Variety Pack: The NCAA’s Seven Sinners, Gonzo’s friend Duke Rice, and the Plant of the Week

It’s the long-awaited latest edition of the Variety Pack, the celebrated TSA series that debuted earlier this year.  The idea is to write briefly (I hope) on two or three different topics without being limited to 140 characters, like my Twitter tweets.

This is one of two holiday Variety Packs; in a week or two I’ll post the other one, which will (probably) feature The Citadel’s role in the modern-day proliferation of college football on television.

Both Variety Packs are inspired by Google Books.  What  I did, basically, is type in some search terms, and see what came up.

In 1948, the NCAA crafted a statute colloquially known as the “Sanity Code”.  The Sanity Code was an attempt to end the practice of awarding athletic scholarships, something many southern institutions had been doing since the early 1930s.

The Sanity Code allowed schools to award scholarships to prospective athletes, but only on a basis of need – and even then the scholarships were limited to tuition and incidental expenses.  Most scholarship athletes would either have to qualify for academic scholarships, or pay their own way, usually by holding down jobs while in school.

This was seen by a lot of the southern schools as an attempt by the “establishment” to keep itself on top of the college athletics pyramid.  The establishment consisted mainly of the Big 10 schools, largely aligned with the Ivy League and Pac-8.  To add fuel to the fire, in those days the Big 10 commissioner also oversaw the NCAA’s daily activities; Walter Byers, later executive director of the NCAA, split time between his NCAA duties and his primary job as the Big 10’s publicity director.

There were myriad problems with the Sanity Code.  It was basically unenforceable.  It was also seen as unfair.  The southern schools had no interest in dropping athletic scholarships, especially when at the same time wealthy Big 10 alums would be giving bogus jobs to football and basketball players with no penalty.

The school most often ridiculed by Sanity Code opponents was Ohio State.  Prior to the 1950 Rose Bowl, it was revealed that at least 16 Buckeye football players had cushy jobs with the state, including a running back on the payroll of the state’s transportation department as a tire inspector.

The Sanity Code was going to allow OSU to do that, but not let SEC or Southern Conference schools offer athletic scholarships.  It’s easy to see why people got upset.

Enter the “Seven Sinners”.  No, I’m not talking about the John Wayne-Marlene Dietrich movie.

In this case, the “Seven Sinners” were seven schools that refused to live a lie, and admitted that they were not adhering to the new statute enacted by the NCAA.  The seven happened to be a very difficult group for the establishment to criticize.  Only one, Maryland, was a major college football power offering a large number of athletic scholarships.  The others were Virginia, Virginia Tech, VMI, The Citadel, Boston College, and Villanova.

For The Citadel, the notion of having athletes work jobs while at the same time go to class, play a sport, and participate in military activities was a non-starter (the same was true for VMI, and to a certain extent Virginia Tech).  The school also questioned the amateur-but-not-really idea of the Sanity Code, with The Citadel’s faculty representative stating that “The Code defines the word amateur and then promptly authorizes students to participate…who do not meet the requirements of the definition.”

At the 1950 NCAA Convention, the association moved to expel the seven schools. That’s right, the NCAA wasn’t going to put them on probation, a concept not yet considered.  It was going to expel them.

UVA president Colgate Darden made a principled argument against the statute, and stated that his school had no intention of following the Code.  Maryland president (and former football coach) Curley Byrd worked the floor at the convention, making sure there weren’t enough votes to expel the seven schools, and using Ohio State’s situation (as an example of the NCAA’s hypocrisy) in order to convince some fence-sitters to support the Sinners’ position.

The Citadel, however, had already announced it was going to resign from the NCAA, stating it refused “to lie to stay in the association”.  For The Citadel, either the Sanity Code had to go, or The Citadel would go.  After all, it’s not like the school had a history of shying away from secession-related activities.

Since all seven of the “Seven Sinners” are still members of the NCAA, you can guess that they weren’t expelled.  Expulsion required a two-thirds majority, and that didn’t happen (although more than half of the NCAA members did vote against the Sinners). This prevented a complete fracture of the NCAA, as it is likely the southern schools would have left the association otherwise.

While most of the votes supporting the seven schools came from the south, there were schools in the other parts of the country which also voted against expelling the seven, a fact not unnoticed by the NCAA leadership.  The Sanity Code was repealed the following year.

