Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats" Series: Former Wright State coach Ralph Underhill
In the latest installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with both former Wright State head coach Ralph Underhill and his long-time assistant Jim Brown (Underhill was dealing with some medical issues at the time of the original interview). In 18 seasons at the Dayton school, Coach Underhill won 356 games, a Division II national title and led the Raiders to an appearance in the 1993 NCAA Tournament.
Jon Teitel: Your team was known for pressing opponents for 40 minutes a game ("We were going to press them when they got off the bus"), running a structured fast break, and scoring up to 100 points per game. How did you develop that style, and why was it so successful?
Jim Brown: He was a high school coach in Kentucky, where he had some success with the press. My very successful high school coach John Ross and I started the program at Wright State from scratch in 1970 with no scholarships at first. I told Ralph that it might be hard to do a full-court press against good teams, but he was adamant about it. We played a game one year against D-I Miami (OH), and we did not really benefit from the press for the majority of the game (we were a D-II team back then). In the final 45 seconds we worked the press to perfection and our scoring margin went from six points down to up three, and that convinced me that it was a good idea after all. It became more difficult to press after we moved up to D-I, so we did it less often. The motion offense had become popular in the 1970s, so we went to Indiana and watched Bobby Knight coach it in practice, but after trying it out on a European trip we decided to scrap it.
Ralph Underhill: My high school coach liked the fast break, as did my college coach. John Wooden was also going pretty hot at that time, so I read some of his books and attended some of his clinics. A few other schools ran as well in those days (Kentucky, Cincinnati, etc.).
JT: In 1977 you won a D-II title as an assistant coach at UT Chattanooga. What did you learn from that experience as an assistant that helped you as a head coach in the future?
JB: I could tell right away that Ralph was a very confident person and knew that he could recruit. He said that we would end up winning a national title, and he was able to back it up. In 13 years we went from having no program to winning a title, which is amazing. Some people would call him flamboyant, but once you got to know him you could see that he is very down-to-earth. Dayton is a good location for basketball and we had a new gym, so that worked in our favor.
RU: I worked there for six years under Ron Shumate, who was an excellent coach. We should have won two titles in a row, as we were runner-up in 1976 to Puget Sound. Ron and I played under the same coach at Tennessee Tech (John Oldham), who liked my style of pressing. A lot of our kids were from Louisville because I had coached there in the past.
1983 Division II Tournament
JT: Anthony Bias made two free throws to clinch a two-point win over Kentucky Wesleyan. Did you think Bias was going to make those free throws, and did you have the sense that you were going all the way?
JB: Kentucky Wesleyan was a huge rival for us. Back in the day you kind of bought the right to host the regional games, but our gym could only seat 2,500, so we would often lose out to schools with bigger gyms. Our 1981 team was ranked #1 in the country the entire season, but we got upset in the first round of the regional because it was on the road, whereas we probably would have won if we could have hosted it. We played Kentucky Wesleyan earlier that season and came back from a double-digit deficit with three minutes left, which turned our entire season around. Anthony was the kind of guy who thrived on that type of pressure situation. We ran a pick and roll for Anthony, who passed it down low to our big guy for the game-winning shot, but the refs blew their whistles and spent almost 10 minutes figuring out what call to make. Coach Ross was on our sideline and told me that Anthony was going to make the shot...and he hit nothing but net.
RU: They kept calling timeouts to try to freeze Anthony, and then the officials had to stop the clock for some reason, so he just sat on the floor! As soon as they were finally ready, he stood up and knocked them both down.
JT: You beat defending national champion UDC to win the title by slowing down the pace of the game over the final 10 minutes. Why did you use the slow-down strategy, and what did it mean to you to win the title?
JB: That was a strange game. UDC was great, as they had a future first-round draft choice on their team (Earl Jones). Our plan was to play very conservatively, so we pressed a little just to bother them not to gamble. We had the lead at halftime despite being a tremendous underdog. When we increased our lead to almost 10 points midway through the second half, Ralph turned to me and said that he was going to slow down the offense, but I thought it was too early to start doing that. We called a timeout, spread the court, and the UDC coach absolutely panicked and started yelling at his guys to start fouling us. We made our free throws, and it ended up being a blowout.
RU: It was not necessarily a slow-down strategy: we just quit running. I told my assistant that we were going to pull the cork on this, so we started running an offense called "Octopus" that just let us work the ball around the perimeter and take our time. Gary Monroe hit a ton of free throws in the second half. Everybody expected UDC to win, but our press bothered them a lot in the first half. Jim said it might be too early to start pressing, but I told him to try it and we would just see what happened.
JT: It was rumored that you had one of the highest budgets of any D-II school in the country, and you brought in guys from all over the country (whereas most other teams had predominantly local kids). How big was your budget, and how big an advantage was your ability to recruit nationally?
