Hall-of-Fame coach's national crusade led to swift major change in 1944.
National Rules Committee chairman James St. Clair observing the practice of legal goaltending in a 1944 Bedlam game at the OU Field House.
NORMAN, Okla. --
Former OU basketball head coach Bruce Drake (1939-55).
The only University of Oklahoma coach enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Bruce Drake led the Sooners to 200 wins, six conference titles and a pair of NCAA Final Fours in his 17 years on the sideline (1939-55). Many of those triumphs occurred in the OU Field House.
Few OU fans may be aware, however, that Drake, who was known for championing the small player in basketball, is responsible for the implementation of a rule almost 69 years ago that forever changed the game on the college and professional levels -- goaltending.
Drake's Sooner teams were usually on the small side, even incurring the nickname "Roundball Runts" late in his career. His famous "Shuffle" offense that consisted of long possessions of systematic passing was designed to lessen the impact of opposing big men on defense. But those big men kept getting bigger, and the practice of snatching shots about to drop through the hoop was not against the rules. Drake felt the relatively new custom was negatively affecting the sport.
In the mid-1940s, one opposing center was particularly dominant on the defensive end. That was Oklahoma A&M 7-footer Bob Kurland, a three-time All-American. The Aggies, under the direction of fellow future Hall-of-Fame head coach Henry Iba, would position Kurland beneath the opposing basket, effectively serving as a "goaltender" to incoming field goal attempts and knocking them away as they approached the rim.
Drake was of the belief that once a shot reached its apex and started falling toward the goal, its course should not be altered by a defender. According to former longtime OU sports publicist Harold Keith, Kurland, as a freshman, "plucked out 22 probables" that left the hands of Sooner shooters in the 1943 Bedlam meeting in Stillwater, an Aggies' victory.
Realizing he had three more years to contend with Kurland, Drake decided to issue a full-court press of sorts. It began with a story he and Keith submitted to the Saturday Evening Post titled "Seven-Foot Trouble." Published in the Feb. 19, 1944, issue, Drake's story (as told to Keith) attacked the practice of goaltending.
One of the lines in Drake's article read, "A coach feels as a golfer would if his opponent suddenly reached out his hand to intercept a perfect putt inches in front of the can."
Continuing his effort to organize opposition to the practice, Drake then conducted a national poll of his colleagues on their thoughts about the goaltending issue. He was delighted to find out his fellow coaches were overwhelmingly on his side.
Of goaltending, even Iba said, "I know it smells. I hope Bob (Kurland) helps eliminate it from the game."
And in one more move aimed at helping outlaw the practice, Drake invited National Rules Committee chairman James St. Clair to the Oklahoma-Oklahoma A&M game in the OU Field House in 1944 to monitor Kurland's swipes. St. Clair didn't watch from the stands, or even courtside. That's because Drake constructed a small platform above the north goal on which St. Clair could sit and get a closer look at what was taking place.
The multi-level crusade worked, and in stunningly short fashion. Just 38 days after the publish date of Drake's Saturday Evening Post submission, St. Clair and the rules committee established legislation forbidding defensive players from touching the ball on its downward flight on a shot for the goal. Violation of the rule would result in the field goal (two points).
It was a major victory for Drake that would alter the game in a significant manner. Those in opposition to the new legislation argued that it constituted a "cruel assault" on big men.
Countered Drake, "The only tall players handicapped will be those who can only tend goal. The tall player will still have a wide advantage in rebounding, post play, shooting and recovery of loose balls."
Then he quipped, "Of course, he will have to know some basketball."
The goaltending rule was soon adopted in the pro game and still exists today.
The nation's coaches, impressed with Drake's aggressive campaign against the practice of goaltending, later voted him chairman of the National Rules Committee. He served his last five seasons as OU head coach in that capacity.
Drake, who was also an assistant coach on the USA's 1956 gold-medal-winning Olympic team and was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1973, passed away in 1983 one day before turning 79. He lived almost 40 years after the implementation of the goaltending rule for which he adamantly fought.
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The Sooner men's basketball team returns to OU's historic Field House on Monday, Dec. 31 (New Year's Eve) for its game against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Tip is slated for 2 p.m. Tickets are just $10 for adults, $5 for kids ages 2-12 and available online now
The game, and our 10-day countdown
, will highlight OU's basketball success in the 1940s with a focus on the 1946-47 season. The Sooners made their second trip to the Final Four under head coach Bruce Drake in March of '47. Check back each day for features, photos and video as OU celebrates the Field House Series