2016...
TGS SPECIAL REPORT: MID-MAJOR UPDATE...AND REMEMBER THE TITANS?
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Every once in a while, we get reminded of a simpler but no less colorful age in college sports. These days, however, it often takes the passing of someone we recall to jog our memories. Such was the case this week with the news of the death of former Oral Roberts and Iowa State HC Ken Trickey at the age of 79.

For the vast majority of modern-day college hoops followers, Trickey is at most a footnote. But those with a keener sense of college history know better. In fact, he presided over one of the most dramatic college hoop comets in our 56-season publishing history at TGS...and one that all followers of mid-majors should note.

While the term ”mid-major” is a relatively recent addition to the college basketball lexicon, in fact many entries who would be considered “mid-majors” of today were powerhouse sides in college hoops eras of the past. The composition of the NCAA Tournament had something to do with that, because prior to 1975 and the expansion of the Big Dance to 32 teams, only conference champions and independents could advance to the NCAA Tourney. In those pre-1975 days, it behooved many schools to stay “indie” on the hoops side, which increased their chances of an invitation to the Big Dance. Before the Big East, Atlantic 10, Colonial, and many other modern-day loops, there was an extensive group of college hoops powers, including almost all of the non-Ivy Eastern schools, and several high-profile Midwestern entries, who campaigned as independents. Even before the creation of the Big East, it was the Metro Conference, forerunner to today’s Conference USA, that finally brought together many of these unaffiliated schools (in the Metro’s case mostly from the Midwest and South, with Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Georgia Tech, Louisville, and Tulane among the first members, in a basketball-only configuration, in 1975).

Prior to the expansion of the NCAA Tournament in 1975, however, it was not uncommon for entries we would today consider “mid-majors” to make it all of the way to the Final Four. George Mason and Butler didn’t invent the concept. A look at the types of qualifiers for the Final Fours of the late 1940s, 1950s, ‘60, and even early ‘70s would confirm as much, as it was not uncommon to see sides such as Dartmouth, Holy Cross, CCNY, Santa Clara, La Salle, San Francisco, Seattle, New York U, Loyola-Chicago, Wichita State, Princeton, Texas Western (UTEP), Dayton, Drake, St. Bonaventure, Jacksonville, New Mexico State, and Western Kentucky, among others, advance to the Final Four. Others would routinely qualify for the NCAA Tourney fields of the day.

But of the many sides that crashed the Big Dance in that era, we’re not sure any appeared, and then somewhat disappeared, from the skies as fast as did Oral Roberts University in the early ‘70s.

Of course, the whole concept of Oral Roberts U. producing a top-rated basketball team in those days caught most of the basketball world off guard. For many, Oral Roberts was better known as a televangelist and reputed faith healer and miracle worker whose TV ministry was syndicated across the country. That Roberts even founded his own university in Tulsa (in 1963) was unbeknown to most until his basketball team took the country by storm in the early ‘70s.

Roberts was the son of a Pentecostal Holiness minister. His boyhood ambition was to be governor of Oklahoma, but then came the incident that started his call to evangelism. He was 16 and playing forward on his high school team when he collapsed in the middle of a game. His illness was diagnosed as tuberculosis, and while he was resting at home he promised God that if he were cured he would preach the Gospel. Shortly thereafter, his parents took him to a revival meeting where, Roberts says, God spoke to him, saying, “My son, I am going to heal you, and you are going to take My healing power to your generation.” Eventually, Roberts started a faith-healing mission in Tulsa and it mushroomed into a vast industry, including his university and its hoops team.

The high-profile Roberts was a fixture at games of his ORU, which had the nickname of “Titans” in those days. (We’re still trying to figure out why the school eventually changed its nickname to “Golden Eagles” several years later, but that’s a story for another day). And Roberts went all-out to put his Titans on the map, building a sparkling new, 10,000-seat arena (the Mabee Center) on campus, which included a striking collection of modern architecture that still wows to this day (the futuristic Research Center, which is perhaps the most awesome college skyscraper in the nation alongside Pitt’s venerable Cathedral of Learning; the Space Needle-like Prayer Tower; the modern Chapel; and “Praying Hands” sculpture, all among the most-photographed university buildings and monuments in the country).

