Sports: March Madness

by Jason Puckett

sport1.JPG (11322 bytes) The NAIB, NIT, and NCAA all spell championships for UofL - the only school to win all three national titles

At right: Darrell Griffith, who led the Cardinals to an NCAA title in 1980, was later named National Player of the Year.


Louisville’s rich basketball heritage manifests itself in the form of year-round hoop talk, remarkable attendance figures, and always...great expectations. That way of life has been around more years than many of the Cards’ most avid fans, and the tradition is built on a solid foundation of aiming high. The goal: national championships.

Certainly, basketball fans around the nation are familiar with the success the University of Louisville basketball program has enjoyed through the years under coach Denny Crum. Six Final Four appearances and two NCAA championships since his hiring in 1971, and a fan following that packs Freedom Hall, have helped establish U of L as one of the elite basketball programs in the country.

But there’s more to the story. There’s a solid foundation of greatness that has seen the Cards achieve what no other program in the country has ever accomplished—three different national titles.

Louisville’s journey to greatness got a huge boost in 1944 when U of L hired Bernard "Peck" Hickman as men’s basketball coach. Phil Rollins, a guard for the Cardinals from 1952 to 1956, recalls that playing for the new coach could be a challenge.

"Playing for Hickman was sometimes a struggle trying to understand what he wanted and what you thought he wanted," says Rollins. "Most of the time, though, it was better not to read too much into things. Basically, it was all black and white with him. No gray areas."

In only four years, Hickman’s no-nonsense style laid the foundation for what later became one of college basketball’s most storied programs. In 1948, the Cardinals captured the NAIB championship in Kansas City, giving the school its first-ever national title. The title game victory came against Indiana State which, in retrospect, was even more significant because the Sycamores’ coach was none other than John Wooden—who left the school later that year to begin his reign at UCLA.

"The 1948 team was when we got over the hump as far as our basketball program," says Hickman. "We had to play five games in six days, but we had a bunch of good competitors on that team. They were all good friends and we happened to peak at just the right time."

Following the NAIB title win, the team returned home to a throng of more than 4,000 supporters at Central Station in Louisville. Hickman was offered the head job at Texas, but declined. Perhaps he knew this was just the beginning for a Louisville program destined for greatness.

The Cards again took center stage in 1956 when they advanced to the National Invitational Tournament in New York City and seized the moment to bring U of L its second national championship. The Cards defeated Dayton in the finals at Madison Square Garden.

That team was one of Hickman’s best. Led by the great Charlie Tyra in the middle and a pair of high-scoring guards in Rollins and Jim Morgan, the Cardinals achieved a 26-3 record on the road to the NIT crown.

Tyra was known for his rebounding and a silky-smooth hook shot that was almost unstoppable. He remains one of only four Cardinal players (along with Wes Unseld, Darrell Griffith, and Pervis Ellison) to have their numbers retired at Louisville.

The Cards had been to the NIT four straight years but had come up short. However, this team was expected to win.

"The 1956 team felt that they could beat anybody at anytime," recalls Hickman. "They’d tell me to quit worrying, saying, ‘Coach, it’s in the bag,’ when I would talk to them at halftime."

As far as Rollins is concerned, the key strength of the 1956 team was its excellent team chemistry.

"What made us pretty good was that we all got along real well. Wherever we went we did all of our things together and had good camaraderie, which led to having a good relationship on the court," Rollins explains. "Sometimes when things go bad on the court, people can get bent out of shape. But we never had that problem."

Tyra concurs. "I didn’t realize until after I graduated or maybe in my senior year what chemistry meant," he says. "Every team doesn’t have it; in fact, most don’t. But we were the perfect mix. We all got along, we complemented each other and we had fun. This was a true team."

Hickman felt that both the 1948 and 1956 teams helped push Cardinal basketball to the forefront. "Both teams gave us great, memorable experiences, but they also moved us up the ladder in a big way as far as national exposure."

In 1959, the Cards made their first appearance in the NCAA Final Four, which was held at home in Freedom Hall. The team reached that milestone by pulling off what may have been at that point the biggest win in the school’s history by defeating favored Kentucky in the Mideast Regional. Hickman had failed in his two previous attempts to beat Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats, losing in the 1948 Olympic Trials to the Fabulous Five, and again in the 1951 NCAA tournament.

What made the victory even sweeter was the fact that the Wildcats were the defending national champions, as well as the fact that Rupp disdained playing other in-state schools, which rarely gave the Cards a shot at their cross state rivals.

Hickman would later say, "We might’ve beaten them sooner if we’d had a chance to play ’em."

