Gildea, Dennis. Hoop Crazy: The Lives of Clair Bee and Chip Hilton. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2013. xx+322. Notes, bibliography, index, and appendices. $34.95 clothback.
Reviewed by Russ Crawford
Every basketball fanatic should read this book. Not because Hoop Crazy: The Lives of Clair Bee and Chip Hilton is well researched and written; it is, but that is not the primary reason. The real reason it should be read is because Dennis Gildea tells the story of Clair Bee, a man who helped develop college basketball into what it is today. Not only that, but Bee also was a prolific writer who gave us Chip Hilton, the fictional all-American athlete that taught a generation of boys to excel not only on the field, court, and diamond, but also how to do so while maintaining their integrity.
Gildea, who worked as a sports reporter and editor before joining the communications faculty at Springfield (MA) College, writes with a reporter’s flow, making for an enjoyable read. He has an eye for a good story, though he tends to repeat some of them several times in the text. Gildea had to rely on mostly secondary sources, since Bee’s daughter Cynthia Farley did not feel comfortable allowing him access to her father’s papers. Perhaps that was a favor, however, since Bobby Knight, another legendary coach, tried to make some order out of them and gave up in frustration. The author backs up those sources with interviews of people who knew the coach, including his children. The result is a comprehensive biography that follows Bee from his earliest days to the end of his life, and to his continuing influence.
The first chapter of Hoop Crazy offers an overview of the 1951 Point Shaving scandal that Gildea argues not only cost Bee his job when Long Island University (LIU) abolished sports, but also altered his philosophy toward sport, as evidenced by changes in the Hilton series. The next chapters then follow Bee’s life chronologically from his high school days in Grafton, West Virginia, through his college education at Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania. His coaching career that began at Rider University in 1928 and ended at LIU in 1951 are considered in chapters four through ten, with individual chapters exploring LIU’s boycott of the 1936 Olympics, and Bee’s work at racially integrating basketball. Chapter eleven considers how Bee wrote about Chip Hilton and race relations, and chapter twelve backtracks to explore Bee’s life off the court. Chapters thirteen through sixteen are an in-depth consideration of Bee’s role in, and reaction to, the scandal. Chapter seventeen contains the meat of Gildea’s contention that the scandal changed the arc of Chip Hilton’s story line. The final two chapters chronicle Bee’s later career with the Baltimore Bullets of the NBA, his relation with Bobby Knight, and his final years.
Hoop Crazy provides a comprehensive story of the life of a legendary coach. It could also be read as a combination how-to-guide, and cautionary tale, by those who coach, or who hope to.
Bee’s career demonstrates that if one wants to be counted among the best, one must have a focus bordering on obsession. Read the biography of any top coach and that is evident. Bee lived and breathed sports, and his dedication paid off in success, particularly on the basketball court. In a basketball coaching career that spanned four decades, he fashioned a winning percentage (.827) that still ranks first among NCAA coaches in that sport. He was also tremendously creative, and the innovator, or at least influential, in introducing the 1-3-1 zone defense, the 3-second rule, and the 24-second shot clock.
For as much as he was responsible for so many positive innovations, Bee was also one of the architects of many of the dark features of big-time college athletics. Gildea demonstrates that he was one of the first to institute tryout camps to identify potential recruits. He stacked his teams with more scholarship athletes than he could play to ensure that his cupboard was always full, while denying his opponents good players. He would at times use ringers to strengthen his teams. He also demonstrated how an obscure university could use sports to gain prominence – the forerunner to the Flutie Effect. His obsession helped create what many argue is an overemphasis on college athletics, which in turn created a sport industry that was ripe for the entry of corrupting influences. His obsession also led to two or three divorces; according to Gildea, not even his family was sure how many times he was married. It also led to the scandal that tarnished his name at the end of his career at LIU. During the 1951 point shaving scandal eight current or former LIU players, along with another twenty four players from six other schools, were charged with conspiring with gamblers to control the outcome of games.
Gildea makes interesting use of Trouble Along the Way (1953), an obscure John Wayne film that serves as a fictional parallel to Bee’s tenure at LIU. In the film, Wayne plays Steve Williams, a corrupt college coach who agrees to start an athletic program at a small Catholic school to prevent its closing. Wayne’s character, like Bee at LIU, succeeded at building a big time sport program that rejuvenated the school, but the scheme collapsed when William’s machinations were discovered. Given the proximity of the film’s screening to the scandal, it would be interesting to know if there were any overt connections, since many of the lines Wayne’s character delivers to defend his methods were similar to those used by Bee during the actual crisis.
