Anyone familiar with the long history of basketball in the Bluegrass state surely knows the name of Gene Rhodes. One of the legendary names in Hilltopper lore, Rhodes established himself as one of the most successful and well-known basketball figures in the Commonwealth from the 1940′s to the 1970′s. Most impressively, he did it as both a player and coach and at all levels from high school to the pros.
Rhodes’ impressive resume begins at Louisville Male High where his team captured the 1945 Kentucky state championship and where he was named to the Courier-Journal All-State teams in both 1945 and 1946. In 1946, Rhodes was also a member of the Kentucky All-Star team that defeated the Indiana squad in the annual series. After a two year stint in the Army he began a lifelong love affair with the Hill in 1948 when he accepted Coach E.A. Diddle’s offer to play basketball for the powerhouse Hilltopper squads of the late 1940′s and early 1950′s. It was in Bowling Green that Rhodes’ leadership abilities, both on and off the court, really began to emerge as he became one of the most popular students and most successful athletes on the Western campus during his four year career.
As a freshman, Rhodes played in 24 of 29 games and scored 118 points as he backed up Hilltopper All-American guard John Oldham. Becoming a starter during his sophomore season, he started every game (91) for the remaining three years of his career on the Hill. And although Rhodes became best known as a defensive specialist and a consummate team player, he was also a dangerous offensive threat averaging 8.9 points per game over his career while becoming only the fifth Hilltopper at the time to score over 1,000 pts. finishing with a career total of 1,029. In 1952, he was named to the All-OVC team, the OVC All-Tournament team and was selected as the Toppers’ MVP.
The teams that Rhodes was such an integral part of were also extremely successful as the Hilltopper squads from 1949-52 posted a combined record of (95-25) and participated in three NIT Tournaments (1949, ’50, & ’52) and the Bradley National Campus Tourney in 1951. In addition to his successful basketball career on the Hill, Rhodes was also a standout pitcher for four years on Coach Diddle’s baseball teams. His success and popularity wasn’t restricted to athletic endeavors however, as Rhodes was selected as a Campus Favorite in 1949, 1950 and 1951, and Talisman King and Senior Class Vice-President in 1952. It was said that when Rhodes was introduced before his final home game in 1952, that he received the most tremendous ovation any Hilltopper had ever been given by the hometown fans as they stood and cheered the senior guard for a full five minutes. And when he was removed from the game near the end another wild ovation erupted causing the game to be momentarily stopped.
Upon graduation, he was drafted by the NBA’s Indianapolis Olympians where he played the 1952-53 season. Once his playing days were over Rhodes began a highly successful coaching career that started at the high school level and led all the way to the professional ranks. In 1954, Rhodes took over as head coach at Louisville’s St. Xavier High School where in 1958, he led his team to the Kentucky state championship. From 1954-61 his St. X squads posted a combined record of (149-54). In 1962, Rhodes moved back to his high school alma mater as he became the head coach at Louisville Male. Coaching at Male for two seasons his teams went (42-14) losing a controversial regional final game to Wes Unseld’s eventual state champion Louisville Seneca team in 1964. Rhodes’ efforts didn’t go unnoticed however, as he was named Kentucky’s basketball “Coach of the Year” by the Courier-Journal in that same year. For his high school coaching career, Rhodes’ teams won 191 games and lost 68 for a .737 percentage. He was also given the honor of coaching the Kentucky All-Star squads in the 1959 and 1960 series with Indiana.
Rhodes left the high school coaching ranks in 1964 when his friend and former teammate John Oldham was named as the successor to the retiring E.A. Diddle at Western. Rhodes and another former Hilltopper, Buck Sydnor, were chosen by Oldham to be his assistants and right hand men as they re-built the Hilltopper program into a national power. From 1964-1968, Rhodes was a vital cog in the coaching and recruiting of such Hilltopper legends as Clem Haskins, Dwight and Greg Smith, Jim McDaniels, Clarence Glover and many others. During that four year period the Toppers posted a record of (84-22) and participated in two NCAA Tournaments (1966 & 67) and one NIT Tournament (1965). And were it not for the infamous jump ball call versus Michigan in the 1966 NCAA Tourney and Clem Haskins’ broken wrist late in 1967, the Hilltoppers could very possibly have walked away with two NCAA titles. After four years as an assistant Rhodes was eager to become a head coach again and in 1968, the opportunity arrived when he was hired to be the second ever head coach of the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels (replacing Johnny Givens, another former Hilltopper player). For five years Rhodes coached the Colonels and was instrumental in the development of the franchise as one of the most successful and popular in the ABA.
Upon leaving coaching, Rhodes stayed in Louisville and began a long, successful career in sales. He remains in the Louisville area today but his love for the Hill has never waned and in 1998 Gene Rhodes was inducted into the Western Kentucky University Athletics Hall of Fame. This phone interview was conducted on July 3, 2002 and has been transcribed for the most part in its entirety.
