Underdogs

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

10 a.m.: Shoot 500 jump shots in West Pine gymnasium

11:30 a.m.: Grab lunch

Noon: Calculus class

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

2 p.m.: Individual workout with assistant coach Jason Grunkemeyer

Evening: Eat dinner, study, lift weights, play video games and/or attend Billiken soccer games

9:30-10:30 p.m: Doze off

"As for time commitment, it's definitely the most," Drejaj says of his energy allotment toward athletics, which stands in streamlined contrast to Indian Ron Burton's juggling act of family, ministry, full-time job, night school and practice. "It's not only what you do in the gym, it's what you do out of it. Like academics: For every hour in the classroom, you put in two out."

This sort of sports-first mentality among Division I student-athletes strikes Murray Sperber, an Indiana University professor and author of Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education, as backward. Such a critique, of course, is nothing new. Schools that field powerhouse sports teams have long been subject to ridicule by those who feel that pumping massive financial resources into athletic programs is the bain of academia. But Sperber has trained his critical gaze not on the likes of Mizzou and other schools renowned for sports-centric tendencies, but rather on the scholastically elite Ivy League.

"In the Ivy League, students get in with much lower SATs than regular students, and they're not integrated with the student body," Sperber notes. "If you look at the history of the NCAA, in the late 1940s Holy Cross [led by future Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy] won a championship. They didn't have a gym on campus. Seems to me when it's low-key, there are real benefits."

Sarah Levin, a research associate at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, agrees. Along with former Princeton president William Bowen, Levin coauthored Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values, a new book that analyzes the balance of academics and athletics in five subsets of elite academic institutions: the Ivy League, the University Athletic Association (which includes Washington University, Brandeis and the University of Chicago, among others), women's colleges (Bryn Mawr, Smith, Wellesley), co-ed liberal-arts schools (Carleton, Kenyon, Oberlin, etc.) and the New England Small College Athletic Conference (Tufts, Amherst, Bowdoin, et al).

The tandem's recommendations for improvement include cutting back on practice time, doing away with football altogether, ceasing to provide financial aid on the basis of athletic ability and abandoning recruiting. Of the five conferences, the authors found the University Athletic Association, which does not grant special admissions to would-be athletes, to be closest to what they'd consider a model college sports program. That said, not one school or conference Bowen and Levin examined was found to adhere to all of their standards.

But Sanford-Brown does.

If Levin and Bowen's findings are to be taken seriously, then little Sanford-Brown's happy-go-lucky, minimalist approach to athletics is, in essence, the perfect college sports program.


Every couple of weeks, John Campbell makes a 160-mile pilgrimage by car to Bridgeport, Illinois, the town of his birth, to tend the family farm he still owns and operates. It is in towns like Bridgeport where subscribers to low-circulation local papers are privy to "Coach's Corner," a semi-regular sports column Campbell writes for Missouri-Illinois Sports, a bi-state wire service that's tantamount to a backwater Associated Press. The gig has never paid the bills; Campbell relied on a 33-year career as retail auditing supervisor at Wohl Shoe Company to take care of such pedestrian matters (he retired in 1986). As with his position at Sanford-Brown, for which he draws only a modest annual stipend, the column is a longtime labor of love for Campbell, who serves as ice to the fire of WGNU (AM 920) sports director Skip Erwin every summer in the Busch Stadium press box, where the two gentlemen sit side by side -- the ruling elders of Cardinals coverage.

Growing up in Bridgeport, Campbell attended the same high school as the former Virginia Wagner, who hailed from one of the town's foremost sporting families. Virginia was two years ahead of John in school, though, and she didn't give the coach-to-be the time of day. Their date with fate would have to wait until the pair found themselves seated next to each other on a Greyhound bus destined for Bridgeport. Both were taking a long weekend break -- he from his studies at Sanford-Brown, she from nursing school at St. Luke's (then located on Delmar and DeBaliviere) -- to visit home. Campbell was reading The Sporting News. He looked up for a moment while flipping the page. He would not glance at another minor leaguer's batting average the rest of the way home.

One of the Campbells' two daughters was killed in an auto accident at the age of nineteen. The other, Jan, has been the Indians' official scorekeeper for sixteen years and counting. Hence, Indian basketball is a Campbell family affair that has earned the utmost respect from Sanford-Brown president Jim Howard.

"He's the very best person I've ever met," Howard says of Campbell. "He's a person who's dedicated his whole life to basketball players and making good people out of them. John and his wife have been absolutely wonderful. The program would have died 40 years ago without them."

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