"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Catching up with Frank Zummach – before he and John Wooden turn 100

How long will we remember heartbreaking last second losses to Stanford, Missouri and Washington? How about 28,584 days?

Saturday I talked to Frank Zummach, the only living professional head coach from the 1930s and the oldest living Marquette player. We talked about Zummach making history by setting up 9 points in 59 seconds, helping to take MU near the top of college basketball as a player and assistant coach and building a professional champion as a head coach, but he still hasn’t forgotten one missed shot against John Wooden.

It’s been 28,584 days since Zummach and his Marquette teammates fell just short, 26-23 at Purdue, to John Wooden and eventual the national champion Boilermakers. When I caught up with Zummach Saturday, he still remembered the loss like it was yesterday. The humble 99-year-old started by blaming himself for the narrow loss to the eventual national champions.

“I played against Johnny Wooden, there’s a name you should remember,” Zummach told me Saturday night, in remembering the February 3, 1932 game. “He was a senior and I was a junior. I missed a gimme shot in that game that I really should have made. I always thought if I’d just made that shot we would have beaten Purdue that year. A while ago Johnny Wooden sent me an autograph since he had played against me.”

Wooden went onto his third straight All-American season and was named national player of the year (an award now named after him). Zummach was very appreciative when Marquette invited him to an on-court event several years ago, but said he unfortunately broke his hip before the event and didn’t want to take the court in a wheel chair, so he sent his son instead.

Zummach and Wooden both turning 100 years old

Wooden, who finished his career by coaching UCLA to 10 national titles in his final 12 years, will turn 100 years old on October 14. Zummach will turn 100 three months later on January 28, 2011.

It was actually a mistake in my book that led to my conversation with Zummach. He is not only the oldest living MU player, but last alphabetically of the 667 players I listed in the Ultimate Hoops Guide – Marquette University released a few years ago. Therefore, the back cover states; “Aamot to Zummach: Stats on every MU player.” However, I made a mistake on page 178. I wrote, “A solid contributor until he was benched by the loaded 1934 squad.” In piecing together the scraps of stats and info from early years, I thought Zummach had played in the 1931-32, 32-33 and 33-34 seasons. In fact, he started a year earlier, and was in law school for the 1933-34 school year, the first of six years he served as an assistant coach during the Golden Age of Marquette sports.

I ranked Zummach as one of the 200 greatest players in Marquette history (of 667 who have played), as he was a key to rescuing MU from a stretch of eight straight seasons without a winning record. To set the record straight, here is his career:

Freshman year – 1929-30 – Marquette’s 8-year skid continues before Zummach

Zummach didn’t come to Marquette with any intention of playing basketball.

“I was not recruited by Marquette. I just went to Marquette after going to Marquette High School. I always say that I only played at Marquette because they only had four players and they needed a fifth,” Zummach said Saturday. “Back then you were expected to come to school as a freshman and learn how to study. Then you could play your sophomore year. Now they can come right there and play as a freshman.”

Zummach had not had any intention of playing basketball at all, but when the team lost at Creighton on February 17, 1930, it guaranteed Marquette would fail to have a winning record for the 8th straight season and the program started to get desperate for players.

Sophomore year – 1930-31 – MU ends 11-game skid to rivals in Zummach’s debut

Bill Chandler replaced Cord Lipe as coach Zummach’s sophomore year in school.

“The Tribune ran an ad asking people to come out and try out, and I made the team. I didn’t expect to play at all,” Zummach told me, however spots started to open up. “Half of the players played football too back then, and one of them got hurt at the end of the football season to free up one spot. There was another guy from Chicago who they thought was going to be a star, but he had some trouble and was asked to leave the university, so that freed up another spot.”

Chandler liked Zummach, but he still sat the bench the first four games as MU started 3-1. Then on December 30, Wisconsin came to town.

“Back then, Wisconsin was our main rival. We could lose the rest of our games, but if we beat Wisconsin, that’s all that mattered. We had almost the same feeling about Notre Dame,” Zummach said. At the time, Notre Dame and Wisconsin had combined to beat Marquette 11 straight times, dating back to a 9-8 MU win over Wisconsin in 1923. “I sat on the bench for the first quarter against Wisconsin, but then he put me in and I played the last three quarters of the game. People don’t believe this, but I never took a shot. I was very coachable. I did whatever the coach needed done.

“Go back and check my memory, but I believe we beat Wisconsin 16-14 that game when Joe King hit a shot from downtown at the end of the game.”

Zummach’s memory is apparently perfect at the age of 99. The record books show the 16-14 win that day. Zummach had found a spot with Chandler, and would continue to contribute despite not shooting. He was part of a much improved MU team that went 11-7, and was almost much better with four losses of three points or less against Michigan State and Notre Dame.

“That first year I did whatever they wanted me to do. The rest of the guys were on scholarship, but I wasn’t. At the end of the year, I went to the athletic director and told him the rest of the guys were on scholarship, and if he didn’t get me one, then I would drop off the team and not come back to play the next year. Coach went to the Athletic Director and got him to give me a scholarship.”

Because Zummach was not scoring, he didn’t show up in the stat sheets I combed, and I didn’t even give him credit for the season in the book. However, Chandler obviously was impressed.

