Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats": Alabama's Wimp Sanderson

June 2nd, 2012

In the latest installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Wimp Sanderson, who was the head coach at Alabama from 1980 to 1992. While known for his plaid blazers, Sanderson also led the Crimson Tide to 265 wins and ten NCAA tournament appearances. 

Jon Teitel: You were famous for wearing plaid sport jackets on the sidelines. Why plaid?

Wimp Sanderson: I do not think that I even wore plaid during my first couple of years there. I wore it once and the sportswriters wrote about it, then I wore it again and they kept writing about it, and it just sort of took off from there.

JT: In June 1963 as an assistant coach at Alabama you watched from a window in a building across the street from Foster Auditorium as Governor George Wallace stood at the schoolhouse door to stop two African-American students from enrolling. Did you realize that you were watching history?

WS: Our offices were across the street from the auditorium and I realized that I was watching something that I had never seen before. I knew it was unusual but did not know exactly what it would end up being.

JT: What are your memories of the 1975 NCAA tournament (Leon Douglas had 29 points and 21 rebounds in a three-point loss to Arizona State)?

WS: We got sent out west after losing to Vanderbilt at home, and Lionel Hollins (17 points and five assists) beat us pretty much by himself.

1976 NCAA tournament

JT: Douglas had 35 points and 17 rebounds in a win over North Carolina. Where does Douglas rank among the best players you ever coached?

WS: He was a very good player for us, but we were fortunate to have a lot of good players throughout the years.

JT: National POY Scott May had 25 points and 16 rebounds in a five-point win by eventual undefeated champion Indiana. Did you get the sense that Indiana was going to go undefeated that year?

WS: We had a chance to beat them but missed a couple of shots towards the end and had a controversial charge call made by a Big Ten official. Bobby Knight's team was great.

JT: In 1980 you took over for Hall of Fame coach C.M. Newton, who was the first SEC coach to heavily recruit African-American players. What made Newton such a great coach, and how was he able to convince African-American players to come to Tuscaloosa?

WS: After recruiting Wendell Hudson back in the 1960s (the first African-American scholarship athlete at Alabama), we just tried to recruit the best players in the state. Even after becoming head coach I made sure that I tried to do my part in recruiting.

1982 NCAA tournament

JT: Eddie Phillips scored 16 points (10-10 FT) in a one-point win over St. John's in New York. How were you able to hang on for the win?

WS: We got to the tourney after beating Kentucky in the SEC tournament title game. We were pretty fortunate to win a game against St. John's that went back and forth.

JT: Tournament MOP James Worthy scored 16 points in a five-point win by eventual champion North Carolina in Raleigh. Do you think that Dean Smith was out for revenge after losing to Alabama back in 1976?

WS: I do not think that he was out for revenge. We did a good job guarding Michael Jordan but it was a tough game. The following January we were getting ready to play #1-ranked UCLA on national TV when someone told me that Hall of Fame football coach Bear Bryant had just passed away. We beat the Bruins by two points and I was very proud of that.

JT: What are your memories of the 1984 NCAA tournament (Bobby Lee Hurt had 16 points and ten rebounds in a one-point loss to Illinois State)?

WS: They beat us on an 18-foot jump shot by Lou Stefanovic with eight seconds left.

1985 NCAA tournament

JT: Hurt scored 14 points in a nine-point win over Arizona and then 19 in a four-point win over VCU. What did Hurt learn from the Illinois State loss that helped him in the 1985 tournament?

WS: Lute Olson had a good Arizona team, and we beat them in a hard-fought game with a lot of fans who had made the trip from Tucson. One of VCU's assistant coaches was David Hobbs, who I later hired as one of my own assistants.

JT: Spud Webb scored 14 points in a six-point NC State win. How devastating was that loss?

WS: That was the year I thought we had a chance to win it all.

1986 NCAA tournament

JT: Terry Coner had 12 points and ten assists, and hit an off-balance 12-footer with one second left in a two-point win over Illinois. Do you think that Coner traveled, and where does that rank among the most clutch shots you have ever seen?

WS: Naturally I think he did not travel! Illinois coach Lou Henson asked me the same question after the game and I gave him the same answer.

JT: Kenny Walker had 22 points and three blocks while playing 40 minutes in a five-point Kentucky win. Did you change any of your strategy after losing to the Wildcats only 12 days earlier in the SEC tournament title game?

WS: The NCAA sent all of the SEC schools (Alabama, Kentucky and LSU) to the same regional site in Atlanta, which I think is the worst thing that they have ever done.

1987 NCAA tournament

JT: Derrick McKey had 25 points and 14 rebounds in a win over North Carolina A&T and 26 points (10-12 FG) in a win over New Orleans. How was McKey able to be so dominant that weekend?

