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Original Issue

Twilight on the Wabash

Ex-janitor Snowy Simpson did not become a head coach until age 56

Clarence (Snowy) Simpson would be a true test for those experts who try to guess people's ages at carnivals. His hair has been white since adolescence, sparing him the agony of growing up as "Clarence" on Pittsburgh's north side during the '30s. But until he became head basketball coach at little Wabash College three years ago, it also was one of a set of physical peculiarities that hampered him from progressing beyond the role of an assistant at Kansas State, Utah and Penn State.

At 5'6" Simpson has always been a difficult man to size up, and his Stengelesque features have added to the confusion by making him appear 20 years older than he is. When Snowy arrived in Crawfordsville, Ind. to interview for the Wabash job, he looked like a man of retirement age rather than a 56-year-old ball of energy seeking his first executive position. He had been out of major college coaching since money problems got him in trouble at Penn State in 1964. An inability to handle personal finances, it seems, has been another hindrance to Simpson's career.

Wabash Athletic Director Max Servies was aware of this bag of troubles and other things about Simpson that he knew would not sit well with the committee set up to screen coaching candidates. Servies knew, for instance, that Simpson was only a part-time assistant at a junior college when he heard about the Wabash opening. From nine to five Snowy worked as a janitor at the University of Pittsburgh, sweeping the gym floor during basketball season. Instead of coaching the Panthers, as he was capable of doing, Simpson had to be content with giving advice after practice when many of the players stopped by to talk basketball.

Servies hoped that the committee might be sold on Simpson because of his degree in English, his reputation as a sharp scout and his gentle nature and ability to work with young players. However, Simpson's four erratically spaced teeth and his raspy voice tended to obscure these qualities, so Servies played his trump card. He phoned a name on Simpson's list of references, Adolph Rupp, and The Baron's first words were, "Hire him." Servies relayed the message, and the job was Simpson's.

Wabash College, with its enrollment of 800, is far from the big time Simpson frequently refers to with a mixture of pride and melancholy. The isolated all-male school is one of the two or three of its kind remaining among four-year colleges. It is strictly for bookworms who want to study without a lot of halter tops around to distract them. A Wabash student's idea of a good time is five beers with the guys and a couple of quick chapters of Sartre before bed. The tab for a year runs about $4,000, so nobody comes to Wabash just to play basketball. Those who do go out for the sport wear the uniform of the Little Giants, an unfortunately appropriate nickname. If a Wabash man stands 6'8", he must play the pivot, even if his weight does not top his IQ.

Simpson guaranteed his new employers a victory in the 1972-73 season opener, and would have made good on his promise had he resisted a last-minute temptation to schedule a game at Bradley. The Braves trounced the Little Giants 92-75. Then Wabash beat Marian College in the originally scheduled opener and started off on a three-game winning streak. There has not been one that long since.

Snowy's first team was 7-16, and last year's 7-18 squad ended up tied for last in the Indiana Collegiate Conference, one of the best small-college leagues. This year's team has managed to do worse. Counting their season-ending 93 73 drubbing at Eastern Illinois last week, the Little Giants staggered home 4-22.

"Coach," says Simpson, who has served under so many he addresses most males in this manner, "I've discovered there is no correlation between classroom smarts and success at basketball. These kids are bright, but five of them want to be doctors and that's too many. Do you have any idea how many three-hour labs they have in the afternoon?

"My wife warned me not to expect these kids to do the same things as the players at Kansas State or Utah. Still, it's hard not to think back to 1951, when I was an assistant at KSU and we were in the NCAA finals. I figure if Wabash can't win in the ICC, we might as well take some nice trips and play a few big schools. Why, last year we got beat as badly at Valparaiso as at Houston, and my boys got to visit the Astrodome, the space center and Mexico."

At a college like Wabash, where athletics are less important than learning, Simpson's logic would appear to be faultless. But Servies, who agreed at first, now sees it another way. He is a Wabash alumnus, and he thinks more people in Crawfordsville would buy $10 season tickets if the team were 13-13 instead of 4-22. He feels eight opponents on Snowy's 1974-75 schedule did not belong there.

"We should be playing more schools like ourselves," Servies says. "Ones where you have to study to graduate. I'm going to have to give the matter some thought during the next month or two."

If Simpson is not head coach at Wabash next season it will mean that the realization of his dream of being his own boss was short-lived. But for a man who wrote a manual on how to be a good janitor, it would be just a routine setback.

"I don't think anything I've ever done was beneath me," Simpson said after a loss in Wabash's final home game. "I was always the little man in the blue suit who never got introduced, and I learned to live with such things long ago."