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

Oct 29, 2003 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

In 1949, at age twenty and in his third year wearing the Indian yellow-and-black, John Campbell became Sanford-Brown's player-coach. In other words, Campbell has been part of Sanford-Brown basketball since the program's very first whistle. A 1993 inductee into the Greater St. Louis Athletic Association Hall of Fame, he's now in his 55th year as coach of the same team.

But truth be told, Sanford-Brown has evolved into a school that caters to busy adult students who aren't interested in college athletics. Sanford-Brown players, alumni and administration acknowledge that this season may be Campbell's last, whether he likes it or not. The coach sees the writing on the wall, but he has seen it before -- and each time it repeats, a smirk is liable to creep across his face.

"He'll come up with something," says Craig Patton, who now toils as a correctional officer in St. Charles, having served with the Kinloch police department for seventeen years. "He'll keep the program together with paper clips and safety pins."

If this year does prove to be Campbell's swan song, it might just be a sweet melody. In a rare exception to the recent rule, his entire nucleus of quick, scrappy (if still overmatched) student-athletes are returning to the hardwood, along with a few promising-looking rookies. For once, team chemistry may reign over a program that's seemingly always awash in turnover, and, if it's not sufficient to provide a winning record, the 2003-04 Indians at least stand a chance of breaking even.

Which for John Campbell would be glorious indeed.

Asked to sum up the difference between the Indians and opponents like Illinois College, St. Louis Christian College, Concordia Seminary and Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois, Sanford-Brown point guard Alex Berryhill states the obvious.

"They have gyms and weight rooms," Berryhill says, peering at a lone dumbbell in the corner of his kitchen that rests in close proximity to a box of Cap'n Crunch.

This, in fact, is Berryhill's weight room. The portable hoop in his Lee Avenue driveway in north St. Louis, where the 29-year-old Sanford-Brown student lives with his aunt, serves as his off-season practice gym. Berryhill's three daughters -- ages nine, five and three -- live in the Central West End with their mother. Most days he drives them to school in his 1990 Lincoln, then drives himself to Sanford-Brown's Hazelwood outpost, a lone, utilitarian building that blends in well amid the small businesses in a strip mall off North Lindbergh Boulevard and I-270.

"It's all right," the cornrow-coiffed Berryhill says of the campus, whose student body of 500 ranks it among the largest of Sanford-Brown's five (the others are located in St. Charles, Fenton, Granite City and Kansas City).

During the early 1990s Berryhill was voluntarily bused to Pattonville High School in Maryland Heights as part of St. Louis' controversial desegregation program. An occasional starter for the varsity hoop squad, he had nary a scholarship offer to sift through upon graduation in 1993 -- a fact he bitterly chalks up to his coach's failure to push him hard enough to prospective suitors. (Pattonville coach Mark Hahn says Berryhill struggled to maintain his academic eligibility, which made him a tough sell.) So for nearly a decade, to support his burgeoning young family, Berryhill worked a series of shit jobs -- literally -- including a stint as a Metropolitan Sewer District tank cleaner.

"I had to do what I had to do," he says simply.

Like so many Sanford-Brown students, Berryhill decided to enroll as a computer-programming major after seeing an ad on late-night television. So far, so good: He has a 3.8 grade-point average and is set to graduate in February. After that, Berryhill intends to take free "refresher courses" at the school so he can play out his last two years of eligibility. Money's tight, and he acknowledges that he needs "a little part-time job right now," but he's going to squeeze every last minute out of his time in a Sanford-Brown uniform, however late in life it has come. The Indians' leading assist man, Berryhill's playing college basketball -- a point of pride few can lay claim to.

"When I first went there, I saw a flyer and I was like, 'Whoa, we got a basketball team?'" Berryhill recounts. "I was like, 'Yahoo!' It was me time. I'd made sacrifices for everyone else all my life. Basketball is my life."

At a Division I program like Saint Louis University, Berryhill's path to the basket would be considered extraordinary. But at Sanford-Brown he's the quintessential Campbell "recruit." Whereas your garden-variety Billiken is afforded a life structure that pushes sport and study -- in that order -- squarely to the fore, most Indians juggle multiple life considerations. Top scorer and co-captain Jermaine Gardner, 24, completed a tour in the Navy before enrolling at Sanford-Brown and holds down a full-time job as a clerk at Wal-Mart.

If an Indian can make practice, great; but if he's on call or has to work nights, then so it goes. Senior co-captain Ron Burton, age 27, had to redshirt last season because his technical-support job at MCI required him to work nights. This year he has drawn a more conventional day shift, but as a night-school student, newlywed and minister at Christian Embassy Church, his grid of priorities remains complex. In the juggle-happy construct of Burton's life, hanging up the sneakers or easing into a life of leisure-league stardom would seem to make sense. Only it doesn't.

