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Purdue ICONS #16: Ward "Piggy" Lambert


The next few ICONS on this list will have us turning the clock way back to a time before most of us remember. I am pleased to see that coached have been well represented on this list in addition to players. Purdue has had some legendary coaches over the years. Already we have touched on the careers of Jack Mollenkopf, Joe Tiller, and Hank Stram, who made quite a name for themselves as coaches. Our next ICON is still celebrated as perhaps the most famous coach in Purdue history, or at least the one that multi-tasked the most.

Lambert Fieldhouse is the current home of our indoor track and field teams (and future home of ice hockey?), as well as the former home of Purdue basketball. Ward "Piggy" Lambert was Purdue's legendary coach in the early part of the 20th century, and made a name as the man who coached John Wooden. Lambert was also a long-time baseball coach at Purdue, and our current baseball facility bears his name. Lambert is a legend in West Lafayette, but few people know him outside of the two venues that bear his name.

With 200 votes, Ward "Piggy" Lambert is our #16 Purdue ICON.

Lambert's background:

Lambert is definitely old school, born May 28, 1888 just nineteen years after Purdue was founded. He came from the infamous Deadwood, South Dakota, a wild west down full of gamblers, prostitutes, and gunfighters such as Wild Bill Hickok. There were early signs that Lambert would be a legendary Boilermaker. The Deadwood Central railroad was founded the year he was born to help exploit the gold in the nearby Black Hills.

Lambert's family moved to Crawfordsville, IN in 1890, settling into central Indiana life. He played baseball and basketball at Crawfordsville high school before the implementation of Indiana's famous basketball tournament. Still, I don't think it is a coincidence that the first state basketball champion was Crawfordsville high School. Once the game took root in Indiana its first hotbed was the area around Crawfordsville, and this would shape Lambert's life.

Lambert attended Wabash College, Purdue's very early rival in nearly everything because of its close proximity to West Lafayette. Instead of trying to pay Bruce enough money to play the Wabash College fight song at the Neon Cactus piano bar they actually competed against us in athletics. Lambert, though just 5'6", led them in scoring as a sophomore and got his nickname of "Piggy" because he had a reputation of being a ball hog. He would graduate in 1911.

Becoming a Purdue legend:

Except for 1918, because Lambert left to fight in World War I, Piggy coached the very early incarnation of our Boilermakers from 1916 until retiring in 1946. He lasted for 29 years, making Purdue a basketball powerhouse during the era before the NCAA Tournament. He famously coach Charles "Stretch" Murphy and John Wooden during his tenure. Wooden would become the first three-time All-American in college basketball history and lead us to our only National Championship in men's basketball. Lambert compiled a career record of 371-152 and won 11 Big Ten championships in 29 years. He was so effective as a coach that after his last Big Ten championship in 1940 Purdue, who has the most Big Ten title of any school in the conference, would not win again for 29 years.

Lambert remains a legend in the Big ten even though hasn't coached a game in over 65 years. Only Bob Knight and Gene Keady earned more Big Ten victories than his 228 wins. Only Knight has equaled his record of 11 Big Ten conference championships. 16 players would go on to be named All-Americans while Lambert was coach. By comparison, only six players have been named First Team All-Americans since Lambert's era.

Lambert also pretty much changed the game of basketball too. Instead of the slow, plodding pace that most teams played back then he insisted on an uptempo style. He can be considered the grandfather of the modern fast break, as he looked to use the speed and athleticism of his players in order to gain an advantage. His style also demanded precision passing and techniques, so he made sure that he recruited players with sound fundamentals. It is no wonder that one of his former players in Wooden went onto become the greatest college coach of all-time. Here is what the Big Ten had to say about him:

Yes, Lambert was enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960. He was a legendary coach that guided the Boilermakers for nearly 30 years and once penned Practical Basketball, which is said to be one of the early "bibles" of the game. And while he was charged with the development of players such as Bob Kessler and Jewell Young during his tenure, he is long remembered for honing the skills of fellow Hall of Famers Charles "Stretch" Murphy and John Wooden.

Several historians of the game also credit Lambert as a pioneer of the fast-break offense. His teachings stemmed from mental toughness, stability, speed and then size, probably in that order. Lambert was never much a believer in size, dating back to the days when he tried out for the Crawfordsville (Ind.) High School basketball team standing 5'6" and weighing a mere 112 pounds. You would think with a nickname like "Piggy" he would have been a tad more plump than that, but Lambert found a way to star in multiple sports in high school and eventually became a football, basketball and baseball star at Wabash College.

Not only was Lambert a great innovator to the game of basketball, he also led Purdue's baseball program from the 1917 season to the 1935 season, missing only 1918 because of World War I again. He later came back and coached the 1945 and 1946 seasons in addition to basketball. I doubt you'll ever see anything like that again. He finished with 163 wins on the diamond in 20 years (seasons were a lot shorter back then) and coached a total of 326 games. He still holds the record for most seasons as a Purdue baseball coach with 20. His final record was 163-156-7.

Lambert was most famous for his relationship with Wooden, however. Wooden once famously said of Lambert, "(He was) a man of extremely high principles," Wooden said. "I think my basic coaching philosophy came more from him. At the heart of my pyramid I have three things: condition, skill, and team spirit. And I think that came from Mr. Lambert, as much as anybody else."

Post Purdue:

After retiring from Purdue Lambert went on to be the Commissioner of the National basketball League, a precursor to the modern day NBA. It eventually merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the current NBA as we know it. He then enjoyed a nice retirement from 1949 until his death on January 20th, 1958.

Two years after his death Lambert was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the same year that Stretch Murphy was also enshrined. He remains as one of the most legendary figures in the history of college basketball.

I wonder how many National titles he would have won had the modern NCAA Tournament existed during most of his coaching career. Only one of his championships teams, the 1940 Big Ten champion, played in the era of the NCAA Tournament. Purdue was retroactively awarded the Helms national title in 1932, but several of Lambert's other teams would have contended for the crown in the early tournaments. His Big Ten title teams in 1926, 1928, 1930, 1932, 1934-36, and 1938 would have all been contenders.