[LINK] The Southern Illinoisan
It's been 35 years since former Benton
basketball star Rich Yunkus left Georgia Tech as the school's all-time
leading scorer. The Yellow Jackets featured many great players over the
years but none have been able to top Yunkus' milestone of 2,232 points.
And Freshmen couldn't play in his day.
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Matt Harpring came closest to Yunkus, amassing 2,225 points. Harpring played from 1995-1998 - one more season than Yunkus had. Harpring played in 40 more games than Yunkus and hit 210 3-pointers. The three-point shot didn't exist during Yunkus' 1969-1971 career.
"Without a doubt I'm surprised no one's broken that mark," Yunkus said. "We couldn't play on the team as freshmen."
Freshmen weren't eligible under NCAA rules during Yunkus' career. He averaged 26.6 points and 11.4 rebounds per game during his three-year run. In his junior season, he scored 30 points per game and grabbed 12 boards.
One of the greatest highlights of his career was finishing runner-up to North Carolina in the National Invitation Tournament in New York City in 1971.
"We spent 12 days in New York with all the games in Madison Square Garden," Yunkus recalled. "That's just an awesome place to play basketball."
That accomplishment wouldn't be a big deal now, but in those days only 16 teams made the NCAA Tournament and only 16 were invited to the NIT. Southern Illinois University won the NIT in 1967 with Walt Frazier - now an NBA Hall of Famer.
Yunkus, a 6-foot-9 forward/center, competed against the likes of Jacksonville's Artis Gilmore, Florida State's Dave Cowens, and UCLA's Sidney Wicks to name just a few. Another drawback to playing in the post during the late 1960s and early '70s was that players could not dunk the ball. Dunks, now a nightly feature on SportsCenter, resulted in a technical foul during Yunkus' playing days.
While he certainly was good enough to play professional basketball - and did suit up for the Atlanta Hawks for one-third of a season with "Pistol" Pete Maravich - it just wasn't for him.
"Back then, I always said if it ever got to be where it wasn't fun I would quit, and it wasn't fun anymore," Yunkus said. "The Hawks wanted me to go to Europe and play there the rest of the year and then come back. You're on the road all the time, and the money isn't like it is today. It just got to be where it was no longer enjoyable."
The Hawks released Yunkus in 1972, and his family purchased a Terminex business that he ran with his father. They eventually sold the business in 1989, and Yunkus is currently a representative for Edward Jones in Benton.
"Fortunately I had a good education," Yunkus said. "I felt like I had better opportunities to do other things."
On a recent business trip for Edwards Jones, Yunkus flew to Los Angeles to a seminar where the guest speaker was legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.
"I got to spend about an hour with coach Wooden, and it's a highlight of my life," Yunkus said. "He said he's a big advocate to bring back the freshman rule because kids need to stay in school. He's going to be 96 in October and he was still just unbelievably sharp. He talked for 45 minutes with no notes about what it takes to be successful."
Before Yunkus earned All-American honors in college, he led the Benton Rangers to the state tournament and a 61-2 record during his final two years of high school. His coach at that time was Rich Herrin, the current Marion coach and former SIU men's basketball coach.
"He was such a dominant player in high school," Herrin said. "His greatest asset was he could guard the goal. We could gamble and they couldn't get a layup because he blocked a lot of shots."
The hype surrounding the Rangers in the mid 1960s was tremendous and a lot of fans were forced to attend road games because of Benton's small gym at the time.
"He packed the gyms wherever we went in Southern Illinois, and we took a lot of people," Herrin said. "So a lot of other schools made money off of Benton people coming to see us play on the road."
Herrin ranks right near the top of all the people who helped turn Yunkus into the player he was and the successful businessman he is today.
"As I look back, besides my mother, coach Herrin was the person that molded my ideals and my feelings about all things," Yunkus said. "He was probably the most influential person in my life."
Yunkus currently lives with his wife Donna, a fourth-grade teacher in Benton. He has two daughters, Alicia and Lindsay, plus four grandchildren.
Both Yunkus and Herrin left lasting impressions on each other.
"I can remember coach Herrin getting a technical in a game," Yunkus said. "He spent the entire halftime apologizing to us about how that was inappropriate behavior. He said you just have to go out there no matter how tough it is."
As for Herrin, he said Yunkus is certainly one of the top three players ever to come out of the Southern Illinois area.
"He's the best high school player I ever coached," Herrin said. "He put Benton on the map."