In ceremonies yesterday in the Delta Center, the Western Athletic Conference inducted Jack Gardner into its Hall of Honors. This was not a difficult choice. The ex-University of Utah basketball coach is overqualified for the distinction.
The 486-235 record he accumulated during his 28-year coaching career at Utah and Kansas State is the 65th winningest major college record of all time. He is one of only nine coaches to take two different schools to the Final Four, and the only one to do it twice with each. He's already been inducted into seven other Halls of Fame including the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. And on top of all the above, when Utah, BYU, Arizona, Arizona State, New Mexico and Wyoming lined up for the WAC's inaugural season 30 years ago, in 1962-63, Gardner was one of the original coaches."It seems like that was just yesterday," Gardner, now 82 years old, said Friday as he arrived in Salt Lake from his winter home in Palm Springs. "I never thought I'd be around this long."
Gardner has fond memories of the nine years he coached in the new league until he retired in 1971. He won 149 games and lost just 94 and to this day he remains the only coach to take a WAC school to the Final Four. His only regret - and he can almost say this with a smile now - is that it took the WAC so long to invite the University of Texas-El Paso to join the league.
Every coach has a story about the one that got away. Jack Gardner's is about the 1965-66 season and the first time he became acquainted with the basketball program at UTEP and the Miners' head coach, Don Haskins.
Things were different then. For one thing, UTEP wasn't UTEP in 1965. The El Paso school was called Texas Western at the time. For another thing, Haskins wasn't the 32-year coaching legend with 626 lifetime wins he is today. He was a young 35-year-old head coach with more questions than answers.
As fate had it, Texas Western was playing Utah in a football game late in the fall of 1965 and that prompted Haskins to telephone Gardner and ask if he would mind if he flew to Salt Lake with the football team and spend some time with him.
Haskins knew with whom he was dealing. Gardner was renowned as one of the college game's best fast-break practitioners. He had already ridden the "Runnin' Redskins" to one Final Four appearance, in 1961, and before coming to Utah he had also whipped his 1948 and 1951 Kansas State teams to the Final Four. More significantly to Haskins was Gardner's seemingly unworldly success against Henry Iba, a coach he'd lost to only one time in more than a dozen battles, including the national tournament semifinal game in 1951. Haskins played for "Mr. Iba" at Oklahoma State and considered him the best basketball mind in history. He had a keen desire to meet this great man's nemesis.
Gardner graciously invited Haskins to Salt Lake, where they spent Friday and Saturday together. Texas Western had seen worse weekends. The football team pulled off a miraculous 20-19 win, scoring on a last-second length-of-the-field drive. And the basketball coach got a baptism of immersion as to the intricacies of the fast break.
"Jack was very nice to me. He couldn't have been nicer," Haskins recounted this week as he brought his 32nd Miner edition to Salt Lake for the WAC Tournament. "I'd always been so impressed with him growing up. He beat Mr. Iba an awful lot of times when he was at K-State. Back then, we weren't in the same league. Utah was in the WAC and we were independent. Anyway, I came up to meet him and learn something about the fast break. He took me to dinner the night before the football game and we talked for hours. The next morning I went to (basketball) practice. Jack took me in his office, he showed me all kinds of break films, he showed me his drills."
Basketball historians know full well where this story is leading.
Four months later, when the Final Four convened in College Park, Md., the semifinal games pitted Duke against Kentucky and Utah versus . . . Texas Western.
"Man, was I an All-American chump," says Gardner. "He couldn't have had a better scouting report."
"Jack always thought I had an advantage because I watched his practice that day," says Haskins, who still smiles every time he hears the story. He neither confirms nor denies the charges, saying only, "I do know we were lucky to beat Utah. Jerry Chambers was fantastic. And had Utah won that game I really believe they could have beaten Kentucky. They were every bit as good as Kentucky was."
As it was, unknown Texas Western and its 35-year-old unknown coach beat Utah by seven in the semifinals, 85-78, and then beat Kentucky by seven, 72-65, for the 1966 national championship.
"I still put Jack Gardner in the top five coaches all-time," says Haskins, whose Miners joined the WAC three years later in 1969. "He deserves everything they're giving him."