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From 1996: Tulsa series brought out the best and worst in both sides

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 4, 1996.

"We're walking through this tunnel and they're throwing everything but the chairs at us. I happen to look up and I see this guy in a bright red sweater who had thrown something.

"I lost it, I challenged him. I went up into the stands after him."

The year was 1965, the place was the Fairgrounds Pavilion in Tulsa, and the stands-climbing basketball coach was Ron Heller.

Oh, one other thing: It was a freshman game.

Welcome to the Wichita State-Tulsa rivalry.

"Tulsa's athletic director was Glenn Dobbs, who was also the football coach. I truthfully don't think an army could've protected me, but Glenn Dobbs did. Nothing happened except a verbal exchange, then I was ordered to stay back in the locker room (during the varsity game)."

What started the whole thing was when Heller commented to an official, "I'm getting tired of seeing your bald head not making a call." Heller picked up seven technicals _ he's sure it wasn't six or eight _ and the officials forfeited the game to Tulsa, precipitating the Shockers' dangerous walk to the locker room.

"When we played them back (in Wichita), we had 6,000 people in the arena for a 5:30 freshman game. And we beat them soundly."

This is what the Wichita State-Tulsa rivalry does to people.

"The thing that always got me," Heller laughs, "was that the original call went in our favor."

* * *

Ah, the rivalry.

Mention Tulsa to a Wichita State fan and he might spit in disgust.

Mention Wichita State to a Tulsa fan and he might mumble something about obnoxiousness.

The Shockers and Golden Hurricane have met 110 times over the years, and not surprisingly the score is close: 56 wins for WSU, 54 for Tulsa.

They meet again on Saturday at Levitt Arena, then on Feb. 24 in Tulsa before the Hurricane end their 62-year affiliation with the Missouri Valley Conference. Next year, Tulsa becomes a member of the Western Athletic Conferen ce.

And while the series likely will continue in a non-conference form, no longer will WSU and Tulsa battle with a conference championship on the line, or a national ranking, or for just plain braggin' rights.

"It's one of those things that when somebody just said 'Tulsa,' " former Shocker Aubrey Sherrod said, "it brought out the best in you."

The best of the series came in the early 1980s, when Gene Smithson coached at WSU and Nolan Richardson arrived at Tulsa. Blowouts were rare, classics were common.

"It was like Wolf Creek with all that electricity," said former Shocker Gary Cundiff. "You battled them in recruiting, you battled them in the Valley, you battled them for national recognition, so you're going head-to-head with them all the time.

"You go down there getting spit on going in and out of the locker room. They'd throw cups of Pepsi. Just an ugly atmosphere. Ugly but fun."

* * *

The rivalry's origins go back as far as 1945, when the University of Wichita joined the Valley. Football battles were always heated affairs, and by the time Ralph Miller came to WU in 1951, it had spilled over to the basketba ll court.

In a 1952 game at Wichita's Forum, Tulsa center Glenn Dille fired the first shot. It was an elbow at the forehead of WU guard Gary Thompson.

A few minutes later, Dille did the same thing to Shocker Jim McNerney, this time in the Adam's apple. This time, McNerney fought back.

"Without even thinking, I retaliate with a uppercut that hit him flush across the jaw," said McNerney, who lives in Wichita. "Then I realize I'm 6-foot-3, he's 6-foot-9, and I bounce back to where he couldn't get to me."

In an account of the game, Wichita Eagle sports editor Pete Lightner wrote: "McNerney walked over to the Tulsa bench to shake hands and Dille, after thinking it over for a full minute, finally agreed to make peace."

Both players were ejected and Tulsa won the game 61-53.

"I thought I might have bought myself a one-way ticket back to Pennsylvania because Ralph wouldn't take to that stuff," McNerney said. "But he stood behind me."

Indeed, Miller told a booster club the next week that McNerney was a victim and not the instigator.

* * *

To this day, one national championship and tons of victories later, Richardson can't forget bringing his teams into Levitt Arena for games in front of what he called "the Happy Hour crowd."

"I never saw fans like that," Richardson said in a telephone interview from his Arkansas basketball office. "When they came in, they seemed like they were ready to throw cans on you."

It got so bad, Richardson said, that he sometimes wouldn't let his wife come to Wichita for games. One year, she got into a pregame altercation with a WSU fan, one of several between Shocker and Hurricane fans over the years.

"The (teams) played hard, but God, the fans were brutal," Richardson said. "They had some lady sitting behind us squealing all night. And she came down to Tulsa with them all the time. I'll never forget her."

* * *

It's an oversimplification, maybe, but the Wichita State-Tulsa games of the early 1980s had a common theme: The Shockers' power, the Hurricane's quicknes s.

WSU wasn't slow, obviously, and Tulsa wasn't without some strong players. But the Shockers had Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston, Xavier McDaniel. Tulsa had Paul Pressey, Mike Anderson, Steve Harris.

Brute force vs. speedy sneakiness.

"Everything was always nip and tuck," Smithson said. "Always."

"We had probably a little bit better skill players," Richardson said. "But oh, their power."

* * *

Doesn't matter when it is. Fifteen years ago or today, Richardson's joke about Pressey remains the same.

"As the game got longer," he said, "his arms grew."

The Shockers certainly learned that. Whenever Tulsa threw its 1-3-1 press at WSU, with Pressey and his long arms at the point, navigating the court became as difficult as trigonometry.

"I thought I was going to be able to make bounce passes, and he was all-of-a-sudden there," Sherrod said.

Pressey and the press continually frustrated the Shockers and were a big part of Tulsa's 8-4 record against WSU while Richardson was the coach.

"I never have had a team that could press like that, because he made our press," Richardson said. "Teams were careless, then they got cautious. And he could read your mind, knowing where you were throwing the ball."

* * *

Most years, Sherrod was the only WSU guard who could keep Tulsa's defense honest by bombing from the outside. He responded by averaging nearly 20 points a game against the Hurricane, almost five points better than his career average.

"I liked playing against Tulsa because it was a wide-open situation and it fit my skills," Sherrod said. "It was up and down, and if you beat their press, with me being the shooter, I was confident enough to hit some shots."

Even with McDaniel as a four-year teammate, Sherrod led WSU in scoring in fourof the 10 games he played against TU. That included games of 31, 28, 27 and 27 points.

* * *

One of the many controversial moments in the series happened in 1984, when Tulsa came to Levitt with Wichita high school All-American Ricky Ross as a guard. Ross had first played at Kansas, then transferred briefly to WSU before ending up in Tulsa.

The Wichita fans greeted him with a mixed reaction, then definite boos when he wouldn't go to midcourt to shake hands with Shocker Karl Papke, another Wichita high school great who was the opposite player being introduced.

Papke got even, though, hitting a running hook shot with eight seconds to play, giving WSU a 66-64 victory.

"I got snubbed by Steve Harris that same year down at Tulsa," Sherrod said. "I went out there and he just went to his teammates. I kind of said, 'OK.' That really pumped me up."

* * *

Early games between Richardson and Smithson teams produced interesting guard matchups: WSU's Randy Smithson and Tony Martin against Tulsa's Pressey and Mike Anderson.

Martin would guard Pressey, while the slower Smithson would take Anderson. But Martin usually got in early foul trouble against Pressey, and in a 1981 game had three fouls in nothing flat.

So Smithson took Pressey, with James Gibbs coming in to guard Anderson. The first time down, Pressey took an alley-oop lob and dunked on Smithson.

But it was Pressey's last basket of the game. Mike Kennedy, WSU's radio voice for 16 years, recalls that Smithson guarded Pressey by "stepping on his feet, holding his shirt, anything it took."

"I did whatever I had to do," Smithson said. "I wasn't afraid to bend the rules any to get that accomplished."

* * *

Tulsa's Herb Johnson certainly was no McDaniel, though you have to admit the guy played X pretty well. Battling against McDaniel for four years, Johnson averaged 19.1 points and 8.6 rebounds, including a 32-point night at WSU in 1985.

"He was a 6-10 player who could go out and shoot where the 3-point line is now," Kennedy said. "He was always a tough matchup."

