If a poll were taken among the numerous major-college assistant coaches who have flown into Pensacola, Fla. in recent months to scout the wealth of junior-college basketball talent there, most of them would admit that when they left town the next day, they did so against their own free will.
Almost all were met at the airport by a man fresh from the paddleball court who drove up in a yellow Corvette. He claimed to be Pensacola Junior College Coach Rich Daly, but looked so much like Actor Jack Nicholson that there was only one way a visitor could be sure he had the right man. If the welcomer wore a green baseball cap to conceal a hair transplant and talked of going to the dog races, the odds are it was Daly.
What generally followed was a tour of PJC's sprawling campus, a glimpse of the school's 9,000 students and then a couple of hours on "the world's whitest beaches." In most cases, this was sufficient to convince a recruiter from the biggest of the big schools that his 33-year-old juco host had some rather special recruiting inducements of his own. The proof was the young talent Daly trotted out for his 3:15 practice. His roster, which includes a high-jumping forward named David Thompson, is so loaded that PJC could become this year's National Junior College Athletic Association champion, although first it must win the tough local playoffs down in Florida.
For the particularly skeptical visitor still not drooling over Pensacola, Daly's clinchers included a plate of fresh crab legs and an after-dinner cocktail at the PJC president's home overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. "A lot of guys end up spending the night on our sofa on account of we stay up so late talking basketball," Daly says. "That's when I usually hear that it's no mystery how we get players from the North down here and how I've got it better at PJC than the big-name guys they work for. I guess they're not far wrong, either."
Now how can that possibly be, since for years one of the tenets of university division basketball was that the only thing lower than a junior-college player was a junior-college coach? Most major-college coaches believed they could not win consistently with juco transfers because kids unable to make C's in high school could not be expected to understand the X's and O's of a sophisticated chalk-talk. These same men accused JC coaches of things far worse than being unable to read and write. They called their junior college colleagues "the coaches who hope the seniors flunk."
Well, times have changed: the only thing big-time coaches are yelling at juco men these days is "Help!" With universities no longer certain of a player's services for four years because of the pros' undergraduate drafts, and the pressure to win spiraling higher than inflation, the junior-college shortcut has become the most important new tool in major-college recruiting. Want to turn around a bad team overnight the way Bill Musselman did at Minnesota? Need a big guard as badly as Norm Sloan did to make North Carolina State a national champ? Get yourself some jucos. Three of last year's NCAA semifinalists—N.C. State, Marquette and Kansas—started JC transfers. John Wooden built the UCLA dynasty with the help of players such as Wicks, Vallely, Erickson and Hirsch. They all came from two-year schools in California, which has America's biggest JC system.
And the brightest new star in professional basketball last year was a former juco. Buffalo's Bob McAdoo, the NBA's leading scorer, played for the Vincennes (Ind.) 1970 NJCAA champions before taking North Carolina to the 1972 NCAA semifinals and turning pro.
Even junior-college coaches have begun to gain some respect. The Atlanta Hawks' Cotton Fitzsimmons spent nine seasons at Moberly (Mo.) JC, and a couple of juco coaches named Jerry Hale and Joedy Gardner have just moved up to the head jobs at Oral Roberts and West Virginia University. All of which indicates that junior college men should be crossed off the list of oppressed minorities. They're all the rage now.
Few of them have found life quite as kind as Daly has. Born in Missouri, he had succeeded Fitzsimmons as coach of the local junior college by the time he was 26. Not that Moberly is just the local junior college. The Greyhounds have gone to the nationals in Hutchinson, Kans. more times than any other school and have won a record four titles.
Fitzsimmons was a difficult act to follow, even for a local boy, but Daly was a winner from the start. He brought in five black starters without checking with anyone but his wife Denny. "We both knew that wouldn't sit too well with the staid, white Moberly community," she says. "But before I realized what was happening, Rich had talked me into letting them live with us. With our four kids, that made 11 in one house. We made our basement into a dormitory and somehow became one big happy family."
Daly's five-year record at Moberly was 97-61, and included two trips to the nationals. When he accepted the Pensacola job two years ago, PJC felt that it would soon become the first Florida school to win at Hutchinson.
"That would be nice, all right," says Daly, pulling into a parking slot outside the office of President T. Felton Harrison. "I thought we were going to get it done in my first year when we were 25-4 and ranked first in the nation for six weeks. And again last season when we were 30-3 and second most of the year. But Brevard Junior College has upset us twice in the state tournament. PJC is supposedly ranked third among junior colleges in academics and Dr. Harrison still kids me that the basketball program hasn't yet caught up with the rest of the school."
