In the latest installment in his "Coaching Greats" series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Nikki Kelley, the daughter of the late Fred Taylor. Taylor, who also played at Ohio State, returned to the school and helped lead the Buckeyes to seven NCAA tournament appearances and a national title in 1960.
Jon Teitel: Your dad served in the Air Force from 1943-1946. What impact did his military service have on his role as a father?
Nikki Kelley: As with most who have served in the military, I believe his service gave him an appreciation for discipline. Not necessarily in a punitive sense, but more as a way for the four of us girls to understand the importance of having self-discipline in various areas of our lives.
JT: Despite not playing high school basketball he became an outstanding player at Ohio State and scored 10 points/game as a starting center on the 1950 team that won the Big Ten title. How was he able to become such a great college player, and how proud was he of that title?
NK: His years in the service were greatly responsible for him being able to hone both his basketball and baseball skills. He excelled in both sports while serving and at that time he was one of the youngest servicemen to coach a team. By the time his service was completed he had refined many of the skills that led him to be a successful athlete at the college level. He was quite proud of the team winning that title because he was fond of his teammates and pleased for the basketball program and university. He was able to prove to himself that he was definitely a capable and competitive athlete.
JT: That same year he also became the Buckeyes' first All-American baseball player and signed as a free agent with the Washington Senators. Which sport was he better at, and which one did he enjoy the most?
NK: He was highly competitive in both sports and enjoyed playing them both, but was probably a better baseball player. His professional baseball career might have lasted a lot longer had Mickey Vernon not played first base for the Senators. He did not have a favorite. Both sports were so different and required a different set of skills.
JT: After retiring from baseball he returned to Ohio State as an assistant basketball coach in 1958 and became head coach the following year. Why did he decide to get into coaching, and what did it mean to him to return to his alma mater?
NK: He had some experience leading and coaching teams in the service so it was not an entirely foreign field that he was getting into. He loved working with college kids and teaching them. He also wanted to instill in them the value of an education and the positive effect it would have on the rest of their lives. He was thrilled to be back at Ohio State. He was a fiercely loyal person and he never lost his loyalty to the university even during troubling times.
JT: In the 1960 NCAA tournament his team beat California to win the title. What did it mean to him to win the title, and how did that game change his life?
NK: He was only 35 years old when he coached the championship team: what an achievement for a young coach! Winning that title put him in a position of prominence in the world of college basketball. The title was a big plus when he was recruiting. He also certainly got busier! He was invited to speak at a lot of functions and more doors were opened for him to promote his style of basketball and give clinics around the world.
1961 NCAA tournament
JT: John Turner missed a free throw with one second left in a one-point win over Louisville. Where does that game rank among the most nerve-racking of his career?
NK: There were so many close wins during his entire career, but of course the win over Louisville was huge because it paved the way to the championship game. He was always more animated after particularly close victories.
JT: He had a five-point overtime loss to Cincinnati in the first-ever title game featuring two teams from the same state. How big was that in-state rivalry, and how devastating was that loss?
NK: There was not much of an in-state rivalry between the two teams prior to that game. The loss was crushing because Ohio State was favored to win, and to lose in overtime made it even more heartbreaking.
JT: What are your memories of the 1962 NCAA tournament (Ohio State lost to Cincinnati again in the title game after becoming the first coach in NCAA history to take a team to three straight Final Fours)?
NK: Jerry Lucas was playing hurt after suffering a knee injury in the semifinal, and it seemed that Ohio State never got into their usual rhythm in large part because of that. It was a disappointing loss but it was still a very big accomplishment to have even reached the title game for a third consecutive year.
JT: He was named national COY in both 1961 and 1962. What did it mean to him to receive such outstanding individual honors?
NK: He was a very humble man throughout his life. Those honors were very flattering and he did feel quite honored to receive them, but they did not change his innate being. He simply appreciated that he was being recognized in such a manner.
JT: What are your memories of the 1968 NCAA tournament (Dave Sorenson scored 22 points and banked in a 5-footer in the final seconds of a one-point win over Kentucky)?
NK: Any win over Kentucky was always special because Adolph Rupp was a long-time successful and highly prominent coach; his teams were always well-prepared. Getting a victory in the final moments made it even more exciting. Coach Rupp said to Daddy immediately after the game, "Aww, gosh darn, Fred. Why did you have to go and do that?!"
1971 NCAA tournament
JT: Allan Hornyak made two free throws to clinch a one-point win over Marquette and end Marquette's 39-game winning streak. Where did that game rank among the most exciting of his career?
NK: That was one of the most riveting games of his career. The crowd was definitely pulling for an upset and Ohio State supplied it.
JT: Jim McDaniels scored 31 points in a three-point overtime win by Western Kentucky. Was he worried about his blood pressure due to all these close games year after year?
NK: He would always unwind by soaking in the bathtub and he had quite a few long soaks after those close games.