HH: Where are you originally from?
GR: I was actually born in St. Louis but I moved to Louisville when I was six years old.
HH: When did you really become seriously involved with basketball?
GR: Well, I went through the parochial system here in Louisville and they had a very structured program, all of the parishes played each other on weekends and I had two older brothers and they both loved athletics and sports and of course I’m tailing along with them wanting to play all the time. So, gosh I must have started when I was 8 or 10 years old.
HH: Well, you played at Louisville Male, right?
GR: Yes, I played high school ball at Louisville Male High School. I started in ’44 and graduated in 1946. We had a good run of athletes back in those days. Of course Ralph Beard the All-American from kentucky was a year ahead of me. And we had really good football teams….basketball teams…track, baseball…in those days we played all of them.
HH: Now you won the state championship as a junior right?
GR: When I was a junior in 1945 we won the state high school basketball tournament. Paul Jenkins was our coach and one of the guys that I know Mr. Diddle said was probably overall as good or as great an athlete that he ever had in all sports was Harry “Pap” Glenn, was an assistant coach on that team and the head baseball coach.
HH: Do you remember very much about your high school stats?
GR: Probably as a junior I averaged 10 or 12 pts. a game. At my size surprisingly I played inside. We had small teams but quick teams and probably averaged maybe 8 or 9 rebounds a game. My senior year I probably averaged 17 pts. per game, something like that, but you know they didn’t score back then like they have in the last 20 years or maybe 30.
HH: You were All-State in 1945 and ’46 right?
GR: I was All-State in both 1945 and in 1946. We also won in 1944, my sophomore year, we were state champs in baseball. I remember we beat a very good Harlan, Kentucky team in the finals in Lexington featuring Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones.
HH: Tell me a little bit about the recruiting process for you.
GR: Well, I went to your web site and read many of the stories of the fellas that you had interviewed previously and they all talked extensively, or somewhat, about Coach Diddle and how he recruited them and maybe they were looking at another place to go…it was funny, I always had a love affair with Western Kentucky….from gosh, when I was in grade school. There’s something magic about the Hilltoppers….and I probably had to sell myself to Mr. Diddle more than he sold me on Western (Laughs). But he did talk to me and followed me….he used to write me. I lost two years after high school in the service and I started down there at Western in ’49, so Coach stayed in touch with me, but I really kind of had to sell him more than he really sold me because I wasn’t one of the big names to be recruited.
HH: Did you have very many other offers?
GR: Oh yes. There were probably a half a dozen schools that talked to me. I remember Vanderbilt really made a big pitch for me but as I said, I just really had this love affair with Western. I knew quite a few people that I had gone to school with at Male High and I visited down there and it just had a strong pull for me.
HH: Well, you played as a freshman at Western right?
GR: I played as a freshman except I remember…there was another fella, Jack Turner, who was a freshman there with me from Bedford, Indiana…a very good player, and I remember we didn’t get to play in the NIT that year when they played Bradley in a very high scoring ball game. I don’t remember totally the circumstances, but the NCAA did not allow freshmen to play at that level but I did play in a lot of ball games that year.
HH: Of course most people don’t realize today that the NIT was really the big tournament back then.
GR: The NIT was really the prestige tournament in those days. And Mr. Diddle and Coach Hornback and Kelly Thompson, later president of WKU, was an assistant to the president and functioned probably as the business manager for athletics and the publicity man….in those days I think he wore a lot of hats, but he was very good at public relations and they had an awfully good “in” with Ned Irish and the Madison Square Garden people and Western always put on a good show up there and the crowd really liked them.
HH: What was it like playing for Mr. Diddle and Coach Hornback?
GR: Well, as many of the people again referenced in your past interviews talking in terms of Coach Hornback being the X and O man on the floor, and he did conduct most of the practices….those two men had, I thought, a wonderful relationship and I realized it even more after I got out and got into coaching. And when I went on the college level, I found out as an assistant coach exactly the demands that were on a head coach. So Coach Diddle being the great PR guy….public relations man, he had to tend to a lot of things, so Coach Hornback being a very knowledgable man and a very loyal man to Coach Diddle, usually conducted the practice sessions and went over scouting reports and assigned the defensive alignments that we we were going to use and those kind of things. But Coach was a man that you laughed at, you respected, you grew to love him…and probably didn’t totally appreciate him until you got out of there and took your bumps. Mr Diddle used to say that I wish everybody that played for me could spend one year coaching and then come in and play…he said they’d understand a lot (Laughs).
HH: Well, the teams you played on were some of the best teams in Western history.
GR: We really did have some good clubs. My first year down there of course John Oldham, an All-American, was a senior and Bob Lavoy was a heckuva player….Buddy Cate, John Givens, Mr. Diddle’s son Eddie Jr. was playing…Rip Gish, then the next year, my sophomore year, we had another really good ball club. My junior year was probably the poorest of the four years. And then my senior year when Tom Marshall and Art Spoelstra and Dan King and that bunch were sophomores, Dick White was a junior, he played the other guard with me….as a matter of fact I was the only senior on the ball club, Jack Turner had gotten drafted and had to leave to school. Of course he came back and finished up later with Marshall and Dan and Art Spoelstra and that bunch. But yes indeed, we did have really good ball clubs in that era.
