There is nothing rah-rah about us," says Lon Kruger, the playmaking guard at Kansas State in Manhattan where winning basketball games has become an efficient, unemotional and frequently repeated exercise that might just as well take place in a closet for all the national attention it attracts. The Wildcats, belying their name, are as tame as their 47-year-old coach, Jack Hartman, who on a windless day can be heard five yards away. He assiduously rejects the explosive tantrum, the waved towel and the heaved chair that have become so picturesque a part of coaching lately. What he wants is controlled perfection, and what Jack Hartman wants he usually gets.
The 1972-73 Kansas State Tamecats, NCAA tournament bound, are a nicely balanced team with no superstar to attract enemy defenses—or headlines—and no colorful nicknames to inspire a publicity man's turgid prose. On the court they unreel Hartman's highly structured series of set plays and defenses with all the √®lan of marching soldiers. Even the purple-carpeted locker room at Ahearn Fieldhouse is hushed and antiseptic, like the boardroom of a bank. No inspirational placards tell the tough guys what happens when the going gets sticky or how to regard winning (only thing, man). As Hartman says with a little smile, "What I really believe in are those dull coaching clichés about how you've got to build from a sound defense, how you have to take them one game at a time and think team, team, team."
The time has come to pay attention to what Hartman is achieving in the fastness of his Manhattan retreat. Last week, with a splendid lack of emotion, State chewed up Nebraska 97-70 to clinch its second straight Big Eight Conference title. With a 21-4 record it is safely in the NCAA's Midwest Regional at Houston, which is not a thing such powers as Southwestern Louisiana or Houston can claim. They have to play each other before one of them joins the Wildcats, Memphis State and South Carolina or Texas Tech.
Were his personality different, Hartman might have achieved some fame of his own over the years. He is the coach who in 1962 took Coffeyville (Kans.) to the national junior college championship with a 32-0 record. He is also the coach whose Southern Illinois Salukis—with Walt Frazier—ran off with the National Invitation Tournament title in New York in 1967. These triumphs brought Hartman, who learned his basketball at Oklahoma A&M (State, today) under Hank Iba, that old master of ball control, a dandy reputation among coaches and resounding anonymity everywhere else.
Kansas State summoned Hartman to Manhattan two years ago to replace Cotton Fitzsimmons, an ebullient, extroverted and successful coach who had been lured away to Phoenix and the NBA. His first season at State was an esthetic and competitive disaster. His teams can score in the upper register occasionally, as Nebraska will now testify, but the 1970-71 gang did not. Instead it lost 15 of 26 games and gave KSU its worst record in 25 years, this exactly one year after Fitzsimmons won the Big Eight crown. While it was true Hartman had inherited an inexperienced team not notably loaded with talent, it was also true that in place of a fast, volatile attack he had installed a staid combination of tight defense, steady ball control and team balance, basketball's equivalent of three yards and a cloud of dust. Fans, alumni and athletic directors will happily tolerate such stodgy goings-on when their team is winning. But losing? Yecch. Letters poured in and the consensus was that Jack was a very dull boy.
At its outset, the 1971-72 season was not much of an improvement. To run the team Hartman was depending on two sophomore guards: Kruger, a Kansan whose 5'11" height had scared away recruiters by the drove, and Danny Beard, whose forte had been scoring, not playmaking. Deep into the season the Wildcats were a mediocre 3-2 in the conference and 9-8 overall.
Then it happened. Following the eighth loss, 61-60 to Nebraska, Beard began to click as a playmaker and Kruger, doubling his scoring productivity to 14 points per game, as a pointmaker. State was winning. The Wildcats took their next 10 in a row, including nine in the Big Eight and the conference title. The string did not run out until Louisville beat the Wildcats 72-55 in the finals of the NCAA regional.
"It seems such a long time ago that it's hard to remember," says Kruger. "We just became more consistent and that gave us confidence. We were able to open up a little, start using the fast break. First thing we knew we'd won three in a row, then four, then five and we were sweeping along."
The sweep carried through into this season. The Wildcats lost two starters, but their replacements have been dramatic improvements. Steve Mitchell, a senior from Oklahoma City whose 6'10", 250-pound frame is topped by a fluffy mass of brown hair, has moved into the center spot with such aplomb that pro scouts are beginning to make side trips to Manhattan. To cut it as a pro, Mitchell will have to develop more emotional maturity. Right now he tends to foul excessively and sulk when his play goes off, but he is averaging more than 15 points a game, rebounding well and holding together KSU's zone and man-to-man defenses with his bulk and powerful hands. At one forward is gangling, 6'9" Larry Williams, a junior from New Mexico who, Hartman claims, could be one of the best players in the country. At the other is 6'5½" Ernie Kusnyer, a senior from Akron whose scoring (14.2 per game), reliability and free-spirited aggressiveness have made him a particular favorite at home. The capacity crowds of 12,500 at Ahearn Field-house cheer lustily when he comes out at the start of each home game and shout "Koosh, koosh!" in unison when he pops in a basket.
Beard, first in a scoring slump, then suffering a shoulder injury, has lost his starting spot at guard to Bob Chipman, a senior from Michigan who bloomed just when everyone had begun to wonder why he was still on the squad. Kruger has taken on the role as team quarterback, briskly setting up plays, looking for the open man and hitting for 12 points a game himself. Bench strength is supplied in abundance by 6'8½" junior Gene McVey, who fills in ably during the frequent occasions when Mitchell is in foul trouble, sophomore Forward Doug Snider and a nimble 6'6" freshman forward, Jerry Thruston, a high school all-everything from Owensboro, Ky. It all adds up to balance and depth. Assistant Coach Bob Gottlieb, whose recruiting helped bring Thruston to the KSU campus, thinks the team will get to the NCAA final round.
"What makes Hartman such a good coach is the strength of his personality," says Gottlieb. "His guys work for him until a play comes off perfectly. At Houston we'll have the strongest discipline and be the best coached."
Hartman, sticking to his clichés, mumbles something about at least having a chance in the regional. Listen close. He has sprung tournament surprises before.