SIOUX CITY -- The first time Briar Cliff College approached Ray Nacke about coaching basketball, he turned it down.
It was 1966, the first year Briar Cliff began admitting men, and its basketball players had nowhere to practice but a glorified maintenance shed.
Five years later, Nacke took the job anyway.
"They said, ‘We should have a new gym within five years,'" recalled Nacke, now 75 years old. "It took 10. And believe me, it was a battle."
Luckily, Nacke came armed.
He had his knowledge of X's and O's, his motivational tactics, his recruiting pitches. He also had his pick-up truck.
Nacke crisscrossed Sioux City in the same vehicle he used to take care of his beloved racehorses, pitching his program to donors just like he would to a prized point guard.
"They get one look at that old truck," Nacke said someone once kidded him, "and they'll have to give you money."
He raised enough, and by 1983 the Newman Flanagan Center became, quite literally, part of "The Cliff" (built right into the side of it, where the briar patches used to be).
The gym wasn't as big as Nacke wanted (about 1,000 seats short), but at least his players could practice without first having to nail down loose floor boards.
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This floor worked just fine. Now, 29 years later, it will bear Nacke's name.
Briar Cliff dubbed the Newman Flanagan playing surface Ray Nacke Court on Saturday, in honor of the fiery, foot-stomping coach who forged Briar Cliff's internationally renowned "Panama Pipeline" and guided the Charger men's basketball team to 22 consecutive winning seasons.
Nine of those campaigns came while the Chargers still trekked to the Sioux City Auditorium for every game, and practiced in the building now used as Briar Cliff's theater.
"It was really hard to recruit into," Nacke said. "A lot of high schools in the area had better facilities.
"But the kids from Panama ... they had no idea what they were getting into."
THE PANAMA PIPELINE
The roots of the "Panama Pipeline," as it was officially dubbed by Sports Illustrated, can be traced back to Nacke's first season at the helm, one winter night in Crete, Neb.
Doane College had three lanky Panamanian forwards and "beat the crap" out of the Chargers, as Nacke put it.
"The first five shots we took, three of them got knocked into the bleachers," he said.
Nacke pulled aside his Spanish-speaking student manager Cesar Nervaez after the game.
"I was kidding him about finding out how Doane got those big dudes from Panama," Nacke said. "And boy, boom -- wouldn't you know it? He went right over there and asked."
Nervaez got a name -- Cecilio Williams. He was a high school mentor and former Panamanian national coach who pulled young men off the streets of Panama City and taught them basketball.
Nacke began a mail correspondence with Williams, and the Panama connection was forged.
Two of Williams prospects, Eddie Warren and Frederico Butler, arrived in Sioux City in the summer of 1974. One of their first stops was the maintenance shed.
"I got out a basketball, gave it to them and said, ‘Go ahead,'" said Nacke. "And they were shooting air balls. I'm thinking, ‘My God, this is what I've got? They can't even hit the rim!'
"But I tell you, they were like diamonds in the rough."
With Nacke's helped, they shined.
The 29 Panamanians that played for Nacke over the next 23 seasons included three-time All-American Rolando Frazer, who led the nation in scoring (36.4 points per game) in 1981, and Iowa's all-time leading collegiate scorer, Mario Galvez.
"Mario, boy was he hard on shoes," Nacke said. "I'd bring them home and glue them, put them under the kitchen table.
"The guy wore out five pair of shoes in one year," Nacke said. "And he didn't do it on defense."
The knock on his Panama imports was that they could jump out of the gym growing up but were never taught the fundamentals of defense. That's where Nacke came in. And he drilled them. Hard.
"The first two years I was at Briar Cilff, I thought he had something against me personally," Mario Butler said in a 1997 interview with the Journal. "But I'm glad I hung in there."
It paid off.
Frazer, Warren, Ernesto "Tito" Malcolm and Mario Butler (Frederico's younger brother) were each drafted by the NBA after graduating, but they all opted to head back home and play for Panama's national team -- the same squad that gave the Bob Knight-coached U.S. team a run for its money (88-83) at the 1979 Pan-American games.
For much of the next decade, Panama's national team featured an all-Briar Cliff lineup.
