Usually unnoticed in the geographic isolation of the little town of Athens and the undeserved competitive obscurity of the Mid-American Conference, Ohio University has quietly stepped up as a match for its larger neighbors in the Big Ten. Ohio's 17,400 students make it small by the other league's standards, but it compensates with deeper tradition. OU was founded in 1804, when John Purdue was just 2 years old. From long hair to short skirts, Ohio has as much diversity as any Big Ten university. There are a few potheads and, as the basketball team proves, some good, old-fashioned teetotaling Baptists. Protesters riot and fraternity men rush across the same spacious greens, the sort of grassy quadrangles that have gone the way of the crew cut and the campuses of some rapidly expanding Big Ten schools.
Green, one of Ohio's team colors, is prevalent indoors, too, particularly in the new $8.5 million Convocation Center that hides a 356-bed dormitory as well as 13,000 money-green, theater-style seats behind its curved walls. Also lurking in there is one of the better basketball teams in the country, and it is not green at all. What is more, it has been showing up the Big Ten at one of its own games.
Over a 15-day span at the start of the season the Bobcats won at Northwestern, then at home against Purdue and away at Ohio State and Indiana. A later loss, by three points at Wisconsin, left OU's record with the Big Ten at 4-1. Each one of the victories was won with a rugged style that the opponents could recognize as their own.
"Gentleman Jim" Snyder, the Ohio coach, has had that nickname for years, and he still deserves it, despite his team's bruising tactics. With his thin weatherbeaten face, floppy smile and genuine courteousness, he would fit in on May-berry R.F.D. by merely being himself. He has coached the Bobcats for 20 seasons, but it was not until five years ago that he switched to the Big Ten rough-house game, which now has his team headed for its best record ever.
"We lost a game at West Point a few years ago," he recalls. "They beat us up physically. I decided then that if other people could play that game we could. It took us about four years to get it down, but I think we've learned it."
Learning has often not been pleasant. Ohio's practices resound with loud "ughs" and "oofs" as bodies slam together under the backboards. At least once a day a player wheels out of a melee, gasping for breath and clutching an arm, a leg or his nose.
"I hate playing against the other guys on the team. I just don't like them at all then. But I love playing with them," said 6'7" Forward Greg McDivitt one day last week. Later, after practice, he pulled off his jersey, noticed a spot of blood and said with a touch of delight, "I wonder whose that is."
Ohio's other forward, Dave Groff—who is called Bubba because he defends about as subtly as the Baltimore Colts' Bubba Smith—McDivitt and 6'8" Center Craig Love form Ohio's police force. McDivitt, who is quick as well as muscular and has the rare ability to shoot accurately stepping away from the basket, and John Canine, a 6'2" guard, are the Bobcats' top scorers and evangelists. Canine (rhymes with benign) shoots line-drive jumpers launched from in front of his face. Miraculously, they go in often enough for him to lead the team with a 19.7 scoring average.
Canine's and McDivitt's heresy stops with their unusual shots. Off the court, both are strict Baptists who lean toward the ministry. (Canine's father already belongs.) Their conversations are heavy with references to "witnessing for Christ" and "testifying for God," they pray together before every game, and Canine, who met his wife Pat in church, speaks for both of them when he puts basketball into a religious context.
"My relationship to Jesus Christ has built confidence in my life. I've found it through prayer and Scripture reading," he says. "I take the world overview that Christ directs everything. I don't mean that he guides the ball into the basket but that he gives me the strength to shoot the ball so it will go in."
With Ohio's top scorers receiving help like that, Toledo should have known it was in for trouble when the Bobcats arrived there last week for the most important game of the Mid-American season. Despite racial upheavals and scholastic difficulties the past three seasons Rocket Coach Bob Nichols masterfully built a championship contender this year, with talent far under Ohio's caliber. Straight off, his team challenged OU with a hard-nosed defense of its own, but the game turned out a typical Ohio win, 80-67. McDivitt and Canine led the scoring with 25 and 23 points, and six Bobcat players finished with four fouls.
After the postgame prayer in the locker room, Gentleman Jim said, "We're grateful for this win." Toledo's Rockets, like Ohio's 15 other victims in 18 games this year, should have been grateful themselves. They escaped from the Bobcats with hardly any blood on their shirts.