Chal Port and his legacy

Chal Port was the best coach I ever had, and his love of his boys poured out of him the way it always does with the best of the breed.

– Pat Conroy, Prologue, My Losing Season

We are not reloading; we are in a rebuilding process.  Our team is made up of reserves of past years and freshmen who will get the opportunity to play this year and hopefully be up to the challenge…Our baseball accomplishments measured by victories this year could be moderate.  From our players we need a dedication of purpose, firm self-discipline and tenacious determination.  Hard work and aggressive play must overcome our limitations.

We will be playing off the enthusiasm of youth, and that should result in some entertaining baseball.  We must judge this team on the basis of their performance, according to their individual abilities and improvement throughout the season.  We want to teach them not to beat themselves and to always play with a fighting spirit and essential mental toughness.

We need to stay out of the way of line drives and recover foul balls so that we can stay within our budget.

– Chal Port, from The Citadel’s 1990 Baseball Media Guide

That last line is one of Port’s more famous witticisms, mainly because it is one of the most publicized, as it got a lot of press after the 1990 team reached the College World Series.  It is quintessential Port, to be sure.

Port died Saturday in Charleston after a long illness.  He was 80 years old.  You can read and view stories and tributes to Port in many places, including Jeff Hartsell’s article in The Post and Courier, WCIV-TV, WCSC-TV, and this selection from the 2005 documentary DVD “Who’d a Thunk It?”.

Chal Port won 641 games and seven Southern Conference championships at The Citadel, but the opening paragraph on any story about his career at the military college always prominently includes that 1990 squad, and justifiably so.  At the time, longtime Clemson coach Bill Wilhelm said he didn’t know of “a lower-budget team to go to the College World Series,” and he wasn’t being patronizing in any way.

Port was the only fulltime coach on the staff; his two assistants were a part-timer (Tom Hatley) and a GA (Ken Creehan).  As for how many scholarships Port had available, I have heard different numbers, though all sources agree that he had far from the maximum 11.7 schollies.  He probably had half that amount at his disposal, at best.

Winning 46 games with a team that had such limited resources, including the wins over North Carolina State and East Carolina at the Atlantic Regional, becoming the only team to ever win two games against Miami at Mark Light Stadium in a regional, and then actually winning a game in Omaha…that was some kind of run.  Nothing like it had ever happened before, and it is hard to imagine it ever happening again.

Port guiding his Bulldogs to Omaha was a godsend for both the local and national media in 1990, as he gave scribes and TV commentators all the material they wanted and then some.  Just a sample:

– [From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution] “After his team beat perennial power Miami to reach the CWS, ESPN’s Tim Brando asked Port how it felt to win in the shadow of the building named for Ron Fraser, Miami’s coach.

‘No big deal,’ he said.  ‘I’ve got a building at The Citadel named after me.  It’s the Port-O-Let next to the dugout.'”

(After that comment, the AJC‘s Tom Whitfield wrote that “Chal Port of The Citadel has been named college coach of the year by The Sporting News…when it comes to down-home wisdom and one-liners, he’s the coach for the ages.”)

– Brando interviewed Port at the Atlantic Regional in Miami.  Also at that regional, a young Miami Herald sportswriter named Dan Le Batard documented an exchange with Port that went in part like this:

Le Batard: “…but Chal, your team…is an impressive 41-12 and…”

Port:  “Good scheduling, don’t you think?”

Le Batard:  “But Chal, pal, your team had a 26-game winning streak this year, the nation’s longest, and…”

Port:  “Aw, we don’t win a lot of baseball games but we do pretty good in wars.”

– Port also gave an interview to columnist William Rhoden of The New York Times:

“When we looked at the calendar last fall, our goal for June 1st was to make sure that the kids had turned in all their equipment.” …

… “‘Baseball has never been big at The Citadel,” he said. ”It’s a military school, and as a military school, football is the god, then basketball. When baseball has a good year, we’re third. When we have poor years, we drop down behind golf.”

For all of the success of this year’s team, Port realizes that The Citadel will never become a perennial baseball power.

”Most excellent baseball players are not interested in marching and wearing uniforms,” Port said.

Of course, one team and a bunch of jokes don’t really define the man.  His overall record is extremely impressive, but when put into context, the adjective “amazing” may be a more appropriate term than “impressive”.  This next section is something I wrote a couple of years ago as part of a study of the records of Port and Fred Jordan, with some minor editing.

Chal Port had to make numerous on-field adjustments during his tenure, including the change from wooden to aluminum bats, and the Southern Conference moving to divisional play (and then dropping the divisions), among other things.  Then there were the off-field adjustments, which included integration, and the fact that going to a military school wasn’t exactly the cool thing to do in the early-to-mid-1970s (not that it’s ever been the really cool thing to do).   Consider what the baseball program accomplished, especially when compared to The Citadel’s football and hoops programs of that decade:

From 1971-1979, the football team was coached by Red Parker, Bobby Ross, and Art Baker.  Ross in particular is known as having been an outstanding coach, with major success at multiple levels of the sport.  The football team had four winning seasons overall in those nine years, with no league titles and a conference mark of 26-29 (47.2%).  SoCon finishes:  3rd, 4th, 7th, 5th, 4th, 6th, 3rd, 5th, 3rd.