JB: I do not know how our budget compared with other programs, but we had a good budget. We were in a really good basketball location, so we sold out our gym for a lot of our games and won a lot of our games. We decided to go after carefully selected JC players. One advantage of D-II is that while the kids have to get a minimum number of credits, they do not have to graduate. Our best player on the 1983 team was tourney MOP Gary Monroe, who was a JC transfer who was unsure if he could graduate on time. Anthony was also a JC transfer, but he was a really good student. We never had a football team at Wright State, so spending money on recruiting or bringing in teams to play at our place was never something we had to worry about. Ralph was an unbelievable scheduler because he was so personable and had a lot of friends.
RU: When I got there they only had about 200 people attending games, but we later ended up getting over 2,000 people at our games. I do not think our budget was that much bigger: we just worked harder than everyone else. As a former high school coach, I had a lot of contacts that came in handy. We later recruited internationally to get guys like Vitaly Potapenko. I would also attend AAU tournaments in the summer in Las Vegas that featured 200-300 teams, but our basic area was Louisville and Lexington. We had great assistants (not just good ones) and our summer basketball camps were fantastic, which was good because I made more money from those than I did from my coaching salary!
JT: You played a series of games against European teams in 1984 (long before such collegiate off-season trips became common) where you befriended Vladimir Heger, the coach for the Czech national team who eventually helped you recruit Potapenko. What was the best part of the European trip, and where does Potapenko rank among the best players you ever coached?
JB: Ralph wanted to take a team to Europe, and had a good friend named George Spencer who brought foreign teams to the US for exhibition games. We raised $17,000 and had a phenomenal 24-day trip. The friendship with Vladimir just started by us mailing him some Street & Smith NBA yearbooks, and Vladimir told us that there were players in Europe who we could get. The first guy we ever signed was Mike Nahar from Holland. Vladimir sent us a fax about Vitaly, but when I called Vitaly's house a couple of times his mother answered the phone and did not speak any English, so I would just hang up. I looked around our campus to see if I could find anyone who spoke Russian, and after I failed I was able to find a woman at Dayton who said she could speak Russian and would be happy to help us make the call. Ralph took a red-eye flight to Kiev, and when he showed up at Vitaly's house, his dad brought out some vodka to welcome him. We went to the Dayton airport to go pick up Vitaly, and I saw a huge guy who I thought might have been an NBA player: it turned out to be him. He is by far the best player I ever coached, and he was also the hardest worker we had. I do not know if I would let my own kids go 5,000 miles away to a foreign country to play basketball, but he was obsessed with making it to the NBA. Last year he got hired as an assistant coach for the Pacers. If he was American, he would have been recruited by a big-time school like North Carolina or Kentucky, but back then we had no competition for him.
RU: In terms of big men, he has to be right at the top, but we had some great guards who also got drafted into the NBA. It was fun to just bond with the team, as there was no pressure to win the games. We would always beat the European teams when they played us in the US, but we would occasionally get spanked when we played in Europe because they would play at full-strength with a bunch of their all-stars.
JT: In 1991 your program went from an Independent to the MCC. How did you feel about the switch, and what was the biggest difference?
JB: We were kind of forced into it because we made the move to D-I. It was the right move, but the problem was that even though we had the talent we did not have all the necessary resources to compete with the other big schools in our neighborhood like Dayton and Xavier (who had secretaries, strength coaches, etc.). Ralph did not even have a contract for part of that time. Our AD might have just been spoiled by our success.
RU: We had played a lot of MCC teams while we were an Independent, so that was not a huge change for us. It helped us because we were able to schedule a lot of good non-conference games.
JT: What are your memories of the 1993 NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis (Calbert Cheaney had 29 points in 21 minutes in the Indiana victory)?
JB: That was a funny game. We went over to practice the night before the game, and took the court right after the Hoosiers practiced while there were well over 30,000 people who were still there. The score was not indicative of the game because we cleared our bench with 5 minutes left and Indiana made a run. It was a tremendous experience for our program and rewarding for our kids.
RU: Our star player Bill Edwards shot 6-23 FG that night, so that hurt us a bit. We were doing okay in the first half, but in the second half their subs beat the hell out of our subs. Our kids were not afraid of them, as we had played other big-time teams like Ohio State and Kentucky. Indiana was playing loosey-goosey because they had a huge home-court advantage.
JT: You allegedly came close to signing Dirk Nowitzki (who was scheduled to travel from Germany to visit Wright State with his family), but in 1996 you were fired after getting caught leaving a store with several bottles of vitamins in your pockets. How good would Nowitzki have been in the NCAA, and how did you feel about getting fired?
