In the latest installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer spoke with two players of late Drake head coach Maury John, Dolph Pulliam and Dan Callahan. During his time at Drake, John won 211 games and led the Bulldogs to four conference titles, three NCAA appearances and a Final Four as well.
Jon Teitel: Coach John was known for his "belly-button" defense (man-to-man defense with an emphasis on total ball denial and weak-side help). How did he come up with that?
Dolph Pulliam: Coach John wrote a book about the belly-button defense...and it happened to be about me! He put me in charge of leading the team defensively, so I would show them how to stick with their opponent, frustrate them, etc.
Dan Callahan: Dolph Pulliam and Willie Wise became blood brothers, which made it easier to implement the belly-button defense. My barber Al Stone also cut Coach John's hair, and said that one day Coach just leaped out of his barber chair and came up with the defensive positioning. Dolph and Willie competed with each other to be the best defender on the team. The guards stayed in front of their men and the center denied the entry to the post.
JT: In 1946 he became head coach at Moberly JC, where he won two national and eight state titles in 12 years. How was he able to be so dominant for such a long stretch of time?
DP: He was the John Wooden of junior college basketball. He was known for his run-and-gun style and was a master at designing offenses, which is how he became so famous. Later on he could show up at a JC tourney and just choose any players he wanted to come to Drake.
DC: You have to know Coach John: he was the kind of guy who everyone admired. Willie was a Bible reader and Coach was a devout man himself. I was on the second team at Moberly to win the national title, and several of my teammates ended up going to Drake. At the JC level he was able to bring in kids from St. Louis and create a community atmosphere despite being out in the sticks.
JT: After sharing the 1969 MVC regular-season title with Louisville, his team got a four-point win over the Cardinals in a playoff to get into the NCAA tournament. How was he able to pull out the win to keep his postseason dreams alive?
DP: There was an on-court fight during our regular season game in Louisville, and we ended up losing the game. We beat them by 30+ points in the rematch in Des Moines. The playoff game was at a neutral site in Wichita. I was usually a forward, but Coach told me that he was going to switch me to guard so I could defend Butch Beard (who Louisville had moved to guard). Coach was a great motivator. We could not wait to get out of the locker room and onto the court before our games. He was a genius on the sideline as well, as everyone on the team knew their responsibility (even if you were on the bench, you would act as a cheerleader).
DC: People talk about "peaking at the right time". The team just gelled after a loss to North Texas St. They had a meeting and decided that they would simply not get beat again that season. The fight brought about some greater determination.
1969 NCAA Tournament
JT: Lew Alcindor had 25 points and 21 rebounds in a three-point win by eventual champion UCLA. How close did Drake come to winning that game?
DP: We were down by three with 15 seconds left to a team that was picked to beat us by about 20. Willie McCarter missed a shot and I was able to get the rebound and put it in to cut the lead to one. I thought I was fouled but the official did not call anything. Lynn Shackleford made two free throws at the end to clinch the win. NBC was calling its affiliates in the second half to give them a heads-up about the possible upset!
DC: If you look at the box score John Vallely made 11 of 14 free throws by himself.
JT: McCarter had 28 points and ten assists in a 20-point win over North Carolina in the third place game. How were they able to blow out Dean Smith's team despite Charlie Scott scoring 35 points (16-26 FG)?
DP: We just played hard defense.
DC: It was a combination of a great coach and great players. North Carolina had a very tall team but the game was decided with quickness. Ever since then North Carolina has recruited smaller and quicker frontcourt players.
1970 NCAA Tournament
JT: Al Williams had 24 points and a school tournament-record 17 rebounds in a five-point win over Houston. Did they think they could get back to the Final Four the following year?
DP: Definitely. There were only 16 teams in the tourney back then so we thought we could make it, but did not realize how hard it was to get back to the Final 4.
JT: Sam Lacey had 20 points and 24 rebounds in a nine-point New Mexico State win. Was Lacey just unstoppable on the boards?
DP: I had graduated by then but I remember watching the game and thinking we had a chance to win it.
DC: Lou Henson was their great coach and Lacey was a great player who was huge.
