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TGS COLLEGE HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT...LET'S REMEMBER THE BEARCATS!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Whenever college basketball offers the drama and feel-good story like it did last weekend in Indianapolis, when unheralded, hometown Butler made it into the Final Four and into the national title game, we are reminded what can make the sport so special. Whereas under-the-radar teams such as Butler rarely show up on the national stage in other sports (imagine any college football team making a surprise appearance in the BCS title game?), it can happen in basketball. Not often, mind you, but it's possible. Indeed, twice in the span of four years we've seen a couple of consummate mid-majors (George Mason in 2006, and Butler last week) unexpectedly dance all of the way into the Final Four.

Although college hoops history is dominated by some memorable, great teams from prestigious programs, there have been the occasional surprise entrants such as Butler and George Mason that have added to the magic and romance of the sport, too. And there have been some other great title teams that were once surprise packages themselves. To this day, a few of those remain overlooked, and mistakenly recalled by others.

With the glow of Monday's Duke-Butler title game still shining upon the college hoops world, we've decided to take a trip down memory lane and recall one of those great, yet overlooked and often mistaken dynasties in college hoop annals. Following is a brief excerpt from our upcoming book project entitled "When the Valley Was King," a look at the glory days of Missouri Valley Conference basketball in the first days of TGS during the late 1950s-early 1960s, focusing upon a vastly underappreciated side of the era, the 1960-61 and 1961-62 title-winning Cincinnati Bearcats, who reminded many oldtimers in style of this season's hardscrabble Butler team...

They've made quite a use of the available space for athletic facilities at the University of Cincinnati and its very urban campus just a couple of miles north of downtown. Wedged into a corner of the campus is the entire athletic complex in one seemingly, continuous sheet of concrete, steel, and artificial turf. Remarkably, almost all of the venues are connected to the other, from the old Armory Fieldhouse to the new Fifth Third Arena, to the natatorium, to the adjacent Nippert Stadium, and in between to all of the athletic department facilities. The latter's office building has been tastefully incorporated into the architecture of the array of interconnected arenas and stadiums, which each maintain their own distinct appearance while remarkably blending in with one another. If nothing else, give the architects credit for creating such a functional and attractive complex in such little space.

Sitting at the eastern portion of the complex is the old Armory-Fieldhouse, the former home of the Bearcat basketball team. Built in 1954, it's not quite the ancient type, old fieldhouse facilities we often see in the midwest, but it retains the characteristics of many of the most famous.

Unlike pro football or baseball stadiums that usually disappear after losing their main tenants, old college basketball arenas simply refuse to die. Which is no surprise, since college hoops is something of a religion in much of the nation's heartland. Perhaps that's why so many of these old hoops cathedrals continue to exist long after the teams, crowds, and cameras move to bigger and newer facilities.

The lure of the old college fieldhouse is irresistible. Monuments to eras long forgotten, they often retain a tug for the fans who don't want to discard them unless they absolutely must. The air inside of these old fortresses usually has the same, faint, musty tinge. In a few cases, the buildings are still being used by the featured tenants; lucky roundball fans at Butler University, located in a quaint, peaceful residential neighborhood a few miles north of downtown Indianapolis, are treated to a trip down memory lane every time the Bulldogs take the court at their throwback gem, Hinkle Fieldhouse, which predates Herbert Hoover's lone presidential term.

