Abe Lemons' "Shorthorns" Climb New Heights

Abe Lemons ushered in the up-tempo, high-scoring style that is so popular with fans in the 1970s while moving the team from Gregory Gym to what is now known as "The Drum". Part One sets up the season and covers non-conference play.

Under Tom Penders, Texas basketball was known as the "Runnin' Horns." But the up-tempo, high-scoring style so popular with fans and generating many victories had already visited Austin in the 1970s, entering in the form of a highly humorous but deadly serious coach named Abe Lemons. Under his guidance, a program mired in losing with a facility to match, Longhorn basketball took on new life in multiple ways.

By 1976, Gregory Gym and UT hoops had conspired to create a gloomy atmosphere for the relatively few followers of the program. As Leon Black had led the Longhorns to three straight losing seasons, including 9-17 most recently, athletic director Darrell Royal made the switch.

Abe Lemons had won a lot of games between Oklahoma City University and Pan-American, but could he win at the top level in a place where basketball was, at most, a distraction until football spring training? As the colorful, longtime sports information director Jones Ramsey had stated, "At Texas, we have two sports: football and spring football."

Lemons and Royal had known each other for years, having additionally grown up in towns just a few miles apart in Oklahoma and now, oddly, serving the hated rival south of the border. But friends or not, Royal wasn't giving Lemons a cushy situation. When asked by reporters if he thought his program had top twenty potential, "Honest" Abe bluntly asked, "You mean in the state?"

The ‘Horns' new coach had a way of getting to the crux of the matter. One team he'd coached was trailing by 33 at the half. "I just didn't know what to say to them." Staying outside the locker room, he noted one kid who had scored a single point was talking real big during the break. Lemons told him, "Congratulations, son, you just scored one more point than a dead man."

Always open with an opinion, he revealed his distaste for losing, even criticizing little league participation, not for an overemphasis on winning but because of not enough of one. "They say participation is the thing, and that's wrong…The whole world is based on being competitive. Not participation, but being competitive."

His strict mindset regarding competition didn't translate to team rules. "I don't mind long hair. I don't mind beards. I don't mind miniskirts, but not all on the same person." Curfew was also often optional. In fact, he may have implemented a "reverse curfew," insisting that players stay out after midnight in certain situations in order to experience and enjoy life.

He matched his colorful personality with bright floral shirts and cigars for games, while noting an equally intriguing appearance growing up. "I may have been the world's first hippie. I was barefoot, the seat was worn out of my pants, I had long hair, and I rode a girl's bicycle. But when you're poor, you don't know the difference."

Lemons soon discovered what losing felt like in his first year, playing in old, sweaty Gregory Gym. A 13-13 record (8-8 in the Southwest Conference) for 1976-'77 left him despondent. "I'd rather be a football coach. They can't lose more than 11 games." He hauntingly added, "I won't be in this league more than two years, I guarantee you that. I gotta find something else to do or I'll ruin the Texas program. They're not going to let me stay."

Despite such dire warnings, the highly competitive Lemons liked having a name opportunity. "You see a sticker in the car window that says ‘The University.' Nobody asks which university. They know it isn't Bethune-Cookman."

Based on the recent past, though, little was expected of the Longhorns for the upcoming 1977-'78 campaign, despite four returning starters. For one thing, Lemons didn't have much faith in his newcomers. The highly touted California product Henry Johnson had a "mysterious" knee ailment that doctors diagnosed as fine. "Guys put men on the moon, but we can't make Henry's knee well," Abe sarcastically said, suggesting the kid lacked fire.

Another obvious problem was that you could measure the players' height with a ruler. The returning nucleus included 6'1" guards Jim Krivacs and Johnny Moore, small forward Ron Baxter (6'4"), and typically size-challenged post man Gary Goodner (6'7"). Lemons had immediate options of 6-5 Ovie Dotson or 6-7 Phillip Stroud for the power forward slot.

In shooting guard Jim Krivacs, Texas had a fantastic scorer, though something of a defensive liability. But his rapid-fire release and deadeye accuracy had to be accounted for. As TCU had noted the prior year, Krivacs could hit "those moon shots from 25 to 30 feet."

Playmaking point guard Johnny Moore, meanwhile, could do it all, but he was mainly asked to tone down his point production for the role of assist master in Lemons' aggressive, fastbreak attack, which he filled extremely well.

Center Gary Goodner was far less an offensive threat than he was a defender and rebounder, but Lemons' running style and surrounding cast was designed to produce the points.

One of those scorers was the stocky small forward Ron Baxter, who had been Los Angeles' co-player of the year. A selling point besides early playing time at Texas was the promise of a new, state-of-the-art playing facility, to be unveiled for this upcoming 1977-'78 season.

Originally named the "Special Events Center," it was quickly nicknamed the "Super Drum," boasting a capacity of 16,231, theatre-style seating, a large, technologically- advanced scoreboard, and on-site parking. In the process, Texas was leaving its longtime but outdated and cramped on-campus home in Gregory Gym, and a lot of losing with it.

For christening the new arena, Texas, led by Jim Krivacs' 22 points and five players in double figures, defeated Oklahoma 83-76. Asked how he felt about the new digs, Ron Baxter shouted, "Outta sight!" His teammates obviously felt so as well, as triumphs at the Super Drum piled up.

The Longhorns' next home tilt against Mississippi State provided something of a puzzling blueprint for this team's success. Despite a gaping 17 rebound deficit to the more rugged, larger opponent, Abe's team came away with a decisive 81-69 triumph on the back of Krivacs' 19 points.

Away from the friendly confines, the super shooter continued his rampage, pouring in 42 at Oklahoma State that included a sizzling 29 in the deciding second half. Meanwhile, Lemons' fifth starter (at the power forward slot) appeared to be emerging in the form of totally unheralded Tyrone Branyan. He lacked height (6-7), speed, or jumping ability, but he had a complete winning knack for the game, especially on the offensive end.

Oklahoma City, Abe Lemons' former team, came to town and was greeted by Ron Baxter's best work to date. The former Los Angeles area standout piled up 32 points and 11 rebounds. Jim Krivacs added 25 points while Tyrone Branyan dropped in 14 more. Phillip Stroud gave strong bench support with eight points and 11 boards.

Despite the 88-71 triumph, Lemons had praise for the opponent's three-quarters court press. "It was a hard win, a lot harder than the score indicated."

So far, Texas had only been bumped in two hard-fought non-conference road tilts against USC and Marquette, but had otherwise surprised the pundits with spotless success.

Continue to Part Two


Horns Digest Top Stories