Sports Shorts: SIUE’s Harris making strides toward turning Cougars local

SIUE head basketball coach Jon Harris got just six wins his first season leading the Cougars, but has made steps to rebuild the team on local talent.
SIUE head basketball coach Jon Harris got just six wins his first season leading the Cougars, but has made steps to rebuild the team on local talent. BND File

The way Jon Harris tells it, being a first-time head college basketball coach is a lot like being a first-time parent.

You can attend all the classes and read all the books, but ...

“Until you do it, you just don’t really get it,” said Harris, following the SIUE Cougars' season-ending loss to Austin Peay last Thursday. “You know you're excited and feel like you're ready to take that next step with your wife, but until you have that first child — and it's 2 a.m. and 3:30 and 5 a.m. — you just don't really know what it’s going to be like."

But Harris knows basketball and he'll adapt to the time-management issues he says he needs to improve. And despite SIUE's 6-22 record and failure to qualify for the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in Harris' inaugural season, the program has taken important steps toward being more representative of the region.

Harris himself was a former Edwardsville High School standout for coach Mike Waldo before starring at Marquette. Since taking over for Lennox Forrester nearly a year ago, Harris has vowed that he'll put a fence in a 40-mile radius around campus to suit as much metro-east talent in the Cougars' red and black as he can.

Locally, the 2016-17 roster already includes guard Carlos Anderson of Alton, Tre Harris and Josh White of Edwardsville, and Burak Eslik, a native of Turkey who now resides in Madison County after playing two years at Lewis and Clark College. At least two other recruits have yet to be inked to letters of intent.

In seven years at SIUE, Forrester had a total of six players recruited from within that 40-mile radius of Edwardsville. In his final four seasons, he had only Charles Joy of O'Fallon, and Michael Messer of Wildwood, Mo.

Can Harris win with a nucleus of local talent? That, of course, remains to be seen. But it will be fun to watch him rebuild the metro-east's only Division I team in his likeness and to see Vadalabene Center packed with local fans.

A Stinker Year

If you like to follow state and local teams through the NCAA Tournament, it’s going to be a truly maddening March.

The SIU Salukis (22-9) and Illinois State Redbirds (18-13) represent the best chance for the Land of Lincoln. To reach the field of 68, however, they’ll have to win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament this weekend. Both have RPIs over 100 and have No. 29 Witchita State in their way.

Northwestern (18-11) also stands a slim chance if it can make hay at the Big Ten Tournament, but with a 120 RPI is probably off the bubble as well. Same with Northern Illinois (19-10), unless it wins the Mid-American Conference Tournament.

Beyond those teams, you can probably forget about as much as an NIT invitation for Illinois (12-16), Bradley (5-26), Western Illinois (9-17), Missouri (10-18), Missouri State (12-18), or St. Louis U. (10-17).

If you need a local rooting interest, consider Butler (19-10) and senior forward Roosevelt Jones. The former O’Fallon standout averages 14.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game and the Bulldogs should make it to the dance. They have two games remaining to reach the benchmark 20th win and an RPI in the top 60.

Baseball Birthdays

If you are a serious baseball fan in St. Louis or the metro-east, you have a few very important birthdays to celebrate this week.

▪  The first is that of leap-year baby Johnny Leonard Roosevelt Martin. You probably know him best as "Pepper" Martin, a versatile and colorful member of the Cardinals' old Gas House Gang of the 1930s.

He hit .298 over 13 big league seasons, all with the Cardinals, and finished fifth in NL MVP voting in 1933, playing mostly at third base. More importantly, he led the dugout band, the Missouri Mudcats, on both accordion and washboard.

Monday would be his 28th Leap Day birthday, though he'd technically be 112.

▪  Friday would be the 97th birthday of Belleville-bred big leaguer Les Mueller.

Before taking his rightful place in stewardship of his family's excellent furniture store on East Main Street, Mueller spent two seasons as a big, lanky, bespectacaled pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. It wasn't much of a career, yet he authored one of the greatest individual pitching performances in the game's history.

On July 20, 1945, Mueller retired 59 Philadelphia Athletics over 19 2/3 innings in a game that would eventually end in a 1-1 tie due to darkness. Believe it or not, that's not even a record, but nobody has thrown that many innings since and nobody ever will again.