1971 NCAA Tournament
JT: Tom Bush had 19 points and 16 rebounds and Al Sakys made a jumper with four seconds left in regulation in a seven-point overtime win over Notre Dame. How was Bobby Jones able to hold Austin Carr to only 26 points (who had been averaging 38 PPG)?
DP: Jones was a great defender. Once we established the legacy of defense winning games, all the teams that came after us knew that they would have to just play hard-nosed defense.
JT: Dave Robisch had 27 points and ten rebounds in a two-point Kansas win. How close did the Bulldogs come to winning that game?
DP: We were right there with them and just had a few breaks not go our way.
JT: In 1971 he became head coach at Iowa State. Why on earth did he leave Drake after three straight trips to the NCAA tournament?
DP: I stayed good friends with Coach after I graduated. Drake said they would build an on-campus arena if we got to the NCAA tourney, but the school failed to live up to its promise in each of those three years. Iowa State offered Coach John a professorship with tenure and the chance to coach in a brand-new arena. Coach asked me for my opinion and I said he should take the job in Ames. He told me that I had the scoop (I was in TV broadcasting at the time), but I told him that I would not take advantage of him and just wait until everyone else got word of the news. My teammates and I overheard the first promise.
DC: Drake had a basketball/recruiting budget that was not even close to Iowa State. When we were in the Final Four against UCLA, we only had two baskets in our Fieldhouse. I am sure that money was a part of it. For example, Dr. Tom Davis made about $250,000 as coach at Drake, but his son Keno ended up signing a 10-year/$10 million contract at Providence. I still do not know how small private schools can compete with the big public universities around the country.
JT: In his final season with the Cyclones his only loss was by one-point to Drake on the same day that he was told he had an inoperable malignant tumor. What was it like for him to coach against his old team, and how did he cope with the bad news about his health?
DP: It is always hard to coach against your former team but he was such a competitor that he tried his best to win. He called me in my office to tell me about his cancer and told me that he wanted my prayers rather than my tears. We both ended up crying over the phone; it was difficult for all of us.
DC: I was a pall-bearer at Coach's funeral. He had a strong faith, which made him a great coach and a great man. Even at the end he believed that he was going to beat it.
JT: He was a four-time conference Coach of the Year. What did it mean to him to win such outstanding individual honor?
DP: He was prouder of us than he was of the honors. I am sure he would bask in the glory of that after the fact, but he was happiest for our team's success. It was great for us to see our coach get recognized for doing things the right way.
DC: He is in the Missouri Hall of Fame and won a pair of national titles. Some coaches might think they have all the answers but Coach John was able to handle adversity.
JT: When people look back on his career, how do you think he should be remembered the most?
DP: Every day that I run across someone in town we end up talking about Coach John. He was a Renaissance man who was ahead of his time. What I remember the most is that he treated us all like we were his own sons. He was a great speaker and never cursed at us. It was just great to be around him because everyone loved him.
DC: He believed in God and had a consistent attitude about life and family. He lived/breathed basketball and his son Maurice Jr. became one of the best eye surgeons in the country. There are not a lot of people who can maintain greatness throughout their lives. After the UCLA loss Coach Wooden brought Coach John out to work at his clinic and asked him a bunch of questions about the belly-button defense. He was a like a father to me and we gave extra effort for him in return. We had several guys who never got off the bench but we all felt like part of a team.
Maury is also on Jon's list of best coaches in MVC history.
Bradley: Chuck Orsborn (1956-1965) 194-56, 1 conference title, 3 NIT titles, 2-time conference COY
Creighton: Dana Altman (1994-2010) 327-176, 7 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Drake: Maury John (1958-1971) 211-131, 3 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 4-time conference COY
Evansville: Jim Crews (1985-2002) 294-209, 4 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 4-time conference COY
Illinois State: Bob Donewald (1978-1989) 207-122, 3 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Indiana State: Glenn Curtis (1938-1946) 122-45
Missouri State: Charlie Spoonhour (1983-1992) 197-81, 5 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
Northern Iowa: Ben Jacobson (2006-present) 126-69, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Southern Illinois: Jack Hartman (1962-1970) 142-64, 1 NIT title
Wichita State: Ralph Miller (1951-1964) 220-133, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY