Jan. 10, 2008
by Jeff Smith
The second part to the story's headline could read, "is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame," or it could say "was the wizard behind the Wizard of Westwood." However, any Purdue historian or basketball follower will tell you that Ward "Piggy" Lambert was a pioneer of the game and one who brought discipline and championships to the Boilermaker program.
Yes, Lambert was enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960. He was a legendary coach that guided the Boilermakers for nearly 30 years and once penned Practical Basketball, which is said to be one of the early "bibles" of the game. And while he was charged with the development of players such as Bob Kessler and Jewell Young during his tenure, he is long remembered for honing the skills of fellow Hall of Famers Charles "Stretch" Murphy and John Wooden.
Several historians of the game also credit Lambert as a pioneer of the fast-break offense. His teachings stemmed from mental toughness, stability, speed and then size, probably in that order. Lambert was never much a believer in size, dating back to the days when he tried out for the Crawfordsville (Ind.) High School basketball team standing 5'6" and weighing a mere 112 pounds. You would think with a nickname like "Piggy" he would have been a tad more plump than that, but Lambert found a way to star in multiple sports in high school and eventually became a football, basketball and baseball star at Wabash College.
Actually, there are several different stories of the origin of Lambert's nickname. Some say it was given to him as a kid when he wore a stocking cap with pigtails, while others claim it was from the speedy guard hogging the ball so much when he led his high school team in scoring as a sophomore. The June 1908 edition of the Wabash, indicated the nickname stemmed "from the way he ate up everything in sight on the diamond" while playing shortstop on the Crawfordsville High baseball team.
What can't be disputed was how much of a student Lambert was of the game. Born May 28, 1888 in Deadwood, S.D., Lambert and his family moved to Crawfordsville when he was young and allowed him to learn the game of basketball at the local YMCA. He graduated from Wabash College in 1911 and enrolled in graduate school at Minnesota for chemistry. Following his postgraduate education, Lambert moved back to Crawfordsville and took a teaching job, while coaching basketball on the side. He then moved to nearby Lebanon where he continued both professions until he was lured to West Lafayette with an offer from Purdue. In 1916, he was named the Boilermakers' 10th head basketball coach.
The hiring of Lambert would mark the beginning of a 28-year career in West Lafayette, which amounted to one national championship, 11 conference titles, 16 All-Americans and 31 first team All-Big Ten selections. To date, his record of 371-152 (.709) is still among the best in the conference and his total of 228 wins in Big Ten play has been surpassed by only Indiana's Bob Knight (353 in 29 years) and Purdue head coach Gene Keady (265 in 25 years).
Lambert's first year at Purdue marked the school's first winning season in four years as the Boilermakers went 11-3. The rookie coach's second season would have to wait as Lambert served in the Army during World War I from 1917-18. When he returned for the 1918-19 campaign, Lambert and the Boilermakers suffered through a 6-8 season, which would be just one of three losing seasons in his career that spanned nearly three decades. In fact, under Lambert's watch, Purdue would not suffer another year below .500 until the 1942-43 campaign.
Winning soon came back to the Boilermakers as Lambert won his first and Boilermakers' third conference championship with an 8-4 mark in 1920-21. The team won its first outright conference championship the following year with an 8-1 record in league play and a 15-3 mark overall. The lone conference blemish was a heartbreaking 29-28 road loss at Illinois.
Toward the end of the decade, Lambert recruited one his prized products in "Stretch" Murphy from Marion, Ind. At 6-foot-6, Murphy was a high-scoring, yet underused talent. The towering recruit came to Purdue used to standing under the basket at all times throughout the game, and would catch the ball from teammates and score at will. Lambert, never a believer in size, utilized Murphy in other ways and worked him into his up-tempo offense. In a short time he developed a mid-range shooting touch and became arguably the first true multi-skilled big man in college basketball. Lambert guided him to back-to-back consensus All-America honors in 1929 and 1930, while Murphy's 143 points scored in the 1929 conference season was then a Big Ten record.
During the 1930 season, Murphy paired with sophomore All-American John Wooden to lead Lambert's offense, which helped the Boilermakers to their first undefeated Big Ten season. Purdue went 10-0 in league play, becoming just the second team in school history at that point to finish conference action without a loss.
Perhaps Lambert's most defining moment would come two years later when he directed his squad to a 17-1 season and the national championship. The Boilermakers were awarded the national title by the Helms Athletic Foundation, which voted on the national champion from 1901 to 1938. It was in 1939 that the first NCAA postseason tournament was held.
Wooden was named National Player of the Year in 1932 and helped lead a team that won its 17 games by an average of more than 16 points.
Over the next eight seasons, Lambert's Boilermakers won five Big Ten titles, including three consecutive championships from 1934-36. During that stretch Purdue was 50-10 overall and 30-6 in league play. The last conference game in that timeframe was at home against Wisconsin, which was also hungry for the Big Ten title. Just prior to tip-off, Lambert changed the Purdue defensive scheme from a zone and ordered his players to play in front of the Badgers, instead of behind them with their backs to the basket. As a result, Purdue stole Wisconsin's first nine passes and stormed to a 19-2 advantage at halftime.
Lambert used skill and speed to help the Boilermakers clinch the 1936 title and after winning the school's 10th league title in 1938, he counted on mental toughness to earn the 1940 crown - the last in his tenure. Down 29-19 to Illinois with three minutes to play in the season finale, Lambert did not allow his team to lose focus.
"Mental attitude is the most important thing in the game," Lambert said at the time, which was chronicled in the 1967 book THE BIG TEN. "The doctrine I preach is to never get panicky when you're behind in the stretch."
His players listened as the Boilermakers rallied in the final minutes with a 12-0 run to win 31-29. That game capped an impressive championship career for Lambert, although his stay at Purdue would last six more years. After winning back-to-back titles in 1921 and 1922, Lambert and the Boilermakers would win the league title every other year from 1926 to 1940, with exception of winning in 1935 as a part of three consecutive titles. It was an unusual pattern Lambert chalked up to "just getting the team ready."
The legendary Purdue coach, whose principles led to Wooden's infamous Pyramid of Success and teaching philosophies while at UCLA, died on Jan. 20, 1958. Two years later he became one of only seven coaches in the history of Big Ten to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
To Wooden, who was interviewed by Purdue University in early 2006, there was simply no better man than Lambert.
"(He was) a man of extremely high principles," Wooden said. "And I think my basic coaching philosophy came more from him. At the heart of my pyramid I have three things: condition, skill, and team spirit. And I think that came from Mr. Lambert, as much as anybody else."
Fittingly the pyramid mentioned nothing about size.
Although "Piggy" will forever be heralded as one of the biggest figures in the history of Purdue basketball.