Not unlike the last two editions of the Butler University basketball team, Morris Pollard’s boys rarely passed the eye test.
No matter how much their coaches may have warned them, opponents would gaze upon the Speedway High School Sparkplugs during pre-game warmups, see what they perceived to be a group of un-athletic-looking guys, and think to themselves, “This should be easy.”
Thirty-two minutes later, they would know that Pollard’s ’Plugs were anything but. More often than not, the scoreboard said so, too.
Thus, during a roughly nine-month period in which we have lost a pantheon of men who ushered Indiana basketball through its undisputed golden era, we add another to the list.
Pollard, coach at Speedway from 1956 to 1983, died April 17. He was 88.
He simply was one of the best basketball coaches—and finest men—I ever knew.
In a profile of Pollard I wrote a few years ago, I opined that few, if any, coaches I ever was around did more with less.
That was not meant to denigrate the youngsters who played for Pollard during his career on the west side.
Indeed, a fair share of talent passed through Speedway. Tom Jones, Scotty Neat, Dave Bennett, John and Tommy Dunn, Tom Gilbert, Bill O’Neal, Jerry Roberts, Tom Smith and John Allen all played at Division I schools.
But at Speedway, the sum always was far greater than the parts. Pollard and his longtime assistant, Jim Crumley, coached the Sparkplugs up.
Offensively, they were smart, patient and efficient. They turned the bounce pass into an art form. But defense is where the Sparkplugs made their mark.
It was based on an utterly confounding match-up zone defense, Pollard’s trademark. Speedway’s kids played it so well opponents sometimes felt as if they were playing 5 on 6.
“I had coaches tell me they practiced all week against our match-up zone,” Crumley recalls. “And they still couldn’t figure it out.”
When the current Speedway coach, Chuck Bennett, called to tell me about Pollard’s passing, one of the first things I mentioned was the match-up zone.
“Got it right here,” Bennett replied. “Straight out of Coach Pollard’s playbook.”
He faxed me a copy. It listed advantages, disadvantages, “rules for the match-up,” a diagram and 11 drills.
It is a page out of Indiana basketball history. Pollard first came upon a version of the match-up in the early 1950s when he was coaching tiny Amo (now part of the Cascade school system) in Hendricks County. After a stint at Danville and more tinkering with the defense, he brought it to Speedway in 1956 and made it a Sparkplug staple that would help him compile 11 Mid-State Conference championships, two Marion County tournament titles, three sectionals, a regional and an overall record of 425-275.
Morris was more than a coach—he was an educator. A generation of Speedway students passed through Room 147, where he taught social studies. After he left the sidelines, he was Speedway’s assistant principal and principal until he retired in 1989. Even then, however, he returned to the school, almost weekly, to serve as a substitute and did so even after suffering a stroke and losing his wife of 59 years, Bonnie. Morris simply loved being around young people. They loved being around him.
Appropriately, the Speedway gymnasium bears his name. His calling took place there. Call it a match-up made in Heaven.
On a closing note, even though I routinely beat up and harassed him as a child, my younger brother, David, still has managed to make good. The Professional Basketball Writers Association named David—the Pacers’ media relations director—and his assistants, Krissy Myers and Tim Edwards, as winners of the Brian McIntyre Award recognizing the top media relations staff in the NBA.
“I think anyone who’s ever covered a game or an event involving the Pacers would tell you David and his staff are always more than willing to help facilitate the media’s needs. They are a gold standard among media relations staffs in the NBA,” said PBWA President Doug Smith of the Toronto Star.
See where a little childhood nurturing can lead?•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.