In retrospect, it’s kind of funny that The Citadel was in the position of being an NCAA malefactor.  However, it should be pointed out that 111 schools did vote to expel the military college from the NCAA on that fateful day in 1950.  In fact, when the vote was taken, NCAA president Karl Lieb announced that the motion to expel had carried, before being corrected by assorted shouts from the convention floor.  He then said, “You’re right, the motion is not carried.”  Lieb had forgotten about that two-thirds majority rule for passage; the vote to expel The Citadel and the other six schools had fallen 25 votes short.

The echoes from the Sanity Code controversy still reverberate today.  There are still notable divisions between the Big 10 and Pac-10 schools and the other “major” conference schools like the SEC.  The Ivy League has basically withdrawn from the scene.  Even today, there is some distrust of the Big 10 and its closeness (real or perceived) with the NCAA.

Below are some links that touch on this topic.  They are mostly links from Google Books, so it may take a little bit of work to get to the referenced sections.

College Football:  History, Spectacle, Controversy (starting on page 213)

The 50-Year Seduction (starting on page 18)

Unsportsmanlike Conduct:  Exploiting College Athletes (starting on page 53)

College Athletes For Hire (starting on page 43)

Sport:  What Price Football? (column in Time magazine)

Egg In Your Beer (editorial from the January 21, 1950 edition of The Harvard Crimson)

While perusing Google Books, I read a passage from a book entitled Gonzo:  The Life of Hunter S. Thompson:  An Oral Biography:

[Thompson’s] best friend from his early days was probably Duke Rice.  He was a skinny kid and not all that tall, and suddenly he shot up to six-six or six-seven and got a basketball scholarship to The Citadel, where he was the only player of the time who was able to shut down Jerry West.

Now, this little blurb interested me, for a couple of reasons:

— Thompson’s friend was named Duke Rice.  With a name like that, he shouldn’t have gone to The Citadel; he should have gone to Vanderbilt or Northwestern.

— The “Blitz Kids” were a group of players recruited by Norm Sloan to The Citadel in the late 1950s and early 1960s (which is also the time period when Jerry West played for West Virginia).  That era was the pinnacle for basketball at The Citadel.  The stars of those teams were Art Musselman, Dick Wherry, Ray Graves, and Dick Jones (and later Gary Daniels)…but not anyone named Duke Rice.

The Blitz Kids never won the Southern Conference, mostly because West Virginia was in the league at that time, and Jerry West played for the Mountaineers.  He was, of course, a fantastic player.  Very few teams shut him down, and The Citadel certainly didn’t.  West played three games in his career against The Citadel.  WVU won all three games, by scores of 89-61, 85-66, and 98-76.

That 85-66 score came in the 1959 Southern Conference tournament championship game, the only time The Citadel has ever made the league final.  West scored 27 points in that contest.  I don’t know how many points he scored against the Bulldogs in the other two games, but since the Mountaineers put up 89 and 98 points in those matchups, I’m guessing he wasn’t exactly “shut down”.

Incidentally, that 98-76 game was played during the 1959-60 season at McAlister Field House, and was arguably the most anticipated contest ever played at the ancient armory (at least for those contests not involving Ric Flair).  West Virginia had lost in the NCAA championship game the year before (to California, 71-70), and West was the most celebrated college basketball player of his time.  People came out in droves to see West play.

West was so good, both in college and in the NBA, that he had no fewer than three great nicknames — “Zeke from Cabin Creek”, “The Logo”, and “Mr. Clutch”.  There are a lot of great athletes who would love to have just one cool nickname, and West had (at least) three of them.

Going back to the book, the person who stated that Duke Rice had played for The Citadel was another friend of Thompson’s named Gerald Tyrrell.  Now, I was sure Tyrrell didn’t make up that story.  After all, there wasn’t any reason for him to do so, and I suspected that part of it was true.  It’s just that it was rather obvious that The Citadel part of it wasn’t true.

No one with the last name “Rice” is listed as having lettered for The Citadel in the school’s media guide.  I briefly considered the possibility that the last name was incorrect (and that Duke was a childhood nickname), but Hunter S. Thompson grew up in Louisville, and none of the players for The Citadel during that era were from Louisville, at least from what I was able to determine.

