Underdogs

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

But the program might well die in spite of them.

Established in 1866 on a single floor of a nondescript building in Wellston, Sanford-Brown has changed hands several times in the past decade. Just this past July, the college was swallowed whole in a merger between its parent company, Whitman Education Group, and Career Education Corporation, a Chicago-based behemoth that ranks fourth on Fortune magazine's 2003 list of America's 100 fastest-growing companies (and first in the nonprofit sector). As its student body grows increasingly older, Howard wonders where, if anywhere, the school's lone sports program fits into the matrix of campus life. Somewhat reluctantly, he concedes that the school is considering pulling the plug on basketball at season's end.

"The type of students we're getting are not the type of students who are interested in collegiate sports," Howard says. "They're single mothers, adults -- they have families. It's a shame, but it's something we've just had to come to grips with. [Campbell] wants to coach until he's 100 years old, but the basketball program is not going to be around. The problem is economics: It's a small school, and we just can't afford to do that. The program itself doesn't fit into the new Sanford-Brown."

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

Meanwhile, co-captain Burton says that crowd support at the Indians' home games -- they borrow St. Louis Christian College's gym for such engagements -- is so poor that he actually prefers playing on the road. In rival gyms, Burton explains, the Indians become lovable losers, coaxing nudges of support from opposing fans who want to see him and his perennially overmatched mates make a game of it.

"Some nights you could drive a Jeep through the bleachers," Campbell quips of the quasi-home dates. "And you wouldn't hit anybody."

Citing the team's veteran core and the coach's wile, backcourt standout Jermaine Gardner forecasts ten wins as an attainable goal this year. But even if the Indians fall short of the co-captain's prognosis, Campbell will have given his players the gift of college basketball, something for which they'll forever be grateful.

It should come as no surprise that close acquaintances and rival coaches alike tend to hit on the same word when describing John Campbell: selflessness. As with the parent who volunteers to direct the elementary-school play and the devoted Special Olympics timekeeper, he is seen as one who gives of himself freely so that he can provide a group of underdogs with a lifelong badge of accomplishment.

But the Sanford-Brown patriarch needs the team as much as the team needs him.

"It's in his blood," agrees his wife.

At this late stage in the game, one can't help but wonder how wicked a case of the shakes Campbell would contract if the little pea were pulled from his whistle once and for all.

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