HH: I think if I got my math right you had like 95 wins and 25 losses….
GR: I guess that sounds right and I think that the large majority of those (losses) came in that junior year when we were down a little bit.
HH: Yeah, 19-10 that year, so ten of those 25 losses were in that one year. You also played with some of the all-time greats here…Lavoy, Oldham, Tom, Spoelstra….
GR: Yes. I had the privilege of playing with some really good ball players. Now, the one thing that I could do was get the ball to the people who could score with it and run the floor. And I would have to say this, and I really learned the importance of this later when I coached high school ball for many years and then I came to Western as John Oldham’s assistant when Mr. Diddle retired……coaches are dying for a player that can play defense and I still think, and I’ve said this to many young guys, you have a better chance of getting playing time if you can guard somebody. There’s going to be enough good shooters but somebody can go out there and take the guy that’s the ace on the other club, or one of them, and do what they term a respectable job, and that’s really how I earned my playing time, particularly early on with Coach Diddle.
HH: If you had to choose, who would you say was maybe the best player you played with? Tom maybe or Lavoy?
GR: Well, I’d say….natural talent all the way around I’d have to say it would be Marshall. Now you might have to back a little of his defense out of there (Laughs). Tom had so much natural talent, and so you like to say, ‘Gee, I’d like to be in his body and have that kind of talent just one night to see how it feels.’ But Lavoy was a really fine ballplayer and of course John O was a super good ballplayer. We just had a lot of guys that balanced out the program, balanced out the team, that didn’t put it up there everytime. So, we just really had some good ball clubs and there was some outstanding players, but when you take the physical build, the natural shooting ability, the running, the jumping…you have to like Marshall.
HH: I know it was pretty disappointing to go the NIT all those years and always seem to come up just short, a lot of bad breaks and everything…..are there any special memories you have of those NIT games? I think Tom was telling me that playing against louisville (1952 NIT) they undercut him during the game and it injured his knee and then he had to set out the next game and you guys lost by one point…..
GR: Yeah, in my senior year I was the only senior on the ball club. Of course Tom and Dan King and Art Spoelstra were all young guys and Dick White was a junior. You know, we drew louisville in the first round of the NIT that year and they had a good ballclub….Goose Brown and a bunch of good players. Actually Frosty Able played as a freshman and was a regular on that team before he transferred down to Western. But we beat ‘em up there in Madison Square Garden and then I think St. Bonaventure beat us by one point in the next game. And I really thought that team was jelling and coming along. But sure, coupled with your wins, there were always some bitter disappointments in losing. I remember one year, my sophomore year, we had beaten Eastern Kentucky convincingly twice, at home and away. And we were playing them in the finals up there in Louisville in the tournament and they upset us….but they had a good ball club and you know, sometimes the percentage works against you and perhaps maybe we weren’t mentally as prepared as we should have been for the ball game, but you don’t forget those…you don’t forget those tough losses.
HH: Do you have an favorite story about Coach Diddle that isn’t maybe as widely known as some of the others?
GR: Well, most of the ones I ‘ve seen quoted are pretty much the ones that have been around. I remember actually more probably from baseball. I played baseball under Coach Diddle and he was much more relaxed and loose in baseball. You know when you travel in basketball you normally only spoke to the person sitting next to you but on the bus in baseball you could cut up….Mr. Diddle would cut up with you, not that he wasn’t serious about winning, but it was just a more relaxed….it didn’t equate out to the importance of basketball of course. Which all people there in Warren Co. I guess and surrounding counties it’s a live and die situation (Laughs). But Coach Diddle, I remember he spent more time chasing down baseballs, he was a conservative kind of fella, and somebody would foul a ball back over the backstop and he’d almost stop the ballgame…there would be runners on base and a crucial time in the game and he’d have a couple of freshman basketball players running down the baseballs (Laughs). I can still hear him, “Hold up, hold up son. Get that ball, get that ball.” It was almost like it was the only ball in the game (Laughs). And I remember those uniforms that we used to wear in baseball….I think that’s what they did with surplus WWII blankets….they made the Western baseball uniforms out of them (Laughs). That wool was so hot and we’d play on those hot days….Mr. Diddle would have a sweatshirt on and have a baseball shirt on and he’d have a jacket over that and a hat pulled way down close to his eyebrows and he’d just be sweating (Laughs)….and we’d just look at Coach Diddle and think, you know, Casey Stengel or somebody like that (Laughs). I just remember all of those kind of posturing things about Coach……I had a good relationship with Ted Hornback, we always talked a lot…….and Mr. Diddle knew that I left everything in me on the floor. He didn’t have to get after me too much like he did some of the big old boys. Some of the big guys he’d walk in on them and they’re eating a big plateful with sideboards, you know, and he’d say, “Son, you think you’re on an eating scholarship.” Then he always used that one about the big old boys not getting up and down the floor….he said, “You’re worse than smoke coming off the dump,” You know, if you’ve ever seen that old spiraling smoke come off of a dump burn…..but Coach and I had many talks, he helped me get my first coaching job and I remember that and how kind he was and what a great endorsement he gave me. But I will say that my point production wasn’t always up to what many of the players that were fortunate to play there, but Coach Diddle knew I gave him everything and I left it all on the floor.