Many schools in the midwest have continued to make use of these old hoops palaces, some of which have been renovated to serve a new purpose. Indoor track-and-field is one much-used option; the old Purdue Fieldhouse, now called Lambert Fieldhouse, has been unused by Boilermaker hoopsters since they moved across the street to Mackey Arena for Rick Mount's varsity debut season of 1967-68, but is now the home of the Purdue indoor track program. At Indiana, there are actually a pair of still-usable facilities that predate the modernistic Assembly Hall, which opened during Bob Knight's first campaign as Hoosier HC in 1971-72; the old Wildermuth Fieldhouse, right in the center of campus, is approaching its 100th birthday in 2017 and is where Branch McCracken's "Hurryin' Hoosiers" won national titles in 1940 & '53. Wildermuth still serves a purpose for the school's intramural basketball and volleyball programs. By 1960 it was considered outdated for hoops, and a new IU Fieldhouse, with a more economical use of space, was erected nearby the new Memorial Stadium, before itself was replaced for Hoosier hoops by Assembly Hall just 11 years later. But IU Fieldhouse, since renamed Gladstein Fieldhouse, is still plenty useful as the home of Hoosier indoor track-and-field. Numerous other facilities in the midwest, from Kansas State's Ahearn Fieldhouse to Iowa's old Field House to Michigan State's Jenison Fieldhouse to Michigan's Fielding Yost Arena, and many others, continue to stand despite ceding the spotlight to newer, nearby facilities. The schools have simply found ways to make these old places feel wanted and useful.

At Cincy, the old, barrel-shaped Armory-Fieldhouse hardly resembles its glory-days self, now being used only for intramural events. Most of the seating areas have been removed, although the balcony bleachers still exist on both sidelines. As do the old end zone scoreboards, American flag (which looks as if it could have been the one that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner) hanging above, and the unique "UC Bearcats" and "bathroom tile" designs on the end zone walls, all unchanged since the Bearcats played their last home game at the facility in 1976. Which makes it a bit easier to imagine the Armory-Fieldhouse in a former life as an 8800-seat arena that was the home to the great Oscar Robertson when he performed for Cincy between 1957-60. As a reminder about those days, a statue of the "Big O" sits in a nearby plaza, outside one of the entrances to the newer Fifth Third Arena (nee Shoemaker Center), home to the Bearcats since the 1989-90 season and connected to the old Armory.

There is no statue, however, to commemorate the back-to-back Cincy title teams from 1961 and 1962. Honoring those teams are some tasteful displays inside of the adjacent lobby of the athletic department complex. But no statues. And maybe that's why most hoops fans have either forgotten that Cincy indeed won back-to-back national crowns in the early 60s, and that the Big O, great as he was, didn't play on either of those teams!

Hard as it might be to imagine today, Armory-Fieldhouse was the place to be in Cincinnati a half century ago. Bearcat games were social events, where well-dressed fans would congregate to watch the highly-ranked Cincy teams; a season ticket was a sign of status in the community. The Bearcats also went for a near 7-year stretch without losing a game at the Armory, a period of time in which they reached a then-unprecedented five consecutive Final Fours between 1959-63. The first two of those were accomplished with high-scoring, uptempo teams featuring the Big O, but in both 1959 and 1960, Cincy was slowed and eventually denied in national semifinal matchups vs. Pete Newell's Cal contingents. Upon Robertson's graduation in 1960, HC George Smith also decided to hang 'em up and move full-time into the AD job. Few expected the Bearcats to maintain their national prominence without the Big O or Coach Smith, especially competing in the ultra-tough Missouri Valley. Promoted to the head coaching job was Ed Jucker, Smith's able assistant who a few years earlier had also recruited a young Brooklyn kid named Sandy Koufax to play basketball and baseball for the Bearcats.

