Commentary

Eutectics, Preachers face off in unknown St. Louis hoops

Originally Published: July 7, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

"Per-co-cet, Vic-o-din, Per-co-cet, Vic-o-din."

In the pantheon of derisive fan chants, there are the clever -- Penn students once memorably reminded Princeton fans deep in the first half, "You've got two points" -- and there are the insults borne out of necessity.

It's difficult. It's impossible, but I think the kids are stronger when they're done for having survived this. And it makes for an excellent study group.

--Brian Swift, St. Louis College of Pharmacy head coach

When the opponent's mascot, a green-goblin hybrid critter, stalks the sideline trying to menace with a mortar and pestle and when you need a dictionary to know what the team nickname -- Eutectics -- even means (a scientific process relating to the lowest possible temperature of the solidification of two or more constituents), a traditional "you suck" just won't do.

So instead of going for the jugular, savvy fans go for the smart aleck when the St. Louis College of Pharmacy steps onto the court.

"Sometimes they just start yelling random drug names," said former Eutectics player and current assistant coach Mark Boyer. "They like to go with a lot of the controlled drugs."

There is the college basketball we know well: the NBA training ground where kids not yet in their 20s travel on private planes, their free gear stuffed into their free backpacks and their every whim catered to with the care and precision of Martha Stewart.

There is the college basketball we've sort of heard of: the Division II and III schools, where scholarship money is scarce or nonexistent and the only charter comes with four wheels, a driver and a highway.

There is the college basketball that plays so far away from the bright lights that the notion of a college basketball player is less Big Man On Campus and more a guy in college who happens to play basketball.

Beyond that, way off in the corner, where a spotlight couldn't find them with the help of Dora the Explorer, are schools that no one would even expect to have a basketball team, much less one with any sort of legitimacy.

I mean, really, would you expect future pharmacists to travel the roads of rural Kentucky in search of conference hoops games?

Better yet, would you expect the druggists to go head-to-head with pastors-in-training?

(Right. Steroids versus God. They've heard that one.)

In St. Louis, the city's College of Pharmacy and Concordia Seminary have had a standing date for years. Better yet, Concordia and its partnering seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind., have an equally long-standing rivalry -- this despite the fact that Fort Wayne hasn't beaten Concordia in 24 years.

The Eutectics are a member of the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, playing at the NAIA Division II level. The Preachers (you were expecting the Devils?) play as independents, scheduling any comers, including Division III members.

Both schools have full practice schedules and travel commitments and coaches -- and not just the glorified player-coach types.

And right there is where the similarities to any college basketball you've ever heard of begin and end.

"Before and after the games, we pray at center court," said Concordia coach Timothy Saleska, an associate professor of exegetical theology when he isn't coaching. "We invite the other teams to pray with us, and almost everyone has accepted that invitation."

***
John Calipari spent Final Four weekend telling everyone how "it takes a village" to raise a mid-major program (which he somehow rationalized Memphis to be, but that's an issue for another day).

It takes a sense of humor to raise a seminarian basketball team.

A four-year program, Concordia Seminary draws future Lutheran pastors of every age. Most are in their mid-20s but many, including former basketball players, are as old as 50. Some have families and live in family housing, and in their fourth year, they go on vicarage -- a pastoral redshirt, if you will -- in which they spend a year basically interning as a pastor.

[+] EnlargeConcordia Seminary
Concordia SeminaryConcordia Seminary (in yellow) plays its home games in historic Peterson Fieldhouse.

"No one here is on scholarship; rarely do we get someone over 6-4," said athletic director Bill Maxfield.

Maxfield oversees Concordia's two varsity sports (tennis is the other one) and various club sports. A structural engineer by training, he worked for 23 years at Anheuser-Busch and came to the Concordia campus two summers ago when the school was looking to help rehab its Peterson Fieldhouse.

The building was long overdue for a makeover. Built in 1949, the gym doesn't just look like an airplane hangar; it was one. After World War II ended, the seminary bought an old hangar from an airbase in Kansas, disassembled the building and put it back together in St. Louis.

"Kind of like an erector set," Maxfield said.

But the old hangar has some stories to tell. Back in the day, the field house served as the practice court for the St. Louis Hawks, and the ABA's Spirit of St. Louis played there, too. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Hawks' upset of the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.

