KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Lon Kruger goes so far back with Big Eight basketball, he played in Big Eight Holiday tournaments at Municipal Auditorium, long before Kemper Arena or the Sprint Center became the Big Eight's home.
Bill Self played Big Eight hoops, too. He played in that greatest of Big Eight Tournament games, OSU's 93-92 double overtime upset of Missouri in the 1983 finals.
Even Fred Hoiberg, not yet 40 but already coaching his butt off at Iowa State, played Big Eight basketball.
And they all say the same thing when reminiscing about their old league.
The coaching personalities. What a band of colorful characters.
“You had some guys that were absolutely great for our game,” said Self. “That's what I miss as much as anything.”
So many college coaches these days are button-down. Vanilla flavored. Afraid to offer a peek of a personality.
Not so back in the days of Big Eight basketball. Stormin' Norman Stewart at Missouri. Brash Billy Tubbs at Oklahoma. Fiery Jack Hartman at Kansas State. Comedian extraordinaire Johnny Orr at Iowa State. Folksy Eddie Sutton at OSU. Evil Larry Brown at Kansas. Crazy Joe Cipriano at Nebraska.
“You can go down the list a long way,” Kruger said.
Despite our romantic notions, Big 12 basketball is as good as was Big Eight basketball. Teams as great, players as great.
But man, have we fallen short on coaches who could light up a room and jazz up a coliseum.
Sorry, Frank Haith and Billy Kennedy and Scott Drew, but you don't measure up to Cipriano firing off a starter's pistol to get a ref's attention. Or Tubbs taking the microphone to tell fans not to throw things on the floor “regardless of how terrible the officiating is.”
Or Orr walking onto the Hilton Coliseum floor accompanied by “The Tonight Show” theme. Hereeeeeeee's Johnny. Or Sutton telling stories from the Henry Iba days. Or Brown feuding with Tubbs, or Tubbs feuding with Stewart, or Stewart feuding with Brown.
“That was part of the show back then,” said Hoiberg, who played at Iowa State from 1991-95, the latter days of the Big Eight. “It was great. I mean, you probably wouldn't get that in today's game.
“Norm Stewart was a larger than life figure. All those guys were back then as coaches. It was fun to be a part of that, look over at the sideline and see so many legends.”
Maybe Big Eight basketball's format added to the spice. No matter your Big Eight port, you got to know those coaches. All played your team at least twice a year. All came to your arena once.
We're back to the double round-robin. Maybe that will help. Maybe we'll find there's more to Hoiberg than that All-American boy persona we saw 20 years ago as a Cyclone freshman. Maybe we'll find out Texas' Rick Barnes isn't as nice as he seems. Maybe we'll discover that K-State's Frank Martin is even more combustive than he appears.
OSU coach Travis Ford also played Big Eight basketball, a year at Missouri before transferring to Kentucky.
I quizzed all four coaches about their Big Eight memories. I thought they might mention the great atmospheres, at KSU's Ahearn Fieldhouse and OSU's old Gallagher Hall and Hilton Coliseum when it was new and OU's old bandbox Fieldhouse.
And some did. “What great fan support there was everywhere you went,” Ford said.
But when the Big Eight-vets-turned-Big 12-coaches thought back to the old days, they mostly centered on the coaches. And the current coaches even admit things have changed on the personality front.
“Through all the media technology and social media, guys are more reserved on how they talk and how they act.” Self said. “Back then, I thought it was more free flowing, and I thought it created more interest.”
Big 12 coaches aren't all robots. Self can be brutally honest and might be the most media-friendly and public-savvy coach in America today. Ford has his fiery moments. West Virginia's volatile Bob Huggins is on his way to the league.
And like we said, KSU's Martin is a throwback. He would fit in well with the Big Eight days.
But as the Big 12 continues to change, and basketball in the league, while still strong, tries to find its footing, it makes us look back at the stable days of the Big Eight.
And the coaches who remember it look back most fondly on the coaches who were here then. I'm with them.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.