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John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s Jerry Vermillion was serial entrepreneur, serial rebounder

Jerry Vermillion, Gonzaga’s all-time leader in rebounding, passed away on Saturday at age 85. (File / The Spokesman-Review)
Jerry Vermillion, Gonzaga’s all-time leader in rebounding, passed away on Saturday at age 85. (File / The Spokesman-Review)

When the narrow trail split, the steer went right. The horse in rapid pursuit – a mare named Whiskey – was forced left, under the branch of a scrub oak which caught Jerry Vermillion flush in the ribs and slammed him into his high-backed saddle and then to the ground.

He was 14, working summer roundup on a ranch south of Glenrock, Wyomong. Any embarrassment would subside; the pain would never really go away.

It even became one of his many nicknames at Gonzaga University: “Old Aches and Pains” – an eyes-a-twinkle tease of pure admiration by his coach, Hank Anderson, who marveled at the wraps and manipulations behind the scenes that got Vermillion on the court. Then he joined everyone else in marveling at what Vermillion achieved.

Gonzaga’s all-time rebounding leader – with an eye-popping record that won’t be broken – died over the weekend at age 85, another underappreciated pioneer gone. The program’s outsized accomplishments of the last two decades tend to lay waste to a history that’s modest, but meaningful.

Not that Vermillion minded much.

“You can feel kind of disconnected,” he said in a conversation a decade ago. “But I wore my Gonzaga hat on a cruise and there were so many people who wanted to talk. There’s a lot of pride to identify with Gonzaga now.”

Vermillion’s post-Gonzaga life was worth book-length treatment – and he did self-publish a memoir for his family. He spent 25 years in education and coaching, and launched ventures that included a charter boat, an RV park, logging, home building, a fruit warehouse and, finally, oyster farming. He was a serial entrepreneur – as relentless as he was at rebounding – and steadfastly principled.

But every bit as intriguing was the basketball career that probably shouldn’t have happened.

The wicked lick that knocked him off his horse led to a lifetime of challenge. Scoliosis. Painful spinal arthritis. In college, he would develop Osgood-Schlatter disease in both knees. Though he grew to 6-foot-4, his hunched shoulders suggested a taller man – and so did his 82-inch wingspan. By comparison, Przemek Karnowski – the 7-foot-1 giant of the Zags’ Final Four team – tapes out at 84.

“His hands hung down to his knees,” said Joe Schauble, a teammate and roommate at Gonzaga.

After Vermillion’s family had moved to Fort Benton, Montana, he was held out of sports his first three years of high school. Unmotivated and unhappy, he dropped out for a full year, then returned to finish in 1950 – and even got cleared for a half-season of basketball, leading the Longhorns to the state title game.

Here’s just one way Gonzaga basketball has changed: a few hours after Vermillion’s death, the Zags received a commitment from their latest glitzy prospect, a 6-11 forward from Serbia. In 1951, athletic director Arch Sherer, on a loop through Montana, stopped in Fort Benton and offered scholarships to three players – out of a graduating class of maybe 40.

Eighteen players assembled for Anderson’s first freshman team. Only Vermillion, who was elevated to the varsity midway by January, survived to his senior year.

A couple of footnotes: he may have been GU’s first tattooed player, but he always covered up the “Verb” (another nickname) on his left bicep with a bandage. He also had 29 points and 18 rebounds in a disputed late-bucket 82-80 takedown of No. 11 Seattle in 1953 – the Zags’ first over a ranked team.

And though he left GU as the school’s career scoring leader, Vermillion was simply a natural rebounder, with what Schauble recalled as “just constant aggression in going for the ball.” This while doing combat with the likes of Oregon’s “Jungle” Jim Loscutoff, the future Celtics enforcer (who split Vermillion’s nose with a punch in the old Spokane Coliseum) and Whitworth’s 6-10 Phil Jordon, who spent seven years in the NBA.

“Hank taught me to tip a lot of rebounds,” Vermillion recalled back in 2006. “I was maybe 200 pounds and I’d get squashed by the big guys, but I could reach over and tip balls out to the guards. We’d even play volleyball early in the year to develop that a little.”

Did he really grab 1,670 rebounds in 3 1/2 seasons? Probably not. Gonzaga’s record-keeping of the day was not exactly airtight. In the statistics report submitted to the NCAA in 1955, Vermillion was credited with 672 rebounds in 29 games. That would be second in NCAA single-season history – except he’s not included on that list. Because on the same 1955 report, GU also listed his per-game average as 16.3 – which in 29 games equates to 472 rebounds. Someone likely hit the wrong key on the typewriter, and Vermillion’s career total – adjusting for another small discrepancy – is probably 1,476.

Which is still almost 500 ahead of the No. 2 man, Elias Harris. And still will never be exceeded.

And is still just a number, anyway, and hardly the measure of Jerry Vermillion.

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