As it happened, it didn’t take much effort (just some additional Googling) to come up with the answer.  Duke Rice had in fact played college basketball, and had played in the Southern Conference for a school with a military component…but the school in question was Virginia Tech.

Rice is mentioned in this interview of Chris Smith, who starred for the Hokies from 1957-61.  Smith described the 1960 Southern Conference championship game:

We had great athletes.  Bobby Ayersman, Louie Mills, and Bucky Keller were each outstanding high school football quarterbacks.  Dean Blake and Duke Rice did a great job  during the game as they took turns guarding Jerry West.  They held him to 14 points.  When Jerry fouled out in the third quarter, we were tied 49 to 49. Unfortunately, the rest of the WV team responded well and they scored on several long shots during the final 10 minutes of the game.

There he is!

What’s more, it appears that Tyrrell’s comment that Rice was “the only player of his time to shut down Jerry West” has some validity to it.  Maybe it’s an overstatement, but at least it’s rooted in fact.

In the end, the Duke Rice story doesn’t really have anything to do with The Citadel.  It’s more about a slightly blurry memory (which I suspect Thompson himself would have appreciated) and a lack of fact-checking by the book’s editors.  This particular book happens to be co-authored by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner.

It also illustrates the inherent danger of taking oral histories at face value.  Anyone who follows baseball knows this all too well.  The success of Lawrence Ritter’s classic The Glory Of Their Times has led to a number of similar books, a lot of which are a little short in the truth-telling department.

It’s time for the Plant of the Week.  For this edition, the honoree is a canna lily, the Cleopatra canna, which when it comes to coloration basically has a mind of its own.

Warm weather can’t get here fast enough…

Trying to rise above a history of misery

Yes, it’s Southern Conference tourney time.  If you’re a fan of The Citadel, you may want to cover your eyes while reading some of this.  If you’re not, you may want to cover them anyway…

First, the good news.  The Bulldogs rebounded nicely (literally and figuratively) from their loss to Wofford by beating a ragtag Georgia Southern squad 74-53 on Monday night.  The Eagles hung around a little too long for my liking, making two good runs in each half, and were down by just six points with over 13 minutes left in regulation.  In the next seven minutes of the game, however, Georgia Southern had more technical fouls (2) than made field goals (1).  It’s hard to complete a comeback when that happens.

The Citadel thus got a much-needed bye into the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference tournament.  Besides not having to play four games in four days in order to win the tourney, the extra day may also help the Bulldogs in their preparation for the event, as there are some on-court adjustments that need to be made.  Among other things, The Citadel committed 18 turnovers on Monday night, many of them unforced.

Demetrius Nelson and Cameron Wells each had five turnovers, which is too many, but they also combined for 42 points (Nelson had 11 rebounds as well).  John Brown had four, and that’s a bit more worrisome, as he isn’t in a position to handle the ball nearly as often in a scoring or closely guarded position (and thus shouldn’t have as many turnovers).  Brown forced things a bit on offense, particularly in the first half, which was a carryover from the Wofford game on Saturday.

In the Southern Conference tournament, teams are almost certainly going to employ Wofford’s strategy of doubling Nelson repeatedly while giving Brown space on the wing, because Brown is not yet an offensive threat unless he’s making layups or dunks.  How Ed Conroy and company adjust to this will go a long way to determining The Citadel’s tournament fate.

Having said that, it should be noted that despite those 18 turnovers and decent-but-not-great outside shooting, the Bulldogs went on the road and under a good deal of pressure (given the importance of winning the game) defeated a conference opponent by 21 points.  The fact it’s actually possible to be disappointed in some aspects of The Citadel’s play after a result like that speaks volumes about how good this team has been, and the expectations it now has.

Those expectations include making a serious bid at a first-ever Southern Conference tournament title.  Before casting a forward glance towards Chattanooga, however, perhaps it’s best to realize just how arduous a task the Bulldogs face.  When it comes to The Citadel and its history in the Southern Conference tourney, a few paragraphs are in order, because just a few words cannot begin to adequately describe the horror…

One of the more curious things about The Citadel’s wretched history in the SoCon tourney is that there is no firm answer to just how many times the school has lost in the event.  That’s because the league has mutated so many times there is a dispute as to what year the first “official” conference tournament was held.

