In the most recent interview in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with former Longwood head coach Cal Luther. In nine seasons at Longwood Coach Luther won 136 games, and he was also successful at DePauw and Murray State.
Jon Teitel: You were an All-State football and basketball player at Bay View HS in Milwaukee. Which sport did you enjoy more, and which one were you better at?
Cal Luther: I was a better basketball player but really loved playing football. I also enjoyed track and field.
JT: You spent two years as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division and were a member of Fort Benning's basketball and championship-winning football teams. What was it like to serve in the military, and how competitive were the games against other armed forces teams?
CL: All of the West Point grads came down to Fort Benning for one year of field training after graduation. Army had some fabulous football teams under Earl Blaik like Doc Blanchard, Arnold Tucker, and Glenn Davis (who were all Air Force guys from TX). I was just a second-string punter but it was still a great experience. We played in a national AAU basketball tourney in Denver featuring 64 teams from around the country, including several players who ended up in the NBA (like Hall of Famer Bob Kurland).
JT: You played college basketball at Valparaiso. How good a player were you, and how far did you think you could go as a player?
CL: All players think they are better than they actually are...which I saw a lot as a coach! I was a decent player and had a very good two-handed set shot. I remember talking to a guy from Chicago who came up with an idea for a league with something called a three-point arc, which I thought was pretty good, but everyone else just laughed at him.
JT: You became DePauw's head coach in 1954, and after defeating Wabash by a score of 67-66, both you and the Wabash coach decided the game should be recorded as a tie due to a scorer's error. How important did you consider sportsmanship to be, and what was the reaction like after the game?
CL: I spent three years at Illinois as an assistant in the early 1950s [before going to DePauw] where we won two Big Ten titles with Johnny Kerr. I became DePauw's coach at age 26. It was a funny situation, as the scorer's table was elevated. Wabash had a guy make two free throws in the 1st half, and during the substitutions between the two free throws both of the scorers somehow missed the fact that he made both throws. The Wabash coach came running over to me after the game and called me a cheater, so we called the officials over to double-check, but both scorers said that DePauw had won the game. I asked some of my staff about it after the game, and two of them said that the scorers had missed one of the throws. I went to our AD that night and told him that it was obvious that the game should have been a tie. DePauw and Wabash have a heated rivalry dating back many years. I suggested that maybe we could play a five-minute overtime before our next game against them, but they said that might not be a good idea. We decided to call it a tie, and issued a press release to let everyone know.
JT: At DePauw you broke the color barrier by having the first African-American basketball player in the OVC, even though some schools in the south dropped you from their schedules. How big a deal was it at the time, and did you feel like a pioneer?
CL: It was very groundbreaking, as I had to get permission from the school president to even recruit an African-American player. I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Milwaukee, where I played basketball against kids of all races. Some of our opponents dropped us, but I thought it was the right thing for us to do. The first kid we recruited in 1962 was outstanding for our freshman team, but he ended up leaving campus after enduring some harassment and threatening calls. The following year we brought in Stew Johnson, who ended up having a long NBA career. Stew's dad was a police captain in Pennsylvania, and he came down to our campus to check it out himself.
JT: At Murray State you ran an offense involving the "double rolling post". How did it work, and what made it so effective?
CL: That terminology is a bit new to me: we just referred to is as a "3-out" offense with 3 perimeter players and 2 men down low. When I got to Murray State we did not have the personnel to run anything in the low post, so it was a bit of a struggle. It was hard to recruit back then because most of the talented kids went to the MVC or SEC.
JT: What are your memories of the 1964 NCAA Tournament, the first tournament appearance in school history (John Egan had 24 points in a 10-point win by Loyola-Illinois)?
CL: There were only about 25 teams who made it to the tourney back then, so we were very glad to be there. The weather was pretty bad, so instead of flying we had to take a bus/train to Chicago, and did not arrive at the hotel until 3AM! We got off to a great start, as we had them doubled-up early, but we got in some foul trouble and they had a lot of depth. They were the defending champs, and scored over 100 points against us, which was a lot back then.
JT: What are your memories of the 1969 NCAA Tournament (George Thompson had 23 points in a win by Marquette)?
CL: I did not do a very good job, as the score should have been a lot closer. I contracted the flu earlier in the season, but refused to stop coaching. We tied Morehead State for the conference title, so we had to beat them in a playoff game in front of 13,000 people just to make the NCAA tourney. Our player Don Funneman had gotten hurt, so I kept him out of the Marquette game because I did not want to take the chance of him doing any further damage. Al McGuire was an excellent coach at Marquette, and he had some great kids that he brought in from NY.
JT: In 1990 you served as coach of the Egyptian national basketball team and finished last out of 16 teams in the FIBA World Championship in Argentina. What was it like to coach a foreign country, and how close did you come to beating the Korea Republic in the 15th place game?
CL: The Egyptian team was very unusual, as nobody played basketball in Egypt back then. There were a couple of basketball courts in Cairo, but they would just put up soccer goals and play soccer! We practiced in a giant plastic bubble that got unbearably hot during the day, so we would have to practice at either 5AM or late at night. Egypt had never previously come within 25 points of anyone in an international tourney. We played Canada (who had Rick Fox), and we were ahead by two points at the half. We kept it within single digits for most of the second half before losing. We played the host country Argentina after they had been upset by Canada, and there would have been turmoil in their country if they had lost to us. It was close at the half, but we lost. Our team was led around by a general, who was pissed off because FIBA had not given him money for travel expenses, and he used the post-game press conference to talk about the situation. Finally one of the media members said, "We would like to hear from the coach", and he reluctantly let me get up there to congratulate our opponent! Our point guard was banished for the remainder of the tourney after an on-court dispute during the controversial finish of our two-point loss to Venezuela in pool play. We made a shot at the end to win it, but the officiating is pretty unbelievable in those things, so they waved it off. I recall that Korea had a couple of phenomenal three-point shooters.
JT: When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most?
CL: I would just like to be remembered as a guy who loved to coach. I was in very few places where I could easily recruit, so I had to work hard to win games. I won the only conference title in DePauw history. I have always thought that sportsmanship was an important part of the game, and I tried to play the game fair and square. I took the Minnesota job in 1971, but left after four days once I found out some things that would not make it possible for me to be there. They ended up hiring Bill Musselman, and the school later ended up on probation after the NCAA discovered over 100 NCAA violations. I enjoyed the game very much and was very interested in my kids. One of them became a world-famous sculptor and another became head of the International Kidney Foundation. I am still in touch with several of my players, and I treasure all the relationships I have made over the years.
CSU Bakersfield: Pat Douglass (1987-1997) 257-61, 6 conference titles, 3 Division II titles, 3-time national Coach of the Year, 3-time conference Coach of the Year
Longwood: Cal Luther (1981-1990) 136-105, one-time conference Coach of the Year
Morris Brown: Cab Greene (1952-1965) 117-90
N.C. Central: John McLendon (1940-1952) 239-68, 8 conference titles
Savannah State: Russell Ellington (1976-1985) 148-91, 3 conference titles
Seattle: Vincent Cazzetta (1958-1963) 94-39, 3 NCAA Tournament appearances
SIU-Edwardsville: Larry Graham (1984-1992) 147-84
Winston-Salem State: Clarence "Big House" Gaines (1946-1993) 828-447, 8 conference titles, one Division II title, one-time national Coach of the Year, 6-time conference Coach of the Year