JB: Ralph called me from Europe and told me that he had just seen "the next Larry Bird". I had a couple of phone conversations with Dirk and he was very cordial, but just did not want to leave Germany. I remember watching the 1998 NBA draft, and when they announced Dirk's name I sat straight up in my chair and called Ralph to tell him. Milwaukee actually drafted Dirk, but when they were unable to sign him they ended up trading his rights to Dallas. Another time I got a call from an agent who wanted to find a school for Zydrunas Ilgauskas, as we were one of the few schools in the US that already had a Russian player on our roster. We started the paperwork, but Zydrunas broke his foot over the summer and never ended up coming to Wright State. We hired a new president, and when he heard that Ralph had gotten a DUI he tried to get rid of him so that he could hire a new coach. Ralph had just finished a preseason press conference and went to the store to get some supplements and other medicine. He purchased a few different things, and put some of them in his pocket and forgot to pay for them. From what I know of him, he would never knowingly steal anything.
In my opinion, Ralph got some bad advice from an attorney who told him not to talk to anyone. It gave the president a last straw to fire him, although Ralph ended up getting acquitted and settling with the store. I was named the replacement head coach, but did not have a great relationship with the AD, had an impossible schedule, and lost Vitaly to the draft, so we started three freshmen and won seven games during a miserable season. It was a terrible way for his career to end, but his positive attitude is the single most important reason why the program has reached such great heights today. We started out as the stepchild for Dayton and Miami (OH). Ralph had chances to leave before that, but never left and took them to a national level.
RU: We came a hair's breadth away from signing Dirk, as Coach Ben Braun was the only other guy recruiting him at that time. As soon as Germany moved Dirk up to the national team at age 18, that is when some of the bigger schools in the US started to take note. I think that if I had Vitaly and Zydrunas then I would have also gotten Dirk, but he decided to go pro instead. I backed my players so strongly over my 18 years there. I was never convicted of the crime. It was a hung jury. They hired someone to replace me on the same day they told me that I was innocent. It is something that I never like to look back on, as I was set up by a couple of security guards. The room they took me into had a sign that said cameras were always watching you, but the cameras did not work. I try not to have sour grapes about it. I have never had anything like that happen before or after, and I was upset that the new university president did not back me. I knew all the recruiting rules, and I never got in any trouble for recruiting.
JT: In 1999 a basketball club in Zagreb contacted you looking for an American coach to work with the staff of its youth teams, so you moved to Croatia and helped the boys' team win the Croatian club championship. Why did you decide to take the job, and is that the ultimate sign of a great coach?
JB: That all happened due to the relationships he developed when first recruiting Vitaly. They wanted him to keep coming back to Croatia, but he wanted to be with his daughters back in the US.
RU: I was friends with some of the Croatian coaches who had come to the US before to play. George Spencer convinced me to go, as he was a good friend of mine. They wanted me to show their guys how to implement a press, and their kids just took to it like ducks to water. A lot of those kids are now playing on senior teams in Croatia, and one went to Spain to play for $1 million. All the kids understood English and really loved America.
JT: Last spring you had your left leg amputated at mid-calf due to complications from diabetes. How is your recovery going so far?
JB: I talked with him after he first got home from the hospital. He goes to dialysis three times a week. Now that he spends his days in the wheelchair, he says he has gained a great appreciation for the obstacles that disabled people have to overcome. He has to wait for the amputation to heal before he can get a prosthetic leg, and he is still waiting to find a kidney donor.
RU: I slipped in the bathroom two winters ago and cut the bottom of my foot, but did not realize how bad it was at the time. They amputated my little toe to start, then the rest of my toes, then decided to cut off my leg at the calf. I spent 3½ months in the hospital, but I am now back at home. Once I am fully-healed, I will be able to get a prosthetic leg and then get a new kidney.
Coach Underhill is also on Jon's list of best coaches in Horizon League history.
Butler: Tony Hinkle (1926-1970) 558-394, 1 NCAA tourney, 3 conference titles
Cleveland State: Kevin Mackey (1983-1990) 142-69, 1 NCAA tourney, 2 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Detroit: Bob Calihan (1948-1969) 306-237, 1 NCAA tourney
Green Bay: Dick Bennett (1985-1995) 187-109, 3 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Illinois-Chicago: Jimmy Collins (1996-2010) 218-208, 3 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Loyola Chicago: George Ireland (1951-1975) 318-255, 4 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1 NCAA title
Valparaiso: Homer Drew (1988-2002, 2003-2011) 356-288, 7 NCAA tourneys, 8 conference titles, 4-time conference COY
Milwaukee: Rob Jeter (2005-present) 101-89, 1 NCAA tourney, 2 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
Wright State: Ralph Underhill (1978-1996) 356-162, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title, 1 D-2 title, 1-time national COY
Youngstown State: Mike Rice, Sr. (1982-1987) 75-67