College hoops fans, however, could hardly believe Oral Roberts’ school, just a few years old, could suddenly become a basketball power. And for a while, the Titans were the most-entertaining show in the country, runnin’ before they put “Runnin’” in front of Rebels for Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV, and long before Paul Westhead’s Loyola-Marymount and other schools sought to turn college hoops on its ear with fast-break, guns blazin’ basketball.

ORU basketball began to open some eyes and became hard to ignore in the early ‘70s. Roberts’ popular phrase “Expect a Miracle” was posted on signs all over campus and displayed prominently on the Mabee Center’s hardwood court. But miracles seemed a part of life in thus lush setting on the south edge of Tulsa. By 1970, though the school had barely 1000 students, a devout faculty, it had a glittering new campus that looked to be “a cross between the Houston Space Center and a Bible Belt Xanadu,” said Sports Illustrated.

What few people knew, however, was that Oral Roberts himself was something of a college hoops junkie, and wanted his basketball team to become a national power in the worst way. In Trickey, his coach and AD, Roberts thought he had the man to put ORU on the map.

It was said that between sermonettes, Roberts was known to lace his conversations with such terms as “zone press” and “pick and roll.” He attended almost every home game, where he would clap his hands enthusiastically as his Pep Band played tunes such as Let the Sun Shine In. He was even known to accompany Trickey to high school games to scout a prospect. Which Roberts believed was perfectly acceptable. “Athletics is part of our Christian witness,” said Roberts. “Nearly every man in America reads the sports pages, and a Christian school cannot ignore these people. If we can field a basketball team that can compete successfully with NCAA colleges, and we can conduct ourselves in a sportsmanlike way, that’s a fine thing.”

Tulsa circa 1970 still had a touch of Dixie, however, so a stranger at the time might have been surprised that four of ORU’s starting five were black. Roberts wouldn’t have it any other way; after all, he also wanted to win. “You get a real fair shake here. You’re not forgotten when you’re through playing. They stick by you until you get your degree,” said Carl Hardaway, a team captain who also happened to be black. “Our black students are a part of us,” said the enlightened Roberts. “They are not an adjunct. We are all treated as human beings.”

Still, the college hoops world was skeptical of the whole ORU thing, with not only the televangelist as the front man for the program, but a student body which hailed from all 50 states and 22 foreign countries and belonged to 33 different denominations, and did not smoke, drink or swear. This wasn’t your normal college basketball powerhouse incubator.

Trickey, who had for four years been the basketball coach at alma mater Middle Tennessee State, was so taken by the facilities and enthusiasm the year his team beat ORU that he applied for the coaching job when he heard there was an opening. He brought along Haywood Hill, from the Paducah Junior College national championship team; Milton Vaughn, the most valuable player at Southeastern Illinois Junior College and brother of Chico Vaughn of the ABA Pittsburgh Pipers; and Larry Baker, Jesse Trayler and Richie Fuqua (remember that name) from the same championship Tennessee high school team of 1968 and 1969.

Above all, Trickey had the support of Oral Roberts. “It makes the job easier when your president is enthusiastic,” said Trickey. “He wants a national championship. The one big change I’ve made in my coaching is to quiet down. When we get a bad call, the players smile and raise their hand. They’ve got to represent the university, and a lot of people are going to be looking at us all around the country.”

ORU was mostly regarded as a hoops sideshow, however, until the Titans began to qualify for the NIT in the early ‘70s playing Trickey’s brand of bombs-away basketball. ORU, campaigning as an independent in those days, began winning big for Trickey and earned an invitation to the 1972 NIT, when the entire 16-team tourney was at Madison Square Garden. Sure enough, ORU upset Gene Bartow’s Memphis State (which would make it to the NCAA Finals the following season) by 20 points in the first round, extending its win streak to 22 games before losing to local favorite St. John’s in the quarterfinals. Still, the Garden crowd had rarely seen anything like Trickey’s go-go Titans, whose game plan consisted of 35-foot bombs by G Fuqua, the nation’s second-leading scorer at almost 36 ppg, followed by practically free passage to the hoop for the opposition so they could get the ball back and shoot again. But in run-and-gun basketball terms, ORU was in its own league.

Trickey was unapologetic for his radical, pedal-to-the-metal style. “We’ll gladly give up 120 if we can get 140,” said the coach.

