Old Owlette, new roost Gus Grason: The former Towson Catholic girls coach has lost none of the verve that led to three "national" titles. But now the lopsided scores are coming in rec leagues, and his children are among his players.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One minute into the basketball game, the coach has deciphered the enemy. "Time! Time!" Gus Grason cries, scribbling plays. His hand flies over the clipboard, leaving squiggles that would baffle John Madden, much less a group of preteen girls at a rec league game in northern Baltimore County.

"They've got a half-court trap Tara, drive into the gap from the left reverse the ball to Jess are you OK on the shifts? I want your hand in that girl's face!"

Players nod. The squiggles make sense; three quick baskets follow. The girls are rolling, then

"Time!" Grason cries, pen in hand. "That's excellent basketball. Now, let me retool the offense "

The margin doubles, triples. Grason tinkers, triumphs -- another lopsided win for his 12-and-under team. The losers leave, heads down. The winners hug, giggle, check their nails.

Grason watches his troops depart. "Top five," he says, as they trickle out the door.

Pardon?

"If these girls would stay together, they'd be a top five team in high school."

As if Grason would settle for that.

It's Feb. 3, 1983, and Towson Catholic's gym is rocking. The girls basketball team, ranked No. 1 nationally for the first time by USA Today, is trouncing Notre Dame Prep. The home team leads 80-17, as Gert Scott drives and the crowd roars and a bass drum pounds with every point. Will the Owlettes hit the 100 mark again? Coach Gus Grason gathers his charges, eyes the clock, works the clipboard. Towson Catholic scores 100 on the final basket, and the house goes nuts.

A blue-and-gold banner still hangs above the door of the high school gym, the legacy of a tempestuous coach who dragged Baltimore girls basketball into the modern era, then resigned in a storm of controversy.

The pennant reads:

Towson Catholic Owlettes National Champions 82-83 83-84 84-85

Grason engineered the lot. He broke new ground and vexed his peers. He recruited aggressively, scouring playgrounds for talent. He doled out scholarships, and helped his stars get into college. He held grueling workouts, planning each second of practice.

His teams probed and pressed opponents, often winning by 50 points or more. They played numbing 40-game schedules, globe-trotting 10,000 miles a year to compete in Canada, the Virgin Islands and Ireland, while deftly dodging the few local schools capable of an upset.

"It was like going to a party every day," recalls Grason, 47, himself a 1967 graduate of the school. "We took that high school program as far as it could go."

Cloudy end to bright era

The Owlettes put Towson Catholic, a parochial school of 400 students, on the map. In Grason's 12 years, the team averaged 29 victories and won 90 percent of its games, including the last 70 in a row.

Then, in 1985, his team having topped the USA Today poll for the third straight year, Grason retired. He cited stress and family commitments. Acquaintances say he was forced out, that his growing autonomy began to alarm school administrators -- who'd always given Grason a long leash -- and drew criticism from archdiocese officials.

Starved for competition, the coach had begun a wider search for games -- and players. With the arrival of Ellen Langhi, a 6-footer from Kentucky who left family there to play her senior year at Towson Catholic, pressure mounted to pull the plug -- especially when Langhi was found living off-campus, unchaperoned, with several teammates.

"Everyone was saying the school was a basketball factory," says Langhi, now a strength coach at Duke University. "They were concerned that if [Grason] had gone to Kentucky to get a player, like, what's next?"

"There was a lot of negative talk about Towson Catholic's program," recalls Larry Callahan, then superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "Gus was a go-getter who believed in what he was doing. But the feeling was that it was time for it to end."

When the coach left, players fled to other schools. The program never recovered.

Grason, now a real estate developer, spurned basketball for nearly a decade, returning quietly in 1995 to coach his three children's rec league teams near their home in Phoenix.

Deja vu? Grason's record this season is 80-2, with 10 left to play. One game ended 60-2. The girls' jerseys are blue and gold, and their numbers match those of Towson Catholic greats like Gert Scott, who could do a finger-roll off an alley-oop pass, and 6-3 Tori Harrison, the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder.

Grason's girls, meet Grason's ghosts.

His specter still haunts high school basketball.

"Gus' program elevated the girls' game, showed where it could go if all five players could really, really play," says Elaine Lindsay, athletic director at Dulaney High. "But the basketball community wasn't ready for someone who was that focused and dedicated and willing to step on their feelings, or their hearts, as he went by."

Grason's antics would go unnoticed today, his former players say.

"Gus was, then, what women's basketball is now," says Martha Lappe, who starred for Towson Catholic in the 1970s. "There are a lot of Gus Grasons out there now."

"Some of the things we did that people said were 'immoral,' now people don't blink an eye," says Harrison, women's basketball coach at Coppin State. "He was a disciplined tactician, successful because of his tunnel vision."

