February 13, 2014
Tiger Den Basketball
Personal Fouls, Peter Golenbock (1989)
Jim Valvano entered the 1977-8 season as coach at Iona University with his job on the line.
In his third recruiting year, after two so-so seasons, Valvano hit the jackpot. His first big score was in convincing Glenn Vickers, a six-foot-three-inch forward from Babylon, Long Island, rated the best player on the island, to come to Iona. Vickers had led Babylon High to two straight Long Island championships and was being courted by Southern Methodist University, the University of San Francisco, and several school in the Ivy League.
Valvano's tactic was to recruit Vickers' father, William, as hard as he did the son. Valvano promised William Vickers that his son would be the player around whom his entire program would be built. He also convinced the senior Vickers that it would be in the son's best interest to go to college near home. ...
Once Vickers signed up, Valvano was able to recruit a bruising young six-foot-ten center with a body of granite by the name of Jeff Ruland. Ruland, a senior at Sachem High School in Ronkonkoma, Long Island, averaged 29.5 points a game as a senior. Ruland later said that he respected Vickers' game so much that he wanted to play college ball with him.
First, though, Valvano would have to sell him on Iona. One of the ways he did it was to convince the boy that as coach he would be like a surrogate dad. Ruland's own father, Kenneth, once had been a talented baseball player, but the two were never close. The father died of a stroke in 1967, when Jeff was nine. ... He had been let down by someone he was supposed to trust, his father, and he would never forgive him for it. Valvano rushed in to fill that void. In so many words Valvano promised that if Ruland came to Iona he would be the dad Jeff Ruland never had.
As with Glenn Vickers' dad, Valvano played on the natural parental urges. He convinced Ruland's mom that if her boy went to Iona, close to home, he would be well taken care of, better than if he went to one of the faraway colleges that wanted him: Kentucky, Indiana, Notre Dame, and North Carolina.
Valvano told her, "The scholarship is good, even if he breaks his legs tomorrow." Said Mrs. Ruland Swanson, "Valvano cared about him as a person. You can't con me on Jeffrey."
Ruland, it turned out, was far the greater-impact player than Vickers. By his sophomore year, Ruland was rated by one professional scout as perhaps "the best college center in the country" and a "sure-fire first-round NBA pick."
The two boys' freshman year was a success but still a disappointment, because Ruland seriously hurt his ankle and missed part of the season. Also, some of the upperclassmen rebelled at the special treatment accorded the two star frosh recruits by the coaches. Both started, and it didn't sit too well with the returnees, who also complained that Vickers and Ruland were getting all the publicity.
After Iona lost to Holy Cross in a game marked by bickering among the Iona players, Ruland went home and told his mother, "We're dropping out."
Vickers and Ruland were planning to transfer together to one of the Ivy League schools that had recruited Vickers. It was a serious enough move that Valvano went before the rest of the squad and told them the two were leaving the team.
But that night he was saved by his parental admirers. Mrs. Ruland Swanson and William Vickers met with their sons at her workplace, Ernie's Tavern, named after her fourth husband, and at the meeting, Ruland's mom told her son, "I didn't raise no quitter. Now you two get back to Valvano, or I'll break your legs." Her loyalty may well have saved Valvano's career aspirations from being short-circuited.
With his two stars back, Valvano acted quickly to heal the schism on the team. With Iona playing an exhibition game against the Australian National Team, Valvano had Vickers and Ruland sit out the game - he told the rest of the squad they were hurt. After Iona was badly beaten, outshot and outrebounded, the other team membes, while still dismayed by the star treatment Ruland and Vickers were getting from the coaching staff - Ruland especially - at least had a fuller appreciation of what their teammates meant to the team's success.
"The rest of the squad realized we couldn't win without Rules and Vick," said Valvano. The end-of-year tally read seventeen victories and ten defeats, and though Iona didn't make any postseason tournaments, Valvano was fortunate to have his team intact for the 1977-78 season.
The following two seasons, the Gaels made the NCAA Tournament, losing in the 1st Round in '79 but moving to the 2nd round in '80. His success at Iona earned Valvano a promotion to North Carolina State, where he led the Wolfpack to a surprising NCAA Championship in 1983.