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    Man in Plaid, Alabama's Sanderson Was No Wimp

    When the NCAA basketball rules committee implemented a 28-foot coaching box to prevent coaches from tailing referees to midcourt like yapping dogs chasing Cadillacs, rulesmakers never realized they provided an ideal stage for master thespian/basketball coach Winfrey “Wimp” Sanderson.

    From 1981-92 as Alabama’s coach, Wimp, with 267 wins and five SEC tournament championships, plyed his trade in an era when SEC sidelines were like old-time riverboat casinos full of colorful characters that had aces hidden up their sleeves. Like Wimp, Auburn’s Sonny Smith, Florida’s Norm Sloan, Georgia’s Hugh Durham and LSU’s Dale Brown put every ounce of their energy, personality and coaching savvy on the line every game.

    No coach, though gave fans their money’s worth than Wimp. He would scowl so hard it made your face hurt watching him.

    One minute, he’d furiously stomp the court like a man trying to kill a colony of fireants. The next instant, he’d glide the length of the coaching box like a moonwalking Michael Jackson. And occassionally, as a man done wrong by those dastardly whistle-tootin’ zebras, he’d fall to his knees, incredulous with an “Are you kidding me?” look, followed by the crestfallen “How can do that to me?” big finish pose.

    But Wimp’s signature move was speedwalking to the left end of the coaching box near the scorers’ table. He’d slam on the brakes, glance at his feet, and toe the line marking the end of the box. Then, like an Olympic ski jumper launching off a ramp and trying to get extra distance, Wimp would lean his body as far over the line as possible without toppling over, jutting his angry, scrunched face in the direction of the nearest unfortunate official.

    “Yeah, I’d get on that line pretty good,” says Wimp with a chuckle, now 73 and retired after almost four decades as a college head coach and assistant.

    Wimp’s sideline theatrics had purpose. Not only did it sell tickets or “put fannies in seats” (that’s WimpSpeak), it let his teams know he always had their backs. Subsequently, his players returned the favor by playing as hard as he coached.   

    Above all, the man could coach.

    Not only did Wimp average 22.3 wins per season at Alabama, but he also took his teams to the finals of the SEC tournament in nine of the 12 years he guided the Crimson Tide. His five tourney titles are only matched by former Kentucky coaches Adolph Rupp, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith.

    “Regardless of what kind of regular season we had, we always emphasized the postseason with our kids, that it’s a brand new season,” Wimp says. “And regardless of how you feel about the SEC tournament, the winner was regarded as the league champ at that time and got the automatic NCAA tournament bid. We told our team we were playing for an SEC championship. We talked about championship rings, and the players liked that.”

    The fact that Wimp built such a consistently successful program at a school historically dominated by football, and in a state where basketball isn’t a high media priority, even in-season, was nothing short of a miracle.

    So was the fact that Alabama finally decided to hire Wimp before the 1980-81 season to succeed C.M. Newton. Wimp, a native of Florence, Alabama, and a 1959 graduate of Florence State (now the University of North Alabama) where he averaged 14.9 in his three-year career, had been a Crimson Tide assistant for 20 years. He spent his first eight seasons under Hayden Riley and the last 12 under Newton.

    Over the years, Wimp had been in the mix for various head coaching openings, interviewing at Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi and Iowa State to name a few.

    Yet when the Alabama job came open with Newton resigning to take a job with the SEC office in Birmingham, Wimp was in a pickle. He had been offered Tennessee Tech’s head coaching vacancy.

    “The president of Tennessee Tech called me and wanted to have a press conference on a Wednesday,” Wimp says. “I turned him down. I said, `Look, I’ve been at Alabama too long and I’ve put a lot of work in here.

    “I knew it was a gamble going after the Alabama job, because sometimes after 20 years, you don’t get the job. There are people who want to hire a name coach. I knew my time was running out, because my age might be a factor.

