by Al Blanton
“I never learned to handle losing….I won’t apologize for that because a fear of failure has driven me since my youth and I think a winner gives up something important when he compromises the desire to be the best.” – Wimp Sanderson
Birmingham, AL—There was a time when Alabama basketball meant something. Today’s students at the University of Alabama were mere children the last time Alabama basketball held any sort of significance beyond the borders of Tuscaloosa. Many of them have no clue about Alabama’s decades of winning tradition on the hardwood, or the gallery of players that once lifted the Crimson Tide to national, even worldwide, significance. But long ago, Alabama basketball was not just a fleeting allure for those suffering from post-football blues.
Alabama basketball was alive.
The breathing organism that was Crimson Tide basketball was the trademark of Winfrey Sanderson, known more famously by the one-name title: Wimp.
Wimp might have made a great car salesman, had basketball not been his trade. If anything, Wimp excelled in Marketing 101. And he knew how to deliver a product.
Now thirty years removed from that momentous time, Wimp Sanderson slumps into a sofa in his large upstairs retired coaches den in his pretty white house on a mountain overlooking Birmingham. Today Wimp is in a particularly good mood. He still bitches about the times he got railroaded by a bad referee, still breaks from narratives to scold Maggie, his yapping dog. He is still the surly, self-deprecating, incomprehensible Wimp who would be an interesting case study for shrinks. But on this day, Wimp is a bit more jovial than normal. He delights at telling tales that emanate from his youth, and on several occasions, breaks into uncontrollable laughter. He is hospitable: “Coffee? You want coffee? What do you take in it?” He opens up about religion and the father he never knew. Yet he is still the sincere, raw, heart-on-sleeve Wimp that Alabama fans once adored.
Wimp’s coaching pedigree stemmed from black-and-white, tube-socks-and-polyester era of Rupp and Wooden. He was part of the last gray line of coaches entrenched in the “old school” method of instruction—tough, in-your-face, no holds barred—where water and athletic tape were the poultices to soothe all wounds. Where players weren’t supposed to have feelings and swallowed all the angst from their superiors. Where coaches were like gods.
Over time, those basketballmen often morphed into the impressive dandies who flaunted their panache up and down the sideline during the decade of the 1980s. Their unmistakable flair was so unlike today’s stuffy, well-kempt specimens, they make modern campus basketball seem like a colossal bore. And in many ways, it is. In stark contrast, the eighties basketball coach was flawed (often seriously), overly animated, and slightly insane. Gene Keady, the famous coach at Purdue, boasted a comb-over that began at Kokomo, Indiana, and ended at Hoopeston, Illinois. St. Johns’ Louie Carnesecca donned sweaters that would have inspired a modern-day thrift store. UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian munched on a towel as if it were the finest Nevadan cuisine. NC State’s Jim Valvano won the NCAA tournament and ran across the floor like the building was on fire. Indiana’s Bobby Knight skidded chairs and chewed on the derrieres of referees, and Wimp Sanderson washed Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in varieties of plaid.
From 1980-’92, Alabama was a five-time conference tournament champion and missed the NCAA tournament only once. Nine times, the Tide reached the 20-win plateau, and in ’86-’87, Wimp’s pachyderms rumbled to a 28-5 mark. In this twelve-year process, Alabama slayed a proverbial pantheon of basketball deities: Kentucky, UCLA, St. John’s, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Arizona, Southern Cal, Arkansas, Virginia, and Georgetown. The factory churned out NBA players like IZOD turned out shirts. And Wimp, sporting his perpetual grimace over madras, became legend.
Coleman Coliseum, the 15,000-seat showground that housed this bedlam, wore a plaid circle at midcourt in lieu of the uninteresting script A you see at today’s athletic contests. Frenzied students and other fanatics ransacked the tartan section of local haberdasheries so they could mirror their head coach in sartorial brilliance, and when the Crimson Tide flashed out onto the court in their deep red togs, the gym was a-rockin.’ The Greatest Showman Alive was Wimp, who patrolled the sidelines with all the flamboyance of a lion tamer. Incredulous, thrashing, scowling, pleading, garish, wrathful, jubilant.
Indeed, it was a glorious event. Alabama’s small, semi-tame version of Sin City.
But all of that is gone now.
