Saturday night the unthinkable happened. Little Northern Iowa, the men’s champion of the Missouri Valley Conference, beat the mighty top-ranked Jayhawks from Kansas. Not very often do these upsets grab the nation’s attention like this one. However, basketball has had its share of headline grabbing upsets. I’m just guessing here, but if the sun did come up in the Jayhawk nation Sunday morning, I don’t think anyone noticed. It would be interesting to see if the suicide hotline experienced a large spike in calls Saturday after the game. The Kansas City Star showed only pictures of suffering Kansas players and fans. Sherron Collins even compared the defeat to a death in his family.
I know how he feels. As a longtime coach and rabid sports fan, I’ve had my share of bad days. I was a college senior at Kearney State College (University of Nebraska-Kearney) in the fall of 1972. The summer Olympics were being played. One of the highlights for me was the long awaited meeting between the Soviet Union and the Americans on the basketball court. It turned out to be a bad day. First, the Lopers of Kearney State were upset on the football field. That hurt, but it got much worse when my favorite college football team, Nebraska, lost for the first time in 33 games to UCLA. Mark Harmon, now the movie star, led UCLA to a 20-17 win. The Husker nation was now on suicide watch. Things became unbearable near midnight when the Soviets gave the Americans their first loss ever in Olympic play on a last-second shot on their third try. I needed anti-depressants. Nothing would compare to that Black Saturday for me, but other favorites have had their moments behind the clouds. In 1983, ironically a last-second slam dunk allowed North Carolina State to beat Houston’s High Slama Jama. Coach Jimmy Valvano couldn’t find anyone to hug. Two years later, another minor miracle happened again in the national championship game. The loveable, rumpled Coach Rollie Massimino and his Villanova Wildcats beat John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas. That was truly David (Rollie Massimino) against Goliath (John Thompson). I really thought it would take a sling shot to pull that one off.
Six years later, David put another stone in his sling shot and brought down another giant. Duke had lost the 1990 national championship to the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV by 30 points. The rematch came in the semifinal game in 1991. This time Duke won and set up a national championship win over guess who – the Kansas Jayhawks. Take away the sharp objects of anyone wearing crimson and blue.
It’s not much fun to be a big favorite, only to lose. As a Cornhusker fan all my life, I know for a fact that many more dogs are kicked in Nebraska when the football team loses. I’m not in favor of animal cruelty, but if it prevents violence, what’s a little kick in the rear in for these poor, unsuspecting animals. They are man’s best friend, aren’t they?
Despite all this depression over startling losses, I want to look at the other side, the winner’s side. Just like Jimmy Valvano looking for someone to hug, I can’t imagine the feeling of accomplishment in the Northern Iowa locker room. These guys hadn’t gotten any respect despite winning the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament championships. They even had defeated the University of Iowa and Iowa State University on their way to 28 regular season wins. I don’t think they needed a bus to get back to Cedar Falls Sunday.
I’ve been lucky enough to be in the winning locker room after upsets on a few occasions. They didn’t make national news like the ones I described, but they were just as important to the players and coaches. One of those upsets was similar to Duke’s reversal with UNLV. We had been beaten by Wayland Baptist by 42 points at home and I had promised them a return game the next year. I really wasn’t looking forward to the trip (by van) to Plainview, Texas. We turned the trip into an educational experience. The Flying Queens were one of the first great women’s teams ever assembled. A wealthy rancher had provided his airplane for the team to travel, thus the nickname The Flying Queens. I had the Wayland Sports Information Director give a history lesson on women’s basketball. We found ourselves down by 10 points at half, but my point guard, Mari Maaske, caught fire and a low scoring, but ever dependable forward, Tracee Uldrich, hit a shot in the last seconds of overtime to pull off the stunner. No one even cared later in the night when our motel reservations in Libel, Kan., were lost.
In 2004, Emporia had embarrassed us at home by 17 points and compounded our woes by destroying us in Emporia by 21 points. It probably wasn’t that close. After a third-place finish in the regular season of the MIAA conference, we won our way to the championship game against our Goliath – Emporia. I took some good advice from a Southern Missouri assistant coach, got a little lucky as Emporia went 1-17 from behind the three-point line, and we pulled out a 17-point win. Sarah Vollertsen was the tournament MVP, and Jane Chalmers, our Australian point guard was a pick on the all-tournament team. Everyone was so shocked; we were almost late for the NCAA selection show at The Hangar.
However, the greatest feeling my coaches, players and I ever experienced in a winning locker room was in an Elite Eight game in the NAIA National Tournament against Briar Cliff College. My good friend, Mike Power, had the Chargers on a great roll. They entered the national tournament at 35-0 and ranked number one in the nation. The Chargers were averaging almost 100 points per game and their full-court press was stifling. It looked like they would breeze their way to a national championship.
Here’s how good they were; six weeks earlier, Briar Cliff had beaten Doane College by 28 points. We were a pretty good team, ranked somewhere in the top 10. During their second-round game, I bet a coach I was sitting beside that Briar Cliff would win by 30 points. With eight minutes left in the game, they held an eight-point lead. The coach was pretty confident he was right. The final score showed a 32-point difference. Briar Cliff could explode on you at any time with their pressing defense and fast transition game. After our 28-point loss, my assistant coach, John Moody, suggested we change our press break. Every day in practice, we would take five minutes working on the press that we could use on Briar Cliff. I never really thought we would play them again that year. However, here we were, facing them on a Saturday in Angola, Ind., for the right to advance to the Final Four of the NAIA National Tournament. We amazingly jumped in front and led by as many as 13 points in the first half. The press break was working like a charm. My point guard, Missy Knippelmeyer, had zero turnovers at half. In the first game with Briar Cliff, Missy had 12 turnovers and their defense had brought her to tears in each half. Maybe it was me that brought her to tears.
There were no tears on this night. It looked like we had an insurmountable, eight-point lead with less than a minute to play. However, Cynthia Steel, Briar Cliff’s best shooter hit two three-point field goals and Doane missed two front ends of one-on-ones, and the game was in question. We missed a third straight free throw with less than 10 seconds left, but Missy Divis (it was a great night for anyone named Missy) rebounded, was fouled and hit both free throws to ice the game. Goliath had been hit right between the eyes with a boulder. It must have been one big sling shot.
To this day, I have never experienced a locker room like that. The one moment I will never forget came from Knippelmeyer about 30 minutes after the game. All the interviews had concluded and we on our way to a postgame meal. The very devout Knippelmeyer whispered a question to me. She asked if the team would go to church the next day, which was Sunday, an off day in the tournament. I said sure, but asked why. “I made some promises,” Missy said. I wasn’t going to miss Sunday mass after hearing that.
Don’t worry Jayhawk fans, next year begins in a little less than seven months. Sherron may be gone, but if Cole and Xavier return for another year, several other returning veterans, and another great recruiting class of Coach Bill Self, you’ll create great depression for other teams. Be kind, remember how Memphis felt in 2008.