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Mike Lopresti | | February 22, 2020

Why the 1970 Final Four stands alone in college basketball history

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Fifty years later, it remains one of the most unusual Final Fours ever held. There was the All-American who didn’t get to play. The coach with the lucky suit that could glow in the dark — white double-breasted blazer, watermelon red shirt, powder blue pants. The 7-footer who wasn’t even the tallest guy in his own lineup. And the teams themselves — a quartet that would be unfathomable today. They’d destroy every office pool bracket.

There was St. Bonaventure, the tiny school of under 3,000 students from western New York, led by future NBA stalwart Bob Lanier, with his 29 points and 16 rebounds a game. Except he blew out his knee in the second half of the regional championship game, and watched the Final Four from a hospital bed.

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There was New Mexico State from the far reaches of Las Cruces, with star Jimmy Collins, who rode a bus four days from his home in Syracuse to first get to school.

There was Jacksonville, nearly as small as St. Bonaventure, which only six years before had been an NAIA program. Or as a motel marquee in Bowling Green, Kentucky asked when the Dolphins were ready to face Western Kentucky in the NCAA tournament ... Jacksonville who?  “Our guys got a little excited about that,” coach Joe Williams said the other day, from his home in Mississippi. But once you saw the Dolphins, you never forgot them — with their 100-point-a-game offense, their twin 7-footers Artis Gilmore and Pembrook Burrows III, their coach Williams with a wardrobe as loud as his team’s stat sheet. Plus, their practice routine to the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme of Sweet Georgia Brown.

Yeah, Jacksonville was . . . different. A loose, fun-loving bunch who would just as soon bury you with 105 points as look at you. They had a good time, they sang in practice, Burrows the leader of the choir. People called them The Mod Squad. Old-schoolers gasped in disbelief. “After they saw us practice up there,” Williams mentioned about the Final Four, “a writer said if we won, it would set basketball back 20 years.”

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Not that any of these three teams were shockers to make long tournament runs. Jacksonville arrived at the Final Four with a 26-1 record, St. Bonaventure 25-1, New Mexico State 26-2. But looking at them from 2020, the collection seems other-worldly.

Even, the established power of the quartet, UCLA, was something of a surprise. True, there had just been the unprecedented feat of three consecutive national championships, and John Wooden was in his full Westwood wizardry. But Lew Alcindor was in the NBA as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, while Bill Walton was still in high school. This particular band of Bruins was supposed to be the dead spot in between.

“The overall picture was that we were with the team without,” team captain and guard John Vallely said a half-century later.  “We went all the way from 30-0 to 28-2. I always share with everybody when I do a talk about those days, Pauley Pavilion was in an uproar, because we were going downhill.”

They all gathered in Cole Fieldhouse at the University of Maryland to settle an NCAA tournament that began with only 25 teams. The record will show that Jacksonville beat Lanier-less St. Bonaventure 91-83 in the semifinals. Without the 6-11 Lanier, the Bonnies had no player taller than 6-5 to go against the Jacksonville trees, and Gilmore had 29 points and 21 rebounds. Probably having to foul to try to contend with the size, St. Bonaventure was outscored from the line 37-15.

UCLA whipped past New Mexico State 93-77, with the balance of the Bruins — all five starters scored in double figures and combined for 91 points — offsetting Collins’ 28. It was the third consecutive year UCLA had knocked the Aggies out of the tournament. “You get a complex after a while,” New Mexico State coach Lou Henson said that night.

In the championship game, the Bruins spotted the Dolphins an early nine-point lead but steadily regained control — more about how later — and won 80-69. Wooden accepted his sixth trophy and fourth in a row, and his dynasty rolled on.

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For the other three teams, it was one in many ways fleeting moment in time. In the 49 months of March since, New Mexico State has won three NCAA Tournament games, St. Bonaventure one, Jacksonville none.

But 50 years ago, they were on the main stage ...

It was the age of offense. LSU’s Pete Maravich set a record that 1970 season which still stands, averaging 44.5 points. Notre Dame’s Austin Carr scored 61 against Ohio in the NCAA tournament first round. Another record still on the books. New Mexico State averaged nearly 91 points a game, and the Aggies were only 10th in the nation in scoring. Jacksonville scored at least 103 points in a game 13 times and was the first Division I team to ever average 100 points in a regular season.

UCLA was part of the sizzling offensive landscape, too, even though Alcindor had graduated after two losses in three championship seasons, to the considerable relief of the rest of the sport. The Walton Gang was two years away. But Wooden had weapons — Curtis Rowe, Vallely and Sidney Wicks had been the second, third and fourth leading scorers the season before. Henry Bibby was a smooth-shooting sophomore guard and Steve Patterson had developed an inside game, if only by practicing against Alcindor every day.

