Shocker Summer: Eddie Fogler learned from the best

07/31/2014 9:00 AM

07/29/2014 11:34 AM

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Eagle on Feb. 1, 1987.

As a player himself, as basketball players go, Eddie Fogler wasn’t much taller than a shoelace, and not much heavier than a pair of old Converse basketball shoes. He was listed at 5 feet, 11 inches tall and 160 pounds (and you know how charitable media guides are, even those from 1968).

The man he played for at the University of North Carolina, Dean Smith, himself as a player at the University of Kansas in the early 1950s, was built to about the same eyelet level: 5-10, 160 pounds, or so the Jayhawk media guide for 1951 said. The 1951-52 season was the year KU won the NCAA championship.

“You played guard, right?” said a caller to Smith in Chapel Hill. “Yeh,” he said. His height was now, at the age of 56, still 5-10 but his weight had wandered up to 183. The last vital statistic he volunteered was that his eyes were blue.

Fogler’s eyes are brown, bordering on bull’s-eye black. He is nearly 39, in his first year as a head coach, leading the Wichita State Shockers. This is in contrast to Smith who is in his 26th year at North Carolina. At season’s start, Fogler’s record was 0-0; Smith’s 586-172.

In truth, though, Fogler, if he chose, could nibble off pieces of Smith’s record since, for 19 years, Fogler was with the dean of the nation’s active basketball coaches, as player, assistant, friend, pupil, and confidante.

Smith, he says, is The Master. Smith compares with no one. Says Fogler: “I’m not the brightest guy in the world but if you’re around Dean Smith for 19 years you certainly have to take away lots of what you were exposed to.”

So that is today’s question: Where does Dean Smith leave off and Eddie Fogler begin?

“There’ll only be one,” Fogler says of Smith. “Not another guy around like him. I certainly can’t do what he can do. Not even close. Right away I’m at a disadvantage. I’m not as bright as he is. There’s nobody can do what he can do, from A to Z, the total program.”

This is the second time Fogler puts himself deep within Smith’s shadow. Modesty? True, or false?

But, after watching Fogler in action, close up, for two games, talking to him; watching Smith, close up, for one game, talking to him, and watching and listening to Wichita State and North Carolina games on radio and TV, one wonders if The Master hasn’t produced as perfect a pupil as possible, but one destined to spin off, quickly, in his own direction – unlike the fellow who wanted to reinvent water but like the one who invented Gatorade.

Fogler – talking in ooooofs, whooooooshes and other varieties of audibly exhaled breaths when he ponders questions – says no, no, no, no. He’s not Dean Smith. What he learned from him are things that anyone who had been around, say, a banker, lawyer, or doctor for so long would have picked up: Patience, understanding, discipline, organization, integrity, communication, and, most of all, knowledge of the game.

“If you don’t have (the latter) you don’t know your business very well,” says Fogler, explaining. “Making the right decision with three seconds on the clock to having the right defense. Nobody’s won more the last 10 years than North Carolina. He’s already in the Hall of Fame. He’s had a $40 million building named after him. He’s coached an NCAA champion and an NIT champion, gold medal Olympic team, and he’s still flying high.”

Despite the ooooofs, though, one hears the dreams of Eddie Fogler ticking behind the accomplishments of his mentor. He looks at Dean Smith and sees a man who has spent a career being shot at, as No. 1 or near it. Now, one feels Eddie Fogler loading up, taking aim.…

Here it is 25 years later, and the same intensity, the same integrity, the same demand for respect steps out of a single 5-10, 160-pound frame. No, Eddie Fogler isn’t Dean Smith. He’s no clone. He’s no mimic. He may be, though, the original about to happen again.

“Time will tell,” says Eddie Fogler.

The mannerisms aren’t the same, the dress and colors slightly different, the style of sideline pacing to each his own (jerkiness, excitability, up-and-downness is more Fogler’s wont than Smith’s). But the eyes have it. They are born out of the same fire, the same belly, the same canyons of knowledge.

Smith’s are blue, recessed, as a sniper shrunk to the size of an eyeball and hidden in camouflaged flesh along the sidelines. They are narrow, squinty, calculating, measuring, two tiny transit markers following the blueprint he’s laid out for the Kansas State team at Kemper Arena just before Christmas.

He sits on the bench, a finger goes to an eye, as if to tell it something. Or for the eye to relay something it’s seen to the finger. He smiles easily. His tongue wipes itself across his teeth. He stands up and tugs at the rear tails of his coat jacket.

His eyes seeing, seeing, seeing – like hot rivets, always fastened on the action. His finger pointing, pointing, pointing – constantly jabbing at players 50 or 75 feet away.

His head lowers. He sits. His hands go together before him, his thumbs together. Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the door, and see … the back-door stuff. See J.R. Reid, maybe the best college player in the land. With 1:15 to go, it’s North Carolina 79, K-State 60. Five UNC reserves flood the floor.

“Our freshmen learned a lot out there, “ Smith says later. “We’re trying to teach them to keep their hands up, and sometimes they do. We broke it open, but I never felt comfortable.”

North Carolina wins, 81-62. Smith must have a different definition of discomfort than most coaches.