Barbwire Fences and a Bunch of Wind
In 1954, Winfrey Sanderson boarded a train headed for Abilene, Texas, with a box of chicken and a sack of apples. Sanderson had signed a partial scholarship at Abilene Christian, and before he hit the Mississippi line, he knew he’d made a mistake.
“When I get out there, there wasn’t nothin’ but barbwire fences and a bunch of wind,” Sanderson said.
Out in cowboy country, Sanderson was referred to as “Alabama.” He lived in old Army barracks, attended the Texas State Fair, and pined for his girlfriend back home, Annette, who would eventually become his wife.
Sanderson left Lone Star after only one semester and transferred to Florence State Teacher’s College in his hometown.
Winfrey’s father had died when he was only six, and he was raised by his mother, Christine. The family lived in a one-bedroom apartment on West Tuscaloosa Street, sharing a bathroom with the tenants next door.
His early days of basketball were emblazoned with the theatrics of a game called “hottail.” Similar to the game of 21, hottail added a humiliating element: lose, and you get the ball hurled at your fanny. Winfrey was a smallish boy, and often he “grandmawed” the shot up to the basket.
“All of those guys were bigger than I was, but I did OK,” Sanderson reflects.
At Coffee High School, Sanderson played for Coach Hayden Riley, and the pair developed a lifelong relationship that would eventually pay dividends for the future head coach.
Sanderson and Annette were married in the fall of 1957. After college graduation, Sanderson began to put out feelers for jobs, but because the state of Alabama was fanatical about pigskin, most of the positions required experience in football, of which Sanderson had none.
“I couldn’t find a cotton pickin’ job anywhere,” Sanderson said.
Eventually Hollis Thompson, principal at tiny Carbon Hill High School in Walker County, Alabama, phoned. Sanderson was soon installed as the head basketball coach and assistant football coach in charge of, among other things, recovering fumbles. With respect to the latter responsibility, Sanderson had no idea what he was doing and was, in his own words, “mean as a snake.” To make matters worse, the football team limped to an 0-10 season under new head coach Brick Mason.
The dreadful scowl might have been permanently put in place after I suffered my first defeat as a basketball coach at Carbon Hill High School. It wasn’t easy to smile while staying up three straight nights, trying to figure out what went wrong.
Basketball furnished a much different narrative. With a group of eager, white-legged runts, Sanderson led the Bulldogs to a 25-4 campaign. From the uniforms to the gym to the new head coach, everything related to the Carbon Hill program was Spartan. The gym was frigid until the manager cranked up the gas generator, bum ankles were soaked in scalding hot water, pregame meals included eggs and bacon. Sanderson and Annette lived behind the school in a bland apartment: orange crates functioned as a closet, and a massive cable spool served as the bedside table.
Early on, the Sandersons got a taste of the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of coal country. Two days after the Sandersons arrived in town, Annette took a trip to the grocery store. There, she saw a man lying in the back of a pickup truck, dead.
Welcome to Carbon Hill.
But Sanderson’s time in the high school ranks would be short-lived because Hayden Riley, his old high school coach, became the lynchpin to get him to Tuscaloosa. After Riley was hired as an assistant coach under Eugene Lambert, he began courting Sanderson as a graduate assistant. “They offered me seventy-five dollars a month and would pay for my schooling,” Sanderson said. “When am I ever going to have another chance to go to the University of Alabama? I’ve got to take it.”
Winfrey and Annette packed their few belongings on a coal truck and headed for the Big City. They moved into a place called Bakersfield with barracks converted into diminutive apartments. Because it was hot as blue blazes in that domicile, Sanderson would have to install a window unit in order to survive its brutality. Although the living accommodations were not ideal, one thing was certain in the mind of Winfrey Sanderson: This ain’t Abilene.
Sanderson joined an athletic staff that was chock-full of talent. Walking down the hall of the athletic complex in the early 1960s, the names of Howard Schnellenberger, Gene Stallings, Charlie Bradshaw, Pat James, Phil Cutcheon, Red Drew, and Jerry Claiborne appeared on the doors. But there was no question who was the architect of the athletic program. “I watched in utter disbelief as Paul “Bear” Bryant, the great football coach, cast what could be termed a magical spell over everybody,” Sanderson once said.
Three major events marked Sanderson’s first few years at Alabama. The first was the arrival of a slick quarterback from Beaver Falls, Pa. named Namath. The second was the undefeated 1961 Alabama football season. And the third was Wallace’s Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, an event Sanderson watched from Finus Gaston’s window at the athletic complex.