The basketball team was coached from 1971-79 by Dick Campbell, George Hill, and Les Robinson.  Robinson would later prove his worth as a coach with an outstanding rebuilding job at East Tennessee State, but during this period the hoops program had just two winning seasons, bookends on seven straight losing campaigns, and had an overall conference record of 43-69 (38.4%).  Conference finishes:  4th, 5th, 4th, 6th, 7th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 3rd.

Meanwhile, from 1971-1979 Port went 85-43 (66.4%) in conference play, with three championships, nine winning seasons overall, and eight winning seasons in the league (and the other was a .500 season).  His SoCon finishes during that time:  1st, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 1st.  He finished in the upper half of the league all nine years.

He wasn’t done yet, either.  He had his best teams up to that time in 1982 and 1983, with the ’82 squad finishing 40-8.  At that point another power arose in the Southern Conference, as Western Carolina hired Jack Leggett to upgrade its already promising program.  The Catamounts would win five straight league titles, a stretch dovetailing almost exactly with a gradual decline in The Citadel’s fortunes on the diamond.

Port outlasted WCU’s run and (even more impressively) Hurricane Hugo, however, and orchestrated a season that won’t soon be forgotten, plus a very nice coda (the ’91 campaign).

The 1990 season was incredible, but don’t forget all those terrific teams he had in the 1970s and 1980s.  A few of those squads were just a break or two away from being DVD-worthy themselves (the 1982 team in particular).

Port is, without much doubt, the best coach The Citadel has ever had, in any sport.  He got it done off the field, too, as almost all of his players graduated.

The State of South Carolina has had more than its fair share of outstanding college baseball coaches over the years, but Chal Port was arguably better than any of them, given his resources.  I say that as someone who has a great deal of respect for the wonderful job Ray Tanner has done at South Carolina (not to mention Wilhelm, Bobby Richardson, etc.).

Port’s influence over the game continues today.  Numerous former players went on to become successful high school coaches in the state, preaching the gospel of Chal.

Some of his disciples moved on to the college ranks, including three current D-1 head coaches:  his successor at The Citadel, Fred Jordan; Tony Skole (ETSU);  and Dan McDonnell (who made a little history for himself by leading Louisville to Omaha a few years ago, joining the exclusive club of individuals to have played for and coached a CWS team).

Port’s influence can even be seen indirectly with players like Baltimore Orioles All-Star catcher Matt Wieters, whose father Richard was an outstanding pitcher-outfielder for Port in the 1970s.

Chal Port’s ability to develop and nurture leaders inside and outside the game is his real legacy, even more so than his renowned storytelling ability and his championship-winning baseball teams.

Condolences to his family and friends.

Hoops season has arrived, and just in time

At first, I was going to wait for a couple of games to be played before I started posting about The Citadel’s basketball team.  I like to do that because I want to see how things are going to shake out in terms of personnel (who is getting the minutes), style of play, etc.

While everyone knows who the key players will be (Cam and Zach!), and who some of the regulars will be (like Austin Dahn and Bryan Streeter), there is still uncertainty about who will be manning other positions and featuring in the rotation.  Can Cosmo Morabbi find his shot?  Is it true that Matt Clark is going to thrive in the new offensive system?  Just how quick is freshman DeVontae Wright?  Are the two European-born grad student big guys named Mike any good?

Plus, Chuck Driesell is now the coach, and apparently he wants to play at a quicker tempo than his predecessor, Ed Conroy.  In the exhibition victory over North Greenville, the Bulldogs had 71 possessions.  In 2010, The Citadel averaged 61.1 possessions per game; in 2009, 64.8 ppg.  Of course, it’s only one game, and one that doesn’t count.

However, I decided to make this ramble of a post, because I’m ready for the season to start.  If I hadn’t been excited for college hoops season already, Wednesday night’s thriller between Maryland and the College of Charleston would have done the trick anyway.  That was a fun game to watch, and also an instructive one for the Bulldogs.

In last season’s two meetings with the CofC, The Citadel did a good job keeping Andrew Goudelock from exploding from beyond the arc.  He was a combined 2-14 from 3-land in the two games.  The Bulldogs are going to have to do that again this season when they match up against the Cougars.  It won’t be easy.

The Citadel opens its season on the road at Richmond.  The Spiders, which run the “Princeton” offense, were very good last season, and are expected to be very good again this year.  In 2010 Richmond narrowly missed out on winning the Atlantic 10 regular season title, and then advanced to the league tourney final.  The Spiders received an at-large bid to the NCAAs, finishing 26-9 after a first-round loss to St. Mary’s.

Richmond features 2010 A-10 player of the year Kevin Anderson, a 6’0″ guard who averaged nearly 18 points per game last season, and 6’10” NBA prospect Justin Harper, both seniors.  They are two of eleven returning scholarship players. Richmond has a bevy of frontcourt players to complement Harper, but must find an outside shooter to replace Daniel Gonzalves, who has graduated.  There appear to be several worthy candidates, however.

The Spiders’ only real weakness is on the boards, and it cost them against St. Mary’s, as Gaels big man Omar Samhan had a field day against them.  (Of course, 2-seed Villanova couldn’t handle Samhan either.)

There is a lot of anticipation for the upcoming season for Richmond fans, who expect a banner campaign — and it’s hard to blame them for being excited.

As for the game itself, besides Richmond’s talent, I’m a little concerned about the pace of play.  If Driesell’s Dogs really are going to be significantly more uptempo this season, then this will be a case of the Spiders wanting to play “slower” than the Bulldogs.

