is unlikely, he need only glance at the centerpiece on his dining room table, a gold-plated basketball, or at his 7-year-old daughter Karen, who wears a T shirt on which is printed: "My dad is coach."

Karen's dad has been coach of Cincinnati for three years, and for three years he has been supremely successful. Twice in a row his teams have won the NCAA championship, symbol of basketball supremacy, and this year Cincinnati is the favorite to win it again. By midseason this year his Cincinnati teams had won 71 of 76 games for him, and had the country's longest current winning streak. His achievements are unprecedented, deserving of all kinds of glory, a performance to make a man proud. Yet much of the glory has eluded Jucker, and he has no time for pride.

Successful though he is, Jucker usually has the harried mien of a longtime loser. Basketball coaches are a notoriously nervous lot, but shortly before the start of every Cincinnati game Jucker looks like a man condemned to die. His skin turns several shades paler than normal, accenting his heavy beard and making him look old (he is 45). His eyes are strained, as if pleading for help, and beads of sweat line his forehead. He develops a cough, though his health is perfect. He keeps glancing at his wrist as if checking the time, but he wears no watch. "In the last few minutes before a game," says Tulsa's coach, Joe Swank, "Juck wouldn't even remember his name." Backslapping well-wishers stop by the bench to wish Jucker luck. "I nod yes and no," admits Jucker, "but I don't even know what people are saying to me."

Nor is the Cincinnati team spared any of its coach's pregame agonies. "We'll be sitting around the locker room listening to some music on the radio," says Tony Yates, the Cincinnati captain and a cool, cool man on the court. "He'll come roaring in and turn it off. He's afraid we won't be thinking about the game." No one will ever accuse a Jucker team of laxity. "His boys have marvelous discipline," says one coach admiringly. "He flogs his tigers until they even hate their mothers."

The game begins. High in the grandstand of Cincinnati's fieldhouse sit Jucker's pretty wife, Joanne, and 9-year-old son, Steve. "Aw, she claps when they introduce the other team," says Steve disgustedly. "That's being fair," Jucker tells his son. "You know, they do some good things too." This is what Jucker says on Sunday morning, but at court-side the night before he is in no mood for compliments. Nor, for that matter, is the howling, clapping, fur-bearing Cincinnati crowd. Watching basketball in Cincinnati has become a social event, the thing to do for the country club set, and it's a rare hostess who would dare schedule a Saturday night party to begin before the game is over. The field-house is always filled; owning a season seat is a sign of status. The crowd has become giddy with victory (the Bearcats have not lost at home since 1957), expects it and grows surly when the team fails to win impressively.

During a game, a nervous Jucker gets almost as much exercise as his players. "You'd have to say he's in the excitable class," says Bradley's Chuck Orsborn. "Not the most excitable, but up there." A foul called against Cincinnati will bring Jucker leaping to his feet, arms stretched toward heaven, his face a picture of amazement. "He's very quick to come off the bench on a call," says a rival coach. "He certainly lets the officials know what's on his mind, even to the extent of buzzing the buzzer at the scorer's table." In a recent game against Houston, Jucker did just that, not once but twice. Later, when asked about it, he looked wide-eyed with disbelief. "I didn't do that, did I?" he asked. Yet there is evidence that Jucker knows exactly what is going on every second of a game. "One of his greatest assets," says Orsborn, "is his ability to think under pressure."

The Cincinnati players themselves, though they may exchange secret winks when Jucker flies into action, appreciate his attention to duty. "It's good for the team to see someone who makes sure we get a fair shake," says Tony Yates. And whenever Jucker threatens to go too far, the players know how to contain him. Once when Jucker leaped from the bench and started to storm onto the court—a sure technical foul—a player reached out, grabbed Jucker's coattail and firmly pulled him back. Another time, after a referee failed to call a foul on the opposition, Jucker was about to explode when a smiling Yates, dribbling by, gave him a big wink and told him to relax.

But Jucker can't relax, even when the game is over. Some coaches find him remote—"He'll shake hands, but that's all," says Wichita's Ralph Miller. Others, like Joe Swank, find him fairly cordial. "Why shouldn't he be?" asks Swank. "He wins."

A team, but no Oscar

No one expected Ed Jucker to win in such grand style when he was promoted from assistant to head coach three years ago. Oscar Robertson—the Big O—had just graduated, removing in his own person a major part of the Cincinnati basketball team. At this propitious time Coach George Smith, who had won three straight Missouri Valley Conference titles with Robertson, accepted the athletic director's post.

Few people outside of Cincinnati had ever heard of Ed Jucker. He had been an outstanding basketball and baseball player at the university in 1939-40 before starting a coaching career in both sports that led him to Batavia (Ohio) High School, the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in up-state New York (where he met his wife) and finally, in 1953, back to Cincinnati as assistant basketball coach.

When Jucker took over as head coach, he made a bold, and seemingly suicidal, decision: to discard Cincinnati's popular run-and-shoot offense for a slower, more deliberate game accenting defense, a shift that of itself figured to make him about as popular in Cincinnati as a flood.

By the end of three weeks Cincinnati had lost three of its first eight games, one of them to St. Louis by 17 points. "He was using a 2-3 zone defense," says Coach John Benington of St. Louis. "After he lost to us he went up to Bradley and lost for the same reason. But when he got back home he showed how quickly he had learned his mistakes. He junked the zone play, and the next time we met he was using a pressing man-to-man. It was a different story."