HH: Well, you’re in the 1,000 club, so you scored your share of points.
GR: Well, when you’ve got guys that I was fortunate to play with that could put it in the hoop maybe they gave me a little distance and I got to sneak a few extra shots every now and then.
HH: You’re ranked 31st all-time. 1,029 pts.
GR: Okay. I guess that’s respectable. But I started playing right away even as a freshman, I wasn’t starting but I did get my playing time. And of course I missed two years of school in the army after I got out of Male high school in Louisville. They were still drafting back there after the end of World War 2 and of course I was moaning and groaning about everybody going on to college and here I was stuck in the service, but in 1950, about the beginning of my junior year….the Korean War, they were pulling them out of Western. They got Jack Turner eventually.
HH: Did Jack actually see combat in Korea?
GR: Now, I don’t know. I don’t know that part. I know he missed what would have been senior year along with me but then he came back the next year, I believe it was the next year, and played, or maybe it was Marshall, Spoelstra and King’s senior year, when they were just really loaded for bear. Frosty Able had transferred and was playing. They really had some great clubs then.
HH: I guess going into the army for two years really helped you mature a lot and helped your career somewhat?
GR: Well, perhaps it did certainly. We played around the country and there were a lot of good players in the service and we played in tournaments and yeah, you’d have to say it matured me…..and it probably stabilized me from the standpoint of saying, “Hey, I need to work a little bit harder in school if I’m going to college.” You know, that type of thing. Because normally the freshman year in college the kid comes down maybe 17 or 18 years old and starts seeing that free time, you know three classes per day here, two the next day and it’s easy to fall into a trap that first semester in college particularly. So, I didn’t have to look at that because……Mr. Diddle would scare you for one thing. If you didn’t get your grades, if you didn’t go to class…..hard times were coming.
HH: Did you pretty much have an idea all along that you wanted to go into coaching?
GR: No. Actually, that’s a good question. I really didn’t. One year I played professionally and then the next year they had a dispersal draft, the Indianapolis team went out of business and I was picked up by Milwaukee and I went up there and lasted all through camp but then I got cut on it. And I came back to Louisville and I pretty much said, “Well, my ball playing days are over. What am I going to do?” And Trinity high school here in Louisville….they’re of course a powerhouse today in football. They were just starting that year with a freshman class and I ran into the priest one day and he said, “Why don’t you come out here and coach our freshman team and teach some phys ed classes. We can pay you this amount and that amount and perhaps it may help you make up your mind what you want to do” And I got into it and I still didn’t really know but the next year the job at St. Xavier….St. X High School in Louisville opened up and they offered it to me and I said, “Well, I’m going to take it and see what I can do with it.” And even in those early years I really didn’t know if that was what I wanted to do. I know at one time in that first year I had it at St. X….we were something like 7-7 and I said, “What in the world am I doing in this business?” And it was really frustrating but we finished up like 15-8 and went on and upset a very good Male high school team that year and won the regional, went to the state tournament and won a ball game and I think I pretty much got hooked by that time. But no, I really kind of got into it sideways. I wasn’t one of those guys that said, “Gee, I knew way back when that that’s all I wanted to do.”
HH: Well, you coached for seven years at St. X right? And you won the state championship in ’58?
GR: We won a state championship in 1958….
HH: Did you have any players on that team that went on to have good college careers?
GR: We had an all-state guard, Eddie Schnurr, who was really a good ball player. Smart, good passer, one of the last of the two-hand set shooters. Eddie went on to play at Notre Dame and the rest of the kids played at smaller universities. We didn’t have what you would term a “Can’t Miss” college prospect on my team, just kind of blue-collar “diggers”. That type of thing, they were a very, very special bunch.
HH: So you retired there in ’61? Then you sat out a year?
GR: Then I sat out a year. I had a few conflicts there with the powers that be and I took the job with Male, I knew I was going to stay in coaching, and Male being my alma mater I went over there and stayed over there a couple of years. And the second year we had a really good ballclub…..lost a heartbreaking final game in the regional finals to Wes Unseld and the bunch at Seneca High School….they went on to win it that year. So, that maxed out my high school career. And then of course Mr. Diddle retired and John (Oldham) took over and he came to see me one day and offered me a spot on his team.