It has been unusual in recent years, of course, for a team to play at a slower pace than The Citadel, but when it has happened it has occasionally thrown the Bulldogs off their game.  I remember a bad Iowa team beating The Citadel easily at McAlister Field House two years ago, partly because of its size, and partly because The Citadel seemed flummoxed by the Hawkeyes’ style.  The same has sometimes been true when playing Samford, another school that employs the Princeton offense (the 2009 SoCon tourney game still gives me nightmares).

If The Citadel is going to try to occasionally force the action this season, there will be times when the other team wants to slow the game down, and the Bulldogs are going to have to learn how to adjust.  Friday night’s game may provide a good test in that respect.

Earlier in the summer, it was generally believed that The Citadel would be participating in the Charleston Classic.  I was very happy about that, as it would be a chance for the Bulldogs to play good competition early in the season, and possibly on television.

However, at the last minute Wofford was substituted as the SoCon’s representative in the tournament.  I was less than thrilled about that, and am even less thrilled now, because it’s my understanding that The Citadel elected not to play in the tournament after originally agreeing to do so.  Ed Conroy was game, but Chuck Driesell was apparently not interested.

I’m sure he had a good reason, but I would like to know what that reason was.  The Charleston Classic is an ESPN tournament, and will get its fair share of promotion from the four-letter.  In addition, at least two (if not all three) of the games The Citadel would have played in the tourney would have been on television.

There is nothing more frustrating than having a billion college basketball games on television, and almost none of them featuring your team.  This season, The Citadel will apparently only appear on television three times — on SportSouth (at the College of Charleston), on FSN-Rocky Mountain against Colorado, and on KASY-TV, which will carry the game against New Mexico (but which probably won’t be on Full Court, and thus will be unavailable outside the Albuquerque area).

ESPN will televise over 1200 college basketball games this season.  None of them involve The Citadel.

The Citadel should have (at the very least) a competitive team this year, one that merits as much promotion and coverage as it can handle.  As it is, the Bulldogs are so anonymous that the mammoth College Basketball Prospectus forgot to include The Citadel in its publication, the only one of 345 Division I programs to be left out.

The Bulldogs aren’t playing in next season’s Charleston Classic either (oddly, no SoCon school is).  Maybe The Citadel is holding out for another chance to play in a ballroom in Cancun

I’ll close this post by throwing in a few links:

– Richmond game notes (.pdf):  Notice that Chuck Driesell’s name is misspelled. Also, it would have been nice if UR had referred to “The Citadel” on its cover page, but considering we can’t get the name right on our uniforms, I can’t complain about another school failing to do so.

– Richmond student newspaper, The Collegian, with a writeup:  Link

– Here is an article on Tulane’s exhibition victory over Loyola of New Orleans.  I’m only linking it because I’m a little puzzled about Ben Cherry being eligible.  More power to him.

– The “holy grail” for The Citadel’s basketball program, of course, is the NCAA Tournament.  For those unaware of how difficult this task has been for the Bulldogs, my manifesto from two seasons ago (slightly outdated but still mostly relevant):  Link

– Do you remember how a feature story on Ed Conroy and the Bulldogs almost always wound up being about Pat Conroy?  Of course you do.  Well, prepare for more of the same, as scribes writing about Chuck Driesell and The Citadel will often revert to telling stories about Lefty.

I’m ready for some hoops…

The Citadel needs to win at least one more regular season game

The loss to UNC-Greensboro on Saturday was very disappointing, but oddly Ed Conroy wasn’t too worried about it.  At least, that’s what he told Jeff Hartsell of The Post and Courier:

“I thought we did some really good things,” said Conroy. “We shared the ball well, only had six turnovers, shot the ball well from 3-point range. We just didn’t convert a lot of shots on the interior. We got some good looks there, but they didn’t go.”

There was also a reference earlier in the article to “a touch of fatigue and illness,” so perhaps the team’s energy level wasn’t as high as it normally was.  Also less than energetic was a largely absent corps of cadets.  The corps’ apathy and/or lack of presence this season during games at McAlister Field House (not to mention the homecoming game in football) has been noticeable.  It’s an issue General Rosa and company must address.

Back to the court, The Citadel was outrebounded 41-24  by UNCG, which was basically the difference in the game, as it’s hard to overcome such a discrepancy without a huge edge in turnovers or shooting percentage, and the Bulldogs did not shoot particularly well (36%).  The loss means that to clinch an overall winning season, as well as a winning season in Southern Conference play, The Citadel needs to win one of its two final regular season games.

That won’t be easy, as they are both road contests.  Thursday the Bulldogs travel to Greenville to play an improving Furman club, followed by a Saturday game in Spartanburg against Wofford.

The Citadel beat Furman 70-60 in Charleston on January 23.  In that game, Cameron Wells had 22 points and 12 rebounds.  He was only 6-17 from the field, but went to the foul line repeatedly and converted (8-8).  Bryan Streeter also had a double-double in the contest.  The Bulldogs were a solid 8-20 from 3-point land and also won the turnover battle against the Paladins (11-8).

Furman’s Amu Saaka scored 19 points (on only 12 shots) and figures to be a problem again for the Bulldogs this time around.  The Paladins will also have Jordan Miller available for this game after he missed the first meeting.  Miller scored 31 points against UT-Chattanooga, but has followed up that great performance with two games in which he shot a combined 4-14 from the field.