WS: We won 19 of 21 conference games that year, and had a chance to win the two that we lost. We were a #2-seed, which was the highest we ever got.

JT: Billy Donovan had 26 points and ten assists in a win by Providence. Could you tell at the time that Donovan's success as a player would later translate to success as a coach?

WS: That was one of the saddest days of my life. I was a sore loser. Donovan wore us out that night.

JT: What are your memories of the 1989 NCAA tournament (Jeff Hodge scored 29 points and made a 23-foot shot with two seconds left in a two-point win by South Alabama in the first-ever meeting between the interstate rivals)?

WS: That was a killer for us. I did not want to play them in the regular season. I would attribute that loss to coaching.

1990 NCAA tournament

JT: Robert Horry scored 27 points (10-14 FG) in a win over Colorado State. Did Horry have the same clutch shooting ability back then that be became famous for in the NBA?

WS: Robert could shoot it well even back then.

JT: Horry scored 21 points but by missed a 15-foot shot at the buzzer in a 62-60 loss to Loyola Marymount. Did you think Horry's shot was going in, and how on earth were you able to hold LMU to 62 points after they had scored a tournament-record 149 PTS in their previous game vs. Michigan?

WS: After beating Arizon in the second round in Long Beach we had several days to prepare for LMU, who was on a roll despite the death of Hank Gathers. I talked to as many other coaches as I could to get a feel for LMU, and several of them told me not to try to run with LMU because that would not work. I told my team to run a little clock when we could, and we played well even though we did not shoot well. LMU coach Paul Westhead came very close to getting called for a technical foul at the end of the first half. If I had to do it over again I would have done something else because slowing it down did not win the game for us. I do not remember Robert's shot, but I remember Bo Kimble making a left-handed free throw in tribute to Hank.

1991 NCAA tournament

JT: PG Gary Waites scored 21 points (5-6 3PT) and had ten assists in an eight-point win over Wake Forest. What made Waites such a great three=point shooter (he had a school record 51.5% 3PT that season)?

WS: The funny part is that Wake Forest coach Dave Odom's son was on my staff...after Dave had hired my son to be on his own staff! It came down to the wire. We decided to play a zone defense at the end and they missed a few shots.

JT: Todd Day scored 31 points in a win by Arkansas. What was it like to face "40 minutes of hell" from Coach Nolan Richardson and his Razorbacks?

WS: We had beaten them before in the regular season. We just did not play well that night.

1992 NCAA tournament

JT: Latrell Sprewell scored 23 points in a five-point win over Stanford. What was Sprewell's behavior like when he played for you?

WS: His behavior was just fine. He was a good player for us. Stanford was a good team because Mike Montgomery's players could do a lot of things on offense. I was pretty tough on my players but Spree never gave me any trouble and he played hard. I think money changed him, and I was disappointed in the way he finished up his NBA career. There are three characteristics you could say about our teams back then: we had good players, we played good defense, and we played hard.

JT: James Robinson scored 22 points in a nine-point loss to North Carolina. Were you getting sick of playing the Tar Heels in the tourney all the time?

WS: Horry got a technical foul in that game after getting into a little scrape with Eric Montross.

JT: You son Scott currently coaches at Lipscomb. How proud are you of his success, and what makes him such a good coach?

WS: He is a level-headed guy who can manage whatever comes his way. He can handle wins and losses better than I ever did. All three of my sons were coaches at one time or another and I am proud of all of them.

Sanderson is also on Jon's list of best coaches in SEC history.

Alabama: Wimp Sanderson (1980-1992) 265-118, 10 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 3-time conference COY
Arkansas: Nolan Richardson (1985-2002) 389-169, 13 NCAA tourneys, 7 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 1-time national COY, 4-time conference COY
Auburn: Cliff Ellis (1994-2004) 186-125, 3 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1-time national COY, 2-time conference COY
Florida: Billy Donovan (1996-present) 386-158, 12 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 2 NCAA titles, 1-time conference COY
Georgia: Hugh Durham (1978-1995) 297-215, 5 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 4-time conference COY
Kentucky: Adolph Rupp (1930-1972) 876-190, 20 NCAA tourneys, 28 conference titles, 4 NCAA titles, 1 NIT title, 4-time national COY, 7-time conference COY
LSU: Dale Brown (1972-1997) 448-301, 13 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 2-time national COY, 4-time conference COY
Mississippi: Rod Barnes (1998-2006) 141-109, 3 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1-time national COY, 1-time conference COY
Mississippi State: Rick Stansbury (1998-2012) 293-166, 6 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
South Carolina: Frank McGuire (1964-1980) 283-142, 4 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Tennessee: Ray Mears (1962-1977) 278-112, 3 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Vanderbilt: Roy Skinner (1958-1976) 278-135, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 3-time conference COY