Alabama basketball used to be fun

By Hunter Ford
You can read more from Hunter Ford at his blog Ford’s columns also appear in Bessemer’s Western Star newspaper.

Alabama’s basketball program used to be extremely entertaining and provided a nice diversion for Alabama sports fans struggling through the football off-season.

From the mid 1970s through the early 1990s, Alabama basketball was second only to Kentucky as the most competitive team in the SEC.

Fans could count on Alabama being in contention for an SEC championship and for a bid in the NCAA Tournament.

One man, Wimp Sanderson, was largely responsible for the team being competitive. And while Sanderson had some great players like Robert Horry and Latrell Sprewell, Wimp himself was often the star of the show.

Wearing eye-popping, ugly plaid blazers and keeping his face in the referee’s ear holes, Sanderson became a legendary character in the annals of Alabama sports history.

Many people may not remember why Sanderson retired from Alabama in 1992. Look across the page at that smirking bald fellow.

In a former life Paul Finebaum was a hard-nosed investigative reporter. If you were a top sports celebrity in our state you didn’t want Paul digging bones out of your closet.

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Wimp Sanderson had been at the University of Alabama for 20 years as an assistant before he became head coach. As head coach he won nearly three hundred basketball games, took Alabama to the Sweet Sixteen several times and won four SEC championships.

But he had a mistress- a secretary who he had a unique working relationship with.

One night before a big NCAA Tournament game, Wimp and his mistress had some sort of misunderstanding.

In the secretary’s version, Wimp got angry and punched her, giving her a black eye.

Wimp’s version was that the secretary was having a conniption fit and he simply stuck his hand out to defend himself. Her face accidentally smacked into Sanderson’s hand.

Now, the story gets leaked to Finebaum (probably through the secretary’s lawyer) and Finebaum proceeds to rake Sanderson over the coals.

The story I heard, directly from Finebaum, was that Sanderson literally begged him not to go public with the story. It didn’t work.

Sanderson and the University ended up paying the secretary about $300,000 to soothe her black eye. Sanderson limped over to Arkansas Little Rock for a couple of seasons before retiring altogether.

It’s been 16 years now since Wimp left Tuscaloosa. Basketball has been mostly terrible in the dark ages of David Hobbs and Mark Gottfried.

It is sad that a coach of Wimp’s caliber left on such a sour note after dedicating more than three decades of his life to Alabama.

The moral of the story is “Don’t have affairs with secretarys and don’t under any circumstance be involved with giving them a black eye, accidentally or otherwise.”

But, if you are old enough to remember the glory days of Wimp on the court, you might remember that, as good as his record was, critics had come out of the woodworks. They were complaining that Wimp didn’t win enough with a team loaded with NBA prospects. He couldn’t get past the Sweet Sixteen!

Can you imagine? If Wimp had been able to make a final four in his last couple of years he might have been able to pile drive his secretary on center court and get away with it.

Wimp had set the standards pretty high. And all of a sudden he was eaten by the same monster he created.

David Hobbs was an empty suit who lost to UAB in the first and only meeting between the two sister schools. Alabama basketball began the slow process of becoming completely irrelevant and having no standards whatsoever.

When Hobbs exited there was some excitement over Mark Gottfried. Gottfried had become a hot commodity as an assistant at UCLA and a young gun head coach of Murray State.

Finebaum, ironically, promoted Gottrfried like a carnival barker promotes the bearded fat lady.

What Alabama basketball fans, (the last 10 or 11 of them that still care) have gotten in Gottfried is a freak show of mediocrity. There was an oasis of success one year when Gottfried lucked into the Elite Eight, but that was a mirage in a desert of failure.

In an interesting twist of fate, Finebaum, who pulled the trigger on Sanderson, and ballyhooed Gottfried as if he was the second coming of John Wooden, has now got his ax sharpened and resting on the back of Gottfried’s neck.

Chances are Gottfried won’t be around much longer.