"I take pride in saying that I play college basketball," says Burton. "A lot of people wish they could play -- and here I have a chance to make the Sanford-Brown Hall of Fame."

Blaring boom boxes are not permitted in the parking lot of Christ Memorial Baptist Church before Sanford-Brown's twice-weekly practices. On Wednesdays the Reverend Bill Little leads his congregation through a worship service; the blend of hymns and hip-hop would inevitably lead to cacophony, interrupting the Lord's wavelength and cursing the Indians. That's assuming, of course, that the team hasn't already been hexed into its ongoing downward spiral.

Little and Campbell are longtime acquaintances who both happen to be among the region's finest Senior Olympic free-throw shooters. Campbell also pitched softball well into his fifties. But on this Monday, the first practice/tryout for the 2003-04 Indians, he's hobbling around a dark parking lot, courtesy of a broken leg still in rehab mode.

Even on the lowest rungs of college basketball, most teams don't commence formal practices until mid-October. Sanford-Brown, however, gathers its prospects on September 22. Even with the month's head start, most teams will have logged more practice time than Sanford-Brown by the time the Indians travel to Moberly, Missouri to play their November 8 opener against Central Christian College, owing to the limited availability of Little's basement gym and the banana-split schedules of Campbell's charges.

As he rumbles down the back stairs to open the gym, Campbell is trailed by Burton and assistant coach Jason LaBrash, a beefy, bearded, blond bloke a year removed from active duty in the Indians' frontcourt. LaBrash is a classic Campbell project. Having never played high school ball but a fanatic for the sport, he tried out for coach Tim Gray's team while a freshman at Mineral Area College, whose storied junior-college program was featured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary Hoop Dreams.

"He was terrible," Gray recalls. "Out of shape -- a big old six-foot-five country kid."

Undaunted, LaBrash served as Gray's film guy and worked out steadily with the team through his sophomore year. At that point, knowing LaBrash wanted to play organized ball and pursue a career in business, Gray picked up the phone and called Campbell on the student's behalf.

"He's been coaching a long, long time -- seems like a great guy," says Gray, who became acquainted with Campbell in the early '80s, when the two teams clashed in a game. "They gave [LaBrash] a chance to play. If you get a chance to play organized ball, it beats playing in a rec league."

It's also a lot tougher, which is the first point of emphasis on Campbell and LaBrash's menu this Monday night as they survey an uncharacteristically hardy turnout -- in fact, at 25 strong, it's the best Campbell has seen in all his 55 years. Still, he refuses to cut players. His determination to be inclusive harkens back to the time he was made team manager after being axed from his high school team as a freshman. Rather than subject any players to similar fates, Campbell will throw together a junior-varsity schedule, ensuring that everyone sees satisfactory (if not ample) floor time between now and the end of February.

If history is any indication, though, attrition may take care of the playing-time dilemma. Some years Campbell has seen his roster slice itself in half over the course of the season, what with players getting hurt, getting in trouble, or getting confronted with more important life matters.

"That would happen every year," confirms 2001 graduate Todd Coffey, who played center for Campbell. "Guys would drop off the face of the earth, go to jail. Day to day, he doesn't know what players he has. Having people show up is one of his biggest challenges."

And yet, with the first day of practice comes hope. Dressed in black suspenders, white New Balance sneakers and a yellow shirt stitched with the words "Coach John Campbell" and "Sanford-Brown," Campbell begins his night's work with a stern diatribe, telling the players not to hang on the rim for fear that having to replace a backboard might break the shoestring budget grudgingly allotted to him by the college's administrators. Typically mild-mannered both on the floor and off, Campbell can be plenty forceful when he sets his mind to it -- or when one of his players pisses him off.

"He totally reminds me of Bobby Knight," says Berryhill, comparing Campbell to the legendary Indiana University coach who now guides the basketball program at Texas Tech. "When you meet him, he's cool, calm, easygoing. But he's really fiery. When he gets down to business, it's like, 'Granddaddy, can I have a piece of candy?' When players don't play hard, he gets really hot. I can almost see the steam coming out of his ears."

Even before assessing the strengths and limitations of this year's crop, Campbell figures he has "at least six decent players" returning from the previous campaign, in which the Indians went 3-23. Compared to most years, that's a robust veteran nucleus. Even so, it's a core that is severely lacking in size: Though two members of the expected starting five stand six-foot-five and six-six, the other three are barely six feet tall.