Of course, Roberts himself made sure to appear at the Garden, as usual praying for both teams but putting in a little extra oomph for his own boys. In the quarterfinals, when St. John’s star F Mel Davis was hurt, Roberts went into the locker room, put his hand on Davis’ injured knee and said a prayer. Davis still went to the hospital, but the thought had been a kind one.

Trickey got the Titans back to the NIT in 1973 behind the machine-gun-like Fuqua (right; whose scoring average “dipped” to merely 28 ppg that season), losing to Dean Smith’s North Carolina in the first round, but the stage was set for the big breakthrough in 1973-74.

Meanwhile, the NCAA was looking for a site for the Midwest Regional after preferred hosts New Mexico State and Kansas State could not hold the event. Stepping to the plate was none other than Oral Roberts, who convinced the NCAA to place the regional at his futuristic Mabee Center.

Perhaps the graduation of the bombs-away Fuqua (who never saw a shot he didn’t like) helped the balance of the 1973-74 team, which continued in the same rapid-fire style, and the Titans continued to win. But while the nation began to take notice of the fireworks at Tulsa, some remarkable events began to surround the Titans. In midseason, after bickering with Roberts over school doctrine, Trickey said he would resign at the end of the season, then coached his team into an NCAA at-large bid.

When the Big Dance pairings were announced, ORU was placed into the Midwest, but had to win a first-round game at North Texas’ newly-constructed Super Pit in Denton against Roy Danforth’s Syracuse team, with an assistant coach named Jim Boeheim, before it could advance to play on its home court. ORU, now featuring bombs-away big guards “Sudden” Sam McCants (right) and Al Boswell, needed overtime and a slew of missed Syracuse free throws, but survived an 86-82 thriller, paced by McCants’ 27 points. The Titans had advanced to the Sweet 16, to be played on their own home court!

“The Lord meant ORU to play in Tulsa!,” orated Oral Roberts himself.

Next up in the Sweet 16 would be Denny Crum’s high-powered Louisville side featuring bullish frontliner Wesley Cox and big Gs Allen Murphy and Junior Bridgeman. In a wild, rollicking affair, ORU’s fast pace eventually wore down the Cardinals in a thrilling 96-93 Titans win, paced by McCants’ 30 points. In retrospect, we note that ORU had beaten two high-powered entries (Syracuse and Lousiville) that would advance to the next season’s Final Four in San Diego.

But after beating Louisville, Trickey was stopped by a state trooper who found something on his breath besides the sweet smell of success and arrested him for drunken driving. Oral Roberts’ reaction was predictable...sort of. Roberts suspended Trickey, then prayed with him and decided every sinner should have the chance for redemption. He reinstated Trickey for the Saturday final against Kansas. “Ken told me he thought God wanted him to coach,” said Roberts, adding that if any of his religious followers had any doubts, they should contact him and he would show them the light.

Sure enough, it looked as if the light would shine on ORU all of the way to the Final Four. Leading Kansas 81-74 and a trip to Greensboro (where Bill Walton’s UCLA, David Thompson’s NC State, and Maurice Lucas’ Marquette would await) just 2:50 away, the Titans’ run-and-gun style betrayed them. ORU couldn’t, or wouldn’t, slow the pace, and the Jayhawks collared the Titans with a minute to play and forced OT. Much like the storied North Korea soccer team that had raced to a 3-0 lead over Portugal in the KO round of the 1966 World Cup, only to fail to protect the lead and lose 5-3, ORU couldn’t change its DNA in time to save a trip to the Final Four. The joie de vivre with which ORU played allowed the Titans to get to the cusp of a Final Four trip, but in the end would cost them. Kansas went on to a 93-90 win in overtime.

“We expected a miracle, and we got it,” said Kansas F Roger Morningstar, who sounded as if he was on the wrong team.

As for Trickey, after amassing a 118-23 record in five seasons at ORU, he moved on after the near-miss of 1974, but failed to replicate that success at Iowa State, fired after a 13-40 mark in two years on the job, and would bounce around several coaching assignments until ORU, by then in great financial difficulty, rehired him to coach in 1987 after the school downgraded its program to the NAIA level. Trickey coached for six years, laying the groundwork for the Titans to return to the NCAA ranks and eventually experience considerable successes once again under coaches Bill Self and Scott Sutton, qualifying for several NCAA Tourneys along the way.