The Cards went on to defeat Big Ten champion Michigan State in the regional final to make it back home for the Final Four. The Cardinals first opponent was West Virginia, whose legendary Jerry West scored 38 points as the Mountaineers downed the Cards 94-79. U of L closed out its season with a loss to Cincinnati and its superstar Oscar Robertson in the third place game.

Crum led the Cards to the Final Four in 1972 and 1975 before the team finally reached the promised land for a record-breaking third time. No other team in history had won three different major post-season basketball tournaments.

In the summer of 1979 the makings of another title began to form as senior-to-be Darrell Griffith spent lonely nights in Crawford gym working on his fundamentals. Later he said, "I not only wanted to improve, but I knew I had to stay focused."

It was a young team, but one with depth and an intense Griffith. "In the first few days of practice, everyone was hyped up and excited but, as time wore on, the energy seemed to die down," he recalls. "I maintained that pace day in and day out, never letting up. I think some of the guys thought I was showing off, but I wasn’t. I was trying to lead by example."

And lead he did, all the way to Market Square Arena in Indianapolis for Louisville’s third appearance in the NCAA Final Four under Coach Crum. Led by the stellar play of Griffith, who was later named Player of the Year, the Cards defeated Crum’s alma mater UCLA to win their first NCAA championship. The "Doctors of Dunk" also included such stars as Rodney McCray, Derek Smith, Wiley Brown, Tony Branch, Roger Burkman, and Jerry Eaves.

"For some guys, what we had achieved didn’t sink in at first," Griffith remembers. "But for me, it hit like a rock at the very moment the game ended and it was wonderful. I was happy because I had achieved my goals. And I was happy for my teammates and our coaches. And then there were our fans, who had waited patiently for so long."

The Cards returned to the Final Four in the next two seasons. In 1982 they fell to Georgetown and its superstar center Patrick Ewing. The 1983 Final Four at The Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico is remembered as a classic showdown between Louisville’s second-generation "Doctors of Dunk" (Lancaster Gordon, Charles Jones, Milt Wagner, and the McCray brothers) and Houston’s "Phi Slamma Jamma" (Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Benny Anders). In what was one of the most watched NCAA tournament games ever, the Cougars pulled away in the second half to defeat the Cards 94-81.

A hungry U of L team returned to the Final Four again in 1986, when they rebounded from an 11-6 start and advanced to the final round. At Reunion Arena in Dallas, Louisville first dispatched LSU to advance to the final game against heavily-favored Duke. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s first Final Four team was led by All-American Johnny Dawkins. The Cards countered with a three-pronged senior attack of guards Jeff Hall and Milt Wagner and forward Billy Thompson. The player who made the most impact, however, was freshman center Pervis Ellison.

In what was one of the most thrill-filled games in U of L history, the Cards rallied late behind Ellison. Then, Wagner’s two free throws with seven seconds left "iced" the 72-69 Cardinal victory, giving the program its second NCAA title and its fourth national championship overall.

Buoyed by their historic title runs, the Louisville Cardinals have weaved their way into virtually every important chapter of the record books.

U of L is 21st in all time victories among Division I schools, and the Cards streak of 46 consecutive winning seasons (1944-1990) ranks third all time. The era has also seen two Cardinals inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Former Cardinal and NBA great and current Washington Wizards executive Wes Unseld was inducted in 1988, and in 1994 Coach Denny Crum joined Dean Smith and Bobby Knight as the only active coaches inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Crum is currently tied for second with Knight with 21 NCAA tournament appearances and fourth behind only Smith, John Wooden, and Krzyzewski in tournament wins with a record of 42-21. The Cards have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament 19 times, including four of the last five years.

Louisville has played in a post-season tournament in 30 of the past 32 years. Thanks to that success, U of L has ranked in the top 10 in home attendance for the past 20 years. Louisville is now fourth all time in NCAA tournament appearances with 27 (behind only Kentucky, UCLA, and North Carolina), and seventh all time in tournament victories with 48.

Through the Hickman and Dromo eras and now in the 27-year run of Denny Crum, U of L has produced 16 All-Americans and 22 NCAA all-region team selections (including three MVPs). The Cards have also had seven all-Final Four team selections (two MVPs) and one National Player of the Year (Griffith).

Louisville also claims three of the eight all-time "triple champions," players who have won championships at the high school, college, and professional levels. That group includes Scooter McCray, Milt Wagner, and Billy Thompson.

Great players, great teams, and great memories have kept on coming during the championship years and through the years of near-misses.

Why the championships? Why all the winning? Peck Hickman thinks there’s a relatively simple answer.

"It was a case of continued hard work and not getting discouraged. When Dromo and Crum took over there was a continuity of good coaching. Add good players to that and it will make a good program."

Or maybe a great one.

Jason Puckett is a staff writer for the Louisville SportsReport, which produces Sports in partnership with U of L Magazine.

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