Undersized Owls somehow lead the A-Sun
KENNESAW, Ga. -- If this Division I basketball thing doesn't pan out, Tony Ingle has options. For instance, he can always sell his revolutionary diet drink.
"I got this plastic cup from McDonald's, got it a long time ago," said Kennesaw State's head coach in a slow, hoarse drawl. "I pour some chocolate Slim-Fast in it. Then I get some cherry juice. Listen to me now ... cherries are low in calories, gives the Slim-Fast a little, you know, chocolate-covered cherry taste. Stir it up real good, put it in the freezer. Fifteen, 20 minutes, there's a little bit of ice there forming on the inside.
"You drink that, wash down a couple double cheeseburgers, maybe a few Whoppers from Burger King. Goes down nice 'n' cold, puts you right where you want to be."
Fortunately for insomniacs across America, Ingle won't have to swap his day job for the world of late-night infomercials anytime soon. When the sun's rays first danced against the Atlantic Ocean on Tuesday morning, the 7-1 Fighting Owls (9-8 overall) had a half-game lead atop the Atlantic Sun's leaderboard. The 2004 Division II national champions are exceeding all expectations about how a transitional school should perform -- even if the newness hasn't quite worn off yet.
"My favorite thing about Division I, and I always get comments about this from our alumni ... we get to see our name on the ESPN scroller every other night," Kennesaw athletic director Dr. Dave Waples said excitedly.
Lately, when "Kennesaw" has shown up on the Bottom Line, it's been in the bright yellow that indicates victory. Since losing their first game of 2006 to Florida Atlantic, the league's other Owls have rattled off five straight league wins. First, they beat league favorite Gardner-Webb on the road, shocking the Runnin' Bulldogs 74-68 in the opening game of the league's new Friday night regional cable package. Three days later, they outgunned the Campbell Fighting Camels 81-77. Then, they returned home to their brand-new 4,500-seat Convocation Center and, in rapid succession, bucked East Tennessee State, knocked off fellow D-I newbie North Florida and jacked Jacksonville.
Before the season, the idea that Kennesaw State would have any sort of success this year seemed as plausible as its coach's weight-loss plan. Ingle had just four players left over from last year's Peach Belt Conference co-champion squad -- including just one returning starter, versatile guard Ronnell Wooten. Ingle named a brand new set of assistant coaches over the summer. And although they're eligible to win the Atlantic Sun's regular-season title, the NCAA's mandated four-year transition period means that KSU won't be allowed to compete in any postseason tournaments until 2009-10.
The Owls' statistical profile is more in keeping with a team with virtually nothing to play for, not a first-place ballclub. The Owls give up more points (73.5 ppg) than they produce (72.5 ppg). They're currently ninth in the A-Sun in field-goal percentage (41.8 percent) and eighth in free throws (66.7 percent), and they are among the worst rebounding teams in the entire country (27.2 rpg, 303rd).
So what's their secret? When pressed to reveal the reasons why his team is able to overachieve, despite logistical and statistical obstacles, Ingle simply changed the subject to something lighter.
"I got one for you," Ingle said. "I was on the bus last week. Driver asked me, 'How you doing, Coach?' I told him, 'I'd have to lie to tell you the truth.'"
The sight of the Fighting Owls stepping onto the floor might seem like some sort of existential joke, too. They're anything but formidable in their oversized shirts with awkwardly large numerals, which only serve to make the players appear smaller than they are. Their regular rotation tops out at 6-foot-6 on paper, but even that's suspect -- their second-leading rebounder Brent Ragsdale (generously listed at 6-4) will reluctantly admit to 6-2 if asked twice. The coach's two sons, Golden Ingle and Israel Ingle, drag the team's average height down further at 5-11 and 5-10, respectively.
And then there's the game action. Take the East Tennessee State game last Thursday, for instance. By the time the crowd had sat down in their seats following the national anthem, the visiting ETSU squad, just a year removed from consecutive SoCon championships, had already scored five points on the way to a 20-11 lead. But after the second media timeout, something clicked -- buoyed by a string of Golden Ingle 3-pointers and urged on by his hyperanimated father on the sidelines, the undersized, underdog Owls battled back and cut the lead to two by halftime, 33-31.
