Tate: Lone surviving Whiz Kid remains a patriarch for Illinois basketball

Tate: Lone surviving Whiz Kid remains a patriarch for Illinois basketball

You didn''t have to see Gene Vance perform to know he was an athlete. His broad shoulders and erect frame give him away. He looks the part.

A septuagenarian teammate, recalling their Sundays of independent basketball in Kankakee in the early-50s, reminisces:

"Gene had played for the Stags in Chicago and the Blackhawks in Moline, and he was extremely athletic. When he got momentum down the court and you saw he was going to the hoop, you just got out of his way. He would explode off the free throw line."

That''s Whiz Kid Gene Vance, a member of the UI''s centennial Top 20 all-time team ... a serviceman called into two wars, and later named Illini athletic director in the period after the "slush fund" scandal (1967 to 1972).

It is hard to juxtapose the mind''s-eye visualization of Vance streaking down the court with an incident that happened Dec. 15.

With wife Janann elsewhere, Vance, now 81, tumbled in his Champaign home. A skinned elbow wasn''t the problem. With artificial knees and hips, he couldn''t rise. Scooting to the telephone, he dialed 911, and the fire truck was there in minutes.

"The guys were great," mused Vance. "They came right away from their station on Prospect Avenue (in Champaign). I told them how to enter the house. They got me up, and they stood around for a few minutes asking if there was anything they could do. I said, ''No, just get me in the chair.''

"I''m not in any pain. But I''ll tell you it''s a strange situation when you can''t get up. My arms are strong but I can''t get my body to push up. I can''t climb up on my knees because I can''t put pressure on my knees and hips. A normal person would be able to kneel.

"I have a fear of falling. This is the fifth time this has happened."

Better days

Christmas is a time for good cheer. But you''ll pardon Vance if he awakens some days, sits up in bed, gazes out the window and wonders what happened. His frazzled knees, once so flexible and strong, were replaced in 1992 after several cartilage surgeries. His right hip was replaced in 1994 and the left hip in 1998.

So many memories are tinged with sadness. His Clinton high school buddies, John Kent and Jim Corrington, are gone. So are his UI coaches Doug Mills and Wally Roettger, Illini predecessors Harry Combes and Lou Boudreau, longtime buddy Dike Eddleman, and 1943 teammates Jack Smiley (2000), Andy Phillip (2001), Ken Menke (2002) and Art Mathisen (2004).

The fun-filled days of the Whiz Kids'' summer reunions in the 1990s, when all five convened for golf and dinner here, are fading memories.

"I really miss the guys," Vance said. "We stuck together all those years and always looked forward to getting back together. We had a special relationship.

"Just getting around is tough any more. I can''t bend like I used to. I''m immobile. I''ve had to give up golf. There''s nothing you can do other than accept it."

Looks familiar

Vance is the survivor, The Last of the Mohicans, the oldest living member of the All-Century team, the recognized patriarch of Illini basketball.

He still attends UI games, sitting at the Assembly Hall''s entrance level in the top row of Section A so he won''t have to go up and down stairs.

What he sees on the court is a No. 1-ranked team that reminds him of 1943, a flashy outfit of modest size by current standards, a tight unit with speed and balance and ballhandling and teamwork.

"Yes, they remind me of our team," said Vance, recalling a Whiz Kid unit in which everyone ran, everyone passed, everyone scored, everyone played defense.

"When we couldn''t fast break, we ran the four-man weave around the post, and we''d pass to Art and cut off the middle. He was our senior captain in 1943 and we all respected him. We also took a lot of set shots from what is now the three-point line.

"I see similarities in Bruce Weber''s team in that they help each other and don''t get too flustered. It''s tough to tell how good they are until they reach the Big Ten. If the big guy (James Augustine) comes around and can score 10 to 15 points, they''ll be fine."

Vance played basketball in the era of the two-handed shot and the underhanded free throw. But he also participated in one of the first fast-breaking teams, Mills implementing that style in the era after the center jump (following each basket) had been eliminated.

Vance and Smiley were the guards, but the guards and forwards were interchangable. Phillip, who was essentially a forward at Illinois, would later become one of the premier playmaking guards in the NBA.

Solid foundation

As profiled in the UI''s 100-year book, "A Century of Orange and Blue," the Clinton product "was Hollywood handsome with broad shoulders, sturdy legs and brown hair parted down the middle. If Paul Newman and Robert Redford hadn''t yet reached the scene, he would do.

"He saw Illinois play once before he enrolled, attending the Minnesota game Feb. 10, 1940, with a Clinton assistant coach, Chuck Farrington.

"In that game, a 60-31 Illini win, Bill Hapac scored a Western Conference record 34 points. This was just one of many offensive records that would be set by the Illini in the early 1940s.

"When Clinton lost an overtime clash with Champaign''s Maroons in the state playoffs, Vance had no thoughts about going anywhere but Illinois."

He was ready to move on and had the option, according to his mother, to attend "any school located on the corner of Wright and Green."

At Illinois, he chummed with fellow plebes who were ineligible in those days. After practice he washed dishes to help pay for a scholarship that handled approximately half of his tuition and part of the house bill.

