If you want to talk basketball, maybe “Black” Jack Gardner – a 1928 Redlands High alum – could be good for a story, or two. Or three, or more. Also known as “The Fox,” Gardner’s departure from Redlands led him on an odyssey in which he would eventually wind up in 10 different Halls of Fame.
He’d coached against the likes of Bill Russell and Adolph Rupp, against his former college, USC, logging one of the most impressive basketball-coaching careers in the annals of the college game. In 1998, Gardner spoke by telephone with me from Salt Lake City.
Revelations from that conversation, plus another couple of contacts, were eye-opening.
Credited with the discovery of another Hall of Famer, John Stockton, Gardner watched plenty of hoops, even in retirement. In fact, he showed up at every Final Four between 1939 and 1997.
The man has quite a resume. Even today, after the remarkable successes of John Wooden, Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Mike Kryzewksi, Larry Brown, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Adolph Rupp and Jerry Tarkanian, Gardner qualifies among the elite of collegiate basketball coaches.
To date, he remains one of three coaches – Pitino and Williams are the others – to lead two different programs to the Final Four on two occasions. Though he was born in New Mexico in 1910, the path began in Redlands, where he was a four-sport athlete.
Long before Kansas became a major force in collegiate basketball, especially under legendary coach Forrest “Phog” Allen, Gardner’s K-State Wildcats regularly outplayed the Jayhawks.
“Yes,” said Gardner in a telephone interview with me in the late 1990s. “Coach Allen didn’t recruit much in those years. I think I got better players because I recruited. When he got going, boy, things got better for them.”
One word: Chamberlain! More on Wilt later. As for Gardner, off he went to USC after his Redlands days, the 5-foot-11, 160-pounder becoming an All-American during his 1928-1932 stint as a Trojan – long before basketball became an iconic sport.
He was All-Coast, USC’s high scorer for two seasons, Trojans’ team captain and MVP during a successful collegiate playing career. His hoops future wasn’t in a uniform.
Coaching career begins
After coaching at Alhambra High School (29-11 over two seasons) to a 1934 Southern Section runner-up spot (losing to Santa Barbara, 19-14, at Whittier College) and Modesto Junior College (three state titles over four years), Kansas State hired Gardner as coach in 1939.
Gardner, who is enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame, coached the K-State Wildcats in two stints – first from 1939-42, again from 1946-53. After posting just 20 wins in his first three seasons, Gardner returned to Manhattan, Kansas in 1947 and led the team to its first winning season in 16 years with a 14-10 mark.
One season later, the Wildcats made the most of their first NCAA Tournament appearance, advancing all the way to the 1948 Final Four, where they lost to eventual national runner-up Baylor, 60-52, in the Western Regional Finals.
That squad became the first in school history to win 20 games en route to capturing the Big Seven crown. K-State tied for the Big Seven title in 1950-51, finishing 25-4. Gardner guided the ’Cats to arguably their greatest season.
With first team All-American Ernie Barrett leading the way, Gardner’s Wildcats rattled off a 25-4 record en route to capturing the Big Seven crown for the third time in four seasons.
Entering the NCAA Tournament ranked fourth in the nation, K-State survived a scare from No. 12 Arizona, winning 61-59, in the first round before beating No. 11 Brigham Young University, then No. 2 Oklahoma State to reach the 1951 finals against Rupp’s No. 1-ranked Kentucky.
What a spot for a guy that had graduated from Redlands some 23 years earlier. All those days playing in that old Terrier Gymnasium couldn’t have predicted something like this.
It was a battle of Wildcats in the finals – No. 1-ranked Kentucky taking on Gardner’s K-State Wildcats. K-State had the halftime lead, 29-27.
Barrett was injured during the game, though, and K-State got overwhelmed in the second half, losing 68-58. What a story that would turn out to be. Point shaving. Kentucky players were branded. Arrested. Jailed. Barred for life.
In looking ahead to Gardner’s career, consider that he coached against the likes of Smith and Wooden, Rupp and Allen, plus both McGuires – Frank and Al.
Gardner’s Utah team went up against Bill Russell, then played the foil of Kentucky in Glory Road movie fame, scouted Stockton for the Jazz and had the edge in a pair of Utah-based rivalries against Utah State and Brigham Young University.
Part 2 next week.