One thing I have learned is that good friends have other good friends. This is a series of stories about friends of my friends. The post below is the story on a friend of a friend for January 22, 2015.
In 1977 Marshall University joined the Southern Conference. In 1977 I was leaving East Carolina University as an assistant basketball coach and ECU was in the Southern Conference. Three years later I went to Western Carolina University as an assistant basketball coach and was back coaching in the Southern Conference. In those three years that I had been removed from the SoCon Marshall had been working hard to make their impact felt in the league.
In 1977 Marshall hired one of the best recruiters in college basketball to be their head coach. They tabbed 41 year-old Stu Aberdeen from the University of Tennessee to replace Bob Daniels. Aberdeen had been the assistant coach that recruited UT superstars Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King to Knoxville. ESPN has produced a film for their “30 for 30” on King and Grunfeld that I encourage you to watch when it airs.
One of the people that Stu Aberdeen hired at Marshall as his assistant coach was Bob Zuffalto. Bob always treated me with a lot more respect than my position and experience warranted. I considered him a friend during those years we both were in the Southern Conference.
Bob had been the Head Basketball Coach at Boston College from 1971-1977. Bob is currently a scout for the Toronto Raptors. He has with more than four decades of basketball experience at the NBA. He has served with the Raptors since September 1994, when he became the director of scouting. He managed the club’s scouting network and was responsible for evaluating professional and collegiate talent. In 1998, he was promoted to director of basketball operations and then became the assistant general manager of the Raptors in 2001, remaining in that position for two seasons before returning to scouting to spend more time with his family.
The other assistant coach at Marshall was C.J Wollum who also was a class act. C.J Wollum was an assistant at Marshall for 9 years until he left in 1984 to become the head coach at Christopher Newport in Virginia. CJ died in 2013 of brain cancer but he was the coach at CNU for 26 years winning 502 games and advancing to NCAA Division III tournament 17 times. CJ had a brother that was a college coach for 25 years Charlie Wollum. Charlie coached at Bucknell (1975-1994) and William & Mary (1994-2000).
The friend of Bob Zuffaloto I want to include in this post is a player he coached named Ken Labanowski. Ken was recruited by Stu Aberdeen and played at Marshall from 1977-1981.
Ken Labanowski helped Marshall to the Southern Conference Finals in 1979 in Bob Zuffalto’s first year as Head Coach and they reached the SoCon semi-finals in 1980. “Labo” played in 107 games, scoring 1,252 points, grabbing 751 rebounds, dishing 150 assists, recording 98 steals and he finished his career with a shooting percentage of 55.5%. All of those marks rank among the top 25 in Marshall Basketball history. He has been inducted into the Marshall University Athletic Hall of Fame.
The Friend-BOB ZUFFALTO
The Friend of the Friend-KEN LABANOWSKI-#25 in White
Bob Zuffalto coaching Ken Labanowski at VMI in the PIT
This is a story that I actually got to witness as an Assistant Coach at Western Carolina University. On Monday January 26, 1981 I was on a scouting trip to Lexington, VA to watch Marshall play at Virginia Military Academy. Western Carolina was going to play VMI on Saturday January 31, 1981 in Lexington.
VMI was on a down spell after their glory years of 1976 and 1977. In those two seasons the Keydets advanced to the NCAA Elite 8 in 1976 and posted a record of 26-4 in 1977. In 1977 they lost in NCAA 2nd round to Kentucky.
In 1981 VMI played their games in Cormack Field House, nicknamed “The Pit”. “The Pit” served as the home of VMI basketball from the 1930s through 1980. There were many notable performances in its time including the Keydets Corps lining up under the visiting team basket during pre-game warm-ups.
The Keydets were really taunting Marshall’s #25 Ken Labanowski. “Labo”had a reputation as a physical player in fact he was involved in a nasty brawl his freshman year in a 1978 game against University of Lousiville played in Huntington, WV. “Labo” and UL Larry Williams were both ejected in that game that also saw Stu Aberdeen get ejected. The point is “Labo” was a proven brawler.
On this particular night not only were the Keydets getting into the pre-game taunting but the VMI mascot came down on the baseline. As a visiting team coach at the game to scout I was placed in the endzone that Marshall was warming up at and had a front row seat to what happened next.
VMI mascot is a kangaroo and in 1981 it had a paper mache head. Depiction of mascot is below.
Well the taunting before the game started to get a little more intense. The Keydets inched closer to the floor and when the Thundering Herd came out for their final warm-ups before tip-off the mascot was on the floor partially blocking the team from entering the court.
“Labo” was apparently going to take the ribbing from the Keydets but he drew the line on any gruff or harassment from a kangaroo. He ran by the mascot and promptly cold cocked the kangaroo as he entered the floor. That kangaroo went down like a sack of rocks.
The Marshall coaches had to get the team off the floor and game administrators pushed the Keydets back into the stands. The game was raucous with the Keydets Corp all over Ken Labanowski the entire game.
In the end Marshall won the game 63-53, the kangaroo had a hole in his head, and Labo’s reputation as a brawler grew.