* * *

Cundiff's five-year career at Wichita State had many ups and downs, but no up was as great as the 1987 Valley tournament final at Tulsa.

"I don't think anything could be sweeter than going down to Tulsa and beating them, and having a career night," said Cundiff, who was a senior when WSU beat TU 79-74 in overtime.

Cundiff scored 17 points, including hitting all three of his 3-point attempts. In Eddie Fogler's first season, the Shockers had completed a week of incredible basketball. Twice, WSU made comebacks to win early round tournament games. Then at Tulsa, the Shockers withstood a late rally to win in overtime.

"I think the game was played, in my mind, almost in slow motion," Cundiff said. "It was one of those nights when I got to the right spots and was open and I was jumping in and taking charges. It seemed like it moved so slowly."

In the second half, Tulsa called time-out after WSU had hit three straight shots.

"Eddie was starting to talk to us and (Tom) Kosich leaned over and kissed me on the cheek and yelled, 'You're the man, Gary!' " Cundiff said. "Eddie just busted out laughing. That's about the only time I ever saw him lose it."

* * *

For Kennedy, the thing that stands out in the series was the way that newcomers knew immediately the importance of the game.

"Kids from California, South Carolina, Texas don't normally have a sense of what a rivalry is about," Kennedy said. "With that one, players instantly knew and you saw it on the floor. You had guys trash-talking and antagonistic and they hadn't played the other team before."

There was no more intimidating player than McDaniel. In a game at Tulsa, Kennedy remembers a Tulsa player trying to give McDaniel an elbow. It missed X, but hit teammate Bruce Vanley in the face instead. Richardson accused McDaniel of giving Vanley the shot, so when the teams soon went to a time-out, McDaniel walked over to the TU bench and told Richardson, "(Blank) you."

* * *

Fans have been as much a part of the series as the players. Visiting boosters tussle with the home folk, somebody gets kicked out and the game goes on.

When Richardson brought teams to Wichita, Shocker fans would delight in wearing polka-dot outfits similar to the ones that Richardson fancied (he's picked up his fashion sense a notch since moving to Arkansas).

When WSU traveled to Tulsa, fans would throw play money on the court, jabbing the Shockers for their NCAA violations. A certain student also became adept at dressing up like Gene Smithson - three-piece suit, curly gray hair and money sticking out of his pockets.

"They also had fans dress up in black-and-white prison uniforms," Smithson said, laughing all the time from his office as coach at Central Florida Community College. "Tulsa was by far the hardest on us in the conference."

* * *

Even in the glory years of the series, there weren't many buzzer-beating shots. But in 1988 at Tulsa, WSU's Joe Griffin did his part.

Down 70-67 with three seconds to play in overtime, Griffin came off a screen in the corner just in front of the WSU bench. He shot it as the buzzer sounded and he fell into the bench. Swish, another overtime.

"If you want to call it a Hail Mary shot, go ahead," Griffin said afterwar d. "That's what I'm calling it."

WSU won 79-78 in the second overtime, part of Fogler's 6-3 record against the Hurricane.

"But you know, that's a shot that Joe practiced all the time," Kennedy said.

* * *

McDaniel's games against Tulsa are the things that legends are made of. Twenty-two points, 20 rebounds. Or 19 points, 22 rebounds. Or 35 points, 14 rebounds. Maybe 34 points, 13 rebounds.

"His first four or five years as a pro, he'd always call and talk about Tulsa games," Sherrod said. "He'd mention that they were playing the Lakers, and the electricity and the atmosphere made it like playing against Tulsa."

* * *

Byron Boudreaux, a former Tulsa player, was in El Dorado not too long ago on a recruiting trip. He's an assistant coach at Washington, and he and Butler County Community College coach Randy Smithson sat down for an hour and talked about the old days.

"He said his biggest memory was when X drop-stepped on him and dunked on him," Smithson said. "(Boudreaux) fell down and X came down on top of him, straddling him.

"He said X had those big ol' eyes and bald head, and he threw a punch that ended up about an inch from (Boudreaux). He thought he was done."

Here's hoping the series isn't.

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