    “I remember going to the Final Four that year (the annual site of the NABC coaches convention) and I had a coaching buddy ask me what I was going to do, take the Tennessee Tech job or wait for Alabama. I told him, `I’m rolling the dice. If I get it (the Alabama job), fine, and if I don’t, I’ll put what belongings I’ve got in a paper sack and hit the door.’

    “But the (Alabama) job finally fell my way.”

    One of the reasons was Wimp had the blessing of legendary Crimson Tide football coach Bear Bryant, which in Alabama was like the Pope giving a double thumbs-up.

    “Having Coach Bryant on your side always helped a lot,” Wimp says. “And people I had worked with in recruiting, like high school coaches, were supportive of me.”

    By Wimp’s second season in 1981-82, he had Alabama back in the NCAA tournament after a six-season absence. His 24-7 team, led by Eddie Phillips, the first of Wimp’s first-round NBA draft choices, did the impossible. It beat Kentucky in the finals of the SEC tournament, 48-46, in Rupp Arena, the Wildcats’ home floor.

    How did the Crimson Tide take the sudden jump into the SEC’s hoop elite?

    “We had good high school players in the state of Alabama, and I had recruited all those years as an assistant and in-state high school coaches liked me a lot, because they had dealt with me,” Wimp recalls. “So when I became a head coach, I made sure I continued to do my part in recruiting.

    “Regardless of what people think, you don’t win with bad players. You win with good players. We had some darned good assistants who helped get those darned good players.

    “People used to say, `It’s no wonder Wimp won all those games, just look at all the great players he had.’ My answer was always, `If you’re going to coach, you better get you some of them, because they really help you.’ I’ve never apologized for having good players.

    “I also believed you had to coach to your personality. Of course, (former Auburn coach) Sonny (Smith, Wimp’s good friend) would tell you I have no personality.”

    Wimp’s team did take on his competitiveness. It led with its chin and never backed up an inch. Like its coach, who had been turned down for several head coaching jobs when he was an assistant, Alabama often played like it had been a point to prove.

    “Wimp had the unique ability to get his teams to play hard,” says Mark Gottfried, who started 98 consecutive games as an Alabama guard for Wimp from 1984-87, then returned to Tuscaloosa in 1998 as head coach for 11 seasons. “We never did anything real complicated offensively and defensively, and we only played about seven guys, because Wimp never liked a deep bench.

    “We were as simple as can be. But we defended well and we took great shots.”

    In retrospect, Wimp realizes he was hard on his teams, hoping some of his former players appreciated him more years after they played for him.

    “It’s like you’re home with your momma and daddy, and you don’t approve of everything they’ve done with you,” Wimp says. “But when you leave home and have kids of your own, you have to be a daddy and you have to understand how to be tough.

    “Our identity is we had good players who played hard and with discipline most of the time.”

    That’s often easier said than done, considering Alabama’s talent. Wimp had 16 players drafted by the NBA, including seven in the first round.

    One of those first rounders, forward Robert Horry taken No. 11 overall by Houston in the 1992 draft, retired after the 2007-08 season having won seven NBA championship rings with three teams (Rockets, Lakers and Spurs). It’s the most championships won in NBA by an individual player that didn’t play for the Boston Celtics’ dynasty of the 1960s and early 70s.

    “Robert was a real smart kid in the classroom and on the court,” Wimp says. “Sometimes, he was a bit hard to handle. Once before the start of the 1991 SEC tournament in Nashville, he and I had a disagreement and I had to suspend him for the opening game against Florida. Our whole team was mad at me, because they thought suspending Robert would knock us out of winning the tournament.

    “At halftime against Florida, we’re down by 17 points. But we came back and won it, and the next day against Auburn, I think I put Robert in the game right after the national anthem. We ended up winning the tournament.”

    Alabama stayed driven year in and year out, because that was Wimp’s nature. His public persona was Ebenezer Scrooge with a whistle, a man with permanently-planted furrowed forehead. The times he did smile, he looked like he was in pain, because he coached in anguish. He constantly wanted to prove he was better than the opposing head coach, demonstrating on a nightly basis that a lifelong assistant could whip the tails of marquee-name bench bosses.