HH: Did you have any thoughts of coaching at Western one day before that happened?
GR: Uhhhh, no, really not. I didn’t have a lot of time to think, you know. Obviously I was a very, very loyal Western guy and always followed with a great deal of interest and talked to guys and tried to get down to Bowling Green when I could, but no it never entered my mind that I’d have a shot at coaching. I wondered….I knew Mr. Diddle….the years were coming on and he was having some physical problems and probably that he’d be stepping down. I speculated who would get the job and even thought about John and I said, “John would be a natural for the job.” And he did take it of course.
HH: Did you have any second thoughts about taking the job once it was offered to you?
GR: No, I really didn’t. I had reached the point in my high school career that I felt like I had accomplished most everything that I could. And you know, the thought was, “Well, I’d like to move to the college level.” And this would be a really good opportunity for me to work with a friend and a mentor like John Oldham and that I knew I had to pay a price of coaching as an assistant and then probably start keeping my eyes open for my own head job.
HH: Well, when you returned to the Hill that was when Clem and Dwight and those guys first started, so you helped coach some of the best teams and players in Western history.
GR: I’ll tell you, I learned a lot and I think any high school guy moving up needs to be an assistant coach. Because the area of responsibilities…..and it’s very, very difficult, you don’t get to spend a lot of time on the practice floor. John wanted me to sort of coordinate the recruiting and the scouting. Buck Sydnor, a very, very fine man, was the other assistant to John Oldham and Buck coached the freshman team. And my big responsibilty was as I said, coordinating recruiting. Not that I did all of the recruiting, but I would follow along and do whatever a recruiter does, you know, phone calls, newspapers, talk to graduates, go and see kids play. And I might say to Buck Sydnor or to John, “I would like for you to take a look at this kid whenever you can, and here’s their schedule and they play on this night.” And I learned what a massive job recruiting is. And of course it’s your lifeblood. And I used to talk to John Oldham and to Dero Downing, who was sort of our contact to the president and the regents…..that it was really difficult having some teaching responsibilities that we did and still get out on the road to spend the time that so many of the other colleges……you know, when you recruit you need to take a week if you’re going to take a swing through Indiana and Ohio or even in Kentucky where you can be gone and not have to go and see a kid play one night and then drive back to Bowling Green and get back at 2:00 in the morning and have to get up for a 7:30 or 7:40 class or something like that. It was just really difficult to compete, particularly with your major schools. And eventually they got away from that I know….but times change, but that’s what we were saddled with in those days.
HH: You did a heckuva job though with the players that you brought in.
GR: I was a much younger man. I could take those long hours back in those days (Laughs).
HH: Speaking of recruiting, I heard a story that Unseld actually wanted to come to Western but louisville kind of made it…..impossible to turn them down sort of.
GR:Well, you know, I’d say Wes Unseld…..I know that Butch Beard over there at Breckinridge Co. who ended up at louisville….you know, they had an interest…..Jefferson Co. is just full of Western Kentucky University graduates, teaching in the school system and probably there at Seneca High School where Wes was. And certainly over there at Hardinsburg. But louisville had……they had a lot of assets that they could bring to the table. Things that we didn’t have and things that we couldn’t do…..and that’s enough said about that.
HH: Well, I guess you had two teams there, ’66 and ’67 both, that really had chances to win it all. In ’66 there was the Michigan game and then in ’67 there was Clem’s broken wrist.
GR: You know, that today…..often times, in quiet time you go back and reflect upon playing days and coaching days…..that was one of the toughest, most difficult, most disappointing things that could have happened to that ball club. Clem broke that navicular bone in his hand, he had a cast on for I don’t remember how long, but naturally there was some atrophy in the arm and when Clem took that cast off and tried to play…..I think Dayton beat us in Lexington on a sudden death shot at the end. And as the saying goes, Clem was just a shell of himself. It was like he was afraid to stick that arm out. He was so good at going up there and grabbing the rebound at about 6′ 4″ or 6′ 3″ and being halfway up the court while the big guys are still standing underneath the basket. And he was such a threat at shooting the ball on the break, such a threat that when you challenged him on the floor he could pass….the guys on the team knew if they ran and got open Clem would get the ball to them. But yeah, that was one of the most disappointing things that I was ever associated with…..such a great player and such a great guy….and we had just really a good, good ball club. And that’s the year Dayton went on to be the runner-up to UCLA in the finals of the NCAA Tournament….and we could have easily been there. But those things happen, you don’t know why they happen…..
HH: Well, the year before was almost as bad wasn’t it? With the jump ball?
