There was a time in Coach Joe Gibson’s career when he gave a damn. Basketball had been his whole life. He was an average player in his college days but managed to latch on as an assistant coach at a junior college. The junior college where he coached won three titles in a row, sending many of their players to the Division I level. Gibson eventually landed a job as the head coach at another JC and although he never won a championship, his teams were always in the hunt.
About the time his JC team seemed poised to make a run at a title, Coach Gibson was made an offer to coach at Southeast Tech, a Division I school. He interviewed for the job a number of times. The school had some trouble deciding between Gibson and another big name coach who had just been canned at another school for posting a mediocre record. Southeast Tech was having little success having won an average of four games a season the last five years. A new athletic director had just been hired to try to drum up interest at a school that was more interested in its baseball team. Southeast Tech seemed ready to hire the big name coach, thinking they wanted immediate results, when it was disclosed that this coach had an alcohol problem. So Coach Gibson got the job.
Coach Joe, as his players called him, happened to be in the right place at the right time. A tremendous high school prospect, a guy about 6’10 who could shoot from anywhere on the court, played about thirty miles away from Southeast Tech. The player, Ray Johnson, turned down offers from all the big name schools and signed a letter of intent to play for Southeast Tech so his parents could watch all the games. Southeast Tech played in a conference where they were lucky if two teams out of their ten-team alignment made it to a tournament, any tournament. With the signing of Johnson came two other players from his high school team who weren’t recruited by other schools but knew that passing the ball to the 6’10 phenom usually meant credit for an assist.
That fall, with Ray Johnson playing the center and power forward positions, Southeast Tech managed to exceed it’s season average of four wins by winning all but one of their non-conference games, finishing 14-1. The conference’s lone entry in the post-season tournament last year lost their best player to graduation and proceeded to lose both of their conference games to Southeast Tech by an average of sixteen points. One night, Ray had the flu and didn’t play, and the team lost to one of the conference’s cellar dwellars in overtime, making it obvious the team needed its star player in order to win.
The season ended with Southeast Tech posting a 29-2 record, unheard of for that school. Attendance records were soaring and for once, people got excited about the conference tournament. Southeast Tech already was certain to go to the Big Dance anyway, but the rap against them all season was that they hadn’t played against more than one team in the Top 25. Ray Johnson was averaging 28 points per game and 12 rebounds as well, and speculation about Ray turning pro after the year was up was starting to distract the team. Southeast Tech easily won all three of their conference tournament games, but even with a 32-2 record, managed to snare only a 5 seed because of their weak schedule.
The Big Dance rolled around, and Southeast Tech won their first game in overtime, with Ray Johnson scoring 42 points. In their next tournament game, the other team’s top player had to leave with an injury and Tech posted another win by eight points. Down the stretch, Ray hit twelve free throws in a row. Dubbed the Cinderella team of the tournament, Ray and his Southeast Tech Knights won in the Sweet 16, in a game where everyone seemed to be in foul trouble except for Ray. Nobody was picking Southeast Tech to win in the Elite Eight, even given Ray Johnson’s tournament average of 32 points and 16 rebounds per game.
The Elite Eight was where Southeast Tech’s bubble burst. At one point, the Knights were up 16 points against a much higher seeded opponent, who had only lost two games all season against all the East Coast and Southeast conference teams. But when Ray fell down and collided with another player, he suffered a concussion and had to leave the game with two minutes to go in the first half. By halftime, the Knights were only ahead by two. When the game finished, with Ray in the locker room, the Knights lost by 27 points and were thoroughly humiliated. Without Ray to close up the middle, the other team scored at will. It wasn’t any consolation to Southeast Tech that their Elite Eight opponent went on to win the entire tournament. Their third loss of the season had been a painful one.
Nevertheless, Coach Gibson was declared a coaching genius and in the euphoria that followed the end of the season, Southeast Tech decided to give Coach Gibson a lifetime contract. This move came about when three other Division I schools came calling for Gibson, and Southeast Tech figured that a lifetime contract might just insure Gibson’s loyalty. Even with the announcement that Ray Johnson was declaring for the draft, the school felt that the basketball program would at least produce winning seasons within the conference with Gibson at the helm.
Then during the off-season, everything unraveled. Johnson moved on to the pros, being drafted in the first round. One of Southeast Tech’s rivals hired the big name coach with the alcohol problem that Tech had shunned. Ray’s two other high school teammates who had joined him at Southeast Tech got offers to play semi-pro ball. So Coach Gibson had to start over with recruiting a whole new team.
Despite the previous season’s success, Coach couldn’t seem to get a guy taller than 6’4 to come out for the team. He managed to recruit one player from the junior college ranks who could hit the three, but couldn’t do much else. That one player had a phenomenal ability to hit threes, but for some reason couldn’t hit layups or free throws. Expectations were high for Southeast Tech, given what Coach Gibson had done the previous year.
So season number two is underway and Southeast Tech wins only half of the games in their non-conference schedule. They seemed to win games they weren’t supposed to win, and lose games they weren’t supposed to lose. They’re 8-9 before the conference schedule, losing two of their non-conference games by more than 40 points. The second conference game is against the team who hired the big name coach who liked to drink. They lose to them by 32 points. Tech’s on-again, off-again point guard who hits a lot of three’s missed every one of his attempts from beyond the arc. The conference schedule is almost finished, and Tech has only won two games. Oddly enough, they won both of those games by more than 20 points, lost most of their games by about 20, and kept a handful of them to within 10. So they’re 10-23 going into conference tournament play.