Almost immediately, Jucker decided that his Bearcats needed to change their Big O-influenced, run-and-gun style that had taken them to back-to-back Final Fours in 1959 & '60. Cincy then-assistant coach Tay Baker recently explained to us the method to Jucker's madness. "Well, if we couldn't win the national title playing uptempo with Oscar on the team," said Baker, "we sure as heck weren't going to win it playing the same way without him." Jucker, along with assistants Baker and John Powless, decided instead that slower would be better, which hardly endeared the staff to the Bearcat faithful that had become spoiled with the entertaining, full-court action that George Smith's go-go Bearcats featuring the Big O had provided in previous years. At the outset, Jucker's strategy change seemed a suicidal resolve, as Cincy lost 3 of its first 8 games post-Robertson in the 1960-61 season. Jucker's slow pace and 2-3 zone defense were boring the fans. Sports Illustrated even weighed in, likening the new Cincy style as "the tactical equivalent of making a team of bunters out of the Yankees." For a short while, Jucker's popularity in town was only slightly better than a flood from the Ohio River, but after particularly brutal losses at St. Louis (57-40) and at Bradley (72-53) in December, "Juck" decided to junk the zone and instead employ a pressing, suffocating man-to-man defense spearheaded by Gs Tony Yates and Carl Bouldin and the cobra-like 6'2 soph swingman Tom Thacker. And suddenly, the Bearcats began to win.

Also featuring a rugged interior game led by thick, bespectacled 6'9 C "Tall" Paul Hogue and a fearless, bruising bear of a PF in 6'4 Bob Wiesenhahn, Cincy caught fire, albeit at a much slower pace than the previous Big O teams. Well-drilled from practice work that spent up to 70% of its time on defense, the Bearcats, though not a particularly well-oiled offensive machine (and only 62% foul shooters), rolled off 20 straight wins to reach the Final Four.

A key to the Cincy success was meticulous preparation by Jucker and staff. When practice sessions weren't focusing on defense, they were usually spent familiarizing the Bearcats with the upcoming opponent. Each practice, assistant Tay Baker would would take his scouting report of Cincy's next opponent, say Drake, and call over his reserves, whom he would drill in Drake's tactics, and assign each player a different role on the Drake team. Serious scrimmaging would commence, with the reserves acting out the roles of the Drake players as they battled the starting five. Indeed, Baker, who would eventually succeed Jucker and subsequently would make an unprecedented move across town to coach Xavier, was regarded as one of the top hoop tacticians of the day. To his credit, Jucker was always open-minded to suggestions from Baker and his other aide, John Powless, who would eventually become head coach at Wisconsin for eight years.

(Decades later, hoop aficionados were still in awe of the work done by that Cincy staff. Stan Morrison, who played on the Cal teams that faced the Big O's Cincy and who would go on to a long and distinguished college coaching and administrative career, to this day calls those Jucker Bearcats "one of the best-ever examples of coaching and team basketball." )

Following the loss at Bradley, Cincy stormed to the Valley crown and Final Four, after dispatching SWC champ Texas Tech 78-55 and Tex Winter's Big 8 champs from Kansas State 69-66 at the Midwest Regionals in Lawrence. But that 20-game win streak paled in comparison to the 31 consecutive games won by defending national Ohio State, which entered the Final Four unbeaten and heavily favored to win back-to-back titles.

The appearance at the '61 Final Four was completely unexpected from Cincy, whose fans were beyond satisfied that their Bearcats had somehow made it back to the final weekend for a third straight season. Whatever was accomplished in Kansas City would be frosting on the cake. But the big story was undefeated Ohio State, seemingly on its way to back-to-back national titles and being mentioned as one of the all-time great teams in college history. With widely-hailed All-American aces such as 6'8 C Jerry Lucas, 6'5 swingman John Havlicek, and 6'1 G Larry Siegfried, not to mention a reserve F named Bob Knight, Fred Taylor's Buckeyes were shooting nearly 50% from the floor and were heavy favorites to repeat. And they did little to disappoint in the national semis vs. Jack Ramsay's Saint Joseph's, blasting the Hawks by a 95-69 count. Meanwhile, the Bearcats continued their surprising run by taking care of Jack Gardner's go-go Utah team 82-67. Remarkably, Cincy had progressed further in the NCAAs without Oscar Robertson than it had ever done with him, as the Bearcats found themselves in the title game vs. state rival, all-powerful Ohio State!

