Chapter Three: Lawson, Reilly Provide Calm After the Storm

Middlebury basketball appeared to be a program on the rise, in spite of the departure of Gerry Alaimo. Replacing Alaimo was Gary Walters, Bill Bradley’s former teammate and point guard at Princeton. In taking the Middlebury job, Walters became the youngest head coach in college basketball. In age, collegiate playing success and intensity, Walters mirrored Alaimo. Though the two coaches had shared traits, the transition from Alaimo to Watlers was not smooth, and many of Walters’s methods clashed with the styles of the team that he inherited. After just one turbulent season Walters vacated the head coaching position, while accepting the head coaching job at Union. Few programs, and fewer players, thrive amid a rapid succession of coaches, but the players and department found a natural successor to both Alaimo and Walters in assistant coach Tom Lawson. Over the next eight years Lawson built on the foundation created by Alaimo, elevating Middlebury basketball to new found heights before accepting the Director of Athletics position and making way for Russ Reilly, who would become the program’s longest tenured head coach.

PART I: “When I was a freshman [in ’67-’68] we had the first winning freshmen team in 15 years. And everybody imagined that Alaimo would stay for three more years and we would have a really good team when we were seniors, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

Jim Keyes: I had three varsity coaches in three years [between 1969 and 1971]. Gerry Alaimo was a character. He was really good for the big guys, and I was as big as there was in those days. And then we had Gary Walters. He was really god for the guards, but he didn’t have any use for the big guys. And then Tom [Lawson] comes along. I don’t think Tom was a basketball player, but he was the best basketball coach of all of them.

Eugene Oliver: Gerry Alaimo was big on the hook shot. He wanted all of our big men to develop the hook shot. Because that was the most unstoppable shot for the big man.

Keyes: Alaimo thought I had a terrible jump shot, so he made me shoot a hook shot, which was really unusual. You didn’t see anyone else shooting a hook shot all the time. But I could shoot a hook shot from the free throw line, or I could go down to the baseline and I could make a 15-foot hook shot without the backboard. And I was the leading scorer my sophomore year.

But [my junior year, ’69-’70] Walters said, “Don’t shoot the hook shot. If I ever see you shoot the hook shot, I’ll break your arm.” And I was not the leading scorer. It was a miserable year for me, because I felt like he was tying my hands behind my back.

Eugene Oliver: We busted out [in the ’68-’69 season under Gerry Alaimo]. It was good for us. Most of the freshmen who were on the junior varsity team from the year before played on the varsity and we became the nucleus of the change.

One of the games I specifically remember was beating St. Michaels. My junior year we beat many teams that we had never beaten before or had a very poor record against. We came out from the doldrums of the old 1-22 seasons. We were now a basketball team that they had to reckon with. We were not a doormat anymore.

Keyes: When I was a freshman [in ’67-’68] we had the first winning freshmen team in 15 years. And everybody imagined that Alaimo would stay for three more years and we would have a really good team when we were seniors, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Tom Lawson: Gary Walters [went to] Princeton, [and Middlebury] hired him from Dartmouth to be the head basketball coach and I was the assistant, and he was my assistant in soccer.

Keyes: Gary Walters was the youngest college coach in the nation at the time. He had a really hot temper. And we had these folding chairs that you would sit on along the edge of the bench. And we would often turn around and kick the chair and it would fold up and actually move. When we were freshmen there might have been a dozen people in the gym. But there was a woman named Mrs. Kelly, she was here for almost 45 years and she was the Dean of Women. The President of the College was James Armstrong and his wife would also go to the games and she would sit with Mrs. Kelly. And they both sat three or four rows behind where the team would sit. And one time when Gary kicked the chair it landed right up next to Mrs. Kelly. He thought he was going to get fired; he was mortified. So fast-forward 30 years later: For a brief period of time Gary worked in Boston and I was also in Boston working. So I went over to see him. And he said, “Come here,” and he walks me behind his desk and picks up his waste paper basket and there’s a huge hole in the side of it.