GR: Well, (Laughs) as I tell people sometimes when they mention that, I say, “Gosh, I thought all the bleeding was over but the wound is still open.” (Laughs) everytime that ballgame comes up because……ohhh, in so many ways, that game was so important to us….the result should have been that we won the ball game but I won’t go into those circumstances, I think everybody knows what happened. But our university, we all know….those of us that played there, or went to school or have been associated with it, we love the university…..but when you go up against a so-called “big marquee”, the “big-image” schools, you know, the Michigans, the Big 10, the SEC…..we don’t always get a crack at ‘em you know, when we’ve got those good ball clubs, they don’t normally want to play. But the next day we would have gotten a shot at uk, and I think it was rupp’s runts and we matched up really well against them and I think we would have beaten that ball club. We ran a lot better than they did, but it would have meant so much, the prestige to our university….to be on national television, the image would have been enhanced with potential recruits, just so many things and it was a gut-wrenching loss…..a theft (Laughs).
HH: Theft, yeah. But still, back in those days we had pretty much a big name though didn’t we?
GR: Well, we did….certainly in our part of the country. And we had a lot of respect from coaches and teams that we had played and defeated but you know….we weren’t on national television and we didn’t always make the big markets…..Chicago, New York, Los Angeles….those types of things. And I reduce it so much down to…..my big assignment, that I mentioned, was the recruiting….what it would have done to open doors to some of the highly rated, highly recruited players….but nothing’s for sure. But I know it would have really, really brought us to another dimension, another plateau…
HH: Speaking of the Michigan game, in watching the video even before that jump ball there were two or three calls that went against us that were kind of ridiculous too.
GR: Well, yes. But this one to me was so obvious. And so many people said the same thing. I had never seen that call before and have never seen it since. When a referee tosses the ball and he thinks that one of the two people jumping has an edge he simply blows his whistle and tosses it again. That takes the heat off of him and he feels like that’s fair. Particularly in a game of that importance.
HH: Something was going on.
GR: Well…..we don’t know. We just……a loss is a loss and all we could do was hang our heads and walk off. But it was very, very difficult. Very difficult.
HH: But as bad as those things were without a doubt the worst thing was losing Dwight the next year?
GR: Oh yeah, yeah……just a terrible, terrible tragedy. Dwight Smith would have made a REALLY good pro player. He had the size, he had the agility, he could run the floor, shoot the ball and guard somebody. He just really had a good package going for him…..and had the personality and a competitive spirit to go on to that next level. And that’s one of the scars of those of us who were actively involved and worked with kids like that every day, that’s still one of the scars that we bear. You know, you question and wonder why….I mean WHY?? But in life we never do figure out a lot of things.
HH: Yeah, most people you talk to say that he probably would have made a better pro than even Clem.
GR: Yeah, yes. I think probably he would have. Yes. Clem was not a natural guard to play out front.
HH: I guess he was sort of a “tweener” in the pros?
GR: Kind of a tweener. That small forward they talk about. Dwight was a natural guard at 6′ 4″ I believe, 6′ 5″? And early on in his time I don’t think they really had that many guards, you know today they’re 6′ 9″ playing out there, but he would have been a natural to fit in with a ball club. A very humble guy. He’d have been a sweetheart. I wish we’d had him at the Colonels in those early years.
HH: I guess you helped to recruit McDaniels and all that bunch and then you decided to leave and go to the Colonels….
GR: Well, as I said, my recruiting…..it was my assignment to coordinate it. Johnny Oldham…..John really personally handled the McDaniels case. He knew a lot of the people and got involved early, but we were fortunate that year to sign the guys….Glover and Rose and those kids. We brought in a good bunch to play that year and I left I think that Fall, maybe like September of their freshman school year to take over the Colonels. And getting back again to coaching…Johnny Oldham was still a young man and John was going to coach for many more years and I, quite frankly, yearned to have my own head coaching job. And when this opened up…..and financially it was such a boost for me salary-wise to what I was making at Western and it just had a lot of ingredients….returning to Louisville where certainly I knew a lot of people. And I didn’t know where the league was going but I thought it was an opportunity and so that’s why I accepted the job.
HH: You took over for another former Hilltopper, Johnny Givens, right?
GR: I took over for John Givens. I played two years there with John and with a new squad John just ran into some bad luck early and I just think the owners for some reason pushed the panic button and I never did really get to talk to Johnny at length about it but if you’re in the coaching industry…..unfortunately those things happen. Probably there’s not a person that hasn’t gotten it around the neck at some time or the other if they’ve stayed in coaching long enough.
HH: So how long did you coach the Colonels? Was it three years or four years?
