The 1970s paradigm shift

Let’s do this: LOOOORNE JENKEN

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Last summer during my ranking of CBC champions, I referred to a paradigm shift that changed the game. In 1972, O’Leary HS of Alberta won a title by practicing earlier in the year; Lorne Jenken followed up in 1973 with probably the greatest single-season jump in innovation.

In the earliest years of Reach for the Top, the TV show brought in hastily-assembled teams. Sometimes a teacher ran a test to select the team, while there are a few cases of fielding the student council or making a team elected by students. Schools wanted their institution represented well on television, and there was attention to good manners and dress, but not necessarily hard knowledge. Other than Oak Bay from BC, there weren’t any “dynasties” where a school would readily bring a trained team year after year.

By the 1970s, the attitudes of teams on TV had changed. Students weren’t necessarily in their nice suits and dresses, and the players were starting to treat it as something to win rather than a means of making the school look good. The prize system may have helped: in the 1960s, only the school won bursaries; by the 1970s, the students themselves started receiving trips, books, and scholarships. Students now had another incentive to win the tournament.

O’Leary appears to be the first school to use a year-long practice method and win a title. I don’t know very much about their method other than that Lorne Jenken built upon it. Selecting a team at the beginning of the year – and having them study from encyclopedias, newspapers, and literature – was a new concept for the time. It allowed a team to split their topic strengths and build some chemistry before being thrust into the TV studio. I haven’t seen any footage of their 1972 title run, but in their 1974 final, they were very knowledgeable, not very TV-friendly, and only lost to Gonzaga by getting flustered from the Newfoundland home audience. They were much stronger than the teams in audio I’ve heard from 1960s games.

Lorne Jenken would have competed with O’Leary in the Edmonton area, and was no doubt inspired by O’Leary’s title. In the fall of 1972, new coach Ken Kowalski made a start-of-year intercom announcement asking for interested students – the meeting room filled up. I don’t know the logistics after that meeting, but somehow that large group of students became a credit course for Reach for the Top. Scheduled school time for a team would have been unheard of for the time, and is rare today. During the course, Kowalski and the students built a mock set of the studio with buzzers, studied books and old tournament questions, and perhaps most significantly, wrote tens of thousands of questions. Question writing is the preferred practice method of top teams today, but nobody was doing that in 1972. That class at Lorne Jenken was getting work done.

Side note: Lorne Jenken HS has since become Barrhead Composite. It is sometimes difficult to find information on the team because some people refer to it as “Lorne Jenkins”. Sources with “Jenkins” tends to be people recalling from the past, though it also appears on Reach’s list of champions. Meanwhile, Barrhead’s website mentions their old name of “Jenken”, as does some old news stories. I am sticking with “Lorne Jenken” for their name.

Lorne Jenken bested O’Leary at their own game in 1973. Lorne Jenken took the Alberta crown and went to Ottawa for their first nationals trip. I don’t know the identities of their opponents, but they beat teams from Nova Scotia, Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec to win the title. Two consecutive titles (and almost a third in 1974) coming out of this Edmonton rivalry probably gave teams notice that change was afoot.

There was a shift in how teams played after the O’Leary/Jenken run. Players were aggressive on the buzzer, well-studied, and much more bonded as a team. Rather than assembling a group of seniors, teams would start bringing in younger players to acclimatize them for a later year. Reach of the later 1970s was in many ways similar to the modern era, and with a few adjustments, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those teams could have competed against today’s clubs. Dynasties formed: Lorne Jenken (7), Gonzaga (6), and Dryden (3) all had multiple national appearances, and the first two-time champion (Vincent Massey CI) re-emerged in this time. The CBC era was in a golden age.

The golden age faded around 1980. The previously-mentioned dynasties no longer appeared, prizes and viewership were reduced, and teams of the mid-1980s didn’t look as strong. The first threat of cancellation occurred in 1983, and Reach ended up being dropped from CBC in 1985.

O’Leary HS did not make nationals again after 1974. They were outclassed by Lorne Jenken in Alberta competition for the rest of the CBC era, and no longer participate in SchoolReach.

Lorne Jenken missed a 1974 appearance, but took the Alberta title for a further six consecutive years (1975-1980). They never reached the final again, but made it to the semis at least twice. The 1985 edition of the Canadian Encyclopedia referred to Lorne Jenken as the best Reach for the Top team ever. By the end of the decade, though, most strong schools had adopted practice and writing methods developed by the Alberta team. The school dropped in performance after the departure of their coach, Ken Kowalski, and their modern incarnation, Barrhead Composite, also no longer participates in SchoolReach.

Ken Kowalski was a local hero after the 1973 title and subsequent national appearances. In 1979, he left teaching and ran for a seat in the Alberta legislature. He credited his win to the positive reputation from his teams’ Reach successes. In 1997, he was elected Speaker of the assembly in Alberta and retained that position until his retirement in 2012, becoming the second-longest tenured politician to preside over the legislature.

The 1972/73 shift is the biggest single-season upheaval in Reach. If you write questions, use a practice buzzer set, or even just schedule time for intramural SchoolReach, thank Ken Kowalski and that little hotbed of activity around Edmonton.

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