Oliver: Gerry was more of a smash-mouth coach — always on the boards. The contrast was big because now [under Gary Walters] we played more of a mental game as well, trying to utilize more of our talent and getting easier shots than we had before.

Keyes:  When I would get [offensive] rebounds he would say, “Now throw it out to the guards. Don’t put it back up.” Which I thought was ridiculous. The year we were sophomores we won 10 games. And the next year we won eight.  We wanted to win games! And I thought, “Gee, if I get the [offensive] rebound and I’m inside the lane, I should do whatever I can to put it back in.” It was a very frustrating season.

Near the end of the season we were disappointed that we weren’t going to win as many games as we had the year before. We thought it was really backwards. There were some other players who were one year younger than us who started and one of them was really quiet — his name was Rick Doud. And we went to see Gary after one of the games and he told Gary that he was making a huge mistake not letting me shoot the hook shot. And this kid was really quiet; he would never speak up. And the fact that he went and did that was astonishing to me. In a very short time Walters called me in, and he allowed me to shoot the hook shot [for the rest of the season].

PART II: Did you ever see Tom Lawson’s high school coaching record? It was the most incredible thing you’ll ever see … All of his teams were winning the state championships for years.”

Lawson: Gary stayed a little less than one year and then [took the basketball coaching job] at Union. One of the gratifying things about coaching is that as the assistant coach I had established a pretty good relationship with a lot of the players. And unknown to me, they went to Dick Coleman [then the Athletic Director], and said, “Instead of having a search, why don’t you ask Tom if he would be interested in taking the basketball [position],” which was what I was praying for everyday.

Keyes: Tom looked at each player on his own merit. He said, “Look I need all of you guys to play well together well as a team.”  And he said to me, “By the way, if you don’t shoot that hook shot, I’m going to break your arm.” And so I was the leading scorer again in my senior year. And we had the first winning season in 15 years.

Lawson: Although we were great friends and still are, [Gary Walters and I were] different people completely. Gary was an in-your-face, very excitable person; very knowledgeable, a great competitor, maybe a little frustrated at the time with the quality of the talent. So [Walters’s] season did not turn into a winning season, and that had been 15 years I guess [without a winning season]. So when I took over, the first thing I did was said, I’m a different person.

I’m pretty sure it was my first basketball game at home against Trinity. I had an assistant basketball coach, who knew a little basketball, but I hired him because he was a strong soccer coach. I remember it well; I learned a great lesson. We were up more than 20 before halftime. And he said, “Aren’t you going to sub more?” We would play seven guys and hope we didn’t have to sub more. And I said, “ Yeah, you’re probably right.” So we subbed a little bit and came out the second half starting some subs. And our lead went down to 15, I put two more starters back in the game, went down to 12. I finally put everybody back in, but by that point all the momentum … everything was gone. They hit a shot from midcourt on the run to win it by one. And I sat there and I’m saying, “I’ve got to learn from this.” And I did. That was one of the hardest, most hurting losses I’ve ever had.

Keyes: We were 12-12 going into our last game against RPI and there was like a minute-and-a-half left and we were down by two or three. And we said, “We’ve been running up and down these boards for four years. We cannot lose this game.” And we won. It was really fun.

Dave Pentkowski: We had talent, but I think we were undisciplined without Lawson. We played more mature and I think that was a big part of it. By senior year we had talented juniors and we finally bought into the idea that we couldn’t all play the way we did in high school.

Keyes: Tom was a really good coach. He was the first coach that made notebooks for us. There were things in the notebooks to read and then there were plays for us to learn. None of the other coaches had given us written material. Tom was very thoughtful about how we played. We played a lot of different defenses and offenses.

Lawson: I changed our defense from the pressure man-to-man which we weren’t capable of playing to disguising it as a matchup zone defense and then play the man-to-man defense withi that. We really became noted for that. I remember [the then RPI coach] said, “You’re the worst coach I have to prepare for. We can’t do anything against that stupid zone of yours.” It was a compliment to the kids, I said, “Would you rather play man-to-man and run up and down the court, or play really good man-to-man in this zone? I’ll show you how to do it.” Because in the back of my head I said at least I have intelligent kids, so we used the intelligence and they did a great job.

Dave Pentkowski: Tom was very regimented on offense. He was impatient if we were impatient offensively … there was no shot clock back then. I think that’s where we bucked him a little bit over the years. We wanted to play more of an up-tempo game. We spent a lot of time running Xs and Os, but it wasn’t the run-and-gun style we thought we were good at. But who knows, maybe we wouldn’t have succeeded at all if we had played that way. When Bobby Knight started at army he had games against Navy that were 22-20. They were very, very slow, hold the ball. We didn’t play like that, but there was some of that attitude that you should never take a bad shot.  I teased Tom a few years back at his retirement that he made us hold the ball so much that we would hold it, get a layup and lose by four.

Lawson: We beat UVM two out of four in a four-year span and we beat St. Michael’s three out of four. And this particular year we had lost three games in a row; we weren’t playing very well. And Vermont came in and we won by about 15 points. It was such a gratifying win.

Pentkowski: I recall one time we were playing St. Michael’s, who was at that time one of the better teams, and we hung in and lost because I missed a free throw at the end of the game. You would think after 40 years you might forget that stuff, but you don’t. You still want to shoot it again.

We beat UVM a couple of times in my sophomore season. Those were big wins — to beat UVM was a huge thing. The Williams games were always good. Those went both ways … we got whipped pretty good and we beat them a couple of times.

Keyes: Then there was a guy named John Flanagan. I don’t know how tall John was — short. He interviewed at Williams. And the admissions officer asked him, “What do you want to do when you’re not in class.” And John said, “I want to join the basketball team.” And the guy looked at John and was quiet for a minute and then he said, “We have a tremendous intramural program.” And John decided then and there that there was no way he was going to Williams. So any time we played Williams, his game came up.

Keyes: Did you ever see Tom Lawson’s high school coaching record? It was the most incredible thing you’ll ever see. He was the head coach at Proctor High School in Proctor, Vermont. All of his teams were winning the state championships for years.

Pentkowski: I would do anything for the guy. He’s loyal, he’s a wonderful guy. He was like that with everybody. He was just a caring, caring guy very concerned about all his players.

PART III: “Tom was a great recruiter but he had a stifling offense for me that really slowed the game down. We won games, but I felt with the team he recruited we could have run a lot more. So I’d try to push the ball more and he’d be yelling and screaming at me.”

Greg Birsky: The first recruiting level I ever received was actually from the football coach at Middlebury, Mickey Heineken. And I was never going to play football, I’m tiny. But I was all-state football player in high school in Vermont. So I looked at Middlebury. But then Tom Lawson called me after every game my senior year. He was talking to me all the time. He wanted me badly, so I wanted him. As they told me at the D-I level I was a D-I level athlete in a D-III body. I was 5’9’’, 160 pounds and white and couldn’t really jump so no one really wanted me. But I was decent! Tom Lawson was a great recruiter.

Kevin Kelleher: Lawson was a great recruiter. He brought in a lot of top players who had great credentials out of their high schools so there were a lot of really excellent basketball players. There was a guy named Peter Murray in my class who came out of Albany who was a great, great shooter: he had incredible range — and this was before we had a three-point line. Jeff Sather who was out of Brattleboro, Vermont was a very solid, smooth forward. He had a lot of ability, a lot of skills. He could score, he was very athletic. My freshman year we had Zenon Smotchrycz who was 6’8’’, 6’9’’ — he was a banger. All around we had a lot of really good players with good skills.