Cut from different mold

Innovative and intense, Grason was part Ahab, part P. T. Barnum. He prowled the sidelines in a Beatles haircut, tinted shades and plaid pants. A history teacher, Grason toted a net and backboard into his classroom, and painted the walls blue and gold. He peppered his exams with questions like, What is the Owlettes' record? and gave extra credit to students who attended games.

A sign on Grason's desk read, Defy Mediocrity. Imperfection made him mad. After a loss in the Catholic League final, Grason drove to Loch Raven Reservoir and chucked the runner-up trophy in the drink. The reason? "I didn't want to finish second," he said.

In Ireland, one of the two vehicles carrying Towson Catholic's entourage broke down on a lonely road, 40 miles from the game. Grason herded his starters into the remaining car and sped off, leaving behind his reserves, wife, parents and mother-in-law.

Grason's wheels kept turning. The Owlettes lifted weights and wore sleeveless uniforms when some squads still wore skirts. "We wanted teams to be intimidated by the muscles in our arms," says Margaretann Mueller O'Rourke, a 1981 graduate. "He didn't treat us like a bunch of girls, but as athletes doing a job."

Grason held foul-shooting practice at 6: 30 a.m., an hour before school. He pioneered girls-boys basketball doubleheaders. He hired a team podiatrist. He parked a large bass drum behind the visitors' bench, urging supporters to bang away.

To fund his program, Grason sold wall space in the school gym. For $200 a season, the Hunt Valley Szechuan Restaurant bought a five-foot section behind the Owlettes' bench.

"Gus was a shrewd showman, the Bill Veeck of the Catholic League," says Trish Cook, who coached Archbishop Keough.

Gimmicks Towson Catholic could win without.

"Great, great ballplayers," recalls Cathy Fisher, who played at Mount de Sales. "The first time I got boxed out by one of them, it was like getting hit by a truck."

"You couldn't run with Gus' teams," says Gail Parr, former Mercy coach. "We figured the more of the clock we ate up, the better our chances of keeping them under 100 points."

"Any basket you got against them was a positive," says Tim Engle, who coached at Catholic High. "Towson Catholic didn't get a lead and coast. They spent 32 minutes beating you as bad as they could. They cut the wound, then rubbed it with salt."

Grason's response? The same now as then. "I can't be responsible for other people's incompetence," he says. "If you don't work hard, it's always easier to make the other guy the bogeyman.

"Yeah, we won by some big scores. Maybe we shouldn't have used a half-court press with a 20-point lead. But there were many people coaching then who had no business doing so. You couldn't expect a biology teacher to do well against me."

Catholic League backlash

In 1983, weary of domination, the girls' Catholic League asked TC to leave. Grason refused, so the other schools withdrew and formed their own conference.

"We called it the Caholi League," says Engle. Caholi? "That's Catholic, without the TC."

Two years later, on the sly, Towson Catholic officials asked back in the league and hired a hard-boiled athletic director, Hal Sparks, to break the news to Grason.

"I said, 'Gus, I've been told we're going back into the Catholic League, at all costs,' " Sparks recalls. "Gus said, 'But they won't take us back as long as I'm the coach.'

"I said, 'Gus, read my lips -- at all costs. Do you understand?' He nodded and walked out the door. We never talked again."

Grason, who recalls no such conversation, resigned soon thereafter.

The team unraveled quickly. Players bailed out, opting for schools nearer their homes, such as Walbrook, Western and Woodlawn. Dulaney got two transfers, who helped the school to its first state title in 1988.

And Towson Catholic? Six months after winning its third national title, only four of 19 players remained.

"The team was stripped," says Carolyn Sparks Ruppel, one of those who stayed. Overnight, says Ruppel, "I went from having near year-round practices to being told, 'You're the point guard because you're one of the few who dribbles well.' "

The ball was over. In 1985-86, Towson Catholic mustered three victories, seven the following year, three the next. Coaches came and went. Road junkets disappeared. The drum beat slowly, then not at all.

Opponents, humbled for years, struck with a vengeance. The Owlettes lost to Mount de Sales by 40 points, St. Mary's by 50. Notre Dame Prep thrashed them, 80-8.

"Teams went for our throats," says Ruppel, now a coach at Catonsville High. "The Catholic League was very vindictive toward us -- though the only ones they were hurting were the kids who showed enough gumption to stick it out [at Towson Catholic]."

No looking back

A decade later, the school has no plans to resurrect the past. The Lady Owls, as they're now called, went 4-10 overall and finished 2-5 in the Association of Independent Schools B Conference, two leagues below their old roost.

Grason hasn't seen them play. In fact, he hasn't set foot in the gym since he resigned. But he can browse through the stacks of yearbooks and news clippings and workout schedules he saved from his heyday, and dust the school trophies lining the wall of his study.

Says Grason: "Aside from the dismay shown by other coaches, which didn't bother me that much, it was one great ride."

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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