Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 24, 2017

40 years: Where'd they go? I don't know

Reality, as it has a bad habit of doing to most of us, hit me squarely between the eyes this weekend.

And as I sit here staring at the proverbial blank sheet of paper, I don’t know whether to thank the folks at UT-Chattanooga for bringing back all the wonderful memories of one of the greatest weekends of my life or to curse them for reminding me that it happened 40 years ago.

The occasion was Saturday’s celebration of the Mocs winning the Division II NCAA national basketball championship in late March of 1977. A big 40th anniversary reunion was organized, giving the school an opportunity to locate as many of the players as they could gather. This past Saturday, the largest crowd to attend a men’s basketball game in three seasons turned out to salute former coach Ron Shumate and the majority of players from that team.

“Those were the days?” Yeah, to be sure, but anyone who was actually there knows what song takes us back to that moment – the corny, sentimental, never-played by any self-respecting radio station, “Weekend in New England,” by Barry Manilow.

But Manilow was nowhere near Mitch Wilkerson’s cassette deck when he and I (riding shotgun and in control of the music) piled into Mitch’s 1974 Gold Duster with Jeff Masingill and Steve Hisey for the epic road trip of a lifetime. If memory serves, that box of cassettes had the likes of Chicago, War, Boz Scaggs, the Doobie Brothers and an assortment of equally non-disco selections. Then again, musical tastes were one of the things our little group had in common above and beyond our love of the brand of Mocs basketball Shumate had brought to town.

It takes a special brand of basketball to lure four college students into an undersized vehicle for a trip of this magnitude. And it was indeed special – a high-octane brand of running and gunning – and defense. Shumate, who audaciously predicted a national championship when he accepted the job four years earlier, made good on his promise by tapping one of the richest veins of high school basketball talent in the nation at that time: the City of Louisville.

No less than six Louisvillians were on the roster that final weekend. And both of Shumate’s assistants, Ralph Underhill and Kevin Gray, came to UTC as a package deal five seasons before – Gray the highly sought prospect from Louisville Manuel High School and Underhill, his coach. 

Coming aboard a year later as part of an amazing class, were Wayne Golden and William Gordon, who were about to become one of the school’s top scoring tandems ever, William “Book” McCray (so named for the scholarly spectacles he wore when not playing) and scrappy Gary Stich. All of them were from Louisville. With Gray’s graduation, fellow Louisvillians Howard Duncan and Darrell Payne filled in on the bench as freshmen.

The Lakers’ Fun  N Gun offense was little more than a concept, but Shumate’s up-tempo version. After reaching the NCAA Division II finals the season before was enough of a temptation to believe again. The actual catalyst was a remarkable road demotion in the quarterfinals when UTC went to North Dakota and emerged from one of the nation’s most notorious snake pits with a 76-52 win.

Wilkerson and I had made the trip to the D-II Final Four the season before, when Puget Sound spoiled the party in the finals. But that year’s tournament was in Evansville, Indiana, a virtual puddle jump compared to Massachusetts. But the Gold Duster had new (er) tires and the relative threat of snow – being in the Northeast and all – was not factored in.

Hey, four adult males in a Gold Duster ought to outweigh, literally, any snow concerns. Right?

The trip up was a relative leisure cruise compared to what we knew might be a frenzied return to Chattanooga to minimize the amount of classroom time the actual students among us might miss. The first leg was only as far as Knoxville, where we fueled up, planned our route and decided on how to share the driving. 

As for the driving, since it was Mitch’s car, and no one else could drive a stick, he was behind the wheel 100 percent of the time, every mile along the way. My admiration of that feat continues to this day.

With a day to spare, the trip consisted of an early morning getaway, but leisurely stops for meals to make sure the car and driver held up.  Our second night was a hotel stop somewhere between Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the New Jersey state line. My one side trip followed the next day, when we dipped off the direct route to visit Concord, New Hampshire.

We didn’t stop to revel in the town’s Revolutionary War history, but to call on a gentleman named Bruce Yeko, who in 1977 was the foremost mail order dealer of baseball cards in the country. This, to me, was a big deal in 1977.