Birsky: My sophomore year was a huge team for D-III, at least back then. We walked in the door with Zenon Smotrycz at 6’9’’ — “Big Zee” — out of Jersey City, good player big guy, Peter Vuvora at 6’6’’ or 6’7’’ and wide. Those two were a senior and junior, Kelleher started as a freshman and he was 6’5’’, Mark Mauriello who was 6’5’’. The only guy under six feet was me; the other starting guard was 6’2’’. So we started 6’9’’, 6’7’’, 6’5’’, 6’2’’ and 5’9’’.

Birsky: I was probably not the easiest guy to coach because being a coach’s son I thought I knew as much or more than the coaches half time. I was coachable, but I would get a little upset [sometimes]. Tom was a great recruiter but he had a stifling offense for me that really slowed the game down. We won games, but I felt with the team he recruited we could have run a lot more. So I’d try to push the ball more; he’d be yelling and screaming at me. And if we blew somebody out he’d be happy and if we were losing he’d be upset.

Kelleher: Birsky was a great leader on the floor and he would push the ball up and he could score and take it to the hoop. And if he thought based on the team we were playing if there was an advantage to pushing the ball up he wouldn’t slow it down just to run an offense — he would increase the speed of the game and make it much more of a transition game.

Birsky: Kelleher liked to score; he liked to shoot. The big joke when we were playing for Tom Lawson was that Tom would yell to me, “Don’t start the ball with Kelleher in the corner,” because Kelleher would just take the ball and shoot it. So he’d yell at me. And I’d say, “Coach, yell at Kell … he’s the one shooting. He’s supposed to kick it back out to me before we start the offense.”

Kelleher: Tom played sort of a disciplined style: move the ball around, get some touches before we shoot. And my attitude was: if you have a good look take advantage of that look because after two or three touches you may not have that same look. You have to take advantage if you’re in transition. Pulling the ball out and slowing it down … that’s fine if you’re goal is to burn the clock and you’re in the lead and you want to protect that lead, but in the flow of the game, if you’ve got a great look out of transition, take advantage of it! The whole thing with basketball is exploiting weaknesses and exploiting if the defense isn’t back and taking some of those easy scores. And that was the style that I played in.

Birsky: We beat UVM at home and UVM was trying to get ranked nationally. They had a seven-foot center. That was a big win for me and the other Vermont kids. That was my biggest win. I think I led the team that night with 14 points, but everyone had 12 or 13 — it was a beautiful game. And that was one of those games where Tom sat on the bench screaming at us to slow down and we were taking off.

Kelleher: We were completely outsized and outmatched and we beat them. I remember getting an elbow in the first half in my eye, had blood gushing all over, went in, got stitched up and came back and played the second half. And we ended up beating them. And that’s why they stopped playing us because there was nothing for them to gain.

Birsky: I played great with Kevin because he would fill the lane. Back then we didn’t have the three-point line either so you saw much more of the tendency on the 3-on-2 break where the two guys filling the lane would take it all the way to the hoop. In that sense, Kevin loved to score so he hustled his ass down and he was always one of the guys filling the lane. And for some reason — Jeff Sather used to say, “You never give it to me when I fill the lane, you always give it to Kelleher!” — I would give him the ball (it was like he had a magnet in his hands) and he just scored. He didn’t miss layups, he didn’t miss underneath and we had great games.

Kelleher: He got me the ball quite a bit. I ran the court. If we got a rebound I said, “I’m going to be the first one down the court.” It’s just the way I played. Let’s push the ball up the court and see if we can get something in transition that’s better than if we walk it up the floor and run our offense.

Birsky: There was a game down in Castleton where I ended up having 27 points in the game with 11 assists and Kelleher had 25 points or something so either I shot it or I came down and threw it to him. And I just happened to have one of those games where I had some really fun passes — over the head, behind my back, one between my legs — and it was just in the flow of the game, I wasn’t showboating, but it was always to Kelleher.

