Whiz Kid passes away

Whiz Kid passes away

   DES MOINES, Iowa  Jack Smiley, who helped the Whiz Kids develop into one of the most famous basketball teams at Illinois, died Sunday.

   He was 78.

   Smiley, one of the finest defensive players in school history, is the first Whiz Kid to pass away. Funeral arrangements were incomplete this morning.

   "He''s so special, I don''t know where to start," college teammate Gene Vance said this morning. "It''s tough."

   Smiley, Vance, Ken Menke, Andy Phillip and Art Mathisen formed the foundation for one of college basketball''s greatest teams. Using quickness on offense and a tenacious defense, they went 35-6 in a dominating two-year run from 1941-43. They won 25 of 27 Big Ten games while taking consecutive league titles.

   Smiley was at his best in his Big Ten debut, blanketing Wisconsin hot shot John Kotz in a Jan. 3, 1942, game won by the Illini 55-40.

   "He was the best defensive player of his era," Vance said.

   Menke, Phillip, Smiley and Vance were all about 6-foot-3, tall for players at the time. Each had a particular strength that worked well with the rest.

   For Smiley, it was defense.

   "We could run like rabbits," Smiley said in a 1999 interview.

   A 1843 military call-up broke up the Whiz Kids. Smiley, who served in the U.S. Army, returned for another season at Illinois, winning team MVP honors in 1946-47.

   Smiley played in the NBA before taking a job in farm sales. He had lived in Des Moines for the past 27 years.

   The Whiz Kids regularly held reunions at Illinois. They met last August and had planned to do it again this summer.

   "Things didn''t work out," Vance said.