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.”
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