Collinsville's Fletcher was a basketball visionary

Collinsville's Fletcher was a basketball visionary
January 13, 2012, 11:15 pm
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When I was researching my first book, "Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press, I deliberately arranged my first interview with Vergil Fletcher, Collinsville's legendary coach.

To me, no one knew more about the game or could talk about it more eloquently or analytically than Fletcher. While working for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and living in Collinsville from 1966 to 1968, I spent many afternoons in his office listening to one fascinating story after another.

In 2002, I visited him at his home in Collinsville. It was an experience I'll never forget. He invited me to his basement, which turned out to be a museum filled with every kind of imaginable memorabilia...pictures, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, books, manuscripts, trophies, awards and, most interesting of all, dozens of handwritten and typewritten copies of lectures that he had given at clinics and symposiums throughout his career.

I asked him if he had any material on his ball-press defense, the 3-2 or 1-2-2 zone press that he had invented in the early 1950s, the one that helped John Wooden build a dynasty at UCLA, the one that other Illinois high school coaches such as Neil Alexander, Jerry Leggett, Loren Wallace and Ron Ferguson used to help build their successful programs.

Imagine my surprise when Fletcher dug into an old dusty drawer and produced 20 pages of typewritten material titled "Full-Court Zone Press" that included diagrams with handwritten notes in the margins. "Here, take it with you. You might find it interesting," he said.

Interesting? This is the kind of stuff that basketball historians kill for. It's like Ted Williams writing on how to hit a baseball, Mariano Rivera on how to throw a cutter, Johnny Miller on how to shoot 63 in the final round of the U.S. Open, Secretariat on how to win the Belmont by 32 lengths and Don Larsen on how to throw a perfect game in the World Series.

The 20-page package also included a copy of Rudyard Kipling's poem "If," a list of Fletcher's defensive fundamentals, his manifesto on "So You Want To Be An Athlete" at Collinsville and what it takes to be one, his guide on "So You Want To Be A Basketball Player" at Collinsville complete with do's and dont's and training rules and, finally, a binding contract requiring each player to agree to abide by Fletcher's rules.

"I wouldn't change today. I'd just get players who want to play," he told me.

One of his star players, Kevin Stallings, now head coach at Vanderbilt, had an older brother who wanted Fletcher to change his offense to suit his brother. "There's the door," Fletcher told him.

"You've got to be the boss," Fletcher said. "You can't let the players or their parents decide what is best for them or the program."

The father of former player Tracy Wilhoit, a minister, wrote to Fletcher arguing that he shouldn't conduct practice on Thanksgiving. Fletcher told him that he would run the basketball program and the minister should run his church.

Fletcher's definition of a great coach? "Anyone can win with talent. But a great coach is someone who can win when he doesn't have talent," he said.

"The difference between good and great is a little extra effort."

If you're too young to remember Vergil Fletcher...well, you missed a great era in the history of high school basketball in Illinois. He wasn't the most popular coach. Neither was Evanston's Murney Lazier, who was to football what Fletcher was to basketball. They won more than anyone else. And they did it in a fashion that left their peers in awe.

When Fletcher showed up on Friday night in his usual suit and tie, you got the feeling you were sitting in a large classroom and the professor was getting ready to deliver a two-hour lecture on how the game should be played. He ran a triangle offense for the last 20 years of his career, long before Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls made it famous.

In introducing his lecture on the ball-press defense, Fletcher said: "The element of surprise can spell the difference in basketball. Pulled at the right time, an unanticipated move can turn a game around. Especially devastating in this respect are full-court pressure in general and the full-court zone press in particular. A good full-court zone press is particularly valuable to the coach. Since its execution is similar to the regular zone, it can be easily learned and thus save valuable practice time. In addition, it capitalizes on two other regular zone advantages, namely, pass interceptions and the anticipation of play development."

Bert Weber, who served as Fletcher's assistant from 1956 to 1963, recalled when his old boss went to a file cabinet in 1958 and removed an old copy of papers that had "Ball Press" written on it. "He started to look at it and then said: 'Let's try this. Let's put this in tonight.' It was the 1-2-2 zone press. He called it the ball press," Weber said.

"The trick was to anticipate where the ball was going, then intercept it. It was all about pressuring the ball. The positioning on the floor was determined by where the ball was. He had a drill almost every night with a 1-2-2 setup. As soon as he drew his arm back, the two back men would fly back to intercept a pass when the other team tried to beat the defense."

It was never more evident than in 1964-65 when Collinsville won the state championship with a team that wasn't supposed to be there. The Kahoks lacked size and featured only one Division I player, Dennis Pace, who later played at Illinois. In December, they lost to Decatur MacArthur in a game that Fletcher said was the worst performance in school history. But they regrouped. No team executed the ball press better. The Kahoks set a school record for steals.

"Once you understand what possible passes can occur in relation to where the ball is being pressure, then positioning for a pass interception becomes much easier," Fletcher said. "Keeping the ball on the side of the court and away form the middle also reduces the possibility of indecision as to which flanker should double-team."

In 1971-72, Thornridge unveiled its version of the zone press. The element of surprise was as fundamental to its success and it was devastating. Opponents knew it was coming but didn't know when. They played in fear, always looking over their shoulder, wondering when Quinn Buckner & Co. would spring the trap. It was never more suffocating than in the state final when the Falcons outscored Quincy 32-11 in the second quarter en route to a 104-69 victory, still the gold standard of all state championships.

Fletcher retired in 1979. He wanted to give up teaching and the athletic director's job and just coach. But the school board voted 5-2 against him. The only votes in his favor were his wife Violet and school superintendent Fred Riddle Sr., father of Fred Riddle, one of the stars of Fletcher's unbeaten 1961 state championship team. He wanted 100 percent suppoort and didn't get it. So he quit. He was 62.

In 36 years, he won 794 games and lost 216, a winning percentage of .814. His only regret was that he wasn't able to coach long enough to surpass the then state record of 809 victories set by Arthur Trout at Centralia. He always felt that, if allowed to coach one more season, he had enough talent to surpass Trout's mark.

His all-time team? Terry Bethel, Rodger Bohnenstiehl and Bogie Redmon on the front line with Charlie Kraack in reserve. Tom Parker at shooting guard and Marc Fletcher at point guard with Chuck Knarr in reserve.

Fletcher died in 2009. He was 93.

"He was literally one of a kind," Stallings said. "I can't begin to express the greatness that existed in him, how effortlessly it came out and how graciously he molded young men's lives. I'm just one of hundreds and hundreds."