Getting a win against Furman at Timmons Arena would be nice for several reasons. Assuming the two teams don’t meet in the Southern Conference tournament, it would be the first time The Citadel had swept the Paladins in consecutive seasons since the 2000-2001 campaigns.  Of course, there were only three games played in those years, as Furman screwed up in 2000 and scheduled too many games, leading to a penalty that resulted in only one game on the hardwood between the two schools that year.

The Citadel also won the second game played in the 1999 season, so it did win four straight against Furman from 1999-2001.  That was the last time the Bulldogs won four straight in the series.  The last time the Bulldogs won both home-and-away in consecutive seasons against the Paladins?  1939-1940 (part of a six-game win streak against Furman, the longest for The Citadel in the series’ history).  The Citadel hasn’t won consecutive games in Greenville since 1992-1993.

The Citadel had a late lead against Wofford in the game played on January 21, but couldn’t hold on and lost 44-42.  As the score indicates, it wasn’t an offensive masterpiece.  The Bulldogs shot 32% from the field.  Wofford shot no better (30%), but outrebounded The Citadel 38-33 and committed one fewer turnover.  The Terriers’ stated strategy of stopping Cameron Wells worked, as the rest of the Bulldog squad (save Zach Urbanus) combined for more turnovers (10) than made field goals (6).

You can bet Wofford will try to hold down Wells’ production again to win its sixth straight game over the cadets, but it may not be so easy this time, as the other Bulldogs have done a better job in recent games of shouldering the offensive load.  Of course, the Terriers are likely to be better at putting the ball in the hoop on Saturday as well.

Noah Dahlman was his usual solid self in the first meeting (15 points, 6-12 FG, five rebounds).  Odds are at least one of his teammates will provide offensive support.  I anticipate a higher-scoring game this time (but not much higher — we’re not talking about a pair of run-and-gun teams here).

Just a few stats to finish off this post…

– With one more regular season victory, The Citadel will clinch its second consecutive winning season.  The last time the Bulldogs had two straight winning campaigns? 1979-1980.  Before that, you have to go back to 1964-1965.  The Citadel had four straight winning seasons from 1958-1961.  Speaking of the 1958-61 era…

– If The Citadel beats Furman and/or Wofford, it will enjoy a second consecutive winning season in Southern Conference play.  The last time the Bulldogs had two straight winning SoCon campaigns?  1960-1961.

You read that correctly.  Actually, from 1958-1961 The Citadel had four straight winning seasons in conference play.  The first three came under the direction of Norm Sloan, who then became the head coach at Florida.  His successor at The Citadel, Mel Thompson (best known as Pat Conroy’s head coach at The Citadel, I suppose) would go 10-3 in SoCon action in his first season in charge.

Sloan took over a program that had not had a winning SoCon season since 1945. Actually, that doesn’t really tell the story.  Let’s put it this way:  from 1946 to 1956, The Citadel was 12-102 in league play.  The five years preceding Sloan’s arrival in Charleston featured a combined conference record of 2-49.

Sloan was 5-9 in the SoCon in his first season, and then had league records of 9-6, 7-4, and 8-4.

Sloan won the national championship in 1974 while coaching North Carolina State. He had proved his worth as a coach many years earlier, though, at a small military college.

Incidentally, the only other time The Citadel had back-to-back winning years in the Southern Conference came in the 1938-1939-1940 seasons, when the Bulldogs had three straight winning SoCon campaigns, mostly under head coach Rock Norman (who coached the team in 1938 and 1939, and for the first eight games in 1940 before being replaced by Ben Parker).

There is definitely potential for The Citadel to make a little history with a win in either of its two games this week.  I wouldn’t mind if instead of winning one of them, it won both.

A tradition that needs to stop

This season, The Citadel’s basketball team successfully broke a long cycle of losing, and did so in spectacular fashion, with an unprecedented number of league victories, the longest winning streak in over 80 years, and a record-tying 20 victories.  The team broke long road losing streaks at Appalachian State, Davidson, and the College of Charleston.  It got over the hump in every conceivable way except one.  Oh, but that one…

The conference tournament bugaboo struck again.

Samford became the 21st different team to beat The Citadel in the SoCon tourney (I think it’s safe to assume that’s a record), a little more than a month after The Citadel beat the Birmingham bulldogs by 25 points in a game at Samford.  It was, to say the least, a frustrating performance.  The Citadel’s defense was atrocious, as Samford scored 76 points on only 55 possessions.  The Citadel also got outrebounded by Samford, which is both terrible and amazing, given that Samford is one of the nation’s worst rebounding teams.  It was just a miserable night.

I don’t know why, no matter how good or bad the Bulldogs are in any season (and they’ve usually been bad), The Citadel comes up all thumbs every single time when the SoCon tournament gets underway.  You would think that in all those years that on occasion even one of the Bulldogs’ lesser teams would have done something to win a couple of games, even if it were just by accident.  Nope.  The Citadel is now 10-56 in the Southern Conference tournament.

Ed Conroy did a lot of things right this season, but I suspect he’s going to take a hard look at the performance of the team on Saturday night and try to figure out how to change the mindset of the squad entering tourney play.  The team has to play with purpose while remaining loose, something that never seems to happen, regardless of the year.