When Mills put together the 1941-42 team, senior captain Bill Hocking soon was unseated as the four extraordinary sophomores from Clinton, Dundee (Menke), Granite City (Phillip) and Waterman (Smiley) moved in while junior Mathisen and senior Vic Wukovits shared center.

Back-to-back routs of Detroit (49-34) and Notre Dame (48-29) alerted the Midwest that something special was developing. Then, on Jan. 3, a 55-40 win at Wisconsin rocked the nation. The Badgers were defending NCAA champions with All-American John Kotz returning.

What''s in a name?

Mills'' remarkable youngsters captured their first seven Big Ten games before a nine-minute scoreless stretch in the second half at Indiana snapped the string, 41-36. Their only other loss came late at Iowa when Mills started reserves, and the actual Whiz Kids scored just four points in a 46-32 loss. Celebrating the school''s first undisputed Big Ten title since 1915 (by three full games), the Illini accepted an NCAA tournament invitation to New Orleans where, in insufferable heat, they lost to rallying Kentucky, 46-44.

That trip to New Orleans marked the only venture by Vance and the Whiz Kids into postseason play. A 12-0 Big Ten run in 1943, already made difficult by wartime travel restrictions, found Mathisen, Menke and Smiley called up prior to the playoffs. Mills elected not to participate with a fractured squad.

But what a season they enjoyed! The only loss came to Camp Grant when Mills, as he had the year before, elected to play the reserves. The Whiz Kids, so named after a 57-53 defeat of Great Lakes in December, whipped defending NCAA champion Stanford, 38-26. They won 11 of 12 Big Ten games by double figures, closing with a 50-26 pounding of Wisconsin, an 86-44 defeat of Northwestern and Otto Graham, and a 92-25 drubbing of Chicago in which Phillip set a record of 40 points.

"The Northwestern game (in Evanston on Feb. 27) may have been our greatest," Vance said. "Andy got rolling and we just let him go.

"Everyone said we could have been national champions, but that was pure speculation. There were no rankings that we were aware of."

End of an era

Joining the infantry, Vance spent 16 months in Europe as World War II ended.

Ultimately, after three lost seasons, the Whiz Kids reformed in 1946-47. But the magic had been lost in the South Pacific and European theaters.

Smiley was fortunate to survive as an artillery corporal in the Battle of the Bulge where all but 800 of 16,000 men in the 106th Division were killed or captured by the Germans. He was hit by shrapnel in escaping to safety across a bridge being dynamited by the Allies.

Phillip had a similar harrowing experience with an advance scouting party on Iwo Jima and was one of a handful who got out alive.

When they returned to the UI, their team was ranked No. 2 on reputation. But early road losses to Missouri, California and Wisconsin changed that, and a good 14-6, 8-4 season left Illinois second in the Big Ten (behind 9-3 Wisconsin) when only the champion advanced to the NCAA tournament.

"Andy had a lung problem that season and had lost weight," Vance said. "He never hit his form again until he turned pro."

Vance joined Phillip on the NBA Stags in Chicago while Menke and Smiley signed on with the Pistons in Fort Wayne. Now in his mid-20s, Vance received $5,300 and a bonus of $250 if he lasted until the end of the season. After two years, he switched to Moline.

A living legend

But once again, Vance''s basketball days were interrupted by the call of the military in 1951. To his chagrin, he spent the better part of a year trudging up and down the hills of Korea.

"First of all, after five years out of service, I was sent to a refresher course in California," recalled Vance. "Then we boarded a plane in full combat gear and we were ready to go. I was with a heavy weapons company and I eventually took it over. I was lucky though. I had no narrow escapes. I was promoted to captain before I came home in 1952.

"I tried to play a few games for Milwaukee but I was done. When the LaSalle-Peru basketball job came open, I took it."

He was there four seasons before joining the UI Alumni Association in 1956, replacing C.E. Bowen as executive director in 1960. He was in that position in 1967 when UI faculty representative Les Bryan informed him the UI board had chosen him to rebuild the UI athletic program as athletic director.

It was a difficult time, both the football and basketball programs shattered by the "slush fund" scandal and the campus torn by late-60s uprisings.

"When the time came, I was glad to get out of that job," Vance said. "There was no easy way. The campus unrest was such in the 1969-70 period that a curfew was instituted and they had National Guardsmen driving around in jeeps, and everybody had to be off the streets by 8 p.m.

"We were afraid they were going to throw bricks through the Assembly Hall windows. But they never did. Most of it stayed on campus. It was a difficult period."

To make matters worse, football coach Jim Valek, who had worked with Vance at LaSalle-Peru, went 4-6, 1-9, 0-10 and 3-7. That forced Valek''s ouster, Vance overseeing the hiring of Bob Blackman from Dartmouth in 1971. At about the same time, Harv Schmidt''s basketball program slipped from 19-5 in 1969 to 11-12 in 1971. He would last through the 1974 season.

The times, they were a-changing, and Vance was more than willing to step down in 1972. He joined the UI Foundation, was full-time there until 1990 and was part-time for another 10 years beyond that.

Vance will be among the 20 all-time stars honored at the centennial celebration of Illini basketball Jan. 29. Scheduled to be on hand will be 16 children and grandchildren, none of whom will have to be reminded that he is special ... not as mobile but a living legend in the eyes of all who can see.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached via e-mail at ltate@news-gazette.com.