PART IV: “It was a highlight of my life, seeing the Middlebury basketball family honoring a guy who had really served us and helped us. Afterwards a lot of coaches went up to Russ and said, ‘Boy I haven’t seen that much emotion at Middlebury College in a long time.'”

Kelleher: Russ was an assistant coach his first year before he became the head coach, so I’m not sure if there was much of a difference with respect to his style of play. I think Russ was a little bit more open to pushing the ball up and [liked] a quicker game while Tom was more about “let’s control the ball” in more of a slow-down game. But I don’t remember that much of a difference.

Birsky: It was a good transition because Russ had come my junior year and he was the assistant coach so we all knew him. He let us run more and he let us open it up more and that was fun. And then I coached with Russ for two years so I stayed two more years and was his assistant coach.

Russ Reilly: I was the head athletic trainer and assistant basketball coach [at Bates]. I really wanted to get out of athletic training and the opportunity availed itself during the spring of ’77. I had gotten to take the Bates golf team to the NESCAC championship and Tom Lawson had taken the Middlebury golf team to the championship. And it had just been announced that he had been promoted to the Director of Athletics position and there was going to be an opening for an assistant soccer coach and assistant basketball coach. So in a true example of merely being in the right place at the right time I was able to chat with him, was very informally interviewed over a day-and-a-half period and was ultimately offered the position as the assistant soccer coach and assistant men’s basketball coach, which I accepted. And that started my career at Middlebury.

Birsky: Russ was a terrific practice coach — he absolutely had it down to a T; he had it designed time-wise, he was very efficient, very effective teaching the basics and everything that needed to be done. In the game he had a system where he made sure he rested people and made sure we were balanced. He was very educated as far as how to coach in those times.

Russ Reilly: I’d like to think that practice for any coach is their class room. That’s where you’re teaching the basic lessons … the games are just exams. So if you’re not doing your job in the classroom teaching the skills of the game or your philosophy, then you’re probably not doing everything you can to prepare your team to be as successful as you might like them to be.

Birsky: Every year we had a Maine trip, to go play Bates and Bowdoin or some combination. My senior year was Russ’s first year and there was a snowstorm going over.

Reilly: It was a very emotional game for the people at Bates and myself and my wife. They presented her with flowers — it was quite a showing — and then they held the ball on us right from the get-go.

Birsky: We get to Bates and they weren’t very good that year, and they just decided they want to beat Russ in his first game back. And they held the ball. Back then we didn’t have a shot clock — there was no shot clock in the college game until the mid-80s. (This was 1979). So they get ahead of us and they held the ball. And if you go back in history and watch the four-corners stall that NC State ran in the 70s, it’s as boring as hell … it’ll drive you nuts.

Kelleher: I think the score at halftime was like 8-6. So at halftime we said, “we’ve gotta just try to get this game up-tempo.” Which we finally did. We got a lead so they couldn’t really stall and in the second half it opened up a little bit.

Birsky: Once we got ahead we blew them out so we won for Russ’s first game, which was awesome.

Reilly: It was one thing I didn’t expect, but I thought we reacted very well to it.

Birsky: And then the next day we had to play Colby, and Colby was real good. And we were real good — we should have had more wins than we did; we had a lot of close losses and Colby was one of them.

Kelleher: My [junior] year we had a really tough loss up at Colby. I think we were down by one and we had the ball.

Birsky: We lost on a buzzer shot. Kelleher actually had a tap in to win it — we were down one — and it rimmed out after Jeff Sayther had a little fadeaway jumper that rimmed out as well. We had two shots to win with under five seconds. I still remember to it this day because it would have been a great win.

Kelleher: The time was running out and I was in the position for the rebound, but instead I went up to tap it in because I thought we were going to tap it in and I missed the tap. If I had grabbed it and went up we would have won the game, and there was enough time to do that. So that was a pretty tough pill to swallow.