    “When I took over that job, I made up my mind that I was going to do everything to make it successful,” Wimp recalls. “That was good, but it was also my downfall.

    “There are some coaches that coach and a loss might not bother them on the outside. I hated the losses and didn’t handle them well. And I couldn’t even enjoy the wins, because I was worried about the next game.”

    He fretted, because he knew he was swimming with sharks at a time when the SEC was 10 teams with no divisions and an 18-game schedule. The league had Final Four coaches like Brown and Durham, Sloan had won an NCAA title previously at North Carolina State and Smith had five straight NCAA tourney appearances.

    “We didn’t have silk suits and handkerchiefs in the pockets like coaches do now,” Wimp says. “We were just a bunch of guys trying to win and build programs at places that had great football. The whole SEC was great in football.”

    Maybe Wimp played the angry coach bit sometimes past the point of no return. But he also knew if his sideline antics and trademark plaid sports jackets hyped the crowd to create the support he felt his players deserved, he was willing to take it to the limit.

    “The plaid jacket caught on by accident,” Wimp says. “I liked wearing plaid, I wore it once, someone wrote about it, I wore it again, more writers wrote about it and soon fans were coming to the game wearing plaid. I didn’t want that to take away from the players, but if it sold tickets and helped us win, that was way we needed to go.”

    Gottfried says he’d constantly get questions if Wimp was always dour and glum, a living, breathing Eeoyre the Donkey straight from Disney’s Winnie the Pooh.

    “People would ask me if Wimp scowled all the time,” Gottfried says. “They would anticipate me replying, `Yeah, he’s a real jerk who’s always negative.’ But he was nothing like that. He’s a great person with a big heart. He’s funny. (Jim) Farmer and I would laugh all the time at him.

    “But he got you to play hard.”

    Especially in the SEC tournament when Wimp won 78.1 percent (25-7) of his games, the second best record in league history and the best since the SEC re-started its postseason tournament in 1979 after a 26-year absence.

    During one remarkable stretch, Wimp’s teams advanced to the SEC championship game seven times in eight years. That included four straight from 1989 to 1992 when his team won the title three consecutive times.

    “Basketball is a tournament game,” Wimp says. “But winning the league tourney was even harder back then because you had that 18-game regular season league schedule. One year (1986-87) with Mark Gottfried, Jim Farmer and that bunch (which finished 28-5 after losing in the NCAA’s Sweet 16), we won 19-of-21 SEC games when you count the SEC tournament.”

    Gottfried, now an analyst on ESPN’s syndicated SEC Network, says one of Wimp’s secrets of post-season success was that he didn’t overprepare.

    “Wimp was real good at the end of the year, because he was smart about shortening practices,” Gottfried says. “He always wanted us to have fresh legs. There was nothing magical about it.”

    Alabama’s average victory margin in Wimp’s five SEC tourney championship game victories was 11.8 points, highlighted by back-to-back 19-point finals wins in 1990-91 against Ole Miss and Tennessee respectively.

    In what was Wimp’s last game ever in the SEC tourney, his Crimson Tide got hammered, 80-54, by Kentucky in the 1992 finals in Birmingham. That was the first year of the newly-expanded 12-team SEC, which added Arkansas and South Carolina, splitting into two six-team division.

    There were a couple of good reasons why Wimp sustained his worst SEC tourney loss ever that day.

    The first was the Rick Pitino-coached Wildcats had a team loaded with seniors and led by future NBA star Jamal Mashburn. It was a UK team eventually lost to Duke, 103-102, in the East Regional finals on Christian Laettner’s 17-foot turnaround jumper at the buzzer.

    The second reason Alabama didn’t have much of a chance against Kentucky was it physically had nothing left in the tank for the Sunday finals. The day before in Saturday’s semis, Alabama edged Arkansas, 90-89, in a game still regarded as one of the best in league tourney history.

    Consider that until that point, in the 32 previous SEC tournaments, there had been only two games in which both teams scored 90 or more points. And both those games took place in the ’79 semifinals.

