The most underrated basketball team in the country is Miami University. The Redskins are 13-1, and since last January they are 21-2 which is, after UCLA's, the best record for that period. But Miami remains unranked, mostly unnoticed and—worst of all—unable even to venture into combat with the simple name that the university borrowed from the Miami River in 1809.
For, despite the fact that Miami is the birthplace of college fraternities, the cradle of coaches and the home of McGuffey's Readers (the primer that educated the whole West), a Johnny-comelately Miami—which the Ohio school's humor magazine identifies as "the one on water skis"—has forever relegated the first Miami to this listing: Miami (Ohio).
The Ohio players bear up under it, however. They call themselves "Miami-brackets-Ohio," and when they travel and people smile and ask them how the weather is back at college, they always answer that it is 85° and the sun is shining. It is just too much trouble to explain that the old, original, certified Miami is in Ohio. The Ohio Miami is located in Oxford, which is 35 miles northwest of Cincinnati. Oxford is also five miles northwest of Darrtown (pop. 200), the home of Walter Alston, manager of the Dodgers, which has become somewhat synonymous with nowhere. Every fall when the baseball season ends, folks in big wild Los Angeles smirk about how dull it must be for Alston back there in Darrtown. Well, this is how dull it is in Oxford: in Oxford they have to go to Darrtown to get a drink.
Miami is further isolated by a rule prohibiting students from having cars, and basketball itself is a private sort of thing, since Winthrow Court can hold only 3,000. But luckily for Coach Dick Shrider, Miami considers itself fraught with tradition, and it has a campus sprinkled with enough elm trees and red-brick Georgian architecture to make it one of the most beautiful in the nation. The Miami campus, in fact, looks exactly like the model for that movie campus where everybody hangs out at Pop's Malt Shoppe and talks about the big game coming up against State U. "All I ask," Coach Shrider says, "is just to get a boy up here in spring. Just get him here—when the grass is green and the coeds are walking around in those sweaters."
There is plenty of documentation for this thesis. Exhibit A this year is high scorer Jeff Gehring, who visited Miami one warm day four years ago, mostly just out of courtesy to his twin brother, John, who had already decided to enroll there. (Other twin news: John now holds the school high-jump record. Jeff goes with a cute Miami blonde named Mary Ann Fleck. He used to go with Mary Ann's twin sister.) "Well." Jeff says, "when I came down I really was set on going somewhere else. O.K., it was Bowling Green. But I just took one look at this place, and I remember I said, 'Hey, this is where I want to go to college." It was just like that."
Gehring's graduating class at Ottawa Hills in suburban Toledo had only 72 students, and it is from just such small schools that Shrider recruits most of his talent. More publicized Ohio schools like Ohio State and Cincinnati get the bigger names, and this year the Redskins are missing not just the names but the big star and even the big man. The center is Charley Dinkins, a converted high school forward who stands only 6 feet 5½ and never played basketball before he was a junior in high school. Shrider gambled Dinkins would improve, and—even though he accidentally chopped off parts of two fingers in his freshman year at Miami—Dinkins has developed sufficiently to become the team's only real pro prospect.
But an even more interesting development has taken place, in miniature, in the person of Guard Johnny Swann, a glib young man—his teammates call him Words—who carries a portable record player on trips to make sure that the team will always be treated to his favorite rhythm and blues records. Swann is from White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., where his parents work at the swank Greenbriar Hotel. He is, stretching him to the full, 5 feet 10, but when he first arrived at Oxford he was 5 feet 5, 125 pounds, and people thought Shrider had lost his mind.
Swann has great spring and huge hands, and despite his size he can both palm and dunk a ball, pregame feats that rock old Winthrow Court for all it can take. Swann is also used to looking up. "When I was a sophomore in high school," he says, "I was 4 feet 11 and playing on the varsity. Of course I didn't do much shooting then. They just put me on the press. As a matter of fact, that's when they started using the press. What else could they do with me?"