Those early weeks were rough on Jucker. For the first time in years there were empty seats in the armory, and the fans who did show up—"those house apes," one coach calls them—rode Jucker hard. "Let 'em run, you bum," they yelled. Jucker's mail carried the same sweet message. "I'll admit I had some doubts," Jucker says, but it is a solid measure of the man that he never wavered. Cincinnati started to win, the hoots changed to cheers, and when the season ended the team was again the winner of the Missouri Valley Conference.

At the NCAA championship, Cincinnati met upstate rival Ohio State in the final. Ohio State had already been voted the top team in the country, and its coach, Fred Taylor, had been selected as Coach of the Year, but Cincinnati won in overtime, creating a rather awkward situation for the pollsters. To compound matters, Ohio Governor Mike DiSalle released a proclamation immediately following Cincinnati's victory, congratulating Ohio State on being chosen the top team of the year and bringing glory to Ohio. Basketball fans take such slights seriously, and the catcalls from Cincinnati could be heard all the way to the State House in Columbus. Last fall DiSalle ran for reelection and was defeated. It is a matter of record that he got little backing in Cincinnati.

Last season was almost a duplication of the year before. Again, after losing a couple of early games, Cincinnati won the rest to reach the NCAA final. Again it met Ohio State, a team that had been ranked tops in the country from the very beginning of the season. Again Taylor, not Jucker, had been selected Coach of the Year. And again Cincinnati won the championship.

The two Cincinnati-Ohio State finals, with one team getting the awards, the other the victories, have created a certain amount of cross-Ohio tension. Fred Taylor insists he is not bitter toward Ed Jucker but thinks Jucker is bitter toward him. Jucker denies this, but he is obviously delighted at twice being honored as the Columbus Touchdown Club's Coach of the Year, right there in Taylor's own backyard.

Banners and kittens

Jucker is even more delighted at the reception he has gotten each year when he has returned with the NCAA championship. His neighbors on Flora Avenue have decorated the street with banners, streamers, lanterns and signs, some of which have said: "The U.S.A. has John Glenn, we have Ed Jucker" and "Puff had kittens while you were away." Ed's neighbors also chipped in and bought him a large silver platter on which is inscribed: "Coach of the Year from his friends on Flora Avenue." No governor's proclamation could mean as much.

Besides, Jucker has no time to waste considering fortune's slights. His days are crowded with business: phone calls, interviews, public appearances, game-film study, strategy talks with his assistant, Tay Baker, and, of course, practice sessions with the team. Jucker arrives at his office early. Once he is at his desk it is almost impossible to talk with him for more than half a minute without being interrupted by a girl's voice booming out of the loudspeaker on the wall: "Coach Jucker, on 291." There are times when all six buttons on Jucker's phone are lit at once. "I don't see why he doesn't have the thing ripped out," says one member of the athletic department.

The most important part of Jucker's day is the practice session. While the regulars warm up, Tay Baker, who has scouted Cincinnati's next opponent, say Wichita, takes the reserves aside and drills them in Wichita's tactics, assigning to each reserve the role of a Wichita player. Through it all Jucker stands to the side, detached, arms folded, looking almost bored. Then the scrimmage begins, the reserves acting out Wichita for the regulars. Jucker's arms unfold. His eyes move swiftly around the court. Suddenly he is shouting: "O.K., Smith, if you don't want to play the game we'll get someone else." The practice continues, fast and long. The players pant, but Jucker urges them on: "C'mon, a couple of more minutes. Let's work, work."

Jucker's dedication to the job has won him the respect of the other coaches in the Missouri Valley Conference. "He's a perfectionist, an expert, a taskmaster," says Ralph Miller. "Juck's under tremendous pressure to win. One loss for him is probably equal to five or six for me here at Wichita. I hear that after Cincinnati lost to us last year they got booed when they returned home. The people in Cincinnati expect to win, and the pressure keeps mounting on Juck." In a moment of rare frivolity recently Jucker summed up his own position. "It's like being the last egg in an incubator. Everybody's standing around waiting for you to crack."

There has been grumbling among some coaches that one reason Cincinnati does keep winning is that it uses something more in its recruiting methods than friendly persuasion. In 1955 the NCAA placed all of the school's teams on probation for a year, and in 1959 Cincinnati was again censured for having too liberal a student work program, a charge the school has insistently denied. But this was in the pre-Jucker era. Such talk is familiar to any coach with a winner, and it doesn't worry Jucker. The only thing that does worry him is that winning streak. "The longer it gets, the more my poor stomach does flip-flops," Jucker moans. "The players seem to take it in stride, but I can't."

The only place where Jucker can relax is at home on Flora Avenue, and even there it is not easy. He will stretch out on the couch to read the paper, but in minutes his four children are all over Rim. Steve will want him to go out back and shoot baskets. Kenny, age one, will want to show him how high he can jump—"I'm teaching him to rebound," Jucker says proudly. The girls, Judy and Karen, will simply hang on his neck. But when the children are put to bed Ed Jucker slips his favorite record on the phonograph, returns to the couch and forgets about Wichita, the NCAA, Coaches of the Year, ticket requests, phone calls, autographs and the man-to-man defense. For about five seconds. Then the music fills the room—Cincinnati fight songs, as recorded by the university band. Once again Ed Jucker is lost in the world of basketball.