Every time I read about a new head football coach at the University of Nevada, I am reminded of legendary coach Jim Aiken. Almost everyone that has played for him has his favorite stories about the hard-nosed football mentor. Even this writer has his share.
If you have the chance to examine the plaques in the Hall of Fame room located on the lower level of Legacy Hall, you should move to those located on the north wall and almost dead center. There you will see the scowling visage of the crusty Aiken. He coached at Nevada from 1939 until 1946 and was inducted into the Hall in 1979.
Even the picture does not do justice to the rugged and antagonistic demeanor of Aiken as a coach. As most athletes, past and present, know full well, when you go out on the field to compete you usually want to win for one of two reasons. First, you want to win because you admire your coach and want to win for his sake. Secondly, you detest your coach having a “demean the players” philosophy and you want to win just to show him that he was wrong. Mainly, Aiken’s athletes adopted the latter philosophy. Even before my first contact with him (telephonically) I had heard stories about how tough he was and how hard on his charges he could be. One story, related to me by Harold Hayes, my roommate who secured my initial scholarship at the U, was about a halftime locker room meeting during a particular football game when Aiken was dissatisfied with the play of one of his halfbacks. Following a spicy pep talk, Aiken strode over and delivered a solid punch to the halfback’s nose causing it to bleed profusely. Looking over at a couple of linemen who were shocked by the event he growled, “That’s motivation!”
My first contact with “Gravel Gertie”, as they nicknamed Aiken because of his loud and gravelly manner of speaking, was around midnight one snowy evening in January of 1945. I had just landed at the old Greyhound bus station on Center Street (now Harrah’s Casino) and there was no one at the station to meet me. Eight days prior I had boarded my bus at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida for the trip west. After many connections, missed connections and cancellations due to wartime priorities, I arrived in Reno several days behind schedule. Not knowing anything about the town, I looked up Aiken’s number and dialed the phone. I was completely unprepared for the booming, irritated voice that answered my ring.
“Who the blank blank is this?” was the first greeting.
“Why are you calling me at this hour?” was the second. I quickly explained who I was and asked him where I should go from the bus station. He told me to grab a cab, go to Lincoln Hall at the University and come see him in the morning. I mentioned that I did not have cab fare for the ride and in that Basso Profundo voice he roared, “Charge it to me!” and slammed his phone down. Happily, the cab driver acquiesced to the charge by noting, “You must be another one of those ‘tramp athletes’ that Aiken is always bringing to town!” I noted I probably was.
Finding a bed was a tough proposition after I succeeded in waking Dean Robert Griffin in order to let me into the building. The following morning, after breakfast with my then roommate George Vucanovich, I made my way to Aiken’s office.
In person, Coach Aiken was even more overbearing. A husky individual with an 18-inch neck and an even more imposing voice in person, his first request was for me to hold out my hands, palms facing him.
“Not very big hands for basketball!”
I replied I could palm the ball so he nodded OK. Then he asked for my press clippings (probably to verify that I was the player he thought he had sent for). I said that my mother kept my scrapbook and slept with it under her pillow every night. I’m not quite sure he bought that but the interview moved forward anyway.