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Frank's Place: Big 5's forgotten coaching great, Ken Loeffler

Happily, Rollie Massimino is alive and coaching. But The Inquirer, in what is standard journalistic practice for such aging notables, has an obituary prepared nonetheless.

Happily, Rollie Massimino is alive and coaching. But The Inquirer, in what is standard journalistic practice for such aging notables, has an obituary prepared nonetheless.

Massimino led Villanova to the 1985 national title in one of the most memorable NCAA championship games ever. His long, mostly successful and often controversial career warrants the 2,237 words in what will be a lengthy remembrance.

Ken Loeffler coached a local college to an NCAA basketball title too, La Salle in 1954. His Explorers also were NCAA runners-up in 1955 and won the 1952 NIT. In 1964, he was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

On Jan. 12, 1975, the Sunday Inquirer noted his passing earlier that week. Stuck at the bottom of a national roundup of the week's prominent deaths, it was nine words long.

To be fair, a few days earlier, buried on Page 5-D, the paper had provided a slightly more detailed account of his life. But the modest coverage made it clear that by the time a heart attack felled him at 73, Loeffler, out of coaching for 18 years and teaching law at Monmouth College, was yesterday's news.

Yet for all the great and colorful coaches in Philadelphia's rich basketball history, there might never have been one more interesting.

Born in 1902 in the heart of Western Pennsylvania football country, Loeffler lost his electrician father in a 1918 accident at a Beaver Falls steel mill.

He lettered in both football and basketball at Penn State. After graduating in 1924 with a degree in English, he played professional hoops, then began to coach basketball and pursue the law degree Pitt eventually awarded him in 1934.

While coaching and studying law at Yale, one of his roommates was future President Gerald Ford. During World War II, Loeffler served as an Army Judge Advocate attorney, attaining the rank of major.

When the NBA debuted in 1946, he was one of its 11 original coaches, guiding the St. Louis Bombers to a second-place finish. Besides La Salle and Yale, he would have college coaching stops at Geneva, Denver and Texas A&M.

A literate man with varied interests, Loeffler spent one offseason working on a Wyoming dude ranch and another as a tennis pro at Hyannisport (Mass.) Country Club, where his privileged pupils included several members of the Kennedy family.

During the shank of his career - the six successful seasons at La Salle from 1949 through 1955 - Loeffler memorably wore bow ties. On the bench, he always kept a thermos of milk to quiet persistent ulcers. At practices, he sometimes used a megaphone and occasionally spouted poetry to players and officials.

While some sportswriters found him "cold" or "an intellectual snob", he consistently gave them what they wanted, great quotes.

When a 21-game Explorers' win streak ended with an upset loss to Utah at Madison Square Garden, Loeffler said he "was sick and tired of losing". Unhappy with the officiating in a defeat at North Carolina State, he termed it "the biggest steal since the Louisiana Purchase."

He didn't like the shot clock, pivot-based offenses and especially recruiting. It wasn't Loeffler but one of the school's Christian Brothers who convinced Tom Gola to come to La Salle.

Loeffler preferred teams constructed like his Gola-led champions - not with a dominant big man but with well-rounded players who could effectively operate his "five-man weave".

A detailed book he cowrote in 1955 with local Associated Press reporter Ralph Bernstein, Ken Loeffler on Basketball, became that era's bible for many young coaches. One of them was future DeMatha High legend Morgan Wootten.

In 1965, when DeMatha faced New York City's mighty Power Memorial, Wootten sought advice from the then-retired Loeffler on how to stop 7-foot-2 Lew Alcindor.

Loeffler, Wootten wrote, "helped me devise a strategy." It worked. In what was the only high school game Alcindor ever lost, DeMatha ended Power's 71-game winning streak with a 46-43 victory.

But there was a flip side. The professorial Loeffler could be unreasonably demanding, an aloof and emotionally removed mentor for the young men he coached.

"He taught law at the college and sometimes you'd see him on the Quadrangle and he'd walk right past you like he didn't know who you were," Charlie Greenberg, who played for him at La Salle, recalled this week. "He was a tough coach who'd get down on you if you made a mistake. He was just different. I don't want to say anything bad about him, but he just was not a real friendly guy."

Gola, the player whose multifaceted talents got Loeffler into the Hall of Fame, once called him "the most brilliant coach I had in all my years in basketball."

"But his philosophy was that the team should be together," Gola added in 1975, "even if it meant being together in hating him."

Loeffler was the coach in the first college game I ever saw. Accompanying my father to a mid-1950s game at La Salle's Wister Hall, all that I recall about him now was the bow tie and the way Gola towered over him during their side-court discussions.

I probably hadn't thought much about him in the ensuing decades until I began researching Massimino's life. Beyond the narrow confines of La Salle's basketball community, this remarkable coach had been all but forgotten.

Like the shuttered steel mills in the Pennsylvania town where he grew up, Loeffler's reputation had grown rusty from time and disuse. The five-man weave, the disdainful remove from his players, the love of poetry, all that now was as passé as his signature bow ties.

But of the 77 coaches in the history of Big Five programs, only three - Massimino, Jay Wright and Loeffler - have guided their teams to national titles. Only Loeffler has gotten to two NCAA championship games and also won an NIT.

And dead or alive, in 2,237 words or just nine, those are accomplishments worth remembering.