Underdogs

Hoop dreams die hard for coach John Campbell and his Sanford-Brown Indians

 They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues
--Steely Dan, "Deacon Blues"

Nobody roots for the Washington Generals. Not even in, like, an ironic, underdog-chic sort of way. No, everyone comes to cheer for the touring tricksters known as the Harlem Globetrotters, the Generals' permanent dance partner, and the Washington players inevitably oblige by coming up a bucket or twenty short, game in and game out. Wasting even so much as a yip or yell of encouragement on the Generals is energy misspent. For the Generals, losing is de rigueur, as inevitable as hearing "Unchained Melody" at a wedding reception.

Taken at face value, the Indians of Sanford-Brown College are the Washington Generals of Missouri collegiate basketball. Representing a tiny business college of some 2,000 students, the Indians are a team without a conference -- and, for that matter, without a gym or athletic facilities. The men's basketball team is the only athletic program that Sanford-Brown sponsors. Every year their coach, John Campbell, cobbles together a hodgepodge schedule against NAIA and NCAA Division III schools in the area -- lower-level college programs that would get run off the court by the likes of Mizzou's Tigers but that nonetheless tend to eat the Indians' lunch. With no team bus, players carpool to road games. There is no administrative staff, no laundry facilities -- those duties are handled pro bono by Campbell's wife of 53 years, Virginia.

Photo by Jennifer Silverberg; computer manipulatio
Coach John Campbell (right) and his assistant, Jason LaBrash, contemplate how many sets of lines to have their players run
Jennifer Silverberg
Coach John Campbell (right) and his assistant, Jason LaBrash, contemplate how many sets of lines to have their players run

Over the past six years, the Indians have compiled an overall record of 22 wins and 130 losses -- an average season mark of 4-22. The team was actually competitive until 1996, when the school cut funding for memorial scholarships, long Campbell's lone fiscal tool to lure decent talent. Even before that, however, his Indians squad was a refuge for those who might otherwise see the bulk of their action on a hoop pinned to the back of the foundry where they work the graveyard shift. Sanford-Brown's rosters have featured two student-athletes with wooden legs as well as one of the oldest players in college basketball history, Craig Patton, a 48-year-old ex-cop who logged quality minutes off the bench for the Indians in the mid-'90s.

Most Indians hold down full-time jobs and are of advanced age compared to their opponents. The squad's three-guard nucleus, for example, has been on earth for 24, 27 and 29 years -- positively geriatric by collegiate standards (teething years compared to Patton, mind you). Many of them have families; some work nights. As a result, Campbell schedules only two practices a week at Christ Memorial Baptist Church in Cool Valley, a teensy-weensy suburb a short drive east of Lambert Airport. The Christ Memorial floor, located in the rectory basement and boasting a boiler room that doubles as the Indians' changing quarters, is only 82 feet long -- twelve feet short of regulation length. Thus, the first few games of each Sanford-Brown season serve as little more than cardiovascular calisthenics that count.

Small, elite schools performing atrociously at big-time sports is an entrenched element of American collegiate folklore. That's all right, that's okay, you'll all work for us someday -- or so the script is supposed to read. Sanford-Brown, a college that one can get into simply by following the orders on a late-night television commercial, bucks all that. One gets out of Sanford-Brown what one puts into it. If one wants a quickie associate's degree, so be it. If one wants to go long and earn the bachelor's, Sanford-Brown is happy to serve as scholastic Silly Putty, adapting to the timetable and needs of the individual. Test scores and prior academic track record are of little consequence -- Sanford-Brown works with what walks into its halls, no matter how rough around the edges.

And so does John Campbell, who all but refuses to cut players who turn out on the first day of practice. Unlike most high school or even junior high coaches, Campbell has a very loose grasp of who may or may not show up that first day. At Sanford-Brown, continuity -- the hallmark of competent collegiate programs far and wide -- is the exception, not the rule. Campbell's recruiting process amounts to roaming the halls of four out of the school's five satellite campuses (the Kansas City outpost doesn't feed the basketball program). If he notices a fellow's back arching painstakingly to sink to drinking-fountain depth, homeboy might well start at power forward, shooting abilities be damned.

It wasn't always this way for the 74-year-old coach. Campbell used to land gifted players and field division-leading teams. Until the 1996 scholarship embargo, double-digit-win seasons were the norm; Campbell's five twenty-victory campaigns are nothing to sneeze at.

Those days are over, but Campbell isn't. One of the winningest and losingest coaches in college basketball history -- his career record stands at 618-755 -- Campbell figures he needs three more years under his belt to set some sort of record for longest tenure at a single school. Never mind that the actual record books might miss this milestone; that has more to do with his school's fluid divisional affiliation than with his dogged commitment to the Indians.

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