GR: Let’s see, I coached them four years. I think I was in my fifth year when I met that fate. I used to tell people before they remodeled Freedom Hall, they have those big girders hanging up in there, and there was a rope with a jagged edge and I was hanging at the end of it at one time. But it was a learning experience. I had the privilege of working with some good Western people…..Bobby Rascoe and Darel Carrier were two of the nicest people a coach would ever want on his ball club. Louie Dampier was another fine player out of the university of kentucky. He and Darel of course led the league in three-point shooting which was a very creative, innovative thing that was exciting. And each year the franchise in Louisville gained a little prestige, a little more momentum, a little impetus. You had to sell season tickets. You’ve got to get people in those seats and gradually the club improved a lot. And just looking at the big picture, maybe jumping ahead….later on when John Y. Brown owned it and they won the championship that year…..then of course John just sort of lost his interest and he really wasn’t really making any money and that bothered him. And it’s too bad that they couldn’t have found some more investors at that time to put the club into the NBA because I am very, very convinced that our club, an NBA club in Louisville at that time would have been very successful. There were four clubs from the league, when the league disbanded, that went into the NBA….Indianapolis, Jersey, Denver and San Antonio. And we could have been as successful as any of those franchises. We had a solid base of season ticket holders, the media knew us….industry, the business climate was really starting to support the effort. You had big name players that could have really taken the thing up to the next level….but as they say, it’s all history. And when the interest in the NBA came up again recently by building a major arena downtown, I was very doubtful that they could ever recover and regain the empatis that they once had. Maybe they can some year I really don’t know, but that’s my personal feeling. It was really on the go in those day when the league disbanded.
HH: Well, when Coach Oldham retired in ’71 I know you applied for the head coaching job here. Do you maybe have any regrets now of taking the Colonels job because you would have been in line for his job?
GR: Well, I’ve never spent a lot of time truthfully thinking about that. However, a person does reflect on something like that. The variables that existed…..I never knew how long Johnny was going to coach…….certainly he was the only man that could really successfully have followed Uncle Ed Diddle and keep that great tradition going. The players loved him, they loved to play for him, he was a great guy to work for or with. And you know, I just really didn’t know what was going to happen……I guess I kind of burned my bridges when I left down there….not intentionally, at least I did with certain people, certain influential people…..and I knew I’d really never get a crack at it again.
HH: I know a lot of people that I’ve talked to would have liked for you to have gotten the job.
GR: That’s very nice of the people. The greatest people in the world live there in Bowling Green and Warren County and the surrounding counties and I consider it a major influence in the experience of my life to have gone to Western, to have met so many really outstanding people…..students, business people, everybody that lived in the community that lived and died for Western Kentucky. It was just one of those experiences that doesn’t come along very often and I appreciate the feelings that many people had for me…..but it was just one of those things that was not going to be……so, that’s all history. There’s not many ancient history scholars around any more.
HH: Going back again to Coach Diddle….I know there was always a thing between Coach Diddle and rupp going all the way back to the 1930′s about how rupp and uk kind of looked down on him and Western….what are your thoughts on that?
GR: Well, I think you had a very similar situation there. I’m told by Ralph Beard and Alex Groza and many other players that played up at uk that Harry Lancaster was a strong, strong influence in the technique and on the floor coaching to coach rupp as Ted Hornback was to Coach Diddle. Both of these men apparently had trusted an assistant, associate coaches, they knew their capabilities, they relied on them because there was always a lot of public relations and reasons that perhaps they couldn’t devote every day the way they did. I think that if Coach Diddle had had as much national exposure as coach rupp, and Coach Diddle did get a lot, but I don’t think he got as much as coach rupp. But we always felt like that if we had an opportunity to play kentucky that we would really have an opportunity to compete with them….and people that played at uk knew that. Those years that Clem played and Dwight and all of those guys, Chapman…..I’ve talked to some of the uk players, they didn’t want any part of us. They did not want any part of us. If they had played maybe like they do today, if uk….I don’t know if they’ll condescend to play Western today or Eastern or Murray or Morehead or whatever, but they would have taken some hits.
HH: I think they would have probably taken as many from us as they would have given us.
GR: That debate I guess will go on but again those of who were close to the situation and had opportunities to talk to other people and opportunities to evaluate the two programs knew that we could compete with them, maybe not every year because they had certain……once again they had certain recruiting essentials that were there for them that we could not match.
GR: Well…(Laughs) Yeah. That can sway a lot of people. When Wah Wah (Jones) and Ralph (Beard) played on that Kentucky HS All-Star team in ’45 and were down in Bowling Green for a week they absolutely, really fell in love with Western. But they both told me, particularly Ralph, that boy they were pretty close to signing with Western. Probably if Coach Diddle could have kept them down there for a little while longer and introduced them to a little pretty Warren Co. lady they might have stayed, but they didn’t, but they were close.
HH: Well, after you got out of coaching what did you?
GR: When I got out of coaching I went into sales. I primarily went to work for Josten’s, everybody knows them as the ring people, class rings. I worked primarily in a business division that they had. I didn’t work in what was called scholastics. I worked in a division that dealt with companies and in the business climate. And you’re an independent contractor, it’s like running a small business. And that suited me, that suited my personality….you know, not working in an environment with a lot of structure and people. If it was going to be it was up to me, so you put a lot of hours in, you’re on the street during the day and at night you had to do your paperwork and write your orders, do your preparations……but that’s where coaching helped me, you know, recruiting helped me, working all of those hours. So, we built that endeavor up to where it was really financially good to me and I had some freedom in there. I did a little scouting for some of the pro teams, I’d go see college games, mostly at Freedom Hall or Lexington. I kept my hand in there and…..oh, about four years ago I just kind of grew weary of the pace and with the years coming on I thought I’d just like to throttle back a little bit and take her easy. But I still work some in sales, I have a little company of my own that I handle some products. Working the schoolhouses up here today and with some other companies….enough to pay a few bills and keep me active, but I don’t hit the floor running every day like I used to, like I did for probably forty years.
