As the Men’s Final Four approaches, NCAA.com takes an opportunity to revisit Final Fours from the past three decades through the memories of Marquette’s Robert Byrd (1977), LSU’s Ricky Blanton (1986) and Duke’s Thomas Hill (1990, ’91, and ’92). Now out of the spotlight, these former student-athletes are working and watching like the rest of us.
Byrd owns the distinction of being the final recruit of famed former Marquette coach Al McGuire. Byrd was a 6-6 freshman forward on the Marquette team that came away from Atlanta’s Omni in 1977 with a national championship that few expected.
McGuire announced during that season, his 13th at Marquette, that he would retire from coaching at season’s end. The Warriors, now known as the Golden Eagles, earned an at-large berth as an independent with a record of 21-6.
They won the Midwest Region and then edged Charlotte 51-49 in the national semifinals.
McGuire broke into tears on the bench during the closing seconds of Marquette’s 67-59 championship victory against North Carolina, among the more memorable scenes in tournament history.
“He just let out everything for so many years,” Byrd said.
Byrd stayed in Milwaukee following his college days and has since turned his attention to another sport. He’s in his 11th year of operating the city’s First Tee program, which exposes inner-city youth to golf. He said his motivation came from every adult who taught him that sports was a means to an end in life.
“We’re not trying to create any professional golfers,” Byrd said. “We want to provide an alternative for kids who aren’t basketball-or-football-inclined. The rules of golf are good for them. When you’re in the woods, only you know what you’re going to do.”
Byrd said one graduate of First Tee attended Marquette on a scholarship and is now in graduate school.
A major catalyst of the LSU team that made the 1986 Final Four as an 11th seed was sophomore Ricky Blanton, a backup wing turned starting center when the Tigers ran out of big men midway through the season.
The 6-6, 235-pound Blanton was told of his new role during a meeting with coach Dale Brown. “I don’t think either one of us had any idea what was going to happen in the months to come,” Blanton said.
The Tigers finished on one of the greatest NCAA rolls ever as Brown employed what he called a “freak” defense for his undersized team. It was a constant switching of alignments that sometimes even confused the Tigers.
LSU defeated Purdue, Memphis State, Georgia Tech and Kentucky to reach Dallas’ Reunion Arena. In beating Kentucky, the Tigers defeated the Southeastern Conference champs who had beaten them three times that season. Blanton, matched against All-American Kenny Walker, scored the clinching basket in the closing seconds. In the national semifinals against Louisville, LSU built an eight-point halftime lead. Blanton and the Tigers, however, would run out of gas and go on to lose by 11.
“At halftime, I was exhausted. It felt like I’d played two games,” Blanton said.
But Blanton established himself as an LSU folk hero. He played professionally, including a couple of years in the NBA, before settling down a few miles from campus. He runs an insurance agency and does color commentary on LSU home radio broadcasts. He said people still talk to him about that ’86 tournament.
“It changed my life,” he said. “I think for all of us it changed our lives. People really got a lot of joy out of watching us make that run.”
Hill’s Final Four experience ranges from enduring the worst title game defeat in history (Duke’s 103-73 loss to Nevada-Las Vegas in 1990) to playing on the first back-to-back champs since the incomparable UCLA dynasty (Duke’s wins in 1991 and ’92).
“You definitely know a difference between Saturday and Monday,” said Hill, a 6-5 shooting guard who played in championship games as a freshman, sophomore and junior. “There’s nothing you can simulate for Monday night.”
The Blue Devils would avenge their 30-point loss by defeating UNLV the next year in Indianapolis, edging the Runnin’ Rebels 79-77 in the semifinals, before toppling Kansas 72-65.
While winning another title the following year in Minneapolis against the Michigan Wolverines was historic, Hill said the first title in 1991 probably holds greater meaning. It ended the dry spell for both the school (0-for-4 in title games) and coach Mike Krzyzewski (no titles in four previous Final Four trips).
“The school was a championship school now,” said Hill, who grew up in Lancaster, Texas, just south of Dallas.
The celebration? “We were naïve college kids,” he said. “I can remember the first time sitting around with Brian (Davis) and Christian (Laettner) just having fruit punch in the room – room service. I think once we got back to campus, that’s when everybody ran amok for a couple weeks.”
Hill settled near Dallas after his pro days and currently splits time between there and New Orleans. He first ran a network consulting company with his brother, Kevin, and is now a real estate investor.
And he’s often in contact with former Duke teammates.
“I see guys I played with three or four times a year, talk to them once or twice a week,” he said.