Sanderson worked under Riley for 8 seasons. The team went 102-104 during that stretch, and in 1968, Bryant decided to make a change. He hired C.M. Newton, the head coach at Transylvania University and former Rupp disciple. Newton had played at Kentucky from 1949-51, his time at UK overlapping with the former Wildcat football coach who was now bringing him to Alabama.
Although Sanderson had been Riley’s top assistant, he felt no sense of disgust when an outsider was brought in to handle the head coaching duties. “I wasn’t very old…didn’t expect to get it,” Sanderson said. “[C.M.] ended up taking the job, and kept me. He kind of had to keep me because I knew where the players were.”
After a 4-20 season in 1968, Newton posited that if he was going to have a successful basketball program, he had to go after the best players in the state—regardless of color. By the time Newton arrived, Alabama had not had an African-American player on the roster, and in 1969, Wendell Hudson became the first. Over the next few years, more black players began to trickle in, and Alabama experienced one of the greatest runs in the history of the program. By 1974, the Crimson Tide sent the first all-black starting lineup in the history of the SEC to the court.
Sanderson was manic on the recruiting trail, logging enough miles on the University tab to travel from Dixie to Timbuktu. With few exceptions, the Crimson Tide essentially owned the state of Alabama in terms of recruiting. Rare was it that the best players escaped to Kentucky or Indiana. Top prospects such as Leon Douglas, Charles Cleveland, and Reginald “Mule” King all made Alabama their home. The results were evident. From 1972-77, Alabama won at least 22 games per year, claimed three SEC championships, and went to the NCAA tournament twice. In 1976-77, the Tide went 25-6 with King and T.R. Dunn.
Plaid Wishes and Caviar Dreams
It won’t take long for you to realize I’m lucky. I’ve been in the right place with the right people at the right time—almost always in the nick of time.
In 1980, when Newton resigned unexpectedly and took a job with the Southeastern Conference, Sanderson was promoted to head coach. “About the only ones that wanted me to have the job were my three boys and Annette,” Sanderson said.
His first year, Sanderson led the Tide to an 18-12 mark behind the quartet of Eddie Russell, Mike Davis, Eddie Adams, and Ken Johnson. A highlight win occurred on January 17, 1981, when the Tide defeated Joe B. Hall’s Kentucky squad—featuring Sam Bowie—at Coleman Coliseum, 59-55.
In ’81-82, Sanderson led the team to a 24-7 record and a berth in the NCAA tournament. In the second round, Alabama faced 29-2 North Carolina and their passel of stars: James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and Michael Jordan. Although the Crimson Tide held Jordan to only 11, UNC walked away with a 74-69 win.
“We got beat in the worst screwing a team could ever have,” Sanderson said, reflecting on the game. “That was one royal screwin’.”
After the game, Sanderson’s solid sport jacket was so soaked in sweat that he rolled it up and tossed it in the garbage can at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh. A superstitious man, Sanderson now began to prefer the patterned look for his on-the-court couture. Eventually a sportswriter featured Wimp’s peculiar artistry in a newspaper column, and the rest is history.
Sanderson began ordering tailored sport jackets and had scouts with eyes peeled for the newest selection. “I started trying to get as different of ones as I could so they’d talk about it,” Sanderson said. “I had to do what I could to get their fannies to the game. The only problem was, it showed me rather than the team.”
Wimp transformed Coleman Coliseum into a raucous arena with this simple marketing tool. Folks wanted to see the man in plaid, certainly, but it didn’t hurt that his teams were winning. From 1982-’92, Alabama won at least twenty games in eight of those seasons.
Sanderson will be the first to tell you that success wasn’t a product of his sublime cerebral leadership; it had more to do with the players. Greats such as Derrick McKey, Mark Gottfried, Jim Farmer, Bobby Lee Hurt, Buck Johnson, James “Hollywood” Robinson, Robert Horry, David Benoit, Keith Askins, Alvin Lee, Melvin Cheatam, Gary Waites, Latrell Sprewell, Jason Caffey, and Michael Ansley all suited up for the Tide.
