About 25 years ago a 23-year-old coach at a North Dakota high school, hungry to learn more about the game, drove down to Kansas State to observe one of Tex Winter's practices. Winter was in the middle stages of a 36-year career that would make him one of the most respected coaches in the business. Before becoming head coach at K-State, he'd been at Marquette; he later would coach the University of Washington, the NBA's Houston Rockets, Northwestern and Long Beach State, from which he retired after last season. Winter befriended the young high school coach, and the relationship blossomed.
Like Winter, his visitor eventually won a national Coach of the Year award and took a team to the Final Four. And last spring Dale Brown, the erstwhile protégé, lured his former mentor out of his brief retirement with an offer to become an assistant at LSU. "It pays to be nice to people on your way up," Winter says. "You never know who'll help you on your way down. I'm not exactly on my way down, but I am on my way out."
For the first hour of every practice, Brown's Tigers are exposed to the lion in Winter as he covers fundamentals. Brown admits that LSU, which is loaded with raw young talent, can use extra work in this area; he also admits that he can't devote as much time to it as he would like. "Coach Brown is sometimes so intense and anxious to move on that he skips over the smaller things that Coach Winter will catch," says John Tudor, the Tigers' captain.
Winter's first task has been to try to teach someone to play center. Last season LSU won eight of its last 10 SEC games and finished 19-13 overall, but Brown was never satisfied with the pivot play of Rich (Standstill) Stanfel, who has since transferred to Ohio University, or Steffond Johnson, who was inconsistent and eventually benched. Leonard Mitchell (above), a 6'7" forward, was forced to play the post. With 6'9" recruit Tom Curry redshirted for academic reasons, the 6'8½" Johnson will get another shot. "You might say Steffond is my personal project," says Winter, who wrote the book on post play (The Triple-Post Offense, Prentice-Hall, 1962).
LSU is deep and talented everywhere else. Tudor, the senior off-guard, has a silver-spoon background but a lunch-bucket attitude. Speedy senior Johnny Jones will probably yield his point position as the man who makes the Tigers GEAUX (which is how the bumper stickers spell it in Baton Rouge) to Derrick Taylor. He averaged 14.8 points and 3.2 assists as a freshman in 1981-82, but then frittered away his academic eligibility in a video arcade.
"When you first come here and you're 17 years old, you tend to want to do anything but study," says Taylor, who has since gotten a 3.25 GPA. His return, plus the elimination of the 45-second shot clock for the last four minutes of every SEC game, promises the resurrection of LSU's 3-2 spread delay.
In previous seasons, the Tigers' pause scratched many an opponent. "Having a clock really was a handicap for us last season," says Brown. "We'd perfected the delay so it wasn't just a spread. We turned it into an offense. It had a tendency to get us back to being a patient team late in games." Adds Tudor, "Eight out of 10 times it works to our advantage. A team like ours is so explosive, sometimes we need to watch ourselves."
A fast and funky front line will score most of LSU's points. Jerry (Ice) Reynolds, one of the SEC's two best freshmen by the end of last season, calls his jump shot "24-7-365," because, "It's good 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year." Even so, he seems to prefer dazzling drives. Mitchell has been named to the All-SEC team the last two seasons. In 1982-83 he led the Tigers in rebounds, blocked shots and shooting and was second in scoring. Sophomore Don Redden, who shot well before separating his left shoulder in a collision last December with Mitchell, is also back to form.
The top freshman is Forward Nikita Francisco Wilson, described by one wag as "a trilateral summit conference." He began his senior year at Leesville (La.) High unlisted by one scouting service and ended it in the nationwide Top 10 of another. Damon Vance, a 6'10½" freshman from California who will require lots of Winter's attention, is another possibility in the middle.
"I start every day like I'm planting the flag at Iwo Jima," says Brown. It's this kind of overdrive that will make the calm Winter so useful to the Tigers—and could motivate LSU to plant a flag or two of its own this season.