Calling it a rivalry in those days between OSU and Cincy was off the mark; the schools avoided one another like the plague. Most seemed to believe it was Ohio State's doing, and it was an animosity that would linger. The dislike would also carry over to rival newspapers from Columbus and Cincinnati, which would often war with words. Indeed, Cincy Enquirer columnist Dick Forbes pulled no punches in those days when talking about the Buckeyes. "As strange as it may seem to some," said Forbes in one of his columns in March of 1963, "the athletic world is not measured by the acres of the Ohio State campus in Columbus. Nor is it measured by the Big Ten."

It hardly helped thaw Cincy-OSU relations that Taylor, and not Jucker, was voted as the 1961 Coach of the Year before the title game, and that the Buckeyes were voted the top team in the country in the final polls that were also tabulated before the Final Four. Moreover, on the morning of the title game, Ohio State won the coin flip to determine the ceremonial "home" team for the game, yet Taylor opted for his Buckeyes to wear their road scarlet uniforms, not only because OSU had worn the same colors the year before when winning the title game over Cal at San Francisco's Cow Palace, but also because Taylor knew the Bearcats considered their own black uniforms to be their "lucky" ones. Instead, Taylor thought it would be a psychological ploy to make Cincy wear its white outfits for the title game. And few experts, most of whom still unconvinced the Bearcats could possibly be as good without the Big O, gave Cincy much of a chance in the finale.

It took longer than usual for the Buckeyes and Bearcats to tip things off at the regal Kansas City Municipal Auditorium, with its ornate decorations, massive walls, and vaulted roof that contributed to its supposed rank as the building with the highest percentage of concrete in the world. In these elegant surroundings, the consolation game between St. Joe's and Utah simply refused to end, requiring not one, not two, not three, but four overtime periods before the Hawks finally prevailed, 127-120.

Jucker's fear was not being able to keep the potent Buckeyes within earshot in the first half. "If we allow Ohio State to get a big lead--jump out ahead by 10 or 15 at the half--we'll never catch up," said Juck. "But if we can hang in there in the first half, stay even with them, we can win it." Which looked unlikely midway in the opening half, when the Bearcats became saddled with early foul trouble (Bouldin picked up his third penalty after barely six minutes were played) and temporarily called off their pressing defense. The referees were especially calling the charging foul tightly; Cincy was guilty of four of those in the early going before making adjustments. Lucas and Siegfried temporarily took advantage of Jucker pulling back the defense, and with 11:30 to play in the half the Buckeyes were playing at their pace and extending the margin to 20-13. An early knockout looked likely, and Jucker's greatest fears were about to be realized if the Bearcats, no great comeback team, were going to dig themselves such a hole.

But Thacker, playing brilliantly, hit a jump shot, and after a stop on the defensive end, the burly Wiesenhahn converted a three-point play to put Cincy back in business. Wiesenhahn continued his assault thereafter en route to 13 first-half points as the game became a back-and-forth affair, with OSU taking a 39-38 lead into halftime.

Jucker's team had faced adversity and not blinked. Could the mighty Buckeyes be in some real trouble?

Perhaps, as OSU seemed to be rattled by the scrappy Bearcats and their aggressive defense, which would often switch assignments early in Buckeye possessions, throwing Fred Taylor's team off kilter. Lucas, with 18 first-half points, was hitting shots from outside but was not getting much room to work in the paint against the bruising Hogue and Wiesenhahn, and OSU was subsequently looking strained on the attack end as other Buckeyes, suddenly unnerved, were not getting involved in any consistent offensive flow. In the sidelines chess match, Jucker seemed to be check-mating Taylor, who couldn't push the right buttons to ignite the OSU transition game once the Bearcats began to control the tempo. Cincy was now dictating the pace of the game, and had Ed Jucker's team done better than 4 of 10 from the charity stripe in the first twenty minutes, it would have taken a lead into halftime.