The first real sign that things hadn’t changed all that much was the fifth game of the season, when LSU and Maravich visited Pauley Pavilion. Maravich got his points — 38 of them. But the Bruins, especially Bibby and Vallely, also harassed him into an astonishing 18 turnovers. What a way to get a double-double. They stampeded the Tigers, 133-84.

“We played our fundamental game, which was real contrary to what LSU had done,” Vallely said. “It was all about Pistol Pete. I’ll never forget Coach Wooden told me a story about how he went to a camp down in the South and he was talking with (LSU coach and Pete’s father) Press Maravich, his friend, and he said, `Press, you’re developing a monster here.’ Maravich said, `Oh, no, I’m developing the first million-dollar player in the NBA.’

“So there were very different goals. I can tell you this, if I had two turnovers at UCLA, I was on the bench.”

Later, there were UCLA defeats at Oregon and at home to USC, but the Bruins rolled into the tournament ranked No. 2. We focused on that which we could control,” Vallely said. “The idea we had to win another championship in order to satisfy outside opinions, I don’t think was very important to any of us. What we were concerned about was being the best we could be.”

Meanwhile, 2400 miles across the continent, something remarkable was brewing at Jacksonville.

When Williams took the job to build Jacksonville’s program in 1964, he had to teach five classes, as well as coach basketball. He courted old friend Tom Wasdin to be his assistant. “I got him a higher salary than mine because I needed the help. We had to sell tickets and raise money. We had a $500 recruiting budget when I went there. Someone let me use a station wagon and credit card and I would go on the road recruiting. A lot of times I would show up at high school at noon and watch film and then that night I would go to the next place and I’d get there about 8 o’clock and the mother would say, you must be hungry, and they’d feed me.’”

By 1969, the Dolphins were 17-7 with strong guard play, especially Rex Morgan and his 26 points a game. Now, if only Williams could find some big men ...

The prize was the enormously gifted 7-2 Gilmore from Gardner-Webb, then a junior college, who Williams found by accident. Ernie Fleming was transferring to Jacksonville from Gardner-Webb and wrote Wasdin a letter, mentioning his friend named Artis, who happened to be 7-2. When Gilmore finally decided he’d come, another 7-footer was already in the Jacksonville bag.

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Pembrook Burrows didn’t start growing until he went to high school and didn’t play basketball until his senior year. When he graduated, he had two scholarship offers, and figured he didn’t have much of a chance at either place, so went to work at an auto dealership near his home in Florida. “Car jockey,” he called his job. “Get the cars off the lot to where they would be serviced.”

He did play a lot of basketball on the playground courts, and hooked up with an AAU team, attending some tournaments where the college scouts collect. “They would announce the guys’ names and what college they were from,” he said. “When they got to my name, they just said `Pembrook Burrows’ and that was the end of it.”

But somebody noticed the 7-footer with no school. One day, his mother summoned him home, because there was a stranger waiting to see him. “When I got home, there was this bald-headed white guy who looked like a detective,” Burrows said. “And when I pulled up, he was sitting on my porch with my mom. I’m looking at him like, he looks like the police. I ain’t done nothing.”

Actually it was Jim Oler, coach of Brevard Junior College, with an offer to play. Burrows headed for Brevard, and by the time he was ready to move on to a regular college, he had a box with letters of interest from 250 schools.

During his Brevard days, he had played against Gilmore. “I was in awe he was that tall and that good.” Two weeks after Burrows chose Jacksonville, he got word that Gilmore had made his selection, too. Jacksonville. Say whaaaat? Burrows was on the phone to Williams quicker than you could say, who’s starting?

“He asked us about it. We said `Pembrook, don’t worry, you’re going to start, too,’ ” Williams said.

“So both of us ended up at Jacksonville,” Burrows said. “And the rest is history.”

Said Gilmore,  “It was nothing but a good positive relationship, very competitive. We both were unique in our contribution to the program. We just complimented each other.”

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Williams blended it all together — the Morgan-led perimeter game, with the two new giants in town — and it didn’t take long for him to realize what he had. “About the second or third day of practice, we were scrimmaging, and Tom and I went up on about the fourth or fifth row to watch,” he said. “We looked at each other, can you believe this?”

Lots of people couldn’t. As Jacksonville began to pile up victories, the Dolphins became a sensation.

“They had something in Paris about us being the tallest team. It was all over, not only in America,” Williams said. “There was a picture of Rex Morgan standing on a chair measuring Artis and Pembrook. We got an awful lot of attention.”

Especially in Jacksonville, a troubled city feeling the pain of the turbulent 1960s.

