Book tells twists of Spuds’ fabled run, crazy coach

By JASON RECKER
Herald Enterprise Editor

The winter of 1963 enveloped Mike Roos in a whirl of wonder. He was 11 years old, his father was the principal at Ireland High School and the Spuds boys basketball team was rolling.

The memories lingered on the periphery for years. Then, 40 years after the Spuds captured the school’s only sectional and regional championships, a reunion of coaches, players and supporting cast stirred the college English professor’s imagination.

“These guys were my childhood heroes,” Roos said. “When we got together for the 40th anniversary, I realized this was really a story that needed to be told and nobody had told it.”

Roos, blending the stories’ factual foundation with creative license, authored “One Small Town, One Crazy Coach.” The book, published by Indiana University Press, was released this week.

The title hits the undercurrent that drove the Spuds to statewide fame. With an enrollment of less than 150 students, Ireland was tiny. With no starter taller than 5-10, Ireland wasn’t expected to do much in the 1962-63 season.

But the Spuds won 15 regular-season games and crashed a wide-open sectional by beating Winslow, Huntingburg and Springs Valley. A week later, Ireland ambushed Sullivan before edging Washington in the regional final with a wild comeback and Pat Schitter’s last-second shot.

Later that night, an estimated 5,000 flooded the streets of Ireland to party.

“People from Dubois County, Martin County, Pike County, they were all going nuts,” said Dave Small, the team’s leading scorer. “After that, everybody in the state knew about Ireland.”

Folks compared Ireland to the 1954 team from teeny Milan High School, which won the state title and became the genesis for the movie “Hoosiers.”

The Spuds undercut the odds thanks in large part to a wild man named Pete Gill.

Jim Roos still hadn’t found a coach in the middle of the summer of ’62 when the fast-talking Gill called and claimed he’d won 100 games coaching some league in the Navy during a staccato career speckled with one- and two-year stops at schools in Indiana and Kentucky.

“Pete was somewhat sketchy,” said Mike Roos. “He’d had no real success anywhere, barely had a winning record. But he’d never been fired. He just always sort of left.”

Jim Roos had learned that Gill wasn’t the most respected man within the communities where he’d previously coached, and Gill’s habits of frequenting Jasper bars and leaving debts unpaid didn’t endear him to Dubois County residents once he settled into the job at Ireland. But back in high school, Gill was a three-year starter at powerful New Albany and based on the pedigree, Jim Roos and Ireland town trustee Levi Leinenbach together made the hire.

Gill was a drill sergeant with a merciless drive and twisted love for conditioning his teams both physically and mentally. He peppered workouts with situps, pushups, jumping jacks, leg lifts and various forms of running. Players laid along the baseline, and Gill walked on their flexed stomachs. Gill set the clock to 30 minutes, and players circled the court’s borders; cut a corner, and Gill whacked your backside with a paddle.

Gill made enemies. He was never conventional. After Ireland won the regional, he took off his pants in front of 2,000 people at a pep rally; he was wearing basketball shorts underneath, but nobody knew that until the moment of truth.

At times, his personality drives a book speckled with spice.

“The one issue some people in Ireland had when I had them read the first chapter back this spring was they didn’t like the profanity,” Mike Roos said. “I was trying to be realistic to the way certain guys talked, and it was pretty salty. In the last draft, I really toned it down. I wanted it to be suitable for younger people.”

Roos, 61 and a teacher in the University of Cincinnati English department for 36 years, began interviewing for the book in 2003 and used a sabbatical from his job to speak with about 40 people. He hurried through an early version and sent it to IU Press in 2008, but the company rejected his offer. At more than 500 pages, the book was too long. With a mishmash of styles, it lacked flow. So Roos tweaked. He wrote the book to read more like a novel than a documentary.

“I write fiction anyway, so I’m used to creating characters from total scratch,” Roos said. “I’ve taken some liberties in recreating some dialogue and going inside people’s heads. But it’s true to the characters as I learned about them. It seemed to work. People who’ve read it have no complaints.”

Those who have read it are famous both inside and outside of basketball circles.

Jasper native Michael Lewis, an assistant coach at Butler University, and Don Buse, the Holland native and former Indiana Pacers standout, have both endorsed the book. So have former Los Angeles Lakers coach Del Harris, Indiana prep coaching legends Jack Butcher and Jim Jones, basketball commentator Joe Dean and Jerry Reynolds, the director of player personnel for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.

Several of the story’s fans will gather at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 29, in the Ireland Elementary School gym for a book launch. Harris, who coached at Dale High School in 1962, will be a guest speaker at the event, which is free and open to the public. Roos will sign books and there will be video messages from Reynolds and Dean.

Angelo Pizzo, who wrote the screenplay for “Hoosiers,” may also attend and speak. There is interest in the idea of turning the book into a movie.

Roos has also been invited to sign books at a Jasper home game Dec. 7 and hopes to visit Heritage Hills and Tell City, where he played high school hoops before graduating in 1970.

“(The book) is a piece of Indiana basketball history,” said Chris May, the executive director of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, “that reawakens memories of the glory days of high school teams in southern Indiana.”

Contact Jason Recker at jrecker@dcherald.com.




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