Being a Belleville boy myself, I of course was aware of the Mueller's so-called "Long Game," but in researching it for an article I wrote last summer marking its 70th annivesary, I discovered something about it I hadn't ever heard before.

Mueller faced the minimum number of batters over eight innings from the 11th through the 18th. They weren't really perfect — singles he allowed in the 15th and 16th were followed by double plays — but considering that he had already pitched 10 full, it's pretty remarkable.

▪  Pete Gray, who would turn 101 next Sunday, lasted a single season with the St. Louis Browns in 1945. He hit .218 with 13 runs batted in over 234 at-bats.

So what's so special about Pete Gray? He's the only position player in big league history with one arm. He lost one below the shoulder in a childhood accident.

(Pitcher Jim Abbott played 10 years in the major leagues despite having been born without his right hand.)

Big Red Reunion

I didn't believe I could think any less of the NFL after greedy owners last month enabled Stan Kroenke and his plan to cash in on the Rams' move west. Then we learned commissioner Roger Goodell accepted a $44 million salary last year while bilking $120 million from the NFL Players Association.

If not for duty to my profession, I’d be tempted to write off the NFL and shift the focus of my autumn Sundays to pro soccer.

But I confess the nostalgic sucker in me maintains a soft spot for the team of my youth — Jim Hart, Pat Tilley and those often-frustrating St. Louis Gridbirds. And so, I'm excited to be attending a reunion of more than 30 former football Cardinals players organized by the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame on Friday, March 11 at the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac Hotel.

The evening promises round-table talk about St. Louis' best days as an NFL city. Participating will be Hall of Famers Dan Dierdorf, Jackie Smith and Roger Wehrli, as well as Hart, Ernie McMillan and former head coach Jim Hanifan, among others. Long-time KMOX sports radio personality and metro-east resident Ron Jacober will be moderating the discussion.

You can can join me there, too. Tickets are $100 and available by calling Tim at (314) 226-1190, online at, or with a check mailed to St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame, 1400 South 3rd St., St. Louis, Mo. 63104.

The Watch List

March Madness is in full swing this week with all kinds of games of local interest:

▪  Both the Highland and Edwardsville girls will be in action Monday at Super-Sectionals. Highland will be in Springfield to face Lincoln for a trip to the 3A state tournament, while Edwardsville travels to Bloomington to face Benet Academy for a Class 4A berth.

▪  Southwestern Conference teams will begin post season play at boys 4A regionals in Alton and East St. Louis, while 3A regionals tip off for local teams at either Columbia or Triad. All of those regionals begin Monday with championships to be decided Friday.

▪  Sectionals be gin for Class 2A and 1A boys. Breese Central and Nashville remain in the running and will be in Pinckneyville. Central faces Alton Marquette Tuesday at 7 p.m., Nashville plays Pinckneyville Wednesday at 7 p.m.

▪  Okawville continues its 1A run at the White Hall Sectional with a semifinal game against Pawnee Wednesday at 7 p.m. Having won 14 of their last 15, the Rockets and junior Noah Frederking (20.8 ppg) look like championship contenders.

▪  The SIUE women's team has a legit shot at winning the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament and an NCAA Tournament berth this week in Nashville. The Cougars are led by senior Shronda Butts, the OVC's top scorer at 21.3 points per game.

▪  Finally, the Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball tournament begins Thursday at the Scottrade Center. No. 29 Witchita State (22-7) has the top seed with a 15-2 conference record. Illinois State (18-12) will be third and SIU-Carbondale (21-9) is fifth. There is no conference tournament in the country that takes a back seat to the St. Louis-based MVC. Local sports fans cannot do any better for their entertainment buck.

“Don’t ever give up ...”

Thursday is the 23rd anniversary of one of the greatest sports speeches of all time.

Former North Carolina State head basketball coach and broadcast analyst Jim Valvano had been diagnosed with an aggressive type of bone cancer and shortly after was given the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at ESPN's first-ever ESPY Awards.

During an 11-minute acceptance speech, he announced the formation of the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research and spoke eloquently about what dying taught him about living.

"Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities," he concluded. "It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you and God bless you all."

Valvano died eight weeks later. According to its website, the Jimmy V Foundation has since awarded more than $150 million toward the cause of finding a cure.

Watch the whole speech here.

Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman