The 1968- 1969 Fairfield Mules

One of southern Illinois’ most successful basketball teams you probably never heard of.

Accounts from Illinois newspaper sports pages clearly show that the twenty year era of 1950-1970 was a golden age of high school basketball in southern Illinois, with a wealth of great teams. A few really good teams, unfortunately, have been all but forgotten. I believe one such team, the 1968-1969 Fairfield Mules deserves special attention and recognition.

The Fairfield Mules establish themselves as one of the best teams in southern Illinois after they unexpectedly defeated the Mt. Vernon Rams early in the 1968-1969 season. They were undefeated until their last two games of the regular season.

In late February, toward the end of the 1968-1969 southern Illinois high school basketball season, Mt. Vernon Register News sports writer Bob Forbes wrote, “The 1968-1969 sports season has been good for the Carbondale Terriers, the Mt. Vernon Rams, the Fairfield Mules, and the Bluford Trojans.” These four teams, Forbes noted, experienced very exceptional successes.

Two of the above schools were consistent champions in basketball. Mt. Vernon and Carbondale, the two largest high schools in southern Illinois, each with enrollments of seventeen hundred or so students were in first and second place in the powerhouse South Seven conference that season and would end up playing each other in the Super Sectional that year to see who would move on from southern Illinois to the Elite Eight state tournament final round.

The tiny Bluford team mentioned by Forbes was a highly unusual case. The school was one of the smallest high schools in the state with just over a hundred students and played in the Little Egyptian conference. Typically, the team was lucky to win over half their games in a regular season. Amazingly, Bluford had the longest winning streak in southern Illinois at the time of Bob Forbes’ article and the second longest in the entire state. Their story is told in my book coming out this fall, An Almost Perfect Season: A Father and Son and a Golden Age of Small-Town High School Basketball.

The Fairfield Mules represented a school of roughly seven hundred students, its teams playing in the North Egypt Conference with other schools roughly their size—Lawrenceville, Flora, Mt. Carmel, Carmi, Salem, Olney, and Bridgeport. Fairfield had ended the 1967-1968 season with a solid 19-5 regular season record and a second place finish in their conference. Fairfield basketball teams, however, had long suffered with sure defeats in the early portion of the state tournament, at the regional level, always losing to much bigger Mt. Vernon High School in the championship game year-after-year. The 1967-1968 year was no exception.

No one could have imagined how good the 1968-1969 Fairfield team was going to be. It was true that almost all the starters were back from the solid team from the year before, including a rugged six-six do-it-all player named Gerald Foster. But all the other players were much shorter—Danny Carter was 6 feet, Ronnie Brand 5-10, Robert Vaughan 5-11, Larry Heflin and Larry Leathers 5-9.

Perhaps Fairfield’s greatest basketball players, Gerald “Jed’ Foster.

As fate would have it, a reckoning came early in the season between the Mules and the Rams. Mt Vernon had won its first two games, big wins too, one against the always tough Centralia Orphans and the other a hard fought and close game against Alton. These victories and the presence of several tall Ram players who made the team one of the tallest squads in the state caused many pundits to assess that Mt. Vernon was the team to beat in southern Illinois. Mt. Vernon sports writer John Rackaway made an especially big deal about the Rams height before the big Centralia game. “The two clubs are both packed with giants and both are currently 1-0. . . .  The Rams have a big front line in 6-6 Terry Sledge, 6-7 Steve Strickland, and 6-4 Nate Hawthorne.”  The other two starters were also over six feet.

Mt. Vernon’s Terry Sledge goes up for a shot. Scrappy Larry Leathers, #12 for Fairfield, looks on.”

Few thought the Mules could beat Mt. Vernon, though one sports writer said Fairfield would likely play “a respectable game.” Another writer penned that the Mules, when they came up against Mt. Vernon, “Will be playing among giants.”  And while Fairfield did bring three victories to the contest, sports writers pointed out these victories were against “lesser teams.” Rackaway perhaps wrote the most stinging assessment, saying, “Coach Odum’s quintet has been sized up as pretty much of a ‘one man gang’ this year with 6-6 Gerald (Jed) Foster occupying the feature role.”

To the loyal Mt. Vernon fans, the upcoming game against Fairfield would amount to the usual victory, as it always had in the past.  

The day after the big game, the Mt. Vernon newspaper spent much of the front cover of its sports page trying to discern what happened. The headline alone shocked the southern Illinois basketball world—Fairfield Pins 64-59 Upset On Mt. V. Good sports writer that he was, John Rackaway honestly dissected the game, noting how “Fairfield’s big 6-6 Gerald Foster, with brilliant assistance from seven scrambling little guys, held the lead nearly all the way Saturday night to post a 64-59 upset victory over Mt. Vernon’s sky-scraping Rams. . . . . The Mules led for most of the game against Mt. Vernon with diminutive guards Ron Brand and Larry Leathers making eight clutch free throws in the waning minutes.”

When the final horn sounded, the Mules and the overjoyed Fairfield fans carried Coach Larry Odum off the Fairfield gym floor.

In another more philosophical piece in the same newspaper issue, John Rackaway further praised the Fairfield team. “It was madhouse time for Coach Larry Odum and his Fairfield Mules after big Gerald Foster and seven little hustling guys dropped the highly-regarded Rams Saturday night. It was a surprise win, but not a fluke. The 6-6 Foster must rank with the best . . . . The Mules couldn’t have worked harder, they hit the big ones and made fewer mistakes than the Rams.”  

Rams fans and Coach Bob Arnold was simply stunned. Rackaway noted that the coach “was as shocked as the rest of us assembled Rams fans and bitterly disappointed in his club’s performance.” Coach Arnold lamented to Rackaway, “Fairfield did a good job but I believe this was the worst I’ve ever had a team play for me.”   

The Mules did not stop with its win over giant Mt. Vernon. Fairfield just kept on winning and relentlessly moved up in the state rankings as the season progressed. Sports writers all over the state began trying to figure out what was driving the success of the plucky Fairfield team. Fairfield’s secret, according to a Decatur, Illinois, sports writer was to “establish a quick lead to rout the poor teams and demoralize the others.” This, combined with the scoring power of Foster and “a swarming defense emphasizing the Mules’ quickness,” worked time-after-time.  Coach Odum also detailed to the same sports writer the team’s strengths beyond just the amazing scoring and rebounding of Gerald Foster.

We press the entire game. No opponent has scored as many as 60 points [against us]. . . . Mount Vernon was high with 59. It averages out to 47.8 points. Are there any lower than that? We manage a lot of steals and interceptions on the press. Sparta, for instance, got 10 more rebounds than we did but we forced them into 21 turnovers and won 66-40.

Just past the middle of the season, John Rackaway observed that Fairfield was perhaps, “the top team in southern Illinois. The Mules have consistently been ranked among the top 15 schools in the state by the Associated Press.” At this time, Fairfield was undefeated with thirteen wins and big Gerald Foster was averaging over thirty points a game. Besides powerful Mt. Vernon, Fairfield had so far beaten the other strong teams on its schedule—Sparta, Benton, and Lawrenceville. Pete Swanson, sports editor at the Evansville, Indiana, Sunday Courier ranked Fairfield as the number one team in southern Illinois throughout the season, noting that Fairfield had won the Quad City tournament and the Olney Holiday tourney.

Pete Swanson, sports writer at the Evansville, Indiana, Sunday Courier had the Mules ranked as number 1 in Southern Illinois, ahead of bigger schools like Centralia, Carbondale, and Mt. Vernon towards the end of the season. Notice tiny Bluford, the team I played for that year at the tenth spot.

In mid- February, around the time of Fairfield’s seventeenth win in a row, coach Larry Odum made a statement that probably reflected the high point of the team’s season. Sophomore Larry Heflin had just scored thirty-one points in a win against Flora, suggesting that the Mules were not just a one-man show, and Odum told a Chicago newspaper reporter, “We are seeded ahead of Mt. Vernon in the regional, and if we get by them, we could go to the super-sectional.” At that same time, Merle Jones, sports editor at the Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale, ranked Fairfield third in the southern Illinois region, two spots ahead of Mt. Vernon.

The Mules began to struggle toward the end of the season, winning in an overtime tilt against a much weaker Carmi team that they had handily beaten earlier. As they came to their last two regular season games against McLeansboro and then Lawrenceville, however, everything still seemed to suggest the Fairfield team would still go into the state tournament undefeated.

The wheels begin to come off. Fairfield loses its last two games, the first to a solid McLeansboro team coached by the kind and thoughtful Dick Jones.

Odum had been right about one thing—they never got beat if they held a team below 60 points. Fairfield’s first loss was to a solid McLeansboro team coached by former Bluford coach Richard “Dick” Jones. The Foxes stormed back in the last quarter and outscored the Mules 20-7 to win by a score of 62-56. Sports writers now honed in on what they perceived to be the big weakness of the team—Foster had tossed in thirty six points in the McLeansboro game but the rest of his team had only twenty points combined.  Then conference foe Lawrenceville pounded the Mules in the last regular season game 71-49.

The Mules had little time to fret about the last two regular season losses. Fairfield had not won a regional championship since 1939, when of course, they had defeated Mt. Vernon. If they were ever to do so again, this seemed to be the year. But while the Rams were ending their season getting better every game, the Mules seemed to have lost their touch. Nevertheless, the championship game of the Albion Regional was extremely close at the half, with Fairfield up by two. In the third quarter, however, Mt. Vernon established a slight lead and slowed down the game, forcing Fairfield to foul, the same circumstance, but in reverse of the two teams’ first meeting. The Rams won this game 65-54. Eventually, after beating Carbondale in a thrilling Super-Sectional victory, Mt. Vernon moved to the Elite Eight round of the state tournament. One can easily imagine Fairfield making it to the Super-Sectional game had they not lost to Mt. Vernon. Fifty years have passed since the Fairfield Mules, back in the days of a single class system, caught the attention of Illinois basketball fans and sports writers with their long and hard-earned winning streak.

It’s been an enjoyable process writing this brief history of that team. You guys did well. Congratulations again!