Willie Biles Dinner Brings Thoughts of Forgotten Heroes


FUN EVENING: The portrait of the retired jersey of Willie Biles was unveiled after the Friday, Feb. 12 dinner held in his honor and hosted at Zio’s by his former TU head coach Ken Hayes. From left are former TU basketball star Bill Kusleika, Hayes, Biles, current TU head coach Doug Wojcik and former TU basketball assistant coach John Rendek, who recruited Biles.

GTR Newspapers photo

The University of Tulsa took care of some long unfinished business a few days ago when the jersey of 1970s basketball star Willie Biles was retired.

The official ceremony took place during a TU game but the real ceremony for many was the night before at an informal dinner, hosted by former TU coach Ken Hayes, in honor of Biles at Zio’s restaurant. Much has been written about his basketball abilities (all you really need to know is that he averaged 30 points a game in the Missouri Valley Conference when it was called, rightly, the Valley of Death) so I won’t relate those stories again. However, the dinner put a couple of things into perspective for me.

First, I’ve long thought that the shortchanged Biles for some unspoken reason (perhaps a tacit quota system) but anecdotal evidence at the dinner indicated that, as a consequence, he ended up in a career that perfectly fit his skills and personality and that he has had a fulfilling life.

Second, a reason that Biles is perhaps not as well known as he should be is that he didn’t get a chance to showcase his talent in postseason tournaments. Only a handful of teams played in the and tournaments in that time. Conference champs (and a few independents) went to the former and the runners-up to the latter. I have been against the expansion of the tournament over the years because the “purist” in me was offended by the concept that a team which did not win its conference title could win the national championship. Now, as a result of the dinner, I’m favoring the recently raised possibility that the will expand again (to 96 teams). When you think there’s another Willie Biles out there who won’t get a national television showcase because his team was deemed No. 67 or so, then maybe expanding the field is the fairest way to go.

I spent most of the dinner seated next to Dan Howard, the trainer at TU when I started to cover Hurricane basketball for the Tulsa World in 1969. His interest by that time had shifted to strength training and body building (the magnificent physique he developed appears pretty much intact) and he soon decamped to California for professional reasons. An immediate result was a handful of small roles in movies, one of which is still paying residuals (about $200 last year, not bad for work done 30 years ago).

Dan’s boyhood home was very near to Webster High School. His house was adjacent to the athletic fields and he said the football practice field was literally the backyard where he grew up. His memories of athletics in the Tulsa area go back at least 50 years. Two dealt with figures who are almost semi-mythical, the fabulously gifted but tragically flawed basketball star Eldridge Webb and Glenn Dobbs who had unparalleled influence at TU as a football All American, far ahead of his time coach, and athletic director.

Webb had an erratic career at TU in the 1960s because of eligibility and personal issues. But when he got on the court, he was sensational more often than not. His ball handling and passing are still etched in the mind more than 40 years after he played.

Dan recalled a TU road game in which frustrated home fans began throwing coins onto the court. The game stopped and the coach of the home team announced, over the PA system, that another coin tossed onto the court would result in a technical foul. The result was predictable. The court was showered with coins and, almost as predictable to those familiar with his skills, Eldridge Webb began (while continuing to dribble) to pick up coins with his non-dribbling hand. He’d then pass the ball, run over to the bench, hand the coins to Dan, return to the game, pick up more coins (even if the ball had come back to him and he had to resume dribbling), etc. This continued for some time and Dan said, “When we counted it up after the game, he had more than $20.”

The story sounds like it may have become exaggerated after four decades. But, even if not wholly true, it’s the kind of thing that should be true. And, to those who actually saw Eldridge Webb, it is believable.

The story about Glenn Dobbs concerned his legendary ability to kick a football.

“He called me one day and asked if I had a brace that would fit his knee but go under his pants,” Dan said. “There was a charity which was going to get donations for every yard that he punted the ball. I was able to fix him up with a brace and he kicked it – he was in his fifties and wearing street shoes – about 70 yards.” Again, this sounds over the top, but those familiar with Glenn Dobbs have no difficulty accepting it as gospel. There are frequent news stories about golfers who are able to shoot their age. It’s probable that it’s rarer, probably much rarer, to be able to “punt your age.” Glenn Dobbs could do this well into his retirement years.

I think a strong case can be made that Glenn Dobbs and another Oklahoman of similar vintage and gifts, Muskogee’s Jack Jacobs who played collegiately at Oklahoma, have never received due credit for their pioneering roles in the evolution of offensive schemes in football. But that’s another story about another sport.

The author served as a sports writer for the Tulsa World from 1969-1981. An executive with the Society for Exploration Geophysicists, he still finds time to write sports as somewhat of a hobby.

Updated 03-16-2010

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