Soon enough after action resumed, however, the Bearcats, who had taken command of the backboards midway in the first half, would gain control. With Siegfried "cheating" defensively on the perimeter and dropping down low to help Lucas contain the rugged Hogue, Cincy's Carl Bouldin took advantage from the outside and triggered a spurt with a series of jumpers that put the Bearcats ahead 52-46 with 11:45 to play. The Buckeyes and their blooming dynasty were wavering.

But wavering or not, OSU rallied behind jumpers by Richie Hoyt and Mel Nowell to cut the deficit to 2, and the spurt continued with baskets by Siegfried and Nowell again, plus a couple of free throws by Lucas. A 10-0 run had put the Bucks back in front, a lead that would grow to 58-53 before Thacker broke Cincy's field goal drought with a layup. Bouldin's success from the perimeter, however, had forced Siegfried to stop cheating defensively on Hogue in the post, and the Bearcats were now consistently feeding "Tall Paul" in the paint. This resulted in the sort of trench warfare in which the Bearcats did their best work, and the remaining minutes of regulation were a test of wills, with Cincy seeming to regain control. Leading 61-59 with under two minutes to play, a momentary Cincy lapse on defense allowed none other than Bob Knight to tie the game on a layup before the Bearcats decided to hold the ball for the last 1:40 and try for a final shot at victory in regulation time. Thacker missed a 10-foot jumper that was rebounded with two seconds to play by Lucas, who immediately called timeout. Siegfried's inbounds pass was caught downcourt by Havlicek, who also called a quick timeout with one second to play. The extended drama over the interminable final two seconds concluded uneventfully as Hogue intercepted an inbounds lob intended for Lucas, and overtime beckoned.

Jucker's tactics, however, had taken Ohio State out of its preferred uptempo style, as the potent Buckeyes took less than one shot per minute in the second half. Unable to get into their normal flow and rhythm, OSU was never again able to grab the lead. Free throws by Hogue and Yates, sandwiched around a layup by the bruising Wiesenhahn, put Cincy in front to stay, and its effective "outside weave" delay tactics kept OSU at bay. Up by 3 and with the clock running out, Thacker decided to throw an extra dagger at the final horn, burying a jump shot that pushed the final score to 70-65 in Cincy's favor. Ohio State's supposed dynasty had ended before it began, while incredibly, a Cincinnati team, in its first season post-Oscar Robertson, became national champion!

College hoops fans were not the only ones shocked by the result. Siegfried was so disconsolate that he threw a towel over his head during post-game ceremonies so no one could see him crying. After getting dressed, Knight and Havlicek were so perturbed that they didn't even bother going back to the team hotel, instead spending the rest of the night walking the streets of downtown Kansas City, wondering how the Buckeyes could have let the game slip away. (We wonder if any poor soul on the street ran into the angry young Knight that evening.) Meanwhile, the Cincy band oompahed its way into the night, cheerleaders hugged the players, and Bearcat fans finally had a chance to celebrate a title they had thought might have been theirs the two previous years, but hadn't dared dream would come about this season.

There was a budding college hoops dynasty to talk about after all from the state of Ohio. Only it wasn't from Columbus. Instead, it was finally Cincinnati's turn to have some fun.

(Editor's note: To prove 1961 was no fluke, the Bearcats did it all over again the following 1962 season, right down to beating Ohio State in the title game, only this time there was no drama; the Bearcats rolled to a 71-59 win. This might have been Jucker's best team, adding sophomores 6-8 George Wilson and 6-4 sharpshooter Ron Bonham to the mix that included Hogue, Yates, and Thacker. But just getting back to the Big Dance in '62 was a chore for Cincy, which lost twice early in Valley play vs. Wichita and Bradley and needed somebody to beat Chuck Orsborn's Braves to have a chance at forcing a playoff game for the conference title and a bid to the NCAA Tourney. But when Wichita obliged, the Bearcats won the regular-season rematch vs. Bradley and forced a one-game playoff, which Cincy won over Chet Walker and the Braves.)




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