Ken Hayes took an unusual route to his first head job at Tulsa. He went from coaching basketball at Bacone Junior College to coaching baseball at a small school in San Jose and finally landed at Tulsa where he assisted head coach Joe Swank.
Even though he led TU to seven consecutive winning seasons (a school record) and coached more pro athletes than any other Tulsa coach, Hayes was only able to crack the limited post-season NCAA and NIT fields one time. Perhaps that's why Hayes is often referred to as the most underrated coach in school history.
In this conversation, the colorful TU Hall of Famer talks about some of his greatest players and most memorable games.
• Chad Bonham: What do you remember about the circumstances that led to you taking the head coaching job at Tulsa?
Hayes: I was very comfortable as an assistant but like all young coaches, I wanted to sprout my wings and give head coaching a try. The Centenary job opened up. I'll never forget on a Monday morning I went into Coach Swank's office and said, "Coach, with your permission I'd like to apply for that Centenary job." He was very hesitant in replying and shuffled that Skoal around his lower lip a few times and he finally looked at me and said, "Ken, that's where I've been all weekend. I've been in St. Louis and I've accepted the Centenary job." He told me to keep it quiet for a while so I could have the best chance of taking his place.
• Bonham: What led to your success as the Missouri Valley Coach of the Year as first-year coach (1968-69 season)?
Hayes: I inherited some great talent, guys like Bobby Smith, Al Cueto, Rob Washington, Ron Carson and Bruce Davis. One of our best wins was when we beat Cincinnati 57-50. We were down at halftime. It was just an awesome display of defense by the Hurricane in the second half. But that ball club at the end of the year became divided and as a young coach without any experience at all, I didn't know how to handle that situation. Although we were invited to the NIT, it was a bad ending to a great season. These were a bunch of great guys, and I love them very much.
• Bonham: In seven winning seasons, your teams only made that one NIT appearance. Was that a product of the times?
Hayes: We had a lot of teams at The University of Tulsa that in today's format would have been invited to the postseason tournament. But back in those days, you had to win the Missouri Valley Conference and that wasn't easy to do. It's all changed for the better.
• Bonham: What are some of the games you remember most?
Hayes: The second game of the 1970-71 season was against Purdue. We were up by two with just seconds to go and (Rick) Mount took a shot from the baseline but big Dana Lewis went up and blocked it into the stands.
Later that year we lost at (#1-ranked) UCLA 95-75. With just 15 seconds to go in the half, we were down by nine and we were going to go for the last shot. We were going to go into the locker room down either nine or seven and we're still in the ballgame. This is really how explosive they were. They stole the ball and scored. We had a turnover and they scored. We took another quick shot and missed. The bottom line is they scored six points in 15 seconds and we were down 15 at half and for all practical purposes, the game was over.
You talk to longtime TU basketball fans and ask them, "What was the single most exciting play you ever saw at the Fairground Pavilion?" and I'll bet you that nine out of 10 will tell you the same story. We were playing St. Louis (during the 1970-71 season). We were down 10 and it was late in the second half. They stole the ball. Joe Irving had the basketball. Next to (Steve) Bracey, he was probably the fastest player in the Missouri Valley Conference. He stole the ball and somehow Bracey passed him before he got to the free throw line. Irving did the smart thing. He had two guys cutting on either side and if he missed the shot, they were going to dunk it. So he just pulled up at the free throw line and took the shot. Bracey, with his back to him, turned in the air and spiked the ball into the Fairground Pavilion bleachers at mid-court. There was a hush that came over the crowd. Then all of the sudden, I thought the roof was going to come off the place. They couldn't believe what they'd seen and they were stunned. Lo and behold, when they exploded, St. Louis never recovered and we won the game (75-70).
I remember playing Bradley up in Peoria at Robertson Field House (during the 1972-73 season). The court is like a stage and you can hardly see from the bench. We're just getting killed at halftime. They had these old metal army lockers. I had a pocket full of change and I went in and they were all waiting to get chewed out. I took that pocket full of change and I threw it up against those lockers. I said, "Voskuhl, you're the captain. This is your team. I'll be out there when it's over." So I went back to the bench and sat down. As the year went by, I kept hearing stories about what happened in that dressing room. We were down about 12 at halftime and the players came back out. You talk about possessed. We came back and beat Bradley (82-73).
• Bonham: What are some moments you can share about your experience coaching Willie Biles?
Hayes: We were playing at North Texas State and he'd had some 40-point games. Some of the fans and some of the media were saying, "Let Willie break the scoring record." I wasn't the cause of Willie not breaking the scoring record, Willie was. The game was four minutes old and Willie hadn't scored and he hadn't done a whole lot on defense. I thought I'd get his attention so I took him out of the game. Eight minutes into the game, I put him back into the game and he still hasn't scored. With 1:30 left to go in the game, he had 20 field goals and six free throws. That's 46 points. We've got the game won by then. They had a guy named Joel Sasser (father of former SMU player Jeryl Sasser) and he's guarding Willie. Sasser got so frustrated that when Willie was in the air, he turned and hit Willie right in the solar plexus. He just dropped him like a sack of potatoes in the floor. Willie just gets up. He comes over to the bench and I say to him, "Willie, get these guys off my back! Go out there and hit a couple and get 'em off my back!" He said back to me, "Coach, records don't mean anything to me. We've got the game won and these guys work hard in practice. Now's there time to play." I put him back in the game and guess what? He wouldn't shoot the ball. A few nights later, when we drastically needed it against Wichita State, he hits 48. We needed all of them. That's the kind of guy Willie was. (Note: Biles' 48 points broke he and Steve Bracey's record of 47 points. He would match his own record the next season against St. Cloud.)
After his college career, Willie was drafted by San Francisco in the NBA Draft. The San Francisco Warriors could not live without Willie Biles. He could have asked for the Pacific Ocean. They acquired five guards during the offseason including Steve Bracey who had been at Atlanta. Willie played in the exhibition game and led them in scoring but was cut because there was no roster spot. He came back to Tulsa and bottomed out; drugs, alcohol, you name it. When I came back to coach at ORU (in 1979 after coaching four years at New Mexico State), I knew he'd hit the bottom of the barrel. I got him a job but he quit. He was delivering diamonds and he quit because he knew he was going to mess up and he didn't want to embarrass me. The great part about this story is that Willie turned his life around. He's the Director of Parks and Recreation in Memphis. He's probably the most popular person in that city. Some say he would easily win if he ran for mayor. You can't believe the positive impact he's had on the city of Memphis. That's the success story of a guy who will tell you he bottomed out.
• Bonham: Another milestone you enjoyed as head coach was seeing the start of the ORU rivalry. What do you remember about those games?
Hayes: The first game took five years to develop. It was on March 4, 1974, the last game of the season. Two days earlier, we beat West Texas State in Amarillo. Tim Carson, our point guard, actually broke his foot in that game and he was in the hospital and they were going to keep him. He snuck out about midnight. Sunday afternoon, we couldn't have a shootaround. We didn't have enough players to have a shootaround. Carson's broken foot turns out to be a transverse arch sprain and he couldn't walk. He was on crutches. At the pregame meal Monday afternoon before the game, he was on crutches and he was crying and wanted to know if he could sit on the bench. He never warmed up. He was just on the bench with a crutch. Bob Okreszik had the flu. I took him out of the game and they booed me. What they didn't understand was he couldn't breathe. We almost had to take him to the hospital. That's how beat up we were and here we were playing in this big game. In the middle of the second half, we were down by 10. They had a guy named Greg MacDougal and we had all of these injured guys. Carson comes up to me on crutches and says, "Coach, I think I can play." The adrenaline was flowing and just on impulse I said, "Bobo's got to have a rest. He can't breathe. Go see if you can play." Carson was notorious for drawing offensive fouls. MacDougal gets a rebound and Carson gets right out under him with his chin out. MacDougal could not resist the temptation. He just flattened him and the referee saw it. It's our ball out of bounds and we score and the momentum switches right at that moment. With seconds to go in the game, we were down by one and here comes Carson across midcourt. I saw him moving to his left and I knew what was about to happen. He shoots the ball from at least 30 feet out and swishes it. Now we're up one. ORU brings the ball down and a guy named Dewaynes Fox shoots the ball. Sammy High and (Ken) "Grasshopper" Smith both blocked it. They both had their hands on the ball and blocked it with such force that it went into the crowd and its ORU ball again. They ran an inbounds play and lo and behold, Fox gets the ball again and shot an air ball. (Note: Tulsa won the game 85-84).