Birsky: So we get on the bus and we start to drive home and another freaking snowstorm hits and it took forever. We had this great guy, Tex, who was in his late 70s or early 80s who would come to every practice and sit on the sidelines and watch us practice. He became our team, for lack of a better word, mascot. So we invited him to go on the road trip with us. He was a retired guy from New York, had a lot of money. We were half the state of Maine and couldn’t get out of the snow and he says, “Russ, we need to stop for a beer.” And Russ goes, “OK.” So we stop the bus, go into a bar, I don’t know where — we all pile into this place — and Tex sets us up. And he had a rule — “a pitcher a table so everyone gets two beers.” So we all sat down, drank beers, got back on the bus, which made the trip so much better.

Kelleher: Usually on road trips if we were playing close to the areas where one of the players was from [their families would host the team].

I grew in Worcester, Mass. and my brother played at Worcester Tech. And my junior year, his senior year we were playing at Worcester Tech and it was a big homecoming because we both played high school ball together and the papers wrote up this big rivalry. And they beat us, which was a real tough loss for me, playing in front of your home crowd and getting beat by your older brother.

Birsky: I was having a great senior year and I hurt my back. I got taken to the rim by this guy and I went up and I flipped over and landed on my back and got knocked out. They were worried about my neck, but the next day I could hardly walk the next day because of my low back. And that injury has stayed with me for life. But I played, and Dick Waterman, who was the trainer at the time, would tape me up around my belly and my back — it was like a tourniquet brace — and I played at like 70 percent. So I went to Russ and said, “As soon as you sit me down to rest me I stiffen up and I can’t go. So I’d rather just keep playing and you take me out if I foul out or if I’m not playing well or I can’t make it to the end. So for the last 10 games of the season he just let me go. It was nice — he broke his own rules to let me keep playing.

Reilly: Injuries are a part of the game, but it’s especially unfortunate when it happens at the point guard position because it’s so important in terms of directing the operation when the game is underway. And if the point guard gets hurt and you don’t have anyone to back him up, it’s hard to get things get going both offensively and defensively. You need someone with a good head on their shoulders, can communicate, understands the game — certainly qualities Birsky had.

Birsky: My senior year our equipment manager at the school, Warren, who was an old Vermonter who worked at the College handing out towels and picking up after us. He was a retried farmer, didn’t have any teeth, spoke with a real strong Vermont access and was the nicest man in the world and he retired my senior year. So Russ put it together and we honored him at halftime during one of the last games of the homestand.

Reilly: His favorite team was the Boston Celtics, but he had never ever been able to see them play. When I had been coaching at BU and Bates prior to coming here, I had made some contacts, particularly with KC Jones. At the time KC was the coach of Brandeis and then subsequently moved on to the Celtics and their organization. So I contacted KC and said “I’ve got this old-time Vermont farmer who’s a long-time Celtics fan and has never been to a game … can you help me out with tickets?”

Birsky: So at this award ceremony at halftime — and back then we didn’t have as many fans as the basketball team does now, but when they heard that Warren was going to be honored at half time all the athletes from other sports like lacrosse, hockey, football — really came out. I gave the award and the place rocked. It was emotional, people were crying, it was really cool. It was a highlight of my life, seeing the Middlebury basketball family honoring a guy who had really served us and helped us. Afterwards a lot of coaches went up to Russ and said, “Boy I haven’t seen that much emotion at Middlebury College in a long time.”

Reilly: KC got me five tickets — enough for me to take our three captains, Warren and myself down to a Celtics game. Another alum arranged a meal for us at a big-time restaurant across from the Garden. At the end of the game KC arranged for us to go down into the Celtics locker room and take pictures with Dave Cowens and KC Jones. That picture hung in Warren’s living room until he died. It was just a great way of helping an old-time guy who had worked hard all his life, never really had much to show for himself, but he was just such a great person that I wanted to honor him.

I’m firmly convinced that if you’re playing a sport at a place like this it’s an extension of your the educational message. And your first mission is to teach.

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