“It was full of racial tension and people have said it was because of the team, it brought the city together,” Burrows said. “I think the team set an example because it was racially mixed with whites and blacks, and we’re winning and now everybody is pulling for not just Jacksonville University’s team, but the city of Jacksonville. I think the trend was, hey these guys can get along, they’re winning games, they’re putting Jacksonville on the map.”

The rest of the basketball world wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Dolphins. They were short on rules and long on fun. Also, they rolled up and down the court with a relentless intent to score. But there was purpose to their play, too, and how Williams coached them.

“Our rules were when you stepped on the floor, you had to play a hundred percent. And you had to go to class every day. And those were really the only rules we had. We enjoyed it, we played hard. I had to shorten practice sometimes they played so hard. The players told me, `We all made a vow that we were going to play harder than anybody ever played because of the way you treated us.’ So I let them do things they wanted to do because they were such good kids. And every one of them graduated.”

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By March, they were 17-1, the lone loss 89-83 at Florida State, later atoned for with an 85-81 win over the Seminoles at home. They had become a story, but how long would the novelty last in the cauldron of the tournament? The Final Four? Jacksonville? Are you kidding?

“I think the only person who had that vision was probably Rex Morgan,” Burrows said. “He was a hard competitor. The attitude everybody had was, we had a good team and were having fun beating everybody. We never had an idea of getting to the finals, not until it happened.”

The NCAA assigned the Dolphins a brutal route. First, No. 12 ranked Western Kentucky. Jacksonville won 109-96. Next, No. 7 Iowa. That was nearly the end of the road, with Gilmore fouled out, but a Burrows tip-in in the last second saved the Dolphins, 104-103. Next, with a trip to the Final Four magically on the table, they faced No. 1 Kentucky in the regional championship. The ultimate mismatch in pedigree.

“Certainly, we acknowledged the fact that it was University of Kentucky with their history,” Gilmore said. “And Jacksonville was a nobody. We were probably motivated a little extra.”

Morgan had 28 points, Gilmore 24 points and 20 rebounds. Kentucky star Dan Issel fouled out with 10 minutes still left, having already scored 28. Jacksonville guard Vaughn Wedeking — a state high school track champion in the 440-yard dash in Indiana — lured Issel into a charge. Jacksonville won 106-100.

“We woke up (the next day),” Gilmore said, “and recognized that we were enjoying a fairy tale.”

Still, there were always reminders the Dolphins came from a different place than the Kentuckys of the world.  “After we beat Kentucky,” Williams said, “it was a snowy cold night and some people from the tournament took us out to eat, and we had to collect money to pay for the meal. It was too nice a restaurant for us.” According to one story, they borrowed from the radio play-by-play man.

We will never know if Jacksonville’s dreamy run would have been cut short at the Final Four, had Lanier not been hurt. St. Bonaventure had been on a roll.

“As the season progressed and we got better and better I thought that we could win the championship. In my bones I just felt it,” said Larry Weise, then the Bonnies coach. “I think we would have handled Jacksonville because we matched up well. Lanier dominated the front court. I mean, he dominated the front court. Nobody could stop him, not one-on-one. And then when they doubled up, he had such a basketball IQ that he hit the open man. That was the edge I thought we had. That was the edge I thought we had on UCLA.”

They were on their way to thrashing Villanova in the regional championship 97-74 with 26 points from Lanier, when he went down in a heap. Torn knee ligament. All that elation, all that sense of destiny  ... gone.

“In the locker room, you could hear a pin drop, and we won,” Weise said. “It was a terrible emotional letdown. I went to the Final Four with a somber heart.”

St. Bonaventure gave it a fight, but couldn’t match the taller Dolphins. Their championship hopes ended amid searing mixed emotions. The best of times and the worst of times. “You can’t take one without the other,” Weise said. “It’s a terrible feeling. On the other hand, it’s an excitement of the whole year. We had a shot at it.”

That left UCLA vs. Jacksonville, aura vs. upstart.

“I guess the biggest thing I remember is they asked me if I was really nervous about having to face the tradition of UCLA,” Williams said. “I said no, we were worried about having to coach John Wooden.”

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Could the Dolphins join another immortal underdog who pulled it off? Stories from 1970 mention how Jacksonville was assigned the same hotel Texas Western had used at the 1966 Final Four, when the Miners beat Kentucky and rattled the college basketball world. But the Dolphins must not have noticed. Williams says now he has no special recollection of where Jacksonville stayed.

The Dolphins broke to a 24-15 lead against UCLA, with Gilmore doing some real damage. That was until ...

“Starting out, we had Sidney in from of him, and he was getting some scores,” Vallely said. “Sidney wanted to play behind him. He actually went to Coach Wooden during the game — we were behind — and he asked if he could go behind Artis. Turns out Sidney was right.”

Wicks was 6-8, giving away six inches to Gilmore, but was confident he could go up and block his shots. Which he did, four times. But were they legal?

Burrows:  “When Artis goes up and he’s seven-foot, he has to be shooting down at the goal, but they were saying it wasn’t goal tending. I hate to judge the officials. The call is what the call is.”

Gilmore:  “Reflecting back on that many years ago and the fact we lost, you can always find some reasons why maybe this happened, maybe that shouldn’t have happened, maybe it was goal-tending, maybe it wasn’t.”

Vallely: “ He was shooting the ball down probably, so there could be some truth to it. But you know what? We don’t referee the game, we just play it.”

By halftime, UCLA had a 41-36 lead and went on from there. Gilmore ended 9-for-29 shooting and was out-rebounded by Wicks 18-16. A 24-7 advantage in free throws didn’t hurt the Bruins’ cause, either.

Put another UCLA championship team picture on the wall. And this one without an imposing superstar in the middle.

“Personally I felt it was a huge achievement, because I don’t think anybody expected us to be able to prevail that season, since we no longer had Kareem,” Vallely said. “There’s no question we feel really good about that. I do, at least, that we were able to keep going and that we were able to continue the legacy. Not much is said about it because Kareem and Bill became such big stars in the NBA. But we all contributed in a big way at UCLA, so it was fun to be a part of that bridge. Those of us who played totally understand what happened.”

Williams made no mention of the officials then, and doesn’t now. Or how a couple of his guards, including Morgan, were banged up. “We didn’t make excuses, and we’re not going to. Ever.” He said that night UCLA was the better team. End of story. Later, a letter came from John Wooden thanking Williams. They became friends.

One other thing. That colorful lucky outfit Williams wore during the tournament? His players had given him a gift certificate for his birthday and he chose those colors because he figured they would like the style. Someone else noticed his wardrobe, too. Mrs. Nell Wooden.  “(John Wooden) said the worst thing that happened to him was his wife got upset that the way I dressed, that I made him look like an undertaker. She started buying him bright shirts, and the bad thing was, he had to wear them.”

That Final Four comes with many postscripts.

Lanier went on to a Hall of Fame NBA career. He now fights bladder cancer and doesn’t like to talk much about 1970, the foulness of fate painful even yet. Weise still has anguish, too. “You always say, what if? In fact, every time the NCAA tournament is on, I say what if? I think my players do, too.”

New Mexico State’s Henson would one day be back in the Final Four, with Illinois. As for the Aggies, they’ve been past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament but once since 1970, though they pushed Auburn to the limit in the first round last March.

Vallely lost a 12-year-old daughter to cancer, and needed a stem cell transplant to survive the disease himself. He now lives with wife Karen — sweethearts since the UCLA days — on Balboa Island, in a home that includes a picture of him with the 1970 net over his head. Plus a basketball with these words written on it, “Thank you for all you did that helped me. John Wooden.”

Gilmore had a Hall of Fame NBA career and still does some TV work for Jacksonville University. “Fifty years later, I’m sitting on the sideline after 18 years as a professional and now with grandkids, I’m enjoying the fact it was part of the 50-year experience,” he said of 1970.

Burrows went into law enforcement in Florida and became the nation’s tallest state patrolman. He’s not an ardent follower of college basketball anymore, but “whenever they run that (UCLA) game on TV, I get a call.”

UCLA was the deserving champion, but Jacksonville was the most compelling story of 1970. The man who helped create it left for Furman the next season and later Florida State, but eventually retired from coaching at a relatively early age, ran a PBS station in Florida and coached Little League. Joe Williams turned 86 this month and that white coat from 1970 is long gone. He does have “two labs and a bulldog and a couple of fishing ponds. I keep up with basketball some, but I’m not avid like I used to be. I’m avid at enjoying life.”

The memories of 1970 are still there for him to treasure, even on dark days such as the call in 2016. On the other end of the line was a very ill Rex Morgan, his first star at Jacksonville, the spark plug of that fairy tale team.

“We talked over the phone, and he told me he was about to die and there was nothing else they could do. He said `I love you, Joe’. I told him `I love you too Rex.’ ”

Soon, Morgan was gone. So is Wedeking, Fleming and Chip Dublin and Danny Hawkins from the Dolphins. Also UCLA’s Patterson, and Wooden. A half century has taken its toll.

The UCLA mystique that proved it did not need a legendary center to continue ... the hard luck of St. Bonaventure ... the frustration of New Mexico State ... the fascinating ascension of Jacksonville Who. Fifty years ago, they all shared a very unique Final Four. Only one of them has ever been back.

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