Rounding out the starting team are Charley Coles and Jerry Peirson. Coles was class A (small school) player of the year in Ohio as a high school senior, but he walks as if his feet hurt and, at 6 feet, he did not appeal to the big colleges. Peirson, who is a ringer for Roger Maris and the only junior on the starting five, came to Miami because his high school coach was the brother of the then Miami assistant trainer. In such ways are fine teams meticulously recruited. The touchstone to this team is unity. Four of the starters have been playing together for 3½ years, and Shrider has brought them along carefully. This is the first season that the Redskins are fast-breaking and free-lancing to any significant degree. But the players are so familiar with each other's actions that what is really a freelance play often looks as smooth as a pattern. Gehring and Coles are the high scorers, Swann drives the team, Peirson is the best on defense and Dinkins, the jumping little pivot man, has superb all-round skills.
Don Knobel, the assistant coach of Vanderbilt (the only team that has beaten Miami this year), says: "The thing about Miami is that it is such a team. There isn't a weakness. Oh, each of the players is weak in a couple of things, but overall, together, there is none. And they all can shoot." Indeed, the Redskins are hitting at .481 and, although four of them average in double figures, only eight times this year has a Miami player hit 20. As a team, Miami averages 86.2, 18th best in the nation. Defensively, using a tight, gambling man-to-man with zone tendencies, they have held opponents to 65.1 per game, a figure just out of the top 20. No team in the country, however, is as good at both ends of the court.
This last weekend was typical at Miami. It began with a Friday-night jaunt by Coach Shrider into the countryside in search of those small-school ballplayers who can shoot and might still be growing. Saturday he was back to his team of today, which easily beat Kent State 87-55, a victory that made Miami 9-0 in the Mid-American Conference. The Redskins were a bit ragged against Kent—it was exam time, and they had practiced only twice during the week—but they still put on their usual show. Most significantly, while the offense lacked its usual precision, the tough defense was maintained. The game was over early simply because Kent was not able to shoot against Miami; the Golden Flashes got off only 11 shots in the first 11 minutes.
Miami runs into some interesting non-league competition this week. First the Redskins and 6-foot-5½ Charley Dinkins must battle Dayton and 7-foot Henry Finkel at Dayton. And then, of all things, there will be a Miami game, that is, Miami University vs. the University of Miami at Miami Beach in a contest guaranteed to confuse a lot of neighborhood bookies. The Redskin players would like to see the loser get the brackets this time.
"These kids have pride and heart," Coach Shrider says. "They were all stars in their home towns but then they were overlooked, and now they have a chance to show that they shouldn't have been. We could tell they were going to be good as soon as they worked together as freshmen. Early in their sophomore year we played Bowling Green, and they beat us 86-36. That's right, 86-36. I came into the locker room, and most of them were crying. I said, 'All right, don't worry. I can't say don't forget it, because you were humiliated and you'll never forget this.' But there was a return game, and I mentioned that. It was January 12. I remember that, because we kept saying it and I'd write it up on the blackboard—January 12, the 12th of January. And, you know, we beat 'em.
"They're really unselfish, really a team. Sometimes I wish they were a little tougher, a little more hard-nosed, but I guess they just never will be. The trouble is, what these guys are—they're boys you'd like your daughter to marry. Doesn't that sound corny?
"Well, I'll tell you, I'm just thinking a little corny now. But if we can beat Ohio U. again and win the conference and get along in that NCAA tournament thing, wouldn't we be something? Everybody would be for us. They'd have to—all these kids nobody ever heard of. We'd have to be everybody's favorite, the team of the common man. Now just how would that be in old Miami-brackets-Ohio?"
It would be 85° and the sun would be shining.
HEIGHT IS RELATIVE, and high-scoring Jeff Gehring, who towers over his diminutive girl friend, Mary Ann Fleck, actually is just about average, at 6 feet 6, among college forwards.