By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
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"I saw him [Johnson] a lot at practice," says McKinney. "He kept saying, 'Go to Mizzou!'"
Someone else who may be getting "Go to Mizzou" whispered in his ear is McKinney's former backcourt mate at Vashon, hotly recruited five-foot-nine junior point guard Dwayne Polk, with whom Mizzou's prize frosh talks frequently.
Snyder considers Johnson -- who set up a meeting between the coach and twenty or so of the city's high-school hoop powerbrokers at the dawn of Snyder's tenure -- to have been absolutely critical in easing longstanding tensions between the university and the city of St. Louis.
"There had been some athletes that had gone to Missouri and had not felt like it was a great experience, for whatever reason," recalls Snyder. "There wasn't a comfort level. This is the state school, two hours away, so to have that animosity exist is a serious problem."
Even after this meeting, landing McKinney was hardly an in-and-out deal. This is, after all, the Show-Me State, where actions speak louder than words. To this end, Snyder credits his top assistant, Harvey, with cultivating relationships for the long term rather than the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am.
"You just got a sense that there wasn't a connection there," says Snyder. "Getting a player is really a short-term view. Jimmy did come, but it took years of recruiting, just spending time with Coach Irons. There's a level of trust that first was established. Jimmy is, to me, a trailblazer."
Whereas Mizzou can sit back and pluck talent from a national watchtower, deftly playing the inner-city hand has always been life-and-death for SLU, as Grawer's one-strike- you're-out tenure proved.
"When Snyder loses someone, he can just replace him," explains Grawer. "SLU doesn't get blue-chippers, and when they get a chance at a Larry Hughes, they have to take him."
McKinney says SLU was his second choice. But, at the end of the day, Conference USA just wasn't the Big Twelve. However, conference strength isn't the only issue. For every kid like Hughes who stays home for college, there's at least one other who just wants to get the fuck out of Dodge, as evidenced by the mid-'90s Ritter trio -- Jahidi White, Carrawell and Loren Woods -- who split for Georgetown, Duke and Wake Forest, respectively. Factor in a uniquely challenging Jesuit curriculum and a comparatively pedestrian-looking campus, and SLU's coaches face a somewhat daunting task.
"St. Louis University is not the easiest school to recruit for," says Stipanovich. "I've been to Duke, North Carolina -- when you step on one of those campuses, it's overwhelming as a young kid coming out of high school."
Grawer is more blunt about SLU's challenges, pointing to the loss of Upchurch as the school's penultimate casualty.
"SLU's campus is 1,000 percent better than when I was there," he says. "It's still a hard place to recruit to. At SLU, you had to take twelve to fourteen hours of philosophy and theology. No PE programs at SLU, so those hours didn't transfer for a junior-college kid.... We lost Craig Upchurch [because of academics]. He was more talented than Bonner. They made him go to summer school; then SLU said he couldn't go. Him and his mom in my office -- we were literally crying."
Coming off a trip to the NCAAs, the Bills would have had a better than even shot at playing on their home court in the Sweet Sixteen had Hughes stuck around for his sophomore season. McKinney readily admits that the momentum generated by a second Hughes campaign might have compelled him to attend his hometown school.
Steiner sees a domino effect.
"Absolutely it would have made a difference," says Steiner of the impact a Hughes sophomore season might have had. "If a kid signs, he wants a chance to go to the tournament. Once you get one or two of those top 50 players, you're gonna get one or two more."
Hughes' coach at SLU, Charlie Spoonhour, never questioned his decision to turn pro.
"In Larry's case, it was a no-brainer," says Spoonhour, now head coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. "Once you become a lottery pick and the money's there, taking a chance on injury is just foolish."
So why did the likes of Olajuwon stick around for more than one year back in the day, Spoon?
"The climate was different then," he says. "Now, if you're a senior, there're question marks about you."
In fact, it's gotten to the point where some coaches are whispering that it's almost better to eschew blue-chip talent in favor of second-tier players who are more likely to stick around for three or four years.
"I think the Missouri Valley Conference is great," says Spoonhour. "It's a league with a lot of seniors. You have a lot of really good teams because you have guys who stay for four years."
Billiken assistant coach Anthony Beane, who steadfastly maintains that he'll always go after the best player available, acknowledges that the approach has a downside these days.
"A negative thing about recruiting great players is that they're gonna leave early," he says.