"Yeah, they're a little down," says Illinois College coach Mike Worrell, whose Jacksonville, Illinois-based NCAA Division III school recently unveiled a $22 million fitness and recreation center complete with a pristine new basketball arena. "They haven't been real big, but they can give you problems, because they're small and quick."

After Campbell's diatribe, LaBrash has the players run. And run. And run. End to end, 50 times. Jermaine Gardner and the vets knew what to expect coming in, and they look to be in fine shape. But more than half of the newbies fail to complete Campbell's idea of baptism by baseline.

After a brief spate of barking at a klatch of sweaty slackers that would make Bobby Knight proud, Campbell sits on the bench and smiles as he watches players drop like rain. "They're gonna find out they're not gonna touch a ball for a while," he cracks. "We've gotta keep 'em huffin' and puffin'. It won't take 'em too long to find out they're not playing church league or YMCA ball."

Amazingly, by the end of practice it's evident that Campbell has at least two newcomers who possess the talent to help his team immediately: Scott Shell and Kristian Long. Shell, a shaggy-haired six-footer, looks and plays like Dallas Maverick Steve Nash, the indefatigable Canadian point guard known for his ball-handling, no-look pinpoint passes and pull-up three while leading a torrid fast break. But as teammate Ron Burton is quick to point out, raw skill constitutes a mere fraction of the collegiate equation.

"We'll have to talk to him about slowing down," says Burton, a diabetic who takes frequent gulps of Gatorade during practice. "Watching college basketball and playing college basketball is totally different."

Adds Gardner, a former Mehlville High School star: "I came in and thought it'd be easier than it was. I was on a scoring rampage, then teams threw in a box-and-one defense, and I couldn't touch the ball."

Gardner is one of the few Indians who can create his own shot off the dribble should one of Campbell's dozen set plays fail to yield a quality scoring opportunity. Another is the aforementioned rookie Kristian Long, a smooth, spring-loaded six-foot-four Normandy High grad who Campbell figures will play all three frontcourt positions for the Indians, even though his size best qualifies him for a spot on the wing. With his team's height limitations already compelling him to start a three-guard lineup, Campbell bears the double burden of not having anything close to a true center on his roster. Jeremey Harris, his best frontcourt scorer, stands six-five, but to plant him in the post would neutralize his preference for working within the flow of the offense. Campbell's tallest player, a six-eight southpaw from Omaha named Sean Smith, is plenty talented but he's a bit of a head case and so skinny he'd be liable to blow to the sweet hereafter during an outdoor pickup game should a powerful gust of wind make its presence known. Six-foot-six Collinsville native Ray Floyd, the Indians' projected starter at the pivot, is foul-prone and stricken by the sort of gravitational limitations that are so famously said to impede Caucasian yeomen around the bucket.

All things considered, Campbell must tackle challenges that no other coach in the nation has to face, reckons Doug Faulkner, athletic director and former coach of Greenville College, a small liberal-arts school in southern Illinois that's one of the few opponents each year that Sanford-Brown has more than a snowball's chance in hell of beating.

"I think he has a philosophy about sport that is healthy and also now almost obsolete," Faulkner says of Campbell, whom he has known for a decade and a half. "I think he does a great job, given that he has players who can't make it to practice and that he doesn't have a facility. He doesn't have the same stability that a residential campus affords you. He may have twenty-five players now, but he may have just ten by Christmas.

"But he doesn't cheat his players," Faulkner adds. "He doesn't soften things up for them. I've heard his halftime speeches. He's trying to hold his team accountable. He's not just trying to give them an intramural experience."

A powerful six-foot-two-inch native of East Orange, New Jersey, Anthony Drejaj enjoyed a surprisingly productive freshman year at Saint Louis University, an NCAA Division I program, garnering serious playing time behind leading scorer Marque Perry and floor general Josh Fisher during the 2002-03 season. This year, even with Perry gone and a solid first-year track record behind him, Drejaj expects stern competition for precious minutes in the Billiken backcourt from Fisher, über-talented Villanova transfer Reggie Bryant and prize frosh recruit Darren Clarke of Minnetonka, Minnesota.

So for Drejaj, the off-season is no time to party on the basis of past successes. Judging from last year's performance, his jumper is in need of some serious refinement -- and he knows it. Evidence the sophomore's typical September day:

7:30: Rise and shine

8 a.m.: Long run with teammates (T, Th) or short-fiction class (M, W, F)

9 a.m.: Economics class

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

11:30 a.m.: Grab lunch

Noon: Calculus class

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."

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."

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.