As a major part of his examination of Bee, Gildea seeks to determine what the LIU coach knew or did not know about his players’ role in the point shaving scandal. There is no smoking gun that furnishes proof one way or the other. Indeed, Sherman White, one of the LIU players found guilty of involvement in the scandal, came down on both sides of the issue in separate statements given decades apart. Initially, White reportedly felt that Bee had no knowledge, but in a later interview argued that a coach of Bee’s caliber must have known what was happening. Gildea analyzes newspaper columns Bee authored at the time to demonstrate that the coach was aware of the dangers gamblers posed. Gildea also reports that Bee gathered his team at one point before the scandal broke to ask them point blank if they were cheating. When his players, including the guilty parties, swore that they were clean, their coach was satisfied that they would not lie to him. Gildea likely hits close to the truth when he muses that perhaps Bee was hoping that the cheating would never be exposed.
Gildea is most effective in his argument that a close reading of the Chip Hilton books demonstrate that Bee’s outlook on athletics changed radically as a result of the scandal. He argues that those post-scandal books are in effect “reform texts” (p.xx) that can be read as the tarnished coach’s prescription on how athletics should change. In Chapter seventeen, “Chip and the Scandal,” Gildea extensively analyzes the plotlines of Dugout Jinx and Freshman Quarterback, both published in 1952, to argue that there was a marked difference in his writing after the scandal. Prior to the scandal, Chip had hoped for an athletic scholarship to help pay for his studies, but in Freshman Quarterback he has decided that such aids were wrong. In Dugout Jinx, Chip faces blandishments from a corrupt baseball scout and an equally crooked player on a minor league baseball team that mirror the pressures brought upon his LIU players. Unlike his former charges, Chip would have nothing to do with anything corrupt. Gildea effectively argues that, in these books, and for the rest of the series, Bee sought to teach his readers how to avoid the corrupting influences that swirled around sports.
Gildea uses those arguments to refute critics such as Murray Sperber in Onward to Victory: The Crises that Shaped Modern Sports (1998), and others who have argued in their own books that Bee was a hypocrite – taking any steps to win in reality while creating an idealized world for his literary creation Chip. Gildea maintains that Bee was fundamentally changed by the shock of the 1951 scandal, and that his later writings reflect that, rather than being the product of hypocrisy.
This is an area where Gildea could have taken his analysis further. He might have explored the antipathy that Sperber might have held for Bee as a result of the coach’s connections to that author’s particular bête noire, Bobby Knight, who looked upon Bee as a mentor. While at Indiana University, Sperber was a harsh critic of Knight, and the connection between the two coaches might have colored his analysis. Bee was also influenced by Knute Rockne, whose coaching clinic Bee attended in 1930. Rockne was also a target of criticism by Sperber, and exploration of the Rockne-Bee-Knight axis as provocation might have shed some light on the hypocrite label.
Despite that, Hoop Crazy is a fascinating read, since it was about a fascinating character. Not only was Bee a stellar basketball coach, but he also briefly was a professional football coach and player. He also coached college football and baseball, was the athletic director at LIU, and taught accounting at the university. He had the distinction of being one of the few college coaches who coached his football team in a Thanksgiving game one afternoon in 1939, then coached his basketball team later that evening in a rare two-sport doubleheader. More importantly, Bee was also a pioneer in coaching integrated teams and in taking his team to play against black colleges. Even after he coached no longer, he kept his hand in by directing athletic summer camps for boys, and during the 1975-76 season, Knight credits Bee for giving his team a talk that turned their season around and resulted in an NCAA championship for Indiana. At various points in the book, the reader can be justified in pausing to marvel at all that Bee did in his busy life.
I must admit that I wish I had written this book. I devoted a chapter in my dissertation on sport and the Cold War to Chip Hilton. As research for my project, I read one of the Hilton books, and was hooked. Though they were written for young boys from the 1940s to the 1960s, they were so well written, and Chip such a compelling character, that rather than read a small sample for my chapter, I read them all. As I moved forward in my career, I thought that a biography of Bee would be a great project to do one day. That day will not come now, since Gildea has written a comprehensive and compelling examination of Coach Clair Bee.
Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, with an evolving focus on nontraditional practitioners of gridiron football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published one book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, and has another, Le Football: The History of American Football in France that will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.