But ORU has never been a serious contender for the national title like it was in the early ‘70s, when as the comet of all college hoops comets, the must-see Titans almost stole the show under Ken Trickey. And we haven’t seen a story like it since.

Following are some current-day mid-majors to keep an eye on as we move into mid-December. Straight-up and spread records are as of December 6...

Canisius (4-1 SU, 2-0 vs. line)...We mentioned the Golden Griffs a few weeks ago, and stick by our forecast. Few schools have made the sort of coaching upgrade as has the Buffalo branch of the Jesuits, with the respected Jim Baron (recently Rhode Island) now in charge. He’s brought his son, touted G Billy, with him from Kingston, and the young Baron is scoring nearly 18 ppg and teaming with holdover Harold “The Mayor” Washington and another transfer, 6-10 juco C Jordan Heath (10.2 ppg), to give the Griffs a completely different look than last year’s 5-win side. Don’t be surprised to see Canisius hang in the MAAC race (which doesn’t appear to have a dominant team) and become one of the most-improved sides in the nation.

Charlotte (8-0 SU, 6-0 vs. line)...The 49ers, and all Atlantic 10 members, probably chafe when referred to as “mid-major” entries. Call them what you want, but the 49ers seem to have something good going on for HC Alan Major with a very athletic side full of matchup headaches that gained some notice with an impressive win in the recent Great Alaskan Shootout. The perimeter weapons are mostly big (including 6-4 PG Pierra Henry), can move, handle the ball, and importantly cover a lot of ground on the perimeter as Major’s team plays some snarling defense. Senior F Chris Braswell (15 ppg) could be emerging as one of the A-10’s top players. And Major’s team is deep, with ten players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. Keep an eye on these guys.

Harvard (4-3 SU, 3-3 vs. line)...Don’t be dissuaded by those modest early-season marks; Harvard has been in pretty tough in the first month of the season, but HC Tommy Amaker looks to have done a quick reboot after losing three key starters to graduation form LY’s Ivy champ and Big Dance qualifier. Amaker has been bringing to Cambridge in some non-Ivy-like players the past few years, the latest being frosh G Syani Chambers, a Minnesota product who immediately cracked the starting lineup and scored 21 in the recent dominating win over local ACC rep Boston College. Mewanwhile, last year’s prized recruit, 6-5 soph swingman Wesley Saunders, has emerged as a go-to scorer (16 ppg), and sharpshooter G Laurent Rivard is back from last year’s accomplished team. Amaker is still looking to fill the shoes of graduated do-everything frontliner Keith Wright, but this still looks like it could be the team to beat in the Ivies.

Illinois-Chicago (7-1 SU, 6-1 vs. line)...They do “everything Badger” at UIC, where third-year HC Howard Moore is a devoted Bo Ryan disciple, hired from the Wisconsin staff after the Jimmy Collins era fizzled out at the Circle. From Ryan’s “Swing” offense to the physical grab-and-hold defense, this is Wisconsin not-so-lite, featuring an experienced lineup full of former transfers and jucos led by ex-Toledo F Hayden Humes (14 ppg, also the team’s best 3-point shooter at 53%), former juco G Gary Talton (12.3 ppg), and rugged former Oregon and UCF pivot Josh Crittle (10.5 ppg). Much like Wisconsin, everyone (save C Crittle) will take 3s, and with a power vacuum in the Horizon after Butler’s departure, the Flames might be ready to fill the gap.

San Francisco (5-1 SU, 4-0 vs. line)...Not many WCC onlookers were rating USF as a team to watch after the Dons lost plenty of firepower (some of it transferring out) after last season. But those same sources are now alerting to real and surprising upgrades on the Hilltop, in particular 6-6 UCLA transfer De’End Parker (19.4 ppg; 71% beyond arc!), who looks like a potential dominator in loop, while frosh G Tim Derksen has immediately provided an upgrade in backcourt. Meanwhile, rugged 6-7 PF Cole Dickerson has been posting Dennis Rodman-like numbers with a staggering 15 caroms pg. Recent dominating win over St. John’s at venerable War Memorial Gym suggests that HC Rex Walters might have a team capable of contending with Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, and BYU in what looks like a loaded WCC race.


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