Before 1920, The Citadel was one of many schools in a rather loose confederation known as the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association.  (The Citadel initially joined in 1909.)  There were about 30 colleges in the SIAA by 1920, including almost every member of the current SEC and about half of the current ACC, along with schools such as Centre, Sewanee (somewhat amusingly, later a member of the SEC), Chattanooga, Wofford, Howard (now called Samford, of course), and Millsaps, just to name a few.  As you might imagine, the large and disparate membership had some disagreements, and was just plain hard to manage, so a number of the schools left to form the Southern Conference in late 1920.

In the spring of 1921, the SIAA sponsored a basketball tournament, which would be the forerunner to all the conference hoops tourneys to follow.  Any southern college or university could travel to Atlanta to play, and fifteen schools did just that.  Kentucky beat Georgia in the final.  The Citadel did not enter the event, but several other small colleges did, including Newberry.  The tournament featured teams from the new Southern Conference, the old SIAA, and squads like Newberry, which wasn’t in either league (it would join the SIAA in 1923).

In 1922 the SIAA held another tournament in Atlanta, this one won by North Carolina, which beat Mercer in the final.  The Citadel entered this time, losing in the first round to Vanderbilt.  The SIAA tournament remained all-comers until 1924, when it was restricted to Southern Conference members.

Some sources suggest that the 1921 tournament is the first “official” Southern Conference tournament, some go with the 1922 event, and others argue for 1924.  From what I can tell, the league itself is a bit wishy-washy on the issue.  On the conference website, it states:

The first Southern Conference Championship was the league basketball tournament held in Atlanta in 1922. The North Carolina Tar Heels won the tournament to become the first recognized league champion in any sport. The Southern Conference Tournament remains the oldest of its kind in college basketball.

That’s great, but the conference’s own record book lists Kentucky as having won the first tournament title in 1921 (on page 113; oddly, that year is excluded from the game-by-game tournament results that begin on page 114).  Of course, the edition of the record book on the conference website is three years old and lists The Citadel as having once lost 37 straight games, which is incorrect, so take it for what you will.

Personally, I think that the idea of having a conference tournament is to determine a league champion, and it stands to reason that such a tournament would only include league members.  So the first “real” Southern Conference tournament, in my opinion, was held in 1924.

There is a point to this, trust me.  The difference between counting the Vanderbilt loss as a SoCon tourney loss and not counting it is the difference between The Citadel’s alltime record in the event being 10-55 or 10-56.  Not that they both aren’t hideous totals, but as of now The Citadel shares the NCAA record for “most consecutive conference tournament appearances without a title” with Clemson, which is 0-for-55 in trying to win the ACC tournament.  Counting the Vanderbilt game would mean The Citadel is alone in its conference tourney infamy.  No offense to the Tigers, but I don’t believe the 1922 game should count, because it wasn’t really a Southern Conference tournament game.

By the way, you read that right.  The Citadel is 10-55 alltime in the SoCon tournament.  That’s just unbelievably bad.  It comes out to a 14% winning percentage, which is more than twice as bad as even The Citadel’s lousy alltime conference regular season winning percentage (35%).  The Citadel lost 17 straight tourney games from 1961-78, and then from 1985-97 lost 13 more in a row.  Incidentally, the single-game scoring record in the tournament is held by Marshall’s Skip Henderson, who put up 55 on The Citadel in 1988 (in a game Marshall won by 43 points; karma is a you-know-what, as the next night the Thundering Herd, which had won the regular season title that year, lost to UT-Chattanooga by one point).

Those losses aren’t all in consecutive years, as The Citadel didn’t always qualify for the tournament, particularly in the years before 1953, when there were up to 17 teams in the league at any given time, and only the top squads played in the tourney.  The Citadel’s first “real” appearance, in 1938, resulted in a 42-38 loss to Maryland.  The Citadel would lose two more tourney openers before winning its first game in 1943, against South Carolina.  That would be the only time the Bulldogs and Gamecocks faced each other in the tournament, and so South Carolina is one of two teams The Citadel has a winning record against in SoCon tourney play (the Bulldogs are 2-0 against VMI).