Two years ago, the school wanted some people to help shine up the dusty, old relic. Maxfield came in to help fix the facility. He stayed because the athletic director, who was doubling as the director of alumni relations, wanted to divide his duties. The school knew that Maxfield was a sports nut, so despite the fact he had zero experience in athletic administration, it hired him two years ago.

"My wife thinks I'm crazy," the 62-year-old said. "I'm supposed to be retired."

In his first year on the job, Maxfield hired a new basketball coach.

Timothy Saleska grew up a basketball fanatic. He wore his socks high and his hair long, just like his idol, Pete Maravich. But Saleska was never quite good enough to make his high school team, and over time he soured on the rejection. He stopped caring about basketball and went about making himself a life. He went to college, went to seminary and became a preacher and then a teacher.

Last year, Maxfield asked Saleska to coach at the seminary.

"These [players] knew more than I did, so they really helped me," Saleska said. "I learned a tremendous amount about how to coach from my players, and it really has brought back my love of the game. It reminds me of those years when I wanted to be Pete Maravich."

***
You won't find Eutectics coach Brian Swift in the bleachers in Las Vegas at the end of July. Or in Orlando, Fla., or Akron, Ohio, or any of the other places that become basketball meccas once the AAU tournament season gets in full swing.

The St. Louis College of Pharmacy needs basketball players -- needs them more than maybe any other program in the country. By season's end, if Swift is dressing nine guys, he's thrilled. But how do you recruit players at a school that has exactly one degree option: a doctorate in pharmacy?

It's not like pharmacists with good jump shots have a special drop-down menu at Scouts Inc.

[+] EnlargeSt Louis College of Pharmacy
John Owens PhotographyEutectics head coach Brian Swift (left) has a hard time recruiting players to a school with one degree: pharmacy.

"We don't play against anyone in our conference that hasn't been recruited," said Swift, who figures he's recruited in some capacity fewer than 10 players in the past four years. "We have open houses at the school and athletics has a tent with all of the coaches there. If a kid comes up and says he's interested, I spend the whole summer talking to him, hoping he'll come to school and hoping he'll play."

Many do come to school and many do come out for the basketball team, at least for a while. The tricky part is keeping them. As the academic demands kick in, the Eutectics suffer a yearly roster reduction that Tom Crean could appreciate at Indiana.

"One year we ended up with eight [players], and two of the guys had never really played, so we were going six deep," said Boyer, a one-time team captain. "Playing time is normally not an issue here."

Swift has been in charge of the Eutectics for five years, which in this sort of basketball is equivalent to Joe Paterno's time at Penn State. Swift started as an assistant, and the fact that he stuck around to become head coach is this side of shocking. Assistants in such programs have a shorter shelf life than a head of lettuce, quickly tiring with the disappearing players and mounting losses.

Swift could have left a number of times. His son plays high school ball nearby, and the high school has long been after Swift to work there. But that job and an accompanying teaching position wouldn't allow him to draw the salary he gets managing a hand surgeon's ranch, as he does now.

So he stays at a program that had one great season -- 17-7 -- in recent memory and tries to do what he can to make it attractive. Swift has convinced the St. Louis administration to award his players with one elective credit if they play basketball for a season. He is trying to schedule a Florida trip during Christmas break next season. Ordinarily, the players disappear from the team for five weeks.

"After the break, they've forgotten everything we've taught them," said Swift, who team runs the Princeton offense. "It's difficult. It's impossible, but I think the kids are stronger when they're done for having survived this. And it makes for an excellent study group."

***
Matt Schilling played just one year of basketball at Concordia Seminary.

More accurately, he played one year of organized basketball in his life. A rec ball player growing up, Schilling helped manage the Concordia College team in Wisconsin as an undergraduate but never really played organized ball. Well versed in the history of the game at Concordia Seminary, he decided in his final year he would play for the Preachers.

He loved everything about it, calling it the "greatest experience of his life." Admittedly reluctant to walk away, Schilling had no other choice when he graduated this year, and got a position as a youth pastor north of Charlotte, N.C.

And then a funny thing happened that some might call fate or kismet. Schilling saw it as a sign he was headed where he belongs.

"The pastor played for the seminary back in the '80s, and his father played, too," Schilling said. "We really bonded over that. I mean, how many people can say they played seminary ball?"

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball