A historic night of basketball in Collinsville
By Mark Jurgena
“It’s Collinsville…how can you beat an evening spent discussing Illinois high school basketball history?”
With that thought, I climbed into the truck Sunday night and left behind a mountain of grading, plans for the upcoming week, and an almost completely graded film from Friday’s football game. My destination was the Old Herald Brewery on Main Street to hear tales from the past that have rarely been told.
For example, the story that Vergil Fletcher was contacted for the basketball coaching job at Quincy during Jerry Leggett’s tenure. Yes, THAT Quincy…
But I digress.
The purpose of the event was to tell stories and raise interest in the forthcoming IBCA museum to be located in Bedford Park near Chicago.
“I am really pleased, I’m almost coming out of my shoes with excitement right now,” said Bruce Firchau the Basketball Museum of Illinois Chairman and co-organizer of the event.
Former Alton Telegraph sports editor and IBCA Hall of Famer Steve Porter who collaborated with Firchau on the planning for the event was equally thrilled.
“It was a great turnout,” said Porter. “We had some wonderful speakers and what a place to have it. I think everybody really enjoyed it to the point that this is something we can do again whether it’s next year or two years down the road or even later on.”
Let’s hope it catches on because I’m all in especially when the lead-off speaker for the event was from archrival Edwardsville? What? In the last three-plus years covering Collinsville, I’ve learned you just can’t escape the Kahok/Tiger rivalry.
Anyway, one of the best women’s coaches ever, Lori Blade took to the mike to start the evening. She coached for 18 seasons in both basketball and softball in Tiger country. Before that, she coached at Carrollton. Between the two schools and sports, she amassed 1,524 wins.
She credited former SIUE athletic director Cindy Jones and former Cougar women’s basketball coach Wendy Hedberg for her opportunities while in college and beyond. Additionally, she discussed how her high school softball and basketball coach from Casey-Westfield, Denny Throneburg, impacted her life.
Blade’s biggest opportunity occurred courtesy of the Title IX ruling 50 years ago. That gave women the opportunity to compete in athletics on a widespread scale.
“I really wanted Lori to be here, especially with this being the 50th anniversary of Title IX and the great success she’s had with her program,” said Firchau.
In purple and white territory, if you’re going to start with a Tiger you’d better follow it with a Kahok. So the organizers called Dr. Fred Riddle of the 1960-61 National Champion Kahoks off the bench and into the action.
Riddle recently retired as a dentist in Iowa City, Iowa. After his days at CHS, he played four years of basketball for the Hawkeyes along with three years of football.
But according to him, his time as a Kahok almost never materialized.
Riddle moved to Collinsville after starting two years at Madison High School for his Dad, Fred Riddle, Sr. After the younger Riddle’s sophomore season, the elder Riddle became the principal at Collinsville.
However, his Dad was the second choice for the principal job. The first candidate could not get out of his contract at his other school allowing the Riddle’s to move and giving Bogie Redmon an all-state running mate.
Additionally, he talked about his two seasons at Collinsville including the heartbreaking loss to Granite City his junior season in the regional title game, his senior year as the quarterback for Vergil Fletcher’s Kahok football team, and several stories about their quest for the state basketball title in 1961.
He also recounted Collinsville’s time at state. Included in those stories was one of Fletcher, in a scene reminiscent of the movie Hoosiers, showing his Kahoks with a measuring tape that the basket at Huff Gym at the University of Illinois was ten feet off the ground and the free throw line was 15 feet away, just like it was back home.
It seemed after those two speakers it was a night well spent. However, Matt Wynn from Benton was next to discuss his new book about former Benton High School and SIU-Carbondale basketball coach Rich Herrin.
Wynn grew up in Benton watching Rich Herrin’s teams. He played for Herrin’s brother Ron at Benton, then played for Rich at SIU.
He talked about Herrin’s love for his players and the impact he had on them, but it was his stories about Doug Collins who played at Benton for Rich that made the biggest splash.
Wynn discussed how Collins was still coming off the bench for the Rangers as a junior at Benton and about Collins playing in the famous Olympic basketball loss by the USA to the Soviets in 1972.
Finally, Pat Heston from the Riverbend, whom Firchau regards as the best basketball historian in the state, told many tales about the history of the game in the Land of Lincoln.
He once asked Vergil Fletcher what was the best team he ever coached. Fletcher responded with the 1964-65 team.
“My eyes grew to saucer size,” said Heston. “‘He said if you mean the best five-man unit I’ve ever had, the team that played together as one better than any team was the ‘65 team. They never would’ve beaten the ‘61 team or the ‘57 team but if you’re talking about a unit, that was my best team.’”
He also regaled the crowd with the story of how in 1978, a chance meeting between a Lockport assistant coach and a drunk from Belleville at a bar in Champaign. That drunk said to beat the Kahoks you had to take the ball right at Kahok superstar Kevin Stallings on the press. The Lockport coaching staff took the advice of the inebriated stranger and used it to beat CHS in the semifinals 55-53.
Finally, since this is essentially a column, I have to do it. Pat and I share the same hometown and high school alma mater Greenville, albeit years apart. You see, one of Greenville’s best teams ever was in 1964-65. Heston told the crowd he had hoped to see the Comets square off with the Kahoks in the postseason but after seeing that 1965 Kahok team in action, he was glad they didn’t meet.
Pat…I’m telling you Larry Ward, Jon Blankenship, Mike Weber, and their Comet brethren would like a word with you.
Of course, the ‘65 Kahoks including Denny Pace, Jack Darlington, Harry Parker, Don Birger, and Steve Gauen would like a word with…well any and all-comers.
Again the purpose of the evening was to make people aware of the forthcoming physical museum of Illinois basketball in Bedford Park near Chicago. The museum has a website that is currently transitioning to a new format. That website is basketballmuseumofillinois.com. You can also follow them on Twitter @BBallMuseumIL.