It's 3 o'clock on a Saturday morning at the Boulevard Cafeteria in Albany, N.Y. Two men at a booth are playing with salt and pepper shakers, stealing them from other booths as more are needed.
The older man, short, rumpled and very animated, clearly is in his element, using the cafeteria props on the cleared table just as contemporaries Joe Lapchick or Henry Iba might use Xs and Os on a blackboard. The younger man, taller, nattier and bright-eyed, is paying rapt attention, as are two young reporters from a local newspaper.
In those days of more structured basketball, the lessons were on pick-and-rolls, "wheels" and double-post offenses.
The scene was repeated many early Saturday mornings during the winters of the late 1950s and early '60s. The older man, the teacher -- Siena College Coach Dan Cunha -- has been dead nearly 20 years. The younger man -- Dick Sauers -- is in the NCAA record books.
Friday, when his Albany State team defeated Brockport State, 91-66, in the semifinals of the State University of New York Athletic Conference tournament, Sauers became the 38th college coach to win 500 games, and the first from the NCAA's Division III. A 73-64 loss to Buffalo State in the championship game Saturday gave Sauers a lifetime 500-231 record.
"I learned an awful lot from him (Cunha)," Sauers, 54, said shortly before winning No. 500. "He got the most out of his players as was humanly possible."
Despite the loss to Buffalo State, Albany (21-5) hoped, until the pairings were announced last night, to land a sixth trip to the NCAA Division III Eastern Regional. "We've got an all-senior starting team and they've never been to the NCAAs," said Sauers, whose 1980-81 team was ranked eighth nationally. This year's Great Danes were ranked 11th after knocking off then-No. 1 Potsdam State on the road Feb. 16.
Except for one year as a graduate assistant at Penn State, where he handled the junior varsity, Sauers never has coached school-level basketball anywhere but Albany, where he became coach right out of graduate school in 1955.
"I was interviewed at Bates in Maine and Lycoming (in Pennsylvania) and at a high school in St. Mary's, Pa., along with Albany," Sauers said. "The jobs at Bates and Lycoming were filled and I was offered the high school job. I was still waiting to hear from Albany and asked them to wait." Albany called; Sauers is still there.
Sauers entered the 500 club one day after Maryland's Lefty Driesell. Earlier in the week, there was the possibility that television might help Sauers join the club first. Both Albany State and Maryland were scheduled Tuesday with the coaches at 499. Maryland's game had a later start because of the Atlantic Coast Conference's television commitments. The NCAA monitored both games to determine who would be No. 37 to win 500 if both teams won. It became moot when Albany lost at Hamilton and Maryland was beaten at Georgia Tech.
Hamilton will be top seed in the regional; Albany is out.
Probably the most talented players Sauers coached were on the first team he directed, while a senior at Slippery Rock State. It was a team of Pennsylvania high school seniors playing in postseason tournaments, "Kiwanis tournaments and things like that." Among his players were Ed Fleming, a star for the Niagara teams of the mid-1950s and a five-year NBA player, and the late Maurice Stokes, an all-America at St. Francis (Pa.) and a sensational NBA player until crippled by encephalitis.
Sauers never has had players as talented as Fleming or Stokes at Albany, although he has fond memories of Gary Holway, a standout in the late '50s and a recent charter inductee to the Albany Hall of Fame.
But mostly Sauers is happy living a childhood fantasy. "When I was a kid in grade school, there was an elementary teacher, who was also a coach. He was the man I admired most," he said. "So I've always had coaching as a career goal. I guess I'm one of the few people who's doing what he's always wanted to do."