I don’t know if The Citadel has finished playing basketball this season.  It is possible that the Bulldogs will be invited to a post-season event, as college basketball appears to be going the way of college football, and eventually all 343 Division I teams will get to play in a post-season tournament.   Well, maybe not NJIT.  We’ll see what develops on that front.

If it does turn out to be the end of the season, I feel badly for the players that it ended so rudely, particularly the two seniors.  However, Demetrius Nelson and Jon Brick will depart knowing that in their senior year, they played on a basketball team at The Citadel that won 20 games.  That makes them members of a very, very small club.  Also, if the Bulldogs are able to maintain the positive momentum built up during this season, and parlay it into even more success, Nelson and Brick will know that they were major contributors to the building of that foundation. 

I’ve been asked by friends about two recent articles concerning The Citadel, a long and evocative piece in ESPN The Magazine (and ESPN.com) by the talented Wright Thompson, and a shorter feature in The New York Times, the latter of which could have used some editing.  However, as I have pointed out to people who have brought it up, the truth is that other than Ed Conroy, the basketball team didn’t get much publicity from either article, as both were about Pat Conroy.  The two pieces combined were over 5700 words in length, but despite all that verbiage no member of the current edition of the Bulldog basketball team was mentioned, not even once.

I was disappointed in that, because I’ve heard the Pat Conroy tale before.  While I mean no disrespect, I felt the focus should be on the current players and what they had accomplished, not just Nelson and Brick, but Zach Urbanus, Bryan Streeter, and Austin Dahn.  I wanted to read more about the terror of Beverly Hills, Cosmo Morabbi.  I was hoping someone would come up with a nickname for John Brown (besides just “JB”).

Instead, the national media turned to Pat Conroy as the story.  It’s always about Pat.

(Actually, contained within the Pat-and-Ed storyline was something that I thought was potentially much more interesting, the relationship between Ed and Don “The Great Santini” Conroy.  However, that angle would only have tangentially involved Pat Conroy, and the elder Conroy is dead, so it was just used as a way for the preferred narrative to connect Pat and Ed.  Oh well.)

Perhaps it’s just as well none of the players were mentioned, at least in the Times article.  Since that story referred to General Grinalds as the former commandant of the school, it’s possible that Urbanus would have been described as a 6’10” post player…

Finally, you have to hand it to the Southern Conference brass.  After taking the guaranteed money from Chattanooga to move the tournament to UTC’s home court, the conference leadership got exactly what it deserved.  The Mocs had the fifth-best record in the SoCon this season, but despite 20 conference games the league continued with its two-division format.  With the four best teams all in the South division, this enabled UT-Chattanooga (playing in the North division) to garner a bye in the first round while two other teams with better records had to play on Friday night. 

Then everything fell into place for the Mocs.  Not only did they survive a one-point victory over Elon in the quarterfinals (you think the home court was probably worth a few points there?), they only had to beat one of the four teams that finished ahead of UTC in the standings — and that was the third-place team, which had to play an extra game just to get to the final.

There is a good chance (better than 50%, at least) that Chattanooga becomes the first SoCon school to land in the dreaded play-in game, just one year after Davidson reached the Elite Eight.  That will do wonders for the league’s image.  However, it should have come as no surprise to anyone that Chattanooga won the tournament on its home court, since that’s exactly what happened in 2005, the last time the tournament was held at McKenzie Arena.

When the tournament was awarded to Chattanooga, SoCon commissioner John Iamarino noted that the arena would provide plenty of seating.  That’s great, except much of it wasn’t used, as even in the final, with its home team playing and a bid to the NCAA tournament on the line, the official attendance was only 5,042 (and who knows what the actual attendance was).   

It’s not surprising that a lot of the fans from other schools in the league didn’t show up, since Chattanooga isn’t a geographically ideal location to have the tournament (unless you root for UTC or Samford).  It doesn’t say much for the promotion of the event, though, when even the home team can’t put people in the stands.

Naturally, the tournament will return to Chattanooga next season…

Charlie Brown’s favorite college basketball program

Edit (8/10/09):  I originally wrote what follows in November 2008.  The 2008-09 basketball Bulldogs then went out and won 20 games for only the second time in school history, resulting in the first appearance by The Citadel in a post-season hoops tourney (okay, so it was the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, but that still counts).  Based on this turn of events, I am hopeful that if I write another essay prior to next season detailing the program’s less-than-stellar history, the 2009-10 edition of the Bulldogs will win the SoCon NCAA tournament.


There are only five schools that have been in NCAA Division I continuously since the classification’s formation in 1948 that have never participated in the NCAA basketball tournament.  Those five schools are Northwestern, Army, William&Mary, St. Francis of New York, and The Citadel.  Of those five, only one has never participated in the NIT.  Army has played in the NIT eight times (and according to Bob Knight, actually turned down an invitation to the NCAAs in the late 1960s).  Northwestern and St. Francis have three NIT invites each.  William&Mary has made one appearance in the NIT, in 1983.

The Citadel has made no such appearances.  It has never played in a game following its conference tournament.  No NCAA trips, no NIT bids, nothing.

This is not a fluke.

The history of basketball at The Citadel can be likened to the long-running Peanuts bit where Charlie Brown tries to kick the football, only to have Lucy jerk it away from him time and time again, except in this case the ball is jerked away from him about 10 seconds before he can even swing his leg to kick it…but he keeps trying to kick it anyway.

