Path crossings: Five for the Final Four

The arrival of the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four has brought back some memories and attempts at memory for meetings with participants few other professions would have afforded for me.

Five Final Four head coaches, including three who directed national champions, were among the sometimes quick, sometimes lengthy acquaintances:

ONE: The assignment had always been a fun one as part of what was then a two-man Grizzly football coverage team for The Missoulian. John Blanchette and, later, Vince Devlin would draw the game story while I would be sent to the sidelines, locker room, whatever for the “sidebar,” a feature about a key element of that particular game.

It was the mid-1970s and Montana was playing a non-conference home game against Nevada-Las Vegas at Dornblaser Field, which was then in its second decade as a temporary stadium. Usually, the facility was cold, bleachers rattled and you could feel the stands sway if you stood in the press box on a breezy day. The football/track facility had stood as Dornblaser Field on the University of Montana campus, but was demolished to accommodate construction of the University Center. So, the temp was built on Higgins Ave., and stood until Washington-Grizzly Stadium was built next to the University Center, back on campus. The Higgins Avenue facility still partially exists, but as a track venue only.

Anyway, this mid-70s game was played at the Higgins Avenue site and time was running down. Nothing had stood out, so I was thinking I might have to wait for final stats to come out and then track down the leading tackler, receiver, someone in the locker room to be the subject of my feature.

My boss, Jeff Herman, was at the game and found me near the field.

“Jerry Tarkanian’s here,” he said. “People said he is somewhere up in the stands. Go find him.”

So Tark the Shark, at the time embroiled in one of his fierce battles with the NCAA, was in town to watch UNLV play the Grizzlies — in football. All I had to do was find him, then ask him to talk to me.

I heard a lot of “He was here a few minutes ago” and “He just left” from Vegas boosters as I climbed and cross bleachers behind the Rebels’ bench. However, “Tark” was nowhere to be seen and I didn’t want to have to tell the boss I let him get away, that I’d failed on the assignment.

“He went to the airport,” someone said.

So I ran to the ’68 Satellite I was driving at the time and headed for the airport. There was no way to tell anybody else from the paper that was where I was going. Thinking back, I should’ve at least notified a photographer.

I walked into the terminal as people seemed to be hurrying toward the boarding gate. I didn’t even look around, just hollered into the crowd “Is Mr. Tarkanian, here?”

He was about 15 feet in front of me and not as big as I’d thought he would be. He turned around, had a jacket draped over an arm and asked very pleasantly if he could help me.

Wow, I was stunned. He was already a national name and he was walking to me, basically a cub reporter, to give me at least the time of day.

I identified myself and asked him only three questions or so as he was really hurrying to catch a plane. I wish I remembered what I asked and, even more, I wish I remembered how he answered. He did, though, and that was the important time. He took the time and I was grateful.

All I can remember from the short interview is that after I turned in the story, the boss told me I might’ve been the first reporter to actually get a quote on the record about the NCAA from Jerry Tarkanian. Today, I don’t remember what it was. I’ll have to look someday.

I only remember that he gave it to me.

Tarkanian, the famous chomper of towels as he fretted on the bench while coaching, guided the Runnin’ Rebels to the 1990 NCAA Tournament championship. He succeeded, some said shadily, at all of his college basketball coaching stops. He died only last February.

TWO:  Kelvin Sampson is now the University of Houston coach, trying to resurrect a woeful program back to the powerhouse it was seemingly eons ago. Before some troubled times that damaged his career and battered his reputation, over recruiting violations, and that included a six-year banishment from college ball, Sampson was a popular man in Butte. Montana Tech was his first location as a head coach, ascending to the position after the firing of Fred Paulsen, a man Sampson followed to The Mining City from Jud Heathcote’s Michigan State staff.

As head coach of the Orediggers in the early 1980s, Sampson embraced the college, the program, the town and area, which all hugged him back. The HPER Complex was new and Sampson teams filled it, part of the cause for a quick renovation to open more seating. He was young, could charm the boosters and was funnier than 99 percent of the comedians we endure on television these days.

He was dependable, too — called after every away game to help out with the report of the game, was always available for interviews and would even sometimes, after arriving from an away day game, hand-carry the Montana Tech scorebook from the game to The Montana Standard offices so that staffers could glean it for information for the newspaper article.

I worked Sunday shifts by myself on the sports desk for some of those years and one in particular was the day the Orediggers were playing an afternoon game in North Dakota, likely in late November of in December. Sampson knew the game would be over before I would be in the office, so he decided he’d call later during the bus trip back to Butte. There were no cell phones those days.

He did, using an outside pay phone at a rest stop somewhere on the windswept prairie. He read me the box score as I typed it in and then I tried to keep him on the phone a little longer so I could gain some more information and quotes for the newspaper article.