The next year we also ended the season against ORU. I resigned three days before the game so this was going to be my last game. I knew in September I wasn't coming back, but I didn't tell the players. I didn't want them to think they had to win that game for me to keep my job. And if we lost, I didn't want people to think I'd resigned because we couldn't beat ORU. The University of Tulsa at that time was not a competitive situation. It was a great university and a great city and a conference that was dominated by great teams. (Note: Tulsa won the game 91-83 and finished the season 15-14.)
• Bonham: You mentioned the Fairground Pavilion earlier. What do you remember about playing there?
Hayes: In my 10 years at the university, I never took a recruit to see where they were going to play. No recruit visited the Fairground Pavilion. When we played there, birds would fly through and dump on the floor while you were playing. People smoked and you couldn't see the roof by the end of the game. I can't describe how bad it was. I often wondered how Coach Swank ever got a recruit to come here. We stopped doing shootarounds there and only went there on game days because there was always someone working with the doors open and it was freezing cold. Our players would get sick. Another time there were some workers welding and several players got sick from the gaseous fumes
• Bonham: We talked about a few players already. What can you say about Bobby Smith?
Hayes: You tell me why his jersey isn't hanging in the rafters? This guy played in the NBA All-Star Game. The Cleveland Cavaliers have retired four jerseys in the history of the franchise. They retired Bobby Smith's jersey while he was still playing. They flew me up to be a part of the ceremony. His jersey is hanging up in Cleveland but it's not hanging up in Tulsa.
• Bonham: Dana Lewis.
Hayes: He was one of the most highly recruited guys in the nation. His mother was very religious. She makes him go to ORU his first year. After that, he could go anywhere he wanted to go. The President of ORU was Bill White and he told me that if I wanted Dana, I could contact. I didn't feel right about doing that. He ended up contacting me instead. He told me he was considering going to USC but then decided he wanted to come here. At that point, ORU said they weren't going to give him his release. Dana stayed in Tulsa and got a job hauling hay and scratched up his hands. He paid his own way the first semester at TU by working construction. Finally, Oral Roberts came to me personally after a game and handed me Dan's release in handwriting.
• Bonham: Ken Smith.
Hayes: He didn't know what it was to loaf. Every point was for the national championship. After his NBA career ended with Spurs, he played in England and was still playing in Belgium when he was 46. He was a national hero in Belgium and ended up becoming a citizen there.
• Bonham: Joe Voskuhl.
Hayes: Joe Voskuhl provided more tangibles than any player I've ever coached. I never got the chance to chew Joe out. He was always cussing himself before I could get to him. He was his own worst critic. He knew when he messed up. Joe's son is Jake Voskuhl who played on UConn's championship team and played several years in the NBA.
• Bonham: Rob Washington.
Hayes: Rob Washington was the most physical player I was ever associated with. He would actually butt you with his head. Man was he tough.
Chad Bonham is a 1993 graduate of The University of Tulsa and longtime Broken Arrow (Okla.) resident. He has authored or contributed significantly to 14 published books including Glory of the Games and Golden Hurricane Basketball. Visit his national sports column at features.beliefnet.com/inspiringathletes.