HH: Do you still try and keep up with basketball and Western in particular?
GR: Oh yeah. Of course television makes it so convenient and I was just so delighted that Louisville picked up the Hilltopper Network and I was able to see Western play a half a dozen times and I guess the ladies three or four times. There’s a LOT of Western people up in this area. And I hope that the present coaching staff down there will keep looking at some of these kids up here in Louisville and Jefferson County and right over here in southern Indiana. Because there’s a lot of good players come out of here. You don’t always get the players that average 30 and 40 points per game but the competition is so tough up here and you get a kid that’s averaging 14 or 15 is sound and solid. I hope they will continue to…….I don’t know how active they are recruiting this area. I’m kind of out of the loop in that standpoint. I don’t know many of the high school coaches other than Lloyd Gardner, who was our manager down there at Western during those Clem days. He’s coaching at Fairdale. But I go to see a few ball games, but I make the LIT Tournament, which is maybe the first or second week in January, and there you can see a lot of good teams play. And then I make Lloyd Gardner’s tournament out at Fairdale during the Christmas holidays. But yes, I really do enjoy it. Of course college and pro ball…..I’m not that big of a pro fan any more but I love college basketball and it is so nice to be able to sit back and just see it on television in the privacy of your home. If I go to a game and I sit in the stands, you know how excited people can get when things don’t go well….everybody turns into a coach and they start barking at everybody and I don’t want to hear that. I’d just as soon sit at home and watch it on television.
HH: When’s the last time you made it down to a game in Diddle Arena?
GR: You know, I haven’t been to Diddle Arena in years. And I can’t tell you the last time I saw a game…..actually I saw the ladies play…..my good friend Bob Tincher there in Bowling Green, who is a Male High grad also, married a Bowling Green lady and made himself a very comfortable man through his own initiative. Bob took me……he was a big supporter, maybe still is, of the ladies program. But I don’t know, the logistics, the difference in the time, I just haven’t been down, and seeing them play on television kind of satisfied me. But I’m hoping….I would love to get back down for a little reunion sometime with some of the guys that I played with. We could get Tom Marshall and Spoelstra, Dan King….of course Dick White is gone, Monie Beard is gone, but some of those guys that played….I would love to come down and combine it with seeing Western play and have a little reunion with those guys. Tell some lies and all those kinds of things that go with it.
HH: Of course we’re going to have the arena most of the way renovated and we’re going to have a great team, this season would be a great time to come back.
GR: Well, I really will try this year. I have to admit…I’ve been out of Western for 50 years and they’ll be having some kind of get together for the 50 Year club and I’ll probably make that but I think that’s during football season.
HH: Tom has told me that he’s really thinking about coming back for a visit again this season…..
GR: I told you earlier that….I know Tom experienced some perceived alienation from the Hill and you told me about how you basically helped get him involved and back again….and I don’t know anything in the background of it…..I would love to see Tom. He was such a great player and I’m very guarded when I say “great players” but Tom really was a great player.
HH: He was up here for his jersey retirement about 2 1/2 years ago and that was the first time he had been back since….over forty years I guess, but he really had a great time.
GR: Good. That’s great. Because even today I dislike so strongly to hear an individual say, “I didn’t enjoy my high school years or I didn’t enjoy my college years,” and I say, “What, what? Are you kidding me?” Those were the greatest years of MY life and I think of most people. My high school years were precious and my years at Western, I’ve already said, were just such a special time in my life, I can’t think of anything else that made such an impact in the total picture. You know, being able to play, just being on campus and the Spirit and fellow students, all the nice people living there in Bowling Green and Warren County and surrounding counties. Being out fifty years….it’s hard to believe but I can still remember….nothing wrong with my mind, all the great experiences that I had there. There might be people that enjoyed their time more than I did at Western or as much, but I don’t know…..I’ll put my zeal up there with anybody. Again, I can’t emphasize….I’m a very sentimental guy and the years at Western were so precious to me that nothing will ever take the place of those years that I spent down there. And I have such a great love for the university and I guess if somebody called me up and said, “Hey Gene, we need you,” I guess I’d start hitchhiking or walking. I feel that way about the university, if I thought I could help. But you know, there is a strong Western Kentucky alumni club here in Jefferson County and I get mail from them but I really don’t participate because you know, I was so active in coaching with the breakfasts, and the lunches and the dinners and being out late…..I’m not a joiner today. But I don’t think anybody could top the interest and the enthusiasm that I still have in my heart for Western Kentucky University.