“Can you type a little faster, Bruce?” he said as the cold combined with his frustration with the loss and with his impatience for getting back home stormed over his sunny disposition. “I’m freezing my ass off out here!”

Sampson went on to coaching success with Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana, having taken Oklahoma to the Final Four. He has remained friendly with the Montana Tech community and his signature is on the HPER Complex basketball court in thanks for his generosity shown the school.

THREE: I was watching the NIT championship game (Stanford defeated Miami) the other night when Bob Knight told the viewing audience it would be his last game as an ESPN basketball analyst. It was mentioned his next planned excursion was to be to Montana for fly fishing.

It would have been of little surprise to folks around here. Knight has been a frequent Southwest Montana visitor over the years for fishing and hunting trips. The coaching icon, most famous for his Hall of Fame career at Indiana, has been to Butte, at least once.

Knight is a big man with a big presence. When he spoke at a Butte Chamber of Commerce luncheon for a charity some 20 years ago or so, he was carrying probably more than 250 pounds on a 6-foot-5 frame and his intimidating reputation always gave him the advantage to boot. So, yeah, I already felt intimidated when I pulled out my seat to sit at the table.

He delivered the keynote address. It was about sportswriters — how dumb they are.

“If I ever need a brain transplant, I want one from a sportswriter,” he told the anxious listeners gathered to hang on his every word. “Because it’s never been used.”

Every ensuing line carried the same theme. He must have been taking notes at every interview and press conference in which he was involved because he had a ton of examples and material.

Those in attendance roared with laughter. Their guts were busting.

He continued, relaying one outlandish question after another he’d been asked to answer by sportswriters over the years. Those in the crowd at the luncheon? They were rolling in the hours, they were wiping tears of laughter off their glasses.

And when they caught their breaths, they stared. At me. All of them stared at me. Every single one of them stared at me.

I knew some of the men and women, and some more of them recognized me as a sportswriter from my picture having been on my columns in the paper. So when they looked at me, they really laughed.

Knight went on for, oh, I don’t know how long, 20 minutes, half hour, 45 minutes maybe. And his whole routine was all about how dumb sports writers are and he loaded the talk with examples, the accompanying hand gestures and facial expressions.

He glanced my way once, probably wondering why so many in the audience were looking in my direction.

“Good, smart sports writers are so rare, they’re as valuable as all the metals you have up here in the Berkeley Pit,” he said. “So, if you think you have one of them, you better hang onto him.”

Everybody looked at me again. Thankfully, they were smiling — politely.

Knight then took the questions from the audience and I felt obligated to ask one, especially since so many were watching to see if I would and what it would be. It concerned the effectiveness of Prop 48, an NCAA measure newly implemented about that time to help athletic recruits from troubled schools catch up academically with their fellow students at the member universities. He apparently didn’t think it was a stupid question. He answered it cordially, said he thought the measure was helping, and explained it to the audience.

The luncheon ended and I approached the head table to thank Knight for his time. He was signing an autograph and thanked me for coming and said a couple more things about Prop 48.

I’m guessing the question was up to his standard. I never identified myself to him. After his talk, it just didn’t seem like a good idea to address him and say, “Mr. Knight, my name is Bruce Sayler and I am a sportswriter.”

Lordy, I hate to imagine what might’ve been said next and I didn’t want to risk giving him any more material.

Knight coached six years at Army, 30 at Indiana and eight at Texas Tech. None of his programs were ever sanctioned by the NCAA for violations. Knight-coached teams advanced to more than 20 NCAA Tournaments, including eight Final Fours. His 1976, 1981 and 1987 Indiana teams won NCAA Tournament championships, the 1976 one capping an undefeated season with its title.

FOUR: Of course, we all know that it is illegal to drink in a bar after hours so that’s why it has happened only on rare occurrences. Sometimes, though, the adrenaline has nowhere else to diffuse. The combination of great late-night sports events and beating a deadline to tell the story has it gushing. Home is a great place to go to unwind for those with families, but most single folks I’ve known don’t much like being in their residences anyway and so look elsewhere to vent. I was such.

It was sometime in the later 1970s that Montana and Northern Arizona had gone hammer and tong in a great basketball game at what was then the Adams Fieldhouse. I can’t remember which won. On nights the regular Grizzly basketball beat writer was unable to cover a game, I was one of the backups called to fill in on it at times. So with the shift done I stopped for a beer with a friend. One was about all there was time for before closing time and in walked a young assistant coach from the Griz staff walked in, spoke and grabbed a stool at the bar. Mike Montgomery hadn’t been sitting there very long when the door swung open again and two lanky figures stepped into the uptown establishment.

The bar had emptied and the bartender was holding the “closed” sign in his left hand, waiting for the word from the owner. Jim Pramenko was the owner. He was a UM basketball booster, had played ball for the Griz in the ’60s and his dad, George, had operated an establishment in Butte before mining expansion devoured the joint and pushed the family business to Missoula.

