LAWRENCE, Kan. - So far the basketball season has been tough on Haskell Indian Nations University's basketball team as it faces the transition from a junior college to a four-year university.
The 2000-2001 season is the first real test for coach Al Gipp and his players in the National Association of Inter-Collegiate Athletics since last year the team was in an initial probationary year.
Gipp blames this year's 0-14 record on the team's lack of experience as players face stiffer competition on the court.
He said the record doesn't reflect the experience and education the team gained so far this season. "We're playing against teams that have a lot of juniors and seniors. At this level, there isn't any room for mistakes. At the junior college level, you can make mistakes and still catch up. Here you can't, you make a mistake, you pay for it, there is no catching up."
Since making the jump, the Fightin' Indians have faced an uphill battle. Opponents are seasoned, consisting of players who have been working as a team for three or four years.
"I think we've got to start finding programs for our sophomores, otherwise we are always going to be behind the eight ball in playing players who are a lot older. Right now we only have two guys who have played for at least two or three years, one has played three years. The rest of the guys are playing their first year."
Gipp said that when the team has been able to play against teams with comparable experience and younger players, the Fightin' Indians held their own and games have been much closer. But for the most part, the competition has been much more experienced and that has made life difficult for the team.
"Our advisories have freshmen teams, junior varsity teams and varsity teams," Gipp said. "They have an advantage because they have a lot more experience than we do, because they have athletic programs that give them guidance for a full four years."
Gipp said that so far Haskell has only a men's varsity team, but that he hopes to see the athletic department expand and start a junior varsity or freshman team.
Part of the problem he identifies is that although Haskell has gone from a junior college to a four-year university, many players on the basketball team aren't in four-year-degree programs. That means that the most Gipp can expect is two years from his players as they graduate in their sophomore year with associate degrees.
"By the time we get our players really matured, they're gone," he said. "And that's when we really need them the most. I think the more academic programs we can put these men and women into, the better off we will be."
Trying to convince students to stay and enroll in a four-year program has been limited so far, but Gipp is confident students will see the wisdom in completing a bachelor's degree.
"We also need to decide how much money and how much time we are going to put into these athletic programs. Everybody that we play have junior varsity or freshmen teams, so their guys are playing 15 or 18 games and then they have their varsity teams.
"I think the thing we have to look at is trying to find players who will look at going into those four-year programs. We need to gap those programs between the University of Kansas and HINU, so that those who want to get a degree in a program we don't offer can attend classes at both KU and Haskell and continue playing basketball. Hopefully we will be able to explore that in the future."
Gipp cited a similar program in North Dakota that allows students to go between three colleges to pick up classes needed for their degrees.
"They can kind of take classes so that if one class isn't offered at their school for the spring semester, they can probably take it at one of the other schools," he said. "Hopefully if we can do something like that we can keep our kids here a little bit longer."
Recruiting for the team hasn't been difficult. Each year Gipp receives letters and videos from prospective students who want to be a part of the Haskell basketball team. What he looks for is not only great playing, but young men he believes will be an asset to the team - real team players who not only work hard on the basketball court but on the academic side as well.
"We try to stress to them that school is number one and basketball is number two," Gipp said. "Hopefully we will find that if that student is a real competitor in the classroom, he will be a real competitor on the court. We're trying to find individuals who can do both."
He wishes more students from South Dakota and North Dakota would look at playing collegiate basketball at Haskell.
"They all want to play in these conference tournaments, but it is still just intramural basketball," Gipp said. "It isn't the experience they would get from playing on a real college team at the collegiate level. High school is fun, but college is great."
Gipp is a veteran who has coached at the junior high, high school, junior college and now university levels. "I consider myself fortunate to have coached at all those different levels. It was really a great learning experience for me."
One thing experience has taught him is that it takes time to develop a winning team. He said that in the last half of this semester he has seen the team mature and believes that may make a difference when the team returns to competition following Christmas break.
Morale is still good among the players and as they got ready to leave for their homes, Gipp said they all were still charged up and ready go again when the season resumes in January.
"I think it is exciting and a great challenge!" to be the head coach for the only four-year, intertribal college in the nation, Gipp said.