The next time The Citadel would win a game in the tournament?  1959, when the Bulldogs actually won two games, against Furman and George Washington, and found themselves in the tourney final.  Unfortunately, the opponent in the title game was West Virginia, led by Jerry West.  West scored 27 points and the Mountaineers pulled away late for an 85-66 victory.  This would be the only time The Citadel ever made the championship game; it’s also the only time the Bulldogs won two games in the tournament.

After a 1961 quarterfinal victory over Richmond, The Citadel would not win another tournament game until 1979, when the Bulldogs defeated Davidson before losing to Furman.  The game against Davidson was played at McAlister Field House, and was the 20th victory of the season, which until Monday was the most games ever won by a Bulldog squad (now tied, of course, by the current edition of the Bulldogs).

The Citadel would win single games in 1982 and 1985 before going winless until 1998, when it finally broke a 13-game tourney losing streak by beating VMI.  The Keydets would be the next victim as well, in 2002, and were apparently so embarrassed they left the league.  The Citadel’s latest win in conference tournament action came in 2006 against Furman.

Twenty different schools have defeated The Citadel in tournament play, with Davidson’s eight victories leading the way (against one loss to the Bulldogs).  East Tennessee State went 6-0 against The Citadel while in the league.

At least ETSU won’t be around this season.  The Citadel’s first game in this year’s tournament will come against either first-year league member Samford or Furman.  The Paladins are 5-2 alltime in tourney play against The Citadel, with the Bulldogs having won the first and most recent meetings.  Records against other tourney teams:  Chattanooga 0-1, Elon 0-1, College of Charleston 0-1, Georgia Southern 0-2, Western Carolina 1-1, Appalachian State 1-6, and Davidson 1-8.  (The Citadel has never played Wofford or UNC-Greensboro in the tournament.)

The very first game worries me.  If it’s Samford, don’t look for another 25-point win.  The Citadel caught that team on a bad night.  Samford is well-coached and its slow-slower-slowest offense can give even a patient team like The Citadel fits.  I am concerned about how the team will react when the bright lights come on for the first time and suddenly everything is on the line, especially when in the unfamiliar role of favorite.  If the opponent is Furman, it would be a much more confident Paladin squad (after coming off a victory) than the one which recently lost to The Citadel, and one that would be more than happy to end a rival’s dream season.

If The Citadel survives the opener and moves to the semifinals for only the second time in 24 years, the opponent could be one of three teams, a trio against which the Bulldogs had a combined regular season record of 1-4, with the one win coming at home by two points.  Of course, one of those potential opponents, Chattanooga, is also the host school for the tournament.

It has been fifty years since The Citadel made its first and only trip to the title game, and if the Bulldogs somehow win two games (for only the second time ever), the opponent will likely either be Davidson, with a healthy Stephen Curry in tow, or a red-hot College of Charleston squad ready to avenge two regular-season defeats at the hands of the Bulldogs.

It’s easy to see that winning the tournament will be a very tall order.  Combine that difficulty with the sordid history of The Citadel in the SoCon tournament, and it’s really hard to imagine the Bulldogs cutting down the nets on Monday night.  That’s a scenario that seems unlikely to unfold.

However, there is another way to look at things.  This isn’t your typical Bulldog squad.  This is a team that has the league’s second-best record, that has won 12 of its last 13 games, that has proven it can win away from home, and has demonstrated it can win even on nights when its key players aren’t at their best.  It has won close games and blowouts, is led by the newly minted coach of the year in the conference, and features an all-conference post player along with an outstanding, versatile group of guards.  If there ever was a team from The Citadel capable of overcoming all that negative history, and making some positive history of its own, this is the one.

Saturday night can’t get here soon enough…

Taking names, and talking names

The Citadel 84, Georgia Southern 75.

I enjoyed watching this game.  I wish John Brown had made both of his last-second free throws, so The Citadel could have won by double digits, but considering the team has already won more games in this campaign than it did all of last season, it’s all good.

