Tom Schneider blinked and tried adjusting the tint on his copy of USA Today. There, in the sports section, was a story saying that comedian Bill Cosby had phoned the Lehigh University basketball coach to offer advice on how Lehigh should play top-ranked Georgetown. "Tell your kids to look ahead to finals—that is, final exams," Cosby had said. "You're engineers. You got all the angles down pat."
Schneider, an even-tempered man of 38, found the story amusing, except that he is the Lehigh coach. And, as the Engineers' team bus made its way from Bethlehem, Pa. to Hartford, Conn. last week, Schneider swore he hadn't talked to Cosby. He furrowed his brow. "At least I don't think I talked to Bill Cosby."
Schneider could be forgiven his uncertainty. Only a few frenetic days earlier, Lehigh, rising mightily above its 12-18 record, had beaten Bucknell 76-74 in overtime to win the East Coast Conference tournament and a berth in the NCAAs. Soon word came that in the opening round the Engineers would face 7-foot Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas—"Hey," said assistant coach Fran McCaffery, "if you're going to go all the way, you've eventually got to beat the best"—in Hartford. Schneider may not have talked to Cosby, but he had chatted with just about everyone else, from the L.A. drive-time deejay who had drawn Lehigh in a Final Four pool and adopted the team as his own, to The Washington Post columnist who poked fun at Engineer point guard Mike Polaha's slight physique. "No paranoia here," Schneider said at a campus practice, gesturing at the minicam brigade he had allowed into Stabler Arena.
Schneider was ambivalent toward the attention, which had created a sudden giddiness at Lehigh, the school with a hidebound wrestling tradition and no athletic scholarships. The basketball program has long been dormant. Only three times since 1953 has Lehigh finished above .500. The floor in Schneider's office is covered by carpet remnants fastened with tape. "When a recruit trips on the rug," he says, "I have a hard time explaining to him that that's supposed to be quaint."
But Schneider was disturbed by the posture the press was taking toward his team. Sure, the Engineers had lost to Rider by 31 points, but basketball's vital signs had improved this season. After an article entitled How to Cheer appeared in the student newspaper, a school-record 3,300 showed up for the Lafayette game. Talk in the South Side bars was turning from layoffs at the steel mills and riding time to a 6'4" freshman from Norristown, Pa. named Daren Queenan, who could actually dunk. And now every sportswriter in America was making the team out to be a joke. Iowa coach George Raveling called Lehigh's very inclusion in the field "a farce," likening the Engineers to sheep being led to a fleecing.
Schneider ruminated on sudden fame—"Maybe I did talk to Bill Cosby"—and Ewing. The Hoya center would pose problems. The Lehigh staff prepared for the Hoyas' full-court pressure by working the offense against seven defenders; later, it showed a tape of the first half of Georgetown's early-season game with American, in which the Hoyas had played like mortals. "Fellas, you'll see here that they make mistakes," Schneider said. "They go for pump fakes and go over the back when they're boxed out and take bad shots."
Schneider's pregame elocution was upbeat. "No matter what anyone says," he said, "you deserve to be here. Don't leave here saying 'I wish I had.' Leave saying 'I know I did!' "
The Engineers, underdogs by 33 points, took the floor with a few whoops and hollers, which were matched by the hundreds of townspeople who had helped buy out the school's 400-ticket allotment in 1¼ hours.
Not eight seconds into the game, Ewing scored easily over Don Henderson, Lehigh's 6'6" center. Queenan misfired on a double pump, and before Lehigh trainer Charlie McNaron could snap more than a couple of pictures from the bench, Georgetown had run and shot its way to a 39-11 halftime lead.
Schneider was cross at the half. "They beat us to a couple of loose balls," he said. "That shouldn't happen, regardless of what the score is." When the second half started, a transformation took place. Polaha sank a pair of jumpers from the key, then a three-point-play free throw after a foray through the lane. Queenan made two free throws after drawing a foul on Ewing. Lehigh's run was 9-2, and Georgetown called time. "It was good to finally see them call time-out for a change," Queenan would say later.
"Hey!" Schneider said in the huddle. "Now we're playing like we should have started out playing!" And they kept at it. Five and a half minutes later, Schneider called a timeout. "If they're still in a man-to-man," he said, "let's run Aces Special for Daren."
Aces Special isn't an imported beer. It's what has made Queenan a favorite in those smoke-filled rooms on Bethlehem's South Side, a play that calls for Queenan to dart to the basket, rub his man off a pick at the foul line and convert a lob pass into a dunk. Queenan had jammed a dozen times this season off lobs. Still, calling the play against Georgetown seemed a wanton act.
It hardly mattered that Ewing had come out or that Ron Gregory's lob misfired and hit the rim. Queenan somehow ended up with the ball anyway, drew a foul and nailed the free throw. The last traces of trepidation were gone.
For the rest of the game, the Hoyas would repeatedly lose the ball against the Engineers' pressure. They won easily enough, 68-43, but they were outscored in the second half 32-29. "If I had left my starters in, we could have won by 50," said Hoya coach John Thompson. Perhaps, but Lehigh had more certifiable scrubs on the floor than did Georgetown over the last eight minutes, and the Hoyas didn't call off their half-court trap until the bitter end.
Lehigh had not been dunked on, and Polaha, who says he weighs 155 pounds "on a good day," had led all scorers with 20 points. "I held my breath when he went to the basket," said Polaha's mother, Theresa, who had feared for her son after seeing fists fly in two of the Hoyas' games in the Big East tournament.
"They are human," Polaha said. "Very good humans, but humans." As for Lehigh, a placard in the stands had called it THE LITTLE ENGINEERS THAT COULD. And for one glorious half, there was no more capable team in the land.
Schneider had heady moments in practice.
Leaving for its showdown with Georgetown, the contingent acted like winners.
No-go Lehigh was Ewing's answer to the Polahas, uncle (above) and nephew (below).