Sunday, February 03, 2002

SULLIVAN: Loyalty to Jucker endures

By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The letter was dated Sept.8, 1996, and it meant so much to George Wilson that he put it in a frame and placed it on a high shelf among his mementos. Wilson prizes this particular piece of parchment because it contains a compliment from an old coach.

        He prized it a little more Saturday afternoon. His old coach had died.

        “You're the only player I've ever coached who could play every position equally as well,” Ed Jucker wrote. “You knew how to win and how to use your outstanding skills to get the job done. I always look forward to seeing you and your cheerful smile.”

        Jucker ended the letter with a postscript: “No curfew tonight.”

        Forty years have passed since the University of Cincinnati Bearcats were the class of college basketball, but time has only tightened the bonds that helped bring them consecutive national championships in 1961 and 1962. The players had been trying to organize a trip to South Carolina to visit their ailing coach, but his condition deteriorated too quickly.

        Ed Jucker was 85. Had he lived to be 1,000, however, he might never have encountered another coach who could win so much so soon.

        Oscar Robertson had finished his college career when Jucker replaced George Smith as head coach of the Bearcats. He won the next two NCAA titles and lost the third by two points in overtime. Before John Wooden became the Wizard of Westwood, Ed Jucker was the Colossus of Clifton.

        “Juck came in and said, "You're all in this together,'” said Paul Hogue, who captained the 1961-62 team. “He said: "You look around, you don't see Oscar. What we're going to get done here, we're going to get done around us.' If Jucker said it, you believed it.”

        The trademark of his teams was defense. During the 1962 NCAA Tournament, the Bearcats held three straight opponents to 46 points. With the exception of a disastrous foray into zone defense against Bradley, Jucker's Bearcats played almost exclusively man-to-man. They beat Ohio State in back-to-back championship games by controlling the pace and generally limiting their shots to layups.

        “I can still see him, with the guys lifting him up, and him raising his fist to the ceiling and shaking it two or three times,” former UC coach Tony Yates said Saturday. “He was high-spirited about those victories.”

        Ed Jucker was high-spirited, period. Before college basketball evolved into a culture of celebrity coaches, Jucker was among the most colorful figures in the game. More than once, he'd stride over to the scorer's table and push the button that sounded the buzzer that stopped the game.

        “One year, I think, the guys bought him a present — a high stool with seat belts on it,” Tom Thacker recalled. “He was one of the most animated coaches I ever saw in my life. He'd get excited about everything. He'd shout at us, shout at the referees, shout at everybody. He couldn't keep his composure.”

        If Jucker spent much of his coaching career at the top of his lungs, the source of his success was the bottom of his heart. Several former Bearcats referred to Jucker as a surrogate father, a paternal presence who would shoot for milk shakes against his players. and who'd put himself in harm's way to shield them.

        “I thought we were going to get killed in Houston,” Larry Shingleton said. “They had an All-American by the name of Gary Phillips. He was guarding Thacker. This is early in the game. Thacker gets him up in the air and Phillips comes down on his back and he's on the floor and he can't play. The people were throwing oranges, money, everything. Juck questioned the parenthood of one of Houston's policemen for not protecting us.”

        Ed Jucker was, above all, a players' coach. His record indicates he was also a coach's coach.

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or e-mail:

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