JT: He coached Hall of Famers Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, and Bobby Knight. Who was the best player he ever coached, and what impact did he have on Knight's own decision to get into coaching?
NK: He had the privilege of coaching some incredible athletes during his tenure. He was keenly aware of the contributions and attributes all of his players had. He felt that Havlicek was the best defensive player he ever coached. He admired John's determination to become the best on defense. Lucas had an astonishing ability to rebound and score. His ability to determine the direction and place where a missed shot would go was uncanny. Daddy felt that Jim Cleamons was the premier team captain. He was a calm, cool player who was able to lead the team and keep everyone on the same page. So, there is not a "best" player in terms of one individual in an all-around way. He valued the best in each one of his players.
I think Daddy played a big part in Knight's decision to become a coach. Bob was the 6th man at Ohio State and would go over every detail of the games afterward. There were times when Bob did not agree with Daddy's coaching ways. I suspect Bob was already in coaching mode before he even realized it! When Bob decided he wanted to be a coach, Daddy did his best to help him get a head coaching job. Bob had an incredible basketball mind. Throughout the years the two of them stayed in close touch and shared coaching advice as well as a strong friendship.
JT: From 1964-1972 he was a member of the US Olympic Basketball Committee. Why did he take the job, and what was his reaction to the loss to the USSR in the gold medal game in the 1972 Olympics?
NK: He took the job because he loved the game of basketball. He had a great basketball mind and wanted to be a part of something that also reflected the love he had for his country. He felt extreme disgust over the loss because it was a stolen victory for the USSR. The ending of the game was a complete farce brought about because of politics. It was a hard loss to absorb, especially for someone who believed in fairness and honesty.
JT: After retiring he remained at Ohio State as an assistant professor of physical education and a coordinator for intramural sports. Why did he decide to stick around campus, and how did the students enjoy taking physical education from a national championship basketball coach?
NK: To be eligible for full retirement benefits he needed to remain at the university for a few more years after he resigned from coaching. The position they had for him allowed him to stay involved with college kids, which was something he genuinely loved. The students truly liked being around him. He was a very humorous and very, very intelligent man. Some sought him out for advice, which made him feel so good. If they were impressed by his accomplishments I am sure he would have made some self-deprecating remark. He did not have a big ego that needed to be stroked.
JT: In 1979 he was the manager for Team USA as they won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico. What did it mean to him to win a gold medal, and what was it like for him to be on the sideline with head coach Knight and assistant coach Mike Krzyzewski?
NK: The atmosphere in Puerto Rico was very hostile towards Team USA. The US newspapers never reported this accurately, but rather erroneously placed the blame on Coach Knight when it was not warranted. He had a good time with Knight and Krzyzewski. There were frightening things that happened and Daddy helped the two of them via staunch support as well as comic relief when he could. He developed a strong admiration for Coach K during that time, and was already close to Coach Knight. The gold medal win was highly valued, especially because it was earned amidst some rattling incidents involving both players and coaches.
JT: In 1986 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Where did that rank among his career highlights, and how proud is your family of all his success?
NK: I believe the induction was certainly the pinnacle of his career in the sense that he was recognized for being a talented coach with a sharp mind. He had a thorough understanding of all aspects of the game and the ability to bring together a variety of star players and teach them how to play as a team. He was very deeply moved by the nomination and induction. All of us are immensely proud of everything he was able to accomplish both on and off the court. He was one of the finest human beings we have ever known.
Taylor is also on Jon's list of best coaches in Big Ten history.
Illinois: Lou Henson (1975-1996) 423-224, 12 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Indiana: Bobby Knight (1971-2000) 661-240, 24 NCAA tourneys, 11 conference titles, 3 NCAA titles, 1 NIT title, 4-time national COY, 5-time conference COY
Iowa: Tom Davis (1986-1999) 270-139, 9 NCAA tourneys, 1-time national COY, 1-time conference COY
Michigan: Johnny Orr (1968-1980) 209-113, 4 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 2-time conference COY
Michigan State: Tom Izzo (1995-present) 407-168, 13 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 4-time national COY, 2-time conference COY
Minnesota: Louis "Doc" Cooke (1897-1924) 254-142-3, 5 conference titles, 3 national titles
Nebraska: Danny Nee (1986-2000) 254-190, 5 conference titles, 1 NIT title
Northwestern: Arthur "Dutch" Lonborg (1927-1950) 236-203, 2 conference titles, 1 Helms title
Ohio State: Fred Taylor (1958-1976) 297-158, 5 NCAA tourneys, 7 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 2-time national COY
Penn State: Bruce Parkhill (1985-1995) 181-169, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Purdue: Ward "Piggy" Lambert (1916-1946) 371-152, 11 conference titles, 1 Helms title
Wisconsin: Walter "Doc" Meanwell (1911-1917, 1920-1934) 246-99, 8 conference titles, 3 Helms titles