Speaking of John “Abolitionist of the Glass” Brown, where did he come from?  He started the season opener, played nine minutes, then played a total of five minutes until last Saturday, when he suddenly started the game against Bethune-Cookman and contributed solid defense and rebounding over 20 minutes.  Last night he came off the bench and snatched 11 boards in 26 minutes.  Brown is a long-armed 6’4″ redshirt freshman from Savannah who Jeff Hartsell had tipped on his blog during the preseason as a possible contributor, but I was not prepared for his productivity (and it was rather obvious that Georgia Southern wasn’t either).  If he turns out to be a rebounding maven who can play some D, which last night certainly appeared to be the case, Brown will fill a much-needed role for the Bulldogs.

Besides Brown’s performance, The Citadel got 38 combined points from the  two-headed post monster of Demetrius Nelson and Bryan Streeter, who combined to shoot 12-18 from the floor and also got to the line a gratifying 22 times (Streeter needs to shoot better than 50% from the stripe, though).  The Citadel never trailed after making a nice run at the end of the half, this despite a mediocre night from beyond the arc (6-19) and shooting only 43% from the field, all while playing at a much faster than normal pace (84 possessions, although part of that was due to the end-game fouling by GSU).

Defensively The Citadel held the Eagles to 41% shooting from the field, 29% from three-land, and outrebounded Georgia Southern by five.  The Bulldogs also committed one fewer turnover than GSU.

Also, I’m guessing that Ed Conroy had a chat with Austin Dahn after the game that went something like this:  “Austin, when we’re up nine with 1:11 to play and have the ball in the frontcourt, and there are 30 seconds left on the shotclock, do me a favor and don’t take a three-pointer, even if you’re open.”   I could be wrong, but I suspect that conversation happened.  I sincerely hope that conversation happened, anyway…

The Citadel’s two conference victories this season have come against teams that in four games last year outscored the Bulldogs by an average of 23 points per game, including two 30-point losses.

The Stephen Curry circus comes to town on Saturday.  It’s been almost 50 years since the Southern Conference had a star of Curry’s magnitude in the league.  Back then, it was Jerry West.  McAlister Field House was jammed to the rafters with people when The Citadel hosted West Virginia and its star, and I suspect that close to a full house (if not an actual sellout) will be on hand for Davidson and its main man.  Obviously if The Citadel were to somehow beat Davidson it would be one of the bigger wins in school history.  It’s hard to see that happening.  I think Davidson has a good chance of going 20-0 in the league for a second year in a row.

20-0 in the league would presumably mean that even a SoCon tourney stumble would not keep Davidson out of the NCAAs, but Wildcat fans should not count on an at-large bid being a given.  The last SoCon team to get an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament was North Carolina State, in 1950.

Okay, I want to wrap up this post with one of my biggest pet peeves.  This is the first time I’m mentioning it on this blog, but you better believe that it won’t be the last.  Here is my plea to Larry Leckonby, all the coaches at The Citadel, General Rosa, anyone and everyone who has some say-so on matters pertaining to Bulldog athletics:

Get the name of the school right on the uniforms, for God’s sake!

If you look at the game notes for basketball, you will see a little blurb inserted by the good folks in the athletic media relations office that reads:

We ask that when referring to the Bulldogs, please use The Citadel. We are The Military College of South Carolina,
but we are referred to as The Citadel. The the is part of our name. Thank you.”

I would like to personally thank whoever it was that put that in the notes.  I just wish whoever it was would remind our coaches and other administrators that the school is called The Citadel, because some of them seem unaware of it.

The Citadel, for such a tradition-laden place, has gone through a lot of uniform changes in a lot of its sports over the years.  (The football helmet design has been changed so often, it’s a joke — although the current design is one billion times better than the Ellis Johnson-era gray helmet disaster.)

Right now we are sporting football uniforms that say “Citadel” on the front instead of “The Citadel”, and basketball uniforms that say “Citadel” on the front instead of “The Citadel”.  Is it too much to ask that we get the name of the school right on our own jerseys?  Every time I see the ESPN “Bottom Line” sportsticker, it says “Citadel” on it, and I am momentarily annoyed with the network…and then I remember my own alma mater can’t get it right on its athletic uniforms, and I get even more annoyed with the school.

Fix this, and fix it now.  It drives me crazy.  I know that I’m not alone in complaining about it, either.

(And if anybody in the department needs some advice on a decent and at least semi-permanent football helmet design, drop me a line.  I have a couple of ideas.)

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 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.