Two weeks earlier, his protege, Eddie Fogler, had gone up against Kansas State at Levitt Arena. Actually, on defense, it’s the Wildcats against a six-man defense. Fogler hugs the sideline, the outer slice of bread in a sandwich in which the Kansas State player holding the ball is the meat and an arm-waving Shocker is the other slice. He’s pinned between player and coach. Refs pay no attention.

Fogler yo-yos up and down, sitting, standing, sitting . . . his brown- black eyes picking apart the Purple and White offense and defense. Every bit of him is in quiet motion, including his mouth. You seldom hear Smith. Fogler you always hear.

“Gus, move it,” he yells. “C’mon.”

“Hey, Peewee, did you see that?” he bites at a referee. Later, he says, “I’m proud of myself.”

And if Fogler had bet someone that he’d have gone 15 games without a technical foul, I would have lost everything I owned and given you big odds. The one thing I really thought I needed to watch more than anything else in being a head coach was in the relationship with officials because I was too boisterous and involved as an assistant.” (Alas, Fogler did get a T Jan. 15 against Drake.)

A foul is called against WSU. Fogler pivots on his left foot, slaps his right hand against his left one, and he swings his right foot from right to left.

Fogler squats on his heels during time outs, when he talks to his players. He squats during play, his left knee cocking itself. His eyes act as twin augers, boring through the arena noise. His eyebrows grow intense, a knit V for vigor.

During the second half, when K-State still hasn’t managed to shake loose the Shockers, the V reappears above his eyes, this time embedded in his skull.

“Sasha, box out.”

Fogler’s head hangs, freshly washed of patience, when WSU loses the ball on a defensive rebound. When WSU scores, Fogler’s arms embrace the ceiling. Smith seems to rarely look at the clock; Fogler’s eyes attack it, in sharp, expressionless darts.

For a moment, he looks like a jewelry salesman, in a camel coat, dark brown trousers, brown moccasins, his eyes glinting and intense, like diamonds.

With 1:16 to go, it’s 60-60.

“The clock. The clock,” he hollers.

At the end, WSU 63, KSU 60. The date: Dec. 13, 1986. An in-state rival, defeated. A few weeks later, WSU knocks off the University of Kansas, 54-49.

After the first K-State game, Fogler says, “I told Lon (Kruger, KSU first-year coach) after the game that I’m not sure the better team won. I’m basically playing 14 freshmen and a new system.”

A rematch. Jan. 12, 1987. Manhattan. KSU 79, WSU 67.

“It was fun to watch, if you ignore who won, “ says Fogler, standing in a hallway in the bowels of Ahearn Field House. It’s more difficult for us to play against pressure away from home than it is at home. Kids make decisions that crowds sort of force them into making. You hear noise. Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.’ That type of thing. You tend to make plays you don’t make at home.”

But later then, in his North Carolina-memento-drenched office at Levitt Arena, Fogler backs up, perhaps taking another step west and away from Smith.

He recalls: “As a player it was always more fun playing on the road than playing at home. There’s something about playing in a great atmosphere like (Ahearn). There’s something about a group of 22 or so fighting a group of 12,000 or 13,000 that’s more fun than winning at home.”

But this didn’t ungloss Wichita’s 54-49 victory over the University of Kansas at Levitt Arena Jan. 6. That was a Napoleonic victory at Waterloo, the U.S. repulsing the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the return of the passenger pigeon. Wichita scoring victories over its two most powerful in-state rivals in one season. (Of course, that was only the first set of encounters. Ahem. Ahearn is another time, another place, another score: KSU 79, WSU 67.)

Self-effacing? Or realist? Fogler: “So we win a game. Big deal. So we play (KU) 20 times. He could win the next 19.

“I told my wife (Robin, at home in Benton, 14 miles east of Wichita) when we took this job that we came out here and we’re looking at four years. I might want to go after four years. We might win four Missouri Valley Conference championships and I might say, ‘That’s enough.’ We may finish last four years in a row and I might say, ‘I know I can do better and I’m not giving up on it.’ I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been in too many airports, too many airplanes, rental cars, hotels, high-school gyms. If we can’t get it done the right way here with the good student athlete within the NCAA rules, I’ve got no problem in going into Lew Perkins’s office and saying, ‘I can’t get it done. You’ve got to get somebody else.’

“This is a crazy business. I’m 15 games head coach,” says Eddie Fogler, the kid from Flushing. “That’s why I’m saying Dean Smith is the greatest. The guy has survived 25 years of people shooting at him. You win 18 games, then you’re supposed to win 20. You win 20, you’re supposed to win 22. You win 22, you’re supposed to win 24. That’s why coaches bounce around.”

Eddie Fogler. Dean Smith. The Tar Heel and his coaching ex. Two coaches, whose eyes tell their story. Their eyes are like a .30-30. Looking at Smith, you see down inside the barrel. Looking at Fogler, you just see the muzzle.

As Fogler says, “Time will tell.”

But North Carolina is never more than a glance away. Behind Eddie Fogler, hanging on the wall, are his two diplomas from the University of North Carolina. On the wall to his left is a photograph of Fogler on the bench with Dean Smith, a gift from his wife a Christmas or two ago.

“I got this office full of North Carolina stuff, “ he says, readying for another Shocker practice. That’s a hard place to leave. It’s done with class.”

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