Junior year – 1931-32 - Stars as co-captain

Chandler not only argued for the scholarship, he made Zummach a co-captain along with Whitey Budrunas, and the two made history that season.

Zummach scored 56 points his junior year, an excellent total in an era in which there was still a jump ball after every basket, and the jump shot had yet to be invented. Zummach’s defense helped Marquette give up just 27.8 points a game that year, so he was basically a very strong defensive team player who averaged the equivalent of about 10 points a game by modern standards.

I asked Zummach about the fact that basketball purists at the time viewed the jump ball as a key part of basketball strategy, and were not happy the Pac 10 had changed the rules to the modern practice of inbounding the ball after a basket. It turns out Zummach was one of the keys to Marquette’s jump ball strategy.

Just eight days after the heartbreaking loss at Purdue, Grinnell visited Marquette on February 11, 1932, and Zummach made history. Budrunas was dominating jump balls, and Zummach took advantage.

“I once got 5 tips in a row and threw the ball to Whitley Budrunas each time” Zummach said of the 43-29 MU win. “He scored 9 points in 59 seconds. It made it into ‘Believe It Or Not.’”

Zummach had registered four assists in 59 seconds, and was only denied a fifth because Grinnell finally fouled Budrunas the fifth time. In the book I named Budrunas, who led the team with 169 points that year, as the top center of the decade. MU registered its second straight winning season at 11-8.

Senior – 1932-33 – Zummach hits double figures vs. Northwestern and MU goes 14-3

Zummach’s senior year was a breakthrough for Marquette, which went 14-3 and swept Wisconsin, and also won on the road at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Detroit, in addition to beating Indiana at home. Zummach again didn’t shoot as much, helping to set up Marquette’s first All-American Ed Mullen and incredible scorer Raymond Morstadt for many of his 163 points. However, when Chandler needed Zummach to score, he did. Zummach saved his best for his third to final game, a crucial 26-24 win against Northwestern on March 2.
“I scored five baskets to score 10 points against Northwestern. That was my best game,” he said.

After going through eight straight losing seasons before Zummach took the court, MU had three straight wins during Zummach’s time on the court, including one of the best years in MU history his senior year.

As assistant coach, just misses first national tourney

Zummach went onto law school for the 1933-34 school year. Three years after Chandler had to fight to get Zummach a scholarship, he made him the first paid assistant at MU.

Because Chandler convinced him to stay on as an assistant coach while attending law school for the 1933-34 school year, I mistakenly thought he was still playing but had been moved to the bench with almost everyone else back to lead the team to another 15-4 mark.

After a couple of rebuilding years, Chandler and Zummach coached MUs second All-American Dave Quabius to the verge of making the first NIT national championship in 1939. In those first tournaments, a bid would have made MU an Elite 8 team.

Zummach therefore played or coached all but the first year of the 1930s decade, MUs third best decade (63% winning percentage) behind only the 1970s and the 2000s.

Head coach of charter member of NBA

Despite his law practice, Zummach then jumped to take over the professional Sheboygan Red Skins. The Red Skins were part of the National Basketball League (NBL), one of two professional leagues (along with the Basketball Association of America) that would merge to form the NBA in 1949. Zummach is the only living head coach from the 1930s.

Like at Marquette, Zummach stepped into a team that was struggling (11-17 record the year before he took over). However, he made them a consistent winner during all of his seasons and laid the groundwork to bring the NBL title to Sheboygan, where he still lives.

Zummach coached the Red Skins to a spot opposite the Oshkosh All-Stars in the 1941 NBL finals. He formed his team around Marquette alums, including All-American Dave Quabius, Glenn R. "Sparky" Adams, George Hesik, Bill McDonald and Paul Sokody. Sandlotter Otto Kolar, from Cicero, Ill., was rated as one of the best guards in the Midwest and ran Zummach’s the Red Skins offense.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently mentioned Zummach as the coach who won surprising approval for black players from the Harlem Globetrotters to sleep in a hotel of an all-white city during the height of segregation in 1940 before they played his Sheboygan team. With Zummach spending fulltime with the lawfirm, the Red Skins only last one year in the NBA.

“The problem we had with the NBA was with Madison Square Garden. They asked how they would find Sheboygan, and why they would play there in front of 1,200 fans when they seated 17,000,” said Zummach, who built the foundation but had to leave the team the year before they acquired Hall of Fame guard Buddy Jeannette and won the NBL championship. “For what they were paying me I couldn’t have eaten bread and butter, and the law practice was doing well.”


The Palmetto Warrior said...

I thought this was one of the best articles on this site. As an alumnus and rabid basketball fan of Marquette, I often forget that our wonderful program is more than just wins or losses; we are part of a fraternity of alumni like Mr. Zummach and those who "came before" who paved the way in entertaining us with their athletic skills, and were role models in the classroom as they strove to do all things, as our motto says, to the greater glory of God

JohnPudner said...

Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words. As depressing as it is in some ways to have to wait from March to November without any games, it does give a chance to take a breath and reflect back. I cannot tell you how excited I was when Mr. Zummach picked up the phone. Thanks again.