Like most college presidents, Harrison speaks first about academic quality, but he will have none of this "third in the nation" talk. "Look, that survey was done years ago," he says. "It's meaningless now. What is important is that Pensacola has reached a point where it compares favorably with four-year schools in practically every area. Our curriculum for students in their first two years and our facilities are comparable, say, to Baylor's, and our debate team competes against Notre Dame and Harvard. We thought things like this needed tending to before we got deeply into basketball. Now we feel Rich can give us the program a well-rounded institution should have. To help him out we are purchasing a mobile TV trailer from the old Flipper series, which will enable us to televise all our home basketball games in color."
That is quite a change from when PJC's pride was its debating team. The Pirates had lost 12 games in a row and could not even get regular radio coverage before Daly's arrival. Winning streaks of 12 and 13 in 1972-73 and a 26-0 start last year prompted WCOA to send its play-by-play man over this fall with a contract for exclusive radio rights.
"It doesn't seem to matter how many games we win, though," says Daly. "Our biggest problem is still getting a kid interested in junior college in the first place. A lot of kids feel a JC has to be a decrepit little school in the Mississippi lowlands. They obviously have no concept of the system as it exists here in Florida. There are 26 junior colleges in the state that play basketball, and most of them have big budgets, big student bodies and big teams. That makes the competition rough and the students feel like they're going to a real college."
Because of the extraordinary success he has had recruiting players from other areas, rivals assume Daly has an unrestricted budget. In fact, it has definite limits, but they do not seem to apply to his telephone or gasoline credit cards. Daly may have the itchiest dialing finger in the South and he has an assistant who thinks nothing of driving a station wagon all over the country.
"We made 13 trips to Tennessee to get Ricky Talbert," recalls chauffeur-coach Barry Stephens. "That's 12,000 miles for one player. It sounds like a lot, but when a kid thinks he'll never need you, you've got to stay on him. It's hard to swallow at first, knowing you can't go after the kids who will qualify for four-year schools, because you just won't get them. But we say a little prayer on the close ones, and of the top 15 who miss grades, Rich will get three or four."
A computer print-out on Daly's present 12-man squad would read like this: seven from the North, five from the South; each an all-conference, all-state or All-America selection in high school and accustomed to having the ball 60% to 70% of the time. They include that David Thompson, a 6'8" Bostonian who is nearly as graceful as his famous North Carolina State namesake.
Talbert, from Dickson, Tenn., and Mike Muff, from Fort Wayne, Ind., are typically the two kinds of players who end up at junior colleges. Talbert, 6'8", from a white middle-class family, made fair grades for three years and was all set to go to Memphis State. Then he ran into trouble with Spanish and physics in his senior year and his average slipped below 2.0. Muff is a 6'6" poverty-pocket black youngster who knew before his senior year that he had no chance to qualify for schools like Michigan or Purdue. He helped Fort Wayne's Northrup High win the Indiana state title, and then made a vacation out of visiting JCs in eight states. Why did he select Pensacola? "Nice team, nice weather, nice coach," he says.
Hot teams have become as ordinary as warm weather in Pensacola. With 7-foot Steve Stanford from Akron, Pittsburgh's Jim Smith and the backcourt of Chicago's 6'5" Arthur Bibbs and Birmingham's 5'10" Kim Radford starting along with muscular Muff, Daly again seems assured of more than 25 wins. And with Thompson, Talbert and 6'10" Rosey Bankhead coming off the bench, the odds are that Pensacola now has the strength to break out of its curious losing streak in the Florida playoffs, the toughest state tournament in the NJCAA.
A victory there would qualify the Pirates for their first trip to Hutchinson and put them among the favorites for the title. Vincennes, which knocked off Daly's 1970 Moberly team in the finals, is a strong candidate to win its fourth championship. The Trailblazers have the best JC guard in Ricky Green, and Forward Tom Harris broke McAdoo's school scoring record last year. Coach Allen Bradfield, who also heads the Vincennes math department, is as successful a recruiter as Daly. Long before Hutchinson, the two schools meet at Pensacola on Dec. 21 in this season's Junior College Game of the Century.
Among the smaller four-year schools, Kentucky State looks as if it might again become a fixture at the top of the NAIA, as it was from 1970 to '72. Forward Gerald Cunningham does many things with the ball that the Thoroughbreds' old hero, Travis (Machine Gun) Grant, could not—such as dribbling it and stealing it. Jackson State will be a contender with brothers Eugene and Purvis Short, and there may be a darkhorse challenge by Drury College of Springfield, Mo.
NAIA defending champion West Georgia has moved into the NCAA College Division ranks, where it must go up against the incumbent, Morgan State, and the nation's big man of the year, Marvin Webster. Depending on which NBA club drafts first, Webster, who averaged 21 points, 22 rebounds and nine blocks a game last season, will be picked either before or immediately after North Carolina State's David Thompson. UT Chattanooga will also be way up there, as will two unrelated Jones boys—6'9" Major Jones of Albany State and 6'8" Harvey Jones of Alabama State.