Throughout those years, Alabama made a regular appearance in the NCAA tournament but never got past the Sweet Sixteen. The Tide fell victim to Lamar (82-83), Illinois State (83-84), N.C. State (84-85), Kentucky (85-86), Providence (86-87), Ole Miss (87-88), South Alabama (88-89), and North Carolina (91-92). But perhaps the most devastating loss was the matchup in 1990 with Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount Lions.
That year, LMU and its high-octane offense tore through the West Coast Conference, posting twenty-five 100-point games along the way. Twice, the team scored over 150 points in a single game. But on March 4 against Portland, Marymount forward Hank Gathers collapsed only a few feet from the Pilots’ Erik Spoelstra. Gathers, who was averaging 29 points per game, was pronounced dead later that night.
In the first round of the tournament against New Mexico State, LMU teammate and friend, Bo Kimble, shot a left-handed free throw in Gathers’ honor. Playing inspired basketball, Kimble essentially lifted the team on his shoulders throughout the postseason. Coming into the Alabama game, LMU was absolutely on fire, having trounced Michigan, 149-115, in the second round.
Because Sanderson didn’t have any film on LMU, he called around trying to procure a tape. When that was unsuccessful, he began calling coaches. “Don’t go up and down with them,” the coaches implored. Sanderson devised a game plan: 1) run the clock a few seconds, and 2) don’t sucked into the vortex of playing fast-tempo.
“I never will forget after the first time out, they were ahead of us like 12-3. I face our crowd, ‘course they are blistering our butt but I don’t give a crap,” Sanderson said.
Eventually ‘Bama would settle down and climb back into the game. The Tide even mustered a six-point lead, 54-48, with 5:00 left on the clock. But in the waning moments, LMU’s Terrell Lowery grabbed a loose ball and stuck it in for the game winner. Although the Tide lost, 62-60, LMU was held to its lowest scoring output of the season.
”It was a hard game for us to hang in on,” Westhead told the New York Times. ”But you have to give a lot of credit to Wimp Sanderson and his team. They forced us to play at their pace.”
Retrospectively, Wimp says that it was a “mistake” to slow the game down. “The last thing I want to do is brag about getting beat 62-60,” he says. “We played the game the way we thought it should have been played. I regret that.”
I never could enjoy the good measure of success we had, a multitude of wins, because I was always fretting over the most recent loss or worrying about the next game.
Such is life for Wimp Sanderson. During a two-hour catharsis, Sanderson mentions the near-misses, the almosts, the mistakes, the foul-tasting defeats, the mistakes he made with players (suspending Robert Horry for the Florida game is one citation) and the cotton pickin’ struggle more than he mentions the occasions that beseeched the rare emotion of joy in his remarkable life. Interestingly, he doesn’t mention Terry Coner’s buzzer-beater against Illinois in ‘86, nor the 69-55 win at Rupp Arena in 1987, nor the tournament win against Arizona in the 1990 NCAAs, nor taking two out of three with Nolan Richardson’s Razorbacks in 1992. Perhaps that would be too braggadocios of him. Perhaps the residue of losing floats to the top of his memory more frequently than the ecstasy of winning.
Regardless, he insists that he looks upon his life with happiness.
The Future of Alabama Basketball
Let’s face it: since Wimp Sanderson left the University of Alabama in 1993, Alabama basketball has been down. This is not to say that the team has not enjoyed years of success. The Mark Gottfried era from ’98-’09 had many bright spots, including a run at the Elite Eight in 2004. But something has always been missing.
It’s the energy, the fire. And the players.
Consider this: Alabama basketball has not had a player drafted in the NBA since Richard Hendrix in 2008– a stat that is almost incomprehensible. It’s no coincidence that the Tide has made it to the NCAA tournament only once in the last 11 years. You can’t expect to build a winning program if you can’t get the players.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of a basketball program because without good players, good coaches will be losers and soon unemployed.
New head coach Avery Johnson seems to have the Crimson Tide headed in the right direction, as his 2017 recruiting class was ranked #7 in the country. In the future, Avery cannot let Alabama natives like Eric Bledsoe, Boogie Cousins, and Joshua Langford defect to other programs.
But it will take more than a couple of good recruiting classes and a few marquee wins to get the attention of the football-mad Alabama faithful.
Avery Johnson will have to do what Wimp Sanderson did long ago.
He’ll have to find his own version of plaid. HA
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*All quotes in italics taken from Sanderson’s book, Plaid and Parquet.