Sunday, January 20, 2008

Kruse Thoughts

Michael Kruse is a staff writer for the St. Petersburg Times and friend of Will's World. A graduate of Davidson and former editor of the Davidsonian, Kruse was in town to enjoy the 100th anniversary festivities and kindly wrote up an article for the blog.

Good, rich weekend for the Wildcats, was it not?

So much to just fill you up: old friends and familiar faces, the 100th anniversary festivities, beers at the Brick House, a big, dominant win over the "other" best team in the league, and the much-anticipated panel discussion with greats like Lefty, Snyder, Gerdy and others. But my favorite thing about the whole weekend was that the panel discussion wasn't my favorite thing about the whole weekend.

Not because it wasn't interesting.

It was.

A little TOO interesting at times, actually, thanks to Gerdy, the program's all-time leading scorer who grew up, of course, to write books with titles like Sports: The All-American Addiction.

"I'm very proud of Davidson that we've readjusted our expectations," he said at one point.

(Uh oh.)

"I've never been more proud of the program than over the last 10 years," he said, with Lefty and Jerry Kroll sitting a few feet to his right.

(Uh oh.)

And then this: "The bottom line," he said. "The basketball program is not essential to the mission of the college."


It's maybe a worthwhile if tired debate, the Division I vs. Division III thing at Davidson, and all that goes with it, but it's best had almost in an intellectual vacuum in a coffee shop somewhere.

Thing is, I don't disagree with a bunch of the stuff Gerdy likes to talk about, and you can make the argument that what McKillop has done over the last, say, 15 years, in some ways, and at this point in College Sports, Inc., has been even harder than what Lefty did in his nine years in the '60s. And that's no knock at all on what Lefty did here. What he did that decade at Davidson adds up to absolutely one of the most amazing stories in the history of the college hoops.

But on a panel on a weekend celebrating 100 years of Wildcat basketball? Not totally the time and place to have snippets of that conversation, or to raise the kinds of issues that beg a back-and-forth on the complicated, pretty much impossible comparison between the program's two most successful eras. Too many things have changed. Everyone here knows what they are.

Lefty on the panel?

Lefty was Lefty. Gravelly voice, folksy showman, big man, big presence. People can't not listen and watch. There's just something about him. Anyway, he told some of his stories from the '60s, some of which might actually have been true.

"Lefty," Kilgo told him at the end, "I want to, in deference to you, to give you the last word."

But here was the best part of the weekend.

Lefty's word wasn't the last word.

The vibrant present took over from there.

Practice like you play, play like you practice, and the 27-point win over Chattanooga rolled out like a natural extension of the workout I watched Friday afternoon. So much purpose and precision within all that sweat and heavy breathing.

"We're gonna kick their ass," first-rate, first-row fan Jim Richards said before tip.

And so we did.

McKillop's teams, when they're right, they play with such a level-headed fury.

Jason did his thing, all angles, intellect and body control.

Max was Max. That kid, and I don't know that I fully understood this before, at least not to such an extent, but sitting press row at Belk for the whole game for the first time in years and years made me appreciate his play more than ever. He plays, defense in particular, with an utter ferocity. You can practically hear his exertion.

Steph was awesome, of course, he of the light that's as green as green can be. You always know he's going good, though, when you notice, just as much as the threes, the floaters, the runners, the pull-ups, the crafty little dribble drives that turn into layups that lead to him piling up all those twos like he does all those threes.

No wonder middle-aged men in the stands at Belk wear those No. 30 jerseys. The part of me that's a sensible adult thinks that's kind of ridiculous, but I've got to be honest here: The proud, almost primal part of me kind of digs the hell out of it.

Steph aside, though, the tenor of Saturday's game was established just as much by the whole team's sticky fingers and active hands. Thomas Sander had SIX steals. All of it was a 40-minute reminder that being in the right place at the right time doesn't have to be an accident, and shouldn't be.

After the game, in the little press get-together, Thomas said this succinct thing about Steph: "Seeing him feel like he can do anything makes us feel like we can do anything."

Steph, asked about his 37 points, said this: "We played our best game of the year."

The kid said we.


Anonymous said...

What a great article. That game was incredible, especially for those of us in the student section.
Go Cats!

Anonymous said...

Gerd did not mean what Kruse thought he meant. Gerd was talking about the crazy expectations that drove Dave Pritchett to blow up like an elephant and get the shakes. The same expectations that drove John Kresse back to CoC after a week (muttering that DC fans were out of their minds).

These were the same expectations that caused Larry Brown AND Gary Walters to change their minds and leave before they ever coached a game.

All in the decade after Lefty.

Gerd was talking about THOSE expectations. The ones that caused 3 coaches to change their minds after taking the job and wrecked the health of another.

Stan Brown

Anonymous said...

Mike, I appreciate your comments, but I'm not sure you fully understood my point. That's my fault as I could have done a better job of explaining. I wish you would have tracked me down afterwards and allowed me to explain further. In no way was I downplaying the accomplishments of Lefty's years or trying to put a damper on the success of the McKillop years. I am very proud of all of that. My point was that Davidson basketball has always been about more than simply wins and losses and championship banners. It's about how the basketball program fits within the institution in a balanced and educationally focused manner. In short, we must distinguish between what we DO in athetics ...which is to conduct games....which are certainly fun and important in the way they bring the family together, but ultimately less important than what occurs in the classrooms...and what Davidson atletics is ABOUT...which is education. The fact is, we could win championship after championship, but if we do it in a way that compromises our academic mission, we have failed as a program and as a school. And let's not kid ourselves, there have been times when we have lost sight of that principle. Yes, it can ...and did, for a time, occur at Davidson. Thus, it is important that we continue to remind ourselves of that core principle. Nor did I intend to downplay the character development and learning that takes place in the program. I am a product of that system. And proud of it. However, sports, like many other activities, is simply a vehicle. Participation in sports , in and of itself, is neither positive nor negative. It is the environment within which the activity occurs that influences whether it is positive or negative. If we lose sight of our core values, the environment will change. That is why I am so proud of what Davidson has accomplished over the past two decades. We, as a college community, went through some challenging times in terms of refocusing and adjusting expectations and behavior in relation to the type of program that is appropriate for the institution. That isn't an easy task in our sports obsessed culture. And in my work at the NCAA and SEC I witnessed many institutions who still haven't figured it out. In the end, it was the values of the institution that drove the values and conduct of the athletic department. That is as it should be. At many schools, it is not. The reason I have never been more proud of our program and the reason why, in many respects, it is more successful today than ever, is that Davidson is one of the very few programs in Division I basketball where the student-athlete ideal lives. It is infinitely more difficult to adhere to that ideal today than it was 30 or 40 years ago. And for Davidson to continue to successfully live by that principle in today's hyper-competitive/commercialized Division I basketball landscape is truly extraordinary. My point was simply that we must never lose sight of that core principle because if we do, we will have lost what makes us so unique. And it is important that Davidson continue to serve as an example of a place where a young person can truly live out the student-athlete experience. Finally, I really enjoyed watching them play. They are pretty darn good. Fundamentally sound. They play very hard. But best of all was having the chance to meet and talk with most of them at the dinner that night. All of them are impressive young people who, I am confident, after their playing days, will go out into the world and accomplish amazing things. Go Cats!
John Gerdy