Tulsa Basketball Once Lived in the Valley of Death
By DEAN CLARK
BIG O: Tulsa faced Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson, who some say may have been the greatest player of all time, six times in three years through 1960. TU was easily defeated in each game. Robertson was one of many great players on great teams in the era from the late 1950s through the early 1970s in the Missouri Valley Conference. Tulsa later met the challenge with very good teams and all-Americans of their own.
Bob Stoops got much deserved praise after the 2000 season when, after just two years as head coach, he returned Oklahoma to college football’s elite.
It obviously was and is a tremendous accomplishment. However, Stoops inherited some advantages—tremendous tradition, fabulous facilities, and a generous budget with which to hire top-of-the line assistants and to recruit. When those factors are inserted into the equation, Stoops’ achievement remains impressive but doesn’t quite get to the miracle tick on the scale.
The real turnaround athletic miracle occurred in Tulsa in the 1960s when the Hurricane came in from the cold to become competitive in the toughest basketball conference in the country—the old Missouri Valley, aka the Valley of Death because of such consistently superior teams as Cincinnati, Drake, Bradley, Louisville and Wichita. When Tulsa started this evolution, it had almost no basketball tradition, a recruiting budget that was barely tip money at most schools, and facilities which the coaching staff admittedly hid from its top prospects. The key names in this story—Joe Swank, Jim Killingsworth, Ken Hayes, John Rendek, and Jerry Evans—aren’t the most luminous around town in 2007 and that’s unfortunate because what they, Tulsa’s head and assistant coaches during the 1960s, did was nothing short of astonishing.
Prior to 1949, Tulsa had virtually no interest in basketball. True, two of the basketball coaches of that period are in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame but that’s because of the success of their football teams. Coaching basketball was just to kill time between the fall football season and spring practice. TU was so unserious about basketball at that time that the Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune rarely sent reporters to cover the Hurricane’s home games but relied on telephone reports from someone on the basketball staff or even on the team.
That changed in 1949 when TU hired its first “real” basketball coach, Clarence Iba (brother of Oklahoma State’s very famous Henry “Mr.” Iba). Tulsa had won only 33 games in the previous eight seasons and was coming off a 4-20 campaign. Iba turned things around immediately. Tulsa was 12-11 in his first year, slumped to 10-17 in the second but followed with consecutive years of 14, 15, 15, 21 (MVC champions) and 16 victories. Then, just as suddenly, that brief era of basketball glory was over. Iba’s last four teams won 8, 7, 10, and 9 games. That happened because the nature of college basketball changed in the late 1950s. To use modern terminology, the players became more athletic. To be politically incorrect, but more easily understood, black players arrived en masse. Iba started at TU in the era of the movie “Hoosiers” but by the end of his 11-year tenure, the stars were not white players from small towns but black supertalents from the big city—Oscar Robertson (even now, with memories of Michael Jordan fresh on our minds, mentioned as the best of all time), Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, etc.
Tulsa didn’t have a black superstar in 1960. In fact, Tulsa didn’t have, and had never had, a black basketball player. That sounds shocking, in 2007, to think that a school would not have fully integrated teams 13 years after Jackie Robinson had made his debut in major league baseball.
But Tulsa was far from alone at that time and it would be more than a decade before many colleges, particularly in the deep South, fully integrated. North Carolina, which Michael Jordan and fellow black superstars James Worthy and Sam Perkins would lead to the national championship, didn’t have a black basketball player until 1965.
But that’s getting away from the story about Tulsa and the era that started in 1960 when Joe Swank succeeded Iba as head coach. It was quickly obvious that being a member of the Valley of Death without an integrated basketball team was suicidal. Here are some typical scores from 1961-62 (when Tulsa finished 7-19): a 72-43 loss at (national champion) Cincinnati, an 85-68 loss (at home) to Bradley, an 87-53 loss at Drake, a 98-71 loss at (then an MVC member) Houston. Cincinnati won national championships in 1961 and 1962 and was the runner-up in 1963.
So, how do you change this situation, and become respectable in the (far and way) toughest conference in the country, when you have almost no tradition in the sport, very poor facilities, high academic standards, an almost nonexistent recruiting budget, and have to simultaneously fight civil rights battles? It sounds, when you read that previous sentence aloud, impossible but it wasn’t because Tulsa did it…and did it pretty quickly and with some of the greatest players in its now quite proud basketball history.
Just who those players were, and how some of them got to Tulsa, will be the subject of the second half of this article. But, to close with a taste of what’s to come, consider the NBA draft in 1969. Four of the 15 players taken on the first round were from the Valley of Death and the first of those, the sixth player taken overall, was from Tulsa. He might have been TU’s greatest player of that era but, on the other hand, this is more than one candidate, many more in fact, for that distinction.