On first glance, this Saturday evening seemed like any other at Scholz's beer garden. Groups sat under the trees laughing and drinking pitchers, others sat alone at the bar, glancing up absently at SMU and Tulsa duking it out in the WAC. But this night, Feb. 28, (1998) differed from others, for in the back room of this ancient Austin tavern, something rare was taking place. A group of men and their families had gathered to celebrate a moment they had created together twenty years earlier, when they were hardly more than boys. Now, they are approaching middle age, some still in playing shape, others fighting the battle of the bulge, some doing a better job than others of hanging on to their hair. But then, in 1978, this group of athletes claimed the only national basketball title ever earned by a Longhorn team, winning the National Invitational Tournament with a four-game sweep of Temple, Nebraska, Rutgers and N.C. State, the final two in New York's Madison Square Garden.
They all came this weekend -- Tyrone Branyan, Jim Krivacs, Johnny Moore, Ron Baxter, John Danks, Ovie Dotson, Gary Goodner -- and another fellow, too; a crusty old quipster named Abe Lemons, who, in his inimitable way, took these Horns north that year to shock the old guard of east coast basketball. Texas finished 26-5 in 1978, but got locked out of the then 32-team NCAA tournament after losing to Houston 92-90 in the SWC tourney final. Nobody expected them to make much noise in the NIT, but what a racket they made, knocking off three east coast biggies on its way to the title. Assistant AD Bill Little, the only UT administrator at Scholz's this night, traveled with the '78 team to the Big Apple. With obvious affection, he told Clendon Ross and me that Lemons virtually owned the scoffing Yankees by tournament's end. The gleam in Little's eye and the shake of his head said, "man, you shoulda been there." Baxter told us the Horns caught late bulletin-board material on the cab ride to the Garden before their semi-final game when they heard the Rutgers coach say on the radio he thought UT would go quietly. Then, Baxter said, teen-aged scalpers tried to sell them tickets to their own game as they walked in the Garden door. Mistake.
Earlier on this day, The University honored the '78 team, from managers to coaches, at halftime of the Horns' 81-63 home loss to Colorado. In the Burnt Orange room immediately after the Colorado game, Lemons held the crowd spellbound with his incredible non-stop, 30-minute monologue of tall-tales, one-liners, and zingers which had people dripping tears of laughter. ("I don't think we should do this thing again in ten years; I won't be here and its probably just as well, the guys are so fat now, in ten years we won't have room for 'em"). In full-force yarn mode, Lemons makes Leno seem about as funny as Al Gore.
So on what may be his last Austin visit, did Lemons act like he'd made peace with being ousted? You be the judge. Lemons told of the time he had taken his team up to Arkansas and made a stop in a local saloon where a barfly recognized him. "You're the coach of Texas," the man said. "That's right," Abe replied. "I hate Texas," the man said. "So do I," Abe answered. "Whaddya mean," said the man. "You're their coach." "I know, but at my age, you take work where you can find it. As soon as I can I'm gettin' outta there!" He also referred to UT as a "graveyard for coaches," and wished football coach Mack Brown luck in winning but warned him he better win fast. His words showed he still harbors a grudge towards those who condemned him for the poor graduation rate of his players. He said a college degree is great, but it's not the determinant of a person's character, nor his ability to make himself into a success as a person. Lemons also revealed that the charge by some that his team lacked discipline and he had no rules still rankles him. "Can anyone here tell me what a good rule would be?" he asked the packed Burnt Orange room crowd. No response. "See," he said. "If all of you can't come up with one, how am I supposed to?"
But don't take this wrong. These were not the bitter ramblings of a defeated man, but the sage observations of one who lived the highs and lows of coaching at a high stakes program like Texas. And the crowds ate up every word, because Lemons wrapped his brass knuckled shot to the chin within the velvet glove of humor. So by the end, you just wanted to catch your breath, hug the guy and say to him, thanks for being here. And, for the record, Baxter, who's now a communications consultant with Lucent Technologies in Austin, told us the undiscplined business is bunk. He described drills Lemons made the team run that had my tongue hanging out from hearing about it.
Later, at Scholz's, people laughed when Abe spoke, but when he finished, they shed the other kind of tears. Lemons has Parkinson's, which causes his hands to shake, ("It's alright, people just think I've finally got rhythm"), and he said he didn't think he'd be gettin' south of the Red River again. So being at Scholz's this night meant a little more to those who attended; it meant getting what might be the last chance to honor the man who achieved greatness for Texas basketball but who ultimately got tossed on his can. Seeing him fighting off his condition put a lump in the throat. After Lemons finished his remarks, his voice falling off almost to a whisper, John Danks took his exhuasted coach by the arm and helped him into his chair, where a line formed of those who wanted to touch him and wish him well.
A little later, as the party picked back up, I stood right behind Moore, Baxter and Krivacs as they cut-up watching a video of their 101-93 win over the Wolfpack twenty years ago. That, my friends, was a real Boogie Night. Those guys wore their shorts skin-tight and their hair late-70's long, but they played basketball like a house a'fire. The difference between the crispness of the team I saw on tape that night and the futility of the team I'd seen fall to Colorado earlier that day seemed pretty stark. But I'm not here to rag on the current group of kids; Tom Penders knows he's got work to do, and judging by the Runnin' Horns gut-check performance in the Big XII tournament, the '98 team at least provides hope for a turn around next year. No, this column is meant to celebrate Abe and his '78 Champions. Here's to you guys; thanks a bunch for the memories.