The rule everyone had forgotten was that if you beat everyone in your conference tournament, you got an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. While no one gave the Southeast Tech Knights a prayer, their three-point specialist had a hot streak and averaged 35 points a game for four games, and managed to get past the rest of their conference in their league tournament. So with a 14-23 mark, the Knights accepted the automatic bid while no one else in the league qualified.
The Knights were seeded 16th, obviously, and got paired against a Number 1 seed. Even with a decent performance from their three-point shooter, the 104-67 defeat was embarrassing. The score would have been worse if the other team hadn’t emptied its bench with five minutes to go. But the team could at least claim they had appeared in two NCAA tournaments in a row.
Even with the tournament appearance, there were now fans calling for Joe Gibson’s head. “A flash in the pan,” they were saying. “Without Johnson, you’re nothing,” became a frequent comment from fans who thought he could be recruiting more players. The real problem wasn’t Gibson’s coaching. Southeast Tech was simply located where there was little media exposure and played in a conference that usually only fielded one team in a major tournament. And that team usually exited in the first round. Gibson, unfortunately began drinking. At first, just a little, but with the constant pressure that came with the job, the drinking got worse.
Season three started without his number one offensive threat from three-point land. His sharpshooter didn’t make his grades, and didn’t qualify academically. He had taken all the remedial math and English classes he could, but the guy just wasn’t a student. On the court, he wasn’t much of a defender, either. He eventually had to drop out of school for academic reasons. So season three brought back memories of the years before Coach Gibson arrived. They had a perfect non-conference season, losing all seventeen games. It might have been eighteen except that one game got snowed out. Most of the games they played were easily decided by halftime. The conference schedule didn’t fare much better, with the Knights managing to win just one game by four points, finishing the season 1-32. The tournament produced one more loss, making them 1-33.
Coach Gibson wanted to tender his resignation with fan interest at an all-time low. But the school didn’t think they could hire someone capable of turning the program around, so they stuck with Gibson. He was having trouble recruiting players. Coach was taller than most of the guys coming in for recruiting visits and he was only 6’3. No other job was there for the taking and the buyout on Coach Gibson’s contract was just too much for a small university already in the red from excessive expenditures. With Gibson’s frustration at its peak, he came up with a novel idea to turn the program around. Inspired by the movie, Major League, he decided to put together a team that would finish dead last, but yet could beat a ranked team on a given night.
Gibson started recruiting players that were under six feet and could steal the basketball from taller players. They couldn’t shoot to save their life but they could keep the other teams from running up the score. Season four began with no player taller than 6’2. All season long, they never won a jump ball at the opening tip. Gibson figured the only way his team would score any points would be for one of his “midgets” to outrun the other team’s players down the court for an easy layup. With the exception of three players, the rest of the team effectively couldn’t dunk the ball. Two players on the team showed an ability to hit the three, so Coach had them work on nothing else but shooting three’s. The fourth season began and the team finishes 4-14 in non-conference play. Yet two of their wins were over ranked teams. They lost to a number of unranked teams by more than 30 points during games in which Gibson never bothered to call a time out.
The conference schedule got under way and at least the Knights got some revenge against the school that hired the other big name coach, beating them by twelve. It was one of only three conference wins, placing the Knights in dead last, with a record of 7-27. Oddly enough, one of the three conference wins was against the conference champ on their home court. They bowed out in the first conference tournament game, but with their two wins over ranked teams, had a better strength-of-schedule resumé than the conference representative in the Big Dance.
During season five, Coach decided to make himself popular with the players and their families. “Every boy plays in every game,” was his recruiting mantra. Coach had given up on winning. He just wanted to irritate the fans with his erratic coaching. The first game of the season, he had the shortest guy on the team jump center for the opening tip. The Knights’ player literally was staring at the belly button of the guy he was jumping against. After the opposing team scored an easy layup after the jump ball, Coach called time-out. When play resumed, it was obvious the Coach just wanted his players to play keep-away and run down the clock, in order to keep the score low. At halftime, his team was down 26-4. When the other team had the ball, they usually scored since Southeast Tech didn’t have any heighth, but they were frustrated at the shorter players constantly swatting the ball out of bounds or off of other players’ feet. The whole season pretty much went that way, with Tech managing to win only twice during the non-conference schedule. Many of the fans got angry, but a growing number of them showed up and split a gut laughing at some of the outrageous coaching strategies employed by Coach Gibson.
A lot of the fans enjoyed Gibson’s decision to play everybody. One night it paid off during one of the two non-conference wins. One of their shooting guards had a hot hand and coach told his players to get this guard an open shot every time they went down the court. That guard had 37 points that night and they beat a team that had just fallen out of the top 25. The conference schedule only produced two wins as well, giving the Knights only four wins for the season. The conference tournament yielded one more win due to foul trouble for the other team. But five wins in the Coach’s fifth year wasn’t enough to save his job. Coach Gibson finally resigned under much pressure, and the buyout on his lifetime contract was negotiated down to a manageable level. With many of the games in the last season in the losing column and by an average of almost 30 points a game, it was clear Coach Gibson needed to move on.