“View From Behind The Bench”
Hilltopper Memories From The Glory Days
By: John Oldham, Jr.
I can still remember the first time I set foot in Diddle Arena when my father, Coach John Oldham, took over the reins from the Diddle legend back in the early 60’s. It was an awe-inspiring and cavernous building to me. Heck, I was just about 12 years old, and this was the biggest basketball arena I had ever seen. I had heard about it, but never visited it in person, and it was impressive and even then you could hear the echos vibrate around you from the main court in while it was empty, I could only imagine what it would be like with 11,000 or more fans cheering and screaming. Very cool indeed! I realized I was now a Hilltopper, and had no idea what that meant, much less what a Hilltopper was, I had spent most of my youth in Cookeville, Tennessee, where my father had coached at Tennessee Tech. I knew even then that Diddle Arena was something special, and that Western was big-time, and there I was standing alone, center-court, yelling and listening to the echos and only imagining what was to come.
My first real great memory of the early 60’s teams that my father coached was the Clem Haskins-era teams. As a young kid, I got a full pass to run around and explore Diddle Arena during practices, I found every little nook and hiding place that there was in there. I got to run free in the dressing rooms, shot ball with the players at times, got kidded a lot from them and just ate it all up. And the actual games were something, the large crowds, the winning, the cheering, it was something else, and I would always go to the locker rooms after the game to see the players and just soak the whole atmosphere in. Yes, it was nice indeed to be the coach’s son during that time.
The best fun was the road trips, from time to time I would travel with the team – by bus to the OVC games and by air on longer trips. I would get to sit on the bench, way, way down at the end or right behind the bench, out of the way of course. And man, did I learn some new language at those OVC away games – the Murray and Eastern games were always the nastiest crowds, they were unmerciful with what they yelled, taunted and did. I was always surprised at my dad’s patience and calmness in those packed gyms in the OVC. He often told me that they were just jealous of Western’s success and this was their biggest game, and they measured their own success against how they did against Western. He said facing adversity in a storm strengthens your character and if you remain focused and are prepared, it can only bring you success.
His teams during that time I think often fed off Coaches’ calmness and confidence. He never got rattled it seemed, and always spoke calm and smooth in the huddles. Even when we were behind or maybe getting bad calls, he would call a timeout and just calmly tell the team to focus, persevere and play together as a team. Must’ve worked, don’t know how many times they would just come back on the court and change the game and usually win.
The Clem Haskin’s team was something special, they were a truly a “band of brothers” – black and white, didn’t matter, they lived together, played together and hung out together. My real memories are of Clem, Greg and Dwight Smith. They were the leaders on that team. Clem was always serious, but had a light hearted side to him, I remember him shooting, shooting and shooting all the time at practice, before and after. Greg was the funny one on the team, he had a smile that was contagious, and he kept everyone loose and relaxed. Dwight just worked and worked, he loved to play defense more than anything. I can’t remember the game, but Dwight stole the ball three straight times from this guard on the opposing team every time he crossed mid-court, and their coach yelled something out at this guard and the guard yelled back – “Coach he knows where I’m going before I do” – and that was Dwight, he had such tremendous natural instincts, and quick feet, and those long arms and big hands. He was a demon on defense.
Clem, well what can you say about him that you haven’t heard – his shot was smooooooth baby, he would come down and just rise up over the top of his defensive player and release at the very apex of his jump and poof! right through the net, but sometimes he would rise up to shoot and everyone on defense would turn around for the rebound (which were few) and he would just flick his wrist and pass it down under the basket to a teammate for an easy shoot.
Greg, was a bit of everything, great defense, solid offense, he just made the team run on all cylinders it seemed, sort of the glue that held everyone together, and of course, his light-hearted style and personality kept everyone loose during pre-game and timeouts. There were a lot of role players, and I can’t think of everyone, so I apologize for not naming others. But they were “brothers” in every sense.
During their junior and senior years, they truly were one of the top 10 teams in the nation. I still think we could’ve or should’ve won two national championships during that time. First, the “worst call in history” happened during the NCAA semi’s against Michigan and Cazzie Russell. I’m sure everyone has heard about it. Honzo, still remember that bum, made that historical bad call. If not, WKU wins plays Kentucky and most likely set up to play Texas Western for title later on. Then their senior year, Clem gets his legs cut out from under him at a Diddle game against Murray (still believe its was cheap shot). Breaks his arm… man, another bad break for Toppers. But, I remember him playing in a cast the rest of the season. The Dayton NCAA game that year, I think Clem came in at half time, Toppers were down a few points, and he tears off his cast and they just wrap tape around it for second half, think he came out on fire, but Tops lost by just a few to end their season and I believe Dayton went on to finish 2nd maybe that year. Both of those years, Tops could’ve won it all.
I often think of if they had the 3-point line during that time, phew, Clem would’ve averaged 40 points a game easily. He never really worried about points, just wins and keep the team play going. He was so unselfish, so many times he passed up easy little 12 to 15 foot jumpers to hit a wide open teammate.
I remember that during those junior and senior seasons, Coach would have the team over to our house for a pre-game meal. We would all hang out downstairs in our basement, shooting pool, ping-pong, whatever… they would just relax and have fun. Coach wanted to get them out of the main stream pressure of being nationally ranked, reporters calling them, friends and family bugging them sometimes. They would just relax, have fun together, eat and horse around before home games. Then they would all get in their cars and drive to Diddle a few hours before the game.
Something else most people aren’t aware of during this time was the racial climate in the country, it was still pretty tough on the African American man and woman. I didn’t truly realize the prejudice out there, as I just looked at both black and white as basketball players, good guys and my idols. But, one road trip that I traveled on with the team, we were coming back from an OVC game and stopped at a little diner and the team all walked in to eat a post-game meal, and the manager said he didn’t serve “blacks”. My dad just gave him a stare I still remember, first time I had ever seen him really get upset. The manager saw it too, and said something like “oh, we’ll serve the white boys, and you can take out some meals to those black boys they can eat on your bus”. Coach just didn’t even blink, told the boys we’re leaving and if we can’t eat together as a team we’ll find someplace else. Turned around and the boys had already walked out to the bus and didn’t even hear Coach say that.
That’s the way there were, brothers, teammates, all in it together. Truly opened my eyes to the real world at that time, and the ignorant scumbags out there. Even at away games in the OVC and down south, there were racial slurs and taunting from the fans before and after games, even a few choice words written on the team bus after the game. Coach just kept the team together and I remember one time he asked one of the players “Joe, look over there at Greg, is he black?” and Joe just replied “Black, naw Coach he’s just a ball player and my teammate and friend”. Cool stuff during some weird turbulent times in the south in the mid-60’s.
Of course, I still remember the day that Dwight and his sister were killed in a car wreck after his senior season and after he had been drafted to the pros. We were at home, and dad got a phone call, he just stood their motionless, and I saw tears start running down his cheeks – it was the first time I had seen my father cry. He hung the phone up and turned around and said Dwight had been killed and walked outside. He still doesn’t like to talk about it much, and told me that Dwight was one of the finest young men he had ever coached, said he would have been a tremendous pro ballplayer, that he would be have been the new prototype big guard. Still makes me sad, Dwight was a great human being.
Okay, next time I’ll talk about the Big Mac era team and memories…