SIOUX CITY AND SNOW
Some of the Panamanians couldn't hold a conversation in English when they arrived in Sioux City.
And none of them had seen snow before -- a culture shock, to say the least.
"I like America, but you can't live here in Sioux City," Frazer told Sports Illustrated. "It's too cold. It's a good place to study, though. It's so cold you have to study."
"They just weren't used to that," Nacke said, adding with a laugh, "One of the guys found out about long johns, though -- this ‘big secret.' And pretty soon, wouldn't you know it? All the guys from Panama started buying long johns."
Nacke had one rule: He never let his Panama recruits room together.
"If you put them with guys that can't speak Spanish," he said, "then they have to speak English."
Nacke's players were so good, it was inevitable that Division I schools would come calling.
Ray's wife Jeaneen once recalled her husband chasing California coach Lou Campanelli off the phone. Campanelli wanted Galvez, but wasn't getting him.
"There aren't many times I've heard Ray use that kind of language on the phone," Jeaneen said. "He liked to protect his players."
That was the kind of intensity Nacke became known for, and the fire that Briar Cliff fans fell in love with.
"Off the court, he was the most soft-spoken gentleman you'd ever want to meet," said Ron Schultz, Nacke's assistant coach and right-hand man for 22 seasons. "But on the court, the competitive juices started flowing."
Said Nacke: "I wanted a lot of hard work by everybody involved -- officials included. I got along with them well enough before the game, and hopefully after the game, but during it I wasn't afraid to, I guess, ‘express my opinion.'"
It became the stuff of legend. Opposing student sections frequently chanted, "Sit Down Ray!"
Northwestern College students even inscribed that saying on a huge sign in tribute to Nacke before his last game as a head coach in 1997.
"We had all the students sign it," said then-Northwestern coach Todd Barry, who later coached at Briar Cliff.
The Chargers lost the game, probably because they were called for 37 total fouls. Not listed among those was a technical foul on Nacke, for jawing at a referee.
It almost seemed fitting.
Longtime Sioux City radio announcer Rudy Salem summed it up best in a poem, which Jeaneen Nacke recites with a smile:
"When Ray walks in the gym, he's like a priest carrying his missal; But that all changes, once the ref blows his whistle."
At home, it was a different story.
"He was just an old shoe," said Jeaneen, his wife of 52 years. "And one of the kindest, most reserved people you'll ever meet."
Nacke also had an outlet -- horse racing.
Turned out that he raised real thoroughbreds, besides the ones he developed on the basketball court. At one point, Nacke owned 30 mares and stallions that he kept in pastures behind Briar Cliff.
In fact, he was taking care of his horses in a minus-23 degree wind chill one day, when he suffered his first heart attack.
The 37-year-old Nacke sat with a heart monitor on, in a follow-up visit just days after undergoing heart surgery.
His readings exploded and his heart started racing when the doctors recommended he find a new profession.
"His heart monitor just went crazy," recalled Jeaneen.
A nurse had to rush in, pull the doctors aside and tell them to lay off. It seemed Nacke only had the heart to coach.
Said Jeaneen: "It would've killed him to give it up."
Nacke missed 10 games that season and 10 more when he underwent heart bypass surgery in 1985. Nonetheless, he couldn't stay away from coaching.
"I just decided, ‘Well I can't worry about him all the time, otherwise you kind of go whack-o," Jeaneen said. "You just say, hey, I guess it's in the Lord's hands."
As Nacke puts it, behind every great coach there usually stands a great wife.
Several players called Ray Nacke "their second father."
If so, Jeaneen Nacke was their second mother.
When slacks needed hemming, buttons needed sewing, uniforms needed knitting, towels needed washing and bellies needed filling, she was there.
"I'll never forget their door was always open," said All-American Leon Trimmingham, a native of Puerto Rico and a member of Nacke's final national tournament team in 1993. "I'd go down, eat some pancakes and bacon -- that kind of thing. You bet. That's what made Briar Cliff such a family atmosphere. Because I had them looking after me."
Ray looked out for all his players.
He'd tell you God has a sense of humor for giving him three daughters.
"I had wanted a boy really bad," he said. "But I wouldn't trade those girls for anything."
He ended up with hundreds of sons, anyway.