Pramenko grabbed some beers and walked over to a back table.

“I’ll set you guys up over here,” he said.

I was happy, even honored, that I had been included in the invitation, joining with Montgomery, Montana head coach Jim Brandenburg and Northern Arizona head coach John Birkett. I was amazed that Brandenburg and Birkett, who I had just a couple hours earlier witnessed competing fiercely as opposing coaches, were out having a drink together. More amazing, I was at the table.

Montgomery excused himself and didn’t stay. I’m not sure he had anything to drink that night. He wasn’t abrupt or anything, just probably had something else better to do.

Brandenburg and Birkett had a beer, talked about Idaho State, discussed rules and defenses, caught up on common acquaintances, mostly spoke basketball as they unwound. I felt like the little kid who finally got to sit at the adult table for Christmas dinner.

Not quite 10 years later, when Montgomery was the head coach for UM, I spotted him in the stands at The Metra during a state basketball tournament. I took a seat in front of him between sessions and he smiled as he greeted me. He was scouting, but not for the immediate future. Commitments had already exhausted available scholarship money, he said, and so he was watching underclassmen. The Grizzlies and Bobcats recruited in-state kids in those days.

Brandenburg was a successful Grizzly coach, but was forced to forfeit his best team’s best season for violations. He went on to coach at Wyoming and San Diego State with mixed success. Birkett coached four years at NAU.

Montgomery succeeded Brandenburg as UM head coach, then went on to Stanford where he coached the Cardinal to 10 straight NCAA Tournaments, including one Final Four. He later coached the Golden State Warriors of the NBA and most recently served as head coach at California, retiring after the 2013-14 season.

FIVE: A 1970s Grizzly-Bobcat basketball game in Missoula broke out in a short on-court brawl that piqued community and state interest across the media span. Jud Heathcote was the UM coach and showed game films at his weekly booster luncheon. The expected crowd for the one after the fight caused organizers to move to larger confines on the UM campus. They were not disappointed. Standing room only showed up. Heathcote, always good for a laugh, except, I am told, when at practice as a member of his team, manned the projector. It was no secret as to why the crowd was so large.

Heathcote was running the projector, pointing out elements of the game and cracking wise. Suddenly, he stopped the film.

“Eleven minutes to fight time,” he announced as the businessmen, lawyers and such laughed.

He did it a couple more instances with time counted down before the screen showed Micheal Ray Richardson delivering a right cross to the face of a Bobcat player during a multi-man skirmish under the basket.

“What was amazing about all that,” Heathcote said later was that Rich (Juarez, Bobcat coach) and I succeeded in confusing the refs so much, nobody got kicked out.”

Heathcote was to Grizzly men’s basketball what Don Read was to Grizzly football. They took so-so-programs and built them into the envy of the Big Sky Conference, perennial champions or contenders over a long stretch that continues. The Heathcote teams packed the fieldhouse for home games and it was said in Missoula then that, for business and society reasons, it was better to be seen at Grizzly basketball games than to actually know anything about the team.

Heathcote arrived in Missoula while I was studying journalism at UM. So, when I began covering games for The Kaimin, the student paper, he was the basketball coach. He treated me as a professional, not as one would think a student might be treated. As far as he was concerned, I was part of the press corps.

Not too long after that, I began occasionally covering games for The Missoulian and knowing Heathcote put me at an ease in that challenge. He took the Grizzlies to the NCAA Tournament in 1975 where they lost to eventual champion and era powerhouse UCLA 67-64 in the regionals. The near upset of the Bruins inspired Michigan State to lure Heathcote away from Montana. He coached Michigan State to nine NCAA Tournaments, including the 1979 championship when the Earvin “Magic” Johnson-led Spartans defeated previously undefeated and Larry Bird-led Indiana State in the championship game.

I was then working for The Montana Standard and wrote a weekly column. I thought “what the heck? I’ll give Jud a call.”

He had an unlisted number and was home in East Lansing.

“Bruce Sayler?” the gruff voice on the other end said. “What the hell are you doing in Butte, Montana?”

I told him about taking the job here and I congratulated him on the championship and before I could get it out that I was hoping he could provide me with some good quotes for a column, he interrupted me.

“Hey, hey, hey!” he commanded. “How are my handball guys doing? They still in Butte? They’re Butte guys — Billy Peoples, Bobby Peoples, Tom Zderick. Ever run into them?

“They won a championship for me, too, y’know?”

The 1974 University of Montana men’s handball team won the NCAA championship in the sport. It was a four-man team — the Peoples brothers, Zderick and Great Falls player Tim Boland.

Jud Heathcote was the coach, creating a trivia answer as to who is the only coach to win NCAA championships in two different sports.

Heathcote is retired and living in Spokane where he coached basketball at West Valley High School for 15 years before entering the college ranks.



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