During a stalemate of a second half against the much faster and stronger Buccaneers, the Owls' primary style emerged. They were slower, but never deviated from their metronomic tempo. They were smaller, but positioned themselves just outside the paint, where glancing misses usually bounce. Anytime there was a mismatch in KSU's favor anywhere on the floor, it was exploited. Anytime the lane was clogged with bodies, Golden Ingle would take an open shot. When the yellow-and-black blur of foggy confusion finally lifted, Kennesaw State had emerged with a 78-72 OT win.
Asking Coach Ingle afterward to spout coach-speak about the victory didn't provide any insight, just more sidesteps and jokes. Maybe the vague general questions offered too much wiggle room. So, coach, tell me this: What did you say to your team during that second timeout?
Ingle paused, then spoke softly, a broad smile breaking over his mountain-range face. "I just told 'em simple, 'I know we're getting beat bad right now, but I just want to tell you something. I love you guys, and I want to thank you for letting me be your coach.'"
"I don't want to sound like no Mike Krzyzewski American Express commercial. But if I coached you, and if I was always telling you all about the things you were doing wrong, you wouldn't play good for me. You'd be all nervous and tight. When I tell my guys I love them, I mean it. I know they're out there playing their best for me, and that they love me just as much as I love them. There's no reason for me not to stay positive."
Ingle has seen plenty of negative. He received his first Division I coaching shot 10 years ago at BYU after seven seasons as an assistant under Roger Reid, a stretch that included five NCAA Tournament appearances. When Reid was fired abruptly in December 1996 in the midst of a disastrous 1-25 campaign, Ingle stepped forward and took over on an interim basis. It was a no-win situation, both figuratively and literally -- the Cougars went 0-19 under Ingle, and BYU dismissed him as soon as the season was over.
Away from coaching, Ingle's life spiraled into depression. In order to support his wife and five children, he stitched together as much employment as he could find. At one point, he said, he was juggling upward of seven jobs, which included part-time scout for the Utah Jazz, color commentator on Mountain West telecasts, insurance salesman and caretaker of the John Wooden Legends of Coaching Award. But he was so miserable that he ignored any coaching offers that came his way.
"There was one night, I remember it so well," Ingle said, mournfully. "I was kicking back watching the TV, I had my bowl of Doritos there on the coffee table. Golden and Tony Jr. came in together and they said, 'Dad, we can see how unhappy you are. You've gotta go back to coaching again, no matter where the job is ... both of us'd rather see you coach than play ourselves.' And then they both came and gave me a big hug. I hugged 'em back and we were all crying, crying...
"But the whole time, I kept one eye on the coffee table," the coach said. "I know how fast those Doritos can disappear."
The Ingle family eventually packed up their furniture and snacks, and caravanned out to the north Atlanta suburbs. The Georgia native took the Fighting Owls from 11 wins to 20 in his first two seasons as head coach. In his third year, KSU won 25 and made the NCAA D-II Tournament for the first time in school history. In his fourth year, they won it all.
The championship earned Ingle NABC Division II Coach of the Year honors and helped spur KSU's move toward a higher level of competition. Just nine months after the basketball Owls cut down the nets in Bakersfield, Calif., the Kennesaw State administration announced they were leaving the Peach Belt for the Atlantic Sun. The Owls began work on a state-of-the-art campus facility (which was quickly completed late last summer) and accepted the mandatory four-year waiting period to achieve full-fledged Division I status.
"We can't win another national championship for four years," athletic director Waples said. "But at some point in time, we just might. I wouldn't bet against Tony. He'll just outcoach you, and he'll outwork you."
Until 2010, the postseason-ineligible Fighting Owls and their old-school coach can only win for the sake of winning. But in the meantime, their coach will keep trying to outhustle the competition for the Division I national championship of comedy.
"Someone asked me the other day if I had an iPod," said Ingle. "I thought they were making fun of my face. I said I've got a lot of diseases, but that ain't one of 'em."
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.
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