(Yes, I know that’s an analogy based on a football play, and this is a post about basketball.  There will be a motocross analogy later, too.  Just stay with me.)

Here are some quick facts about The Citadel’s basketball program:

– NCAA bids:  0
— NIT bids:  0
— Southern Conference tournament titles:  0
— Southern Conference regular season titles (undisputed or shared):  0
— Southern Conference regular season division titles (undisputed or shared):  0
— Southern Conference tournament MVPs:  0
— NBA players, past or present, who attended The Citadel:  0
— Appearances in the Southern Conference tournament final:  1 (1959)
— Number of times winning more than one game in the Southern Conference tournament:  1 (1959)
— Southern Conference tournament semifinal appearances since 1985:  1
— 20-win seasons:  1 (1979)
— Coaches with a winning record at The Citadel since World War II:  1 (Norm Sloan)
— Best-sellers about playing basketball at The Citadel titled My Losing Season 1
— Seasons with 20 or more losses:  11 (including the last three and five of the last six)
— Seasons finishing 10 or more games under .500:  20 (19 of them since World War II)
— Winning seasons since 1962:  10
— Winning seasons since 1962 in which The Citadel finished 3 or more games over .500:  5
— Consecutive losses in the Southern Conference tournament, 1985-1997:  13
— Consecutive losses in the Southern Conference tournament, 1961-1978:  17
— Overall record in the Southern Conference tournament:  11-55
— Coaches since 1975:  4 (nobody ever said The Citadel didn’t give its coaches a chance)

Brief Digression Number OneEvery season The Citadel loses in the SoCon tourney and sets a new NCAA record for most consecutive conference tournament appearances without winning a title – and every season, the following week Clemson ties the record (which is currently 55) when the Tigers lose in the ACC tournament.  Of course, Clemson came close to breaking its string of futility last year.  Incidentally, The Citadel’s 58-56 win over Clemson in 1979 is the last victory for the Bulldogs over a current member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.  The Citadel is 24-55 against Clemson, alltime.  Seven of those wins came after the Tigers joined the ACC.  Those are the only victories The Citadel has against a school that was a member of the ACC at the time.

The Citadel actually won a few more games than it lost in the seasons leading up to World War II.  Of course, the competition in those not-so-organized times wasn’t always the best.  In 1917, for example, The Citadel defeated the Charleston Navy Yard Machinist Mates 48-11.  In 1925 the Bulldogs beat Standard Oil 46-18, and in 1932 The Citadel recorded a 42-23 victory over the Jewish Alliance.  Alas, the Bulldogs’ 62-51 loss to the Savannah Ice Service in 1941 was a sign of things to come, because after the war things turned south in a hurry.

Brief Digression Number Two:  In 1927, coach Benny Blatt’s Bulldogs finished 17-2 and actually won a postseason tourney, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament, the only postseason event ever won by The Citadel.  The SIAA was the ancestor of the Southern Conference.  However, by 1927 all of the current SEC/ACC schools that would eventually make up the original Southern Conference had left the SIAA, and had been replaced by mostly smaller schools, with some holdovers (like The Citadel) still remaining in the old league.  In that 1927 tournament, The Citadel beat Mercer in the final.  It was the fourth time The Citadel had played Mercer that season, with the Bulldogs winning all four games.  All nineteen games The Citadel played that season were contested in the Carolinas or Georgia.

There is an old Peanuts TV special, “You’re a Good Sport, Charlie Brown,” in which Charlie Brown (with help from Linus) competes in a motocross race, with the winner to receive tickets to the NFL Pro Bowl.  Eventually, all of the other racers (including Snoopy) drop out of the event, and Charlie Brown wins it by default.  However, he finds out after the race that the organizers were unable to get the Pro Bowl tickets; instead, he receives coupons for five free haircuts at a barbershop in Denver, Colorado.  Keep in mind that Charlie Brown is bald, doesn’t live in Denver, and his father is a barber.

The Citadel’s victory in the ’27 SIAA tournament has always struck me as comparable to Charlie Brown’s motocross triumph.

Bernard O’Neil’s first year as coach, in 1948, resulted in a respectable 8-9 record, but his 1949 squad lost its first 17 games before winning the season finale.  He coached three more seasons, finishing with a career record of 28-72.

His replacement, the immortal Leo Zack, was 5-32 in two seasons, the latter season ending with 16 straight losses.  Three of his five career victories came against Newberry.  He also lost a game to Newberry, the school that during this time was better known for being the victim of Frank Selvy’s 100-point game.

Jim Browning was a respected professor at The Citadel, and also assisted the department of athletics whenever and wherever he was needed.  In his later years he helped compile statistics at home football games.  In the fall of 1954, he agreed to serve as coach for the basketball team.  I wish I knew more about how he wound up with the job; there has to be a good story there.  I vaguely recall a writeup about that season, but I don’t remember the source, and I haven’t been able to find it, at least not yet.  Incidentally, Col. Browning would have been a young man in 1954, probably not much older than the players.  I think his main job was to avoid forfeits, to be honest.  He succeeded in that, but that was about all the success the 1954-55 squad would have, finishing with a 1-21 record.  The only win was against the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

Brief Digression Number Three:  Some sources incorrectly don’t count that as an official victory, including the Southern Conference record book, with the league still listing The Citadel as having lost a conference record 37 straight games during this time period (the record is for consecutive losses against all opponents, not consecutive conference losses).  However, during that era schools were allowed to count games against military bases (and AAU teams) as part of their overall record.  The NCAA actually changed its record book a few years ago to take out references to the “37-game losing streak”; the mistake had been made long ago, and wasn’t fixed until 2004.  (The actual losing streak was 30 games.)  Besides, it’s not like The Citadel was catching a break playing service teams – the Bulldogs also lost that year to that same N.A.S., and dropped two lopsided games to the Parris Island Marines as well.  The Citadel also lists a loss to Gibbs AAU for that season by a score of 121-65.

That loss to Gibbs AAU wasn’t the worst loss of the season, though.  Neither was the 125-54 drubbing in the first game against the P.I. Marines.  The worst defeat would be an 87-point loss at Furman, 154-67.  That game would become part of an unusual record, for in the second meeting that year between the two teams, The Citadel elected to play stall-ball (why the Bulldogs didn’t try that strategy more often during the season, I don’t know).  I was once told by someone that at one point during the game most of the players on both teams were sitting down on the court, a few of them amiably chatting with one another.  Furman eventually won the game, 26-24.  The 85-point differential from one game to the next between the same teams is an NCAA record.  Normally, a record like that would occur when a team lost by a large margin and then came back and posted a dominant victory.  In this case, however, The Citadel (naturally) managed to lose both games.

The next year another coach, Hank Witt, who doubled as an assistant coach for the football team, led The Citadel to a 2-19 record.  Some of the losses that season were just staggering (Presbyterian beat The Citadel by 50 points – twice).  After that season, somebody at The Citadel got serious about hoops.  That somebody was presumably Mark Clark, scourge of Italy (and Texas).  The famous World War II general had become the new president of the school in 1954 and had no use for inept varsity athletic teams, or anything else inept for that matter.  The military college decided to hire a young coach named Norm Sloan.  You may have heard of him.

Sloan did a fantastic job, winning 57 games in four seasons.  In his third season, The Citadel would finish 15-5, losing to Jerry West and West Virginia in the SoCon tourney final, the only appearance The Citadel has ever made in the title game.  (West Virginia would go all the way to the NCAA championship game that year, losing 71-70 to California.)  Sloan left after the following season to coach Florida (the first of two stints with the Gators; of course, in between he would win the national title at North Carolina State).

Brief Digression Number Four:  Sloan recruited the midwest exclusively while at The Citadel.  He seemingly had no interest in local players.  In the fall following his first season as coach, he held an open practice for cadets interested in trying out for the basketball team.  Well, maybe not so open.  Sloan walked into the gym and greeted all the candidates, and then asked them to line up single-file, facing him.  He then said, “Everyone from Ohio, Indiana, or Kentucky, take one step forward.”  A few of the cadets stepped forward.  Sloan then barked, “The rest of you are cut,”  and walked out of the gym.

Sloan’s replacement, Mel Thompson, had one good year, and then the program went downhill, including a 3-20 debacle in 1963.  Thompson did manage to put together two consecutive winning campaigns after that season (with records of 11-10 and 13-11).  However, Thompson and the program then suffered two more losing years with a combined win-loss total of 15-33.  His final season eventually spawned a best-selling book in which the coach was portrayed as something less than human, or all too human, depending on your point of view.

After Thompson’s departure, the program went through a seven-year period of .445 ball under two different coaches.  Dick Campbell coached for four seasons.  Campbell came to The Citadel after an enormously successful run at Carson-Newman, where he had averaged 25 wins per season in his last seven years as coach.  At The Citadel, however, Campbell would finish with a record of 45-54.  He left the military college to take the head coaching job at Xavier.  His career as a college coach would end two years later, after a 3-23 campaign for the Cincinnati school.

George Hill took over from Campbell.  Hill had been the head coach at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where in two years he had won 11 games, all 11 victories coming in his second season (the USCGA was 0-21 in his first year as coach there).  He couldn’t provide any forward momentum at The Citadel, though, going 33-42 in three seasons, all losing campaigns.  Hill would later become a sportswriter and an author.

Les Robinson, who had already been an assistant coach for several years, was then promoted.  Robinson, one of three North Carolina State graduates to coach The Citadel (Sloan and Thompson had also played for the great Everett Case), would start off the first season of his eleven-year head coaching career at The Citadel by winning four of his first five games.  Three games later, his squad was still in good shape at 5-3, but it would then lose its last twelve games.  Robinson would follow that up with a 17-loss campaign and two 19-loss seasons before finally finding success, with his 1978-79 team finishing with a 20-7 record and actually winning a SoCon tourney game, the school’s first postseason victory since 1961.  After a few middling-to-bad seasons, Robinson’s final Bulldog team would win 18 games.  He then left to become head coach and AD at East Tennessee State.  Four years later, Les Robinson would finally take a team to the NCAA tournament.  He would later become famous enough to have an invitational named after him.

His replacement, Randy Nesbit, had played for Robinson, and was only 26 years old when he got the top job.  In seven years, Nesbit had more 20-loss seasons (two) then winning seasons (one).  In all fairness to Nesbit, he didn’t have a lot of luck, even by the meager karma standards of basketball at The Citadel.  Among other problems, The Citadel’s ancient basketball arena, McAlister Field House, underwent a renovation that left it unusable for two seasons during his tenure.  McAlister could occasionally be a surprisingly difficult place to play for opposing teams (it was often described in its original incarnation as resembling an airport hangar).  In Nesbit’s third season as coach, however, his squad played no games on campus, with the designated home games played at a local high school or at the College of Charleston’s gymnasium.

The following year, The Citadel elected to play its home games at its physical education building, Deas Hall, one of the more bizarre places to serve as a home court for a Division I basketball team in the modern era of college basketball.  McAlister would eventually reopen, but Nesbit’s final two teams would lose a combined 40 games anyway.  Nesbit is now the head basketball coach at Roane State Community College in Tennessee (he also teaches in the business school there).  One of the players on his current squad is 73 years old.

Brief Digression Number Five:  Nesbit did have one great moment while coaching The Citadel.  In 1989, Nesbit’s Bulldogs shocked South Carolina in Columbia, 88-87, breaking a 36-game losing streak to the Gamecocks that had dated back to 1943.  The key basket in the game was a clutch three-pointer made by Nesbit’s younger brother, Ryan (if he had missed it, the adjective “clutch” would have been changed to “reckless”).  The Gamecocks were marching to their first NCAA bid in many years when they were stunned in the late-season matchup, but George Felton’s best team actually recovered from the loss and won enough games to make the dance anyway (losing to North Carolina State in the first round).  The victory in Columbia was The Citadel’s 16th of the season, and, as it turned out, its last.  Thus it was the final win in the career of one Ed Conroy, a senior guard on that team, and now the head coach of the Bulldogs.

Nesbit was followed by Pat Dennis (also known as “the long-suffering Pat Dennis”), who had been an assistant for Dick Tarrant at Richmond.  Dennis would last for fourteen years, the longest tenure of any of The Citadel’s basketball coaches.  His sixth squad finished 15-13, the first winning season at The Citadel in a decade, and actually won a SoCon tourney game, the first in 13 years for the school.  After a few more losing years, Dennis would have consecutive winning seasons in 2001-02 and 2002-03, one of only two times The Citadel has had consecutive winning seasons in the last 42 years.  The perpetually frustrated Dennis would lose 20+ games in three of his final four seasons, however.  Dennis finished with a career record at The Citadel of 156-235.

On the bright side, Dennis had a winning record against each military school he faced while coaching The Citadel (11-7 against VMI, 2-1 against Navy, 3-0 against Army, and 1-0 against Air Force).  So he had that going for him, which was nice.

The current coach of the Bulldogs, Ed Conroy, is 13-47 in two seasons at the helm.  Conroy was hired by none other than Les Robinson, who had returned to The Citadel as AD.  Conroy had actually been recruited by Robinson when he was a high school senior, although Robinson would leave for ETSU before ever getting a chance to coach Conroy at The Citadel.  Ed Conroy is a cousin of Pat Conroy, a relationship that was well documented when Ed took over the program.

Last year, Conroy made news by playing a squad almost entirely made up of freshmen.  Some of them actually showed promise (albeit while only winning two games against Division I competition), so perhaps he can be the coach to lead the Bulldogs to the promised land – the NCAA tournament.  I’m rooting hard for him – he’s a nice guy – but it’s going to be very, very tough.  When The Citadel beat South Carolina that cold night in 1989, Conroy was quoted as saying the victory would be “the one we’ll remember all our lives.”  Winning the Southern Conference title as head coach of The Citadel would be a much more memorable moment.

I always tell people that if The Citadel were to ever advance to the NCAAs in basketball, that would probably be a sure sign of an imminent Apocalypse…

It can be difficult to be a fan of college hoops — and I really enjoy college hoops — when your school is always terrible in basketball.  Not just occasionally terrible, mind you, not just those inevitable slumps of a year or two or even a bad decade, but always.  It’s like there’s a really cool party going on, and the party never really stops, but it doesn’t matter that the party lasts forever, because you still don’t have a ticket and you may never get one, and what really irks you is that practically every other person in the free world has been to the party, even some out-and-out losers who don’t even realize how great the party really is, and you are still left out in the cold.

It would be great to even consider the possibility of turning on the tournament selection show, and watching James Brown announce something like, “in the South regional, with these games being played in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the #2 seed is Georgetown, and the mighty Hoyas will take on the #15 seed, the Southern Conference champion, The Citadel [brief pause, as Brown shakes his head in disbelief], making its first NCAA tournament appearance in school history.”  This would be followed by a live shot of cheering cadets, possibly with no hazing involved.

It would be absolutely surreal.

It hasn’t come close to happening, though, and really, if it were to happen (and this is important), I would like it to be in a year in which The Citadel was actually good.  I don’t want it to be a year where the Bulldogs go 11-18, and then get lucky and win the SoCon tourney because all the other teams’ players came down with food poisoning or something.

Besides, in that case, The Citadel would almost certainly land in the utterly reprehensible, completely despicable play-in game.  If The Citadel were to ever make the NCAAs, and the tournament selection committee then put the team in the play-in game, I would immediately drive up to Indianapolis and just start assaulting people.

That scenario isn’t likely to happen, though (which is just as well, as the drive to Indy would probably be really boring).  The Citadel has only won two games in the conference tourney once in its history.  It’s hard to conceive of it actually winning three times in one weekend.

I fully expect more hard times on the hardwood.  I hope for the best, but you have to be realistic.  After all, it’s a small military school with no hoops tradition whatsoever.  If Charlie Brown were to have a favorite college basketball program, this would be it.

Still my team, though.

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