    The 1992 Alabama-Arkansas semifinal showdown featured six players who became first-round NBA draft choices – Arkansas’ Todd Day, Oliver Miller and Lee Mayberry, and Alabama’s Robert Horry, Latrell Sprewell and James “Hollywood” Robinson.

    It was the Hogs’ first season in the league, blitzing the competition with coach Nolan Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” relentless fast-break, pressing attack. But Alabama had the catquick Robinson pushing the tempo and greyhounds like Sprewell and Horry filling the fast break lanes.

    So when the two teams met, they both went at each other at about 100 miles an hour, blowing up and down the court on every possession, trying to tear down the backboard with any available dunk attempt. Arkansas’ Day scored 39 points, which still ties him for the second most ever in a SEC tourney game, hitting some three-point shots so far out they should have counted four points.

    Alabama trailed Arkansas by four points at 89-85 with 38 seconds left when Sprewell hit a jumper. Wimp ordered his team to foul the Hogs’ Roosevelt Wallace, a suspect foul shooter. Wallace missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw chance, the Tide rebounded and Wimp called timeout to design a play.

    “We come out and as it turns out, the ball ends up in Hollywood Robinson’s hands,” Wimp recalls with a laugh. “Now Hollywood wouldn’t throw the ball to his mother if she was open and standing by herself.

    “But he drives the lane and Elliot Washington is open in the left corner. He’s a kid I signed to replace a kid from North Carolina I wanted to sign, but at the last minute went to North Carolina State.

    “So over in that left corner, there’s Elliot. And Hollywood actually passes it to him. So when Elliot shoots a three-pointer, I run down to the baseline, I look up at Elliot’s shot and say, `I do believe that booger-bear is going in.’ And it did to win the game.”

    One of the few regrets of Wimp’s career was never advancing in the NCAA tournament past the Sweet 16. He was 0-6 in regional semifinals, the closest call in 1990 when the seventh-seeded Tide lost to No. 11 seed Loyola Marymont, 62-60, in the West Regional semis.

    There was also that goofy year in 1986 when the NCAA selection committee put three SEC teams – Alabama, Kentucky and LSU in the Southeast Regional. Each team advanced to the Sweet 16 in Atlanta, where Kentucky edged Alabama, 68-63, before losing to Cinderella No. 11 seed LSU, 59-57 in the finals.

    “I’m disappointed we never could get by that game,” says Wimp of the Sweet 16 losses.

    But as Gottfried says, Wimp’s NCAA tourney shortcomings shouldn’t detract from his legacy. Having replaced the coach (David Hobbs) who replaced Wimp at Alabama and having coached the Crimson Tide for 11 seasons through 2009 (with five NCAA tourney bids), Gottfried has a unique appreciation for the foundation his old coach built.

    “Basketball is a hard sell at Alabama,” Gottfried says. “It’s harder job than people realize, because football dominates headlines most of the year. But Wimp did a phenomenal job.

    “Look at his numbers. He was very underappreciated, and a lot of SEC coaches have been that way. Take their record and resumes, erase their names and put them in the Big Ten at Michigan, Illinois or Iowa, you’d have a different national perception of coaches like Wimp.”



     
     

    Ron Higgins Bio

    •  Ron Higgins of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis has covered the SEC for more than 30 years.
       
    •  He’s a 1979 graduate of LSU and son of former LSU sports information director Ace Higgins.

    •  He is a past president of the Football Writers Association of America and an eight-time honoree as the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Writer of the Year.

    •  Working for The Commercial Appeal, Tiger Rag Magazine, the Shreveport Times, the Shreveport Journal, the Morning Advocate in Baton Rouge and the Mobile Register, he has won more than 150 national, regional and state writing awards. He has also written and co-written two books.
         
    •  Higgins is married to the former Paige Blanchard, also an LSU graduate, and has two sons, Carl, a Southeastern Louisiana University graduate who is serving in the military, and Jack, a high school student.