Here’s the scene: We pull into snow-covered Concord, call his number and I learn the meaning of being reclusive. The thoroughly spooked gentleman made it clear that were I to knock on his door, the cops would be urgently called and he would prosecute to the full force of the law. I told him to have a nice day, hung up the pay phone and told Mitch he needed to get us the hell out of New Hampshire.

The UTC game was the second one scheduled that night, so we actually had time to check in and settle sleeping arrangements. Mitch and I got the twin beds, Jeff grabbed a cot and Steve, I believe, slept in the bathtub all bundled up.

The Mocs were very much the vocal minority when we got to the arena, as Sacred Heart – the pre-tournament favorite from Fairfield, Connecticut – filled their section. Didn’t matter:  UTC’s defense broke the Hearts early and put up 47 first-half points en route to a 95-81 win. Randolph-Macon, a school from Ashland, Virginia, had a decent following but zero tournament history. The local media seemed confident that “Chattanooga,” not “UT-Chattanooga,” was the team to beat.

Like good little drones, we sat in our ticketed seats high above the Springfield Civic Center floor. But a call back home told us that there was a baseline camera fixed on the UTC cheerleaders and a small group of fans seated behind them. So guess where we were for the finals?

The win meant we were able to enjoy a night on the town. But when the town is Springfield, Massachusetts, and yours is the late game, there is little to do but drive in circles in the city’s impressive rotary.

It was a late, chilly night and traffic was scarce downtown. It struck us that, in honor of Robert Naismith’s game, peach baskets were hanging from every street light. And Steve, a member of the UTC cross country team, suddenly became our MVP as he could scamper up one of our backs and liberate a peach basket or three from their moorings.

We did not know if the Mocs would get their trophy the following night – but I knew I’d gotten mine. As a write this, my peach basket sits 10 feet away. In the intervening years, it has held blank 8-tracks, headphones and laundry.  And I have always known where it was, every single day since.

As for the finals, it seemed the Mocs must have read the same clippings we did. It was a bad roll-out in the finals. A half of peaks and valleys left them three points down at the half, and the Chattanooga crowd seemed prepared to accept another runner-up trophy. That feeling was reinforced when Gordon, the cat-quick guard, fouled out with 13:24 to play with a team-leading 16 points. But a funny thing happened on the way to the bench – Gordon turned into a charged-up cheerleader and got in the face of his teammates.

Shumate turned on a relentless press and the Mocs would take a 52-51 lead on a Ricky Gill baseline jumper. Randolph-Macon, lacking the tournament experience that the Mocs had in quantity, fell apart and the final horn sounded on a 71-62 victory. Golden, the tournament MVP, scored 21 points, Stich added 14, McCray 13, Yarbrough 4 and Gill 3.

Every single point was scored by a player from Louisville.

We slept fast and got out of New England as quickly as possible due to the forecast. We slipped through the Poconos when traffic pushed into one lane and less than an hour before the blizzard would close the Interstate for days. I don’t remember when we made it back to Chattanooga, but I knew know that Mitch and I were holding court in the oversized chairs on Monday morning. We all had confirmed we had been seen on television, so we allowed our classmates to hold us in all the proper awe.

And, ye Gods, 40 years have passed since that weekend.

McCray and Yarbrough – the only players who made Chattanooga home – organized a series of receptions honoring the championship. The teammates who joined them Saturday included Stich, Golden, Gordon, Gill, Shumate, Payne and Galbraith. (Stich came all the way from his home in Spain, where he enjoyed a long professional career in Europe.)

Shumate is once again a resident of Chattanooga, coming home after his long stint at Southeast Missouri State ended with NCAA sanctions. He took SEMO to a pair of Division II finals before, like Chattanooga, moving the program to Division I. He won over 300 games between 1978 and 1997, then returned to Chattanooga to coach Soddy-Daisy High School to 98 wins over three seasons before reluctantly embracing retirement.

Sadly, missing was Chattanooga born Delta Brogden, who was a freshman on that team and lives in Atlanta; Louisvillian Duncan, who did attend the 30th anniversary; assistant coach Gray, who is currently head basketball coach at Spalding College (and who played Chattanooga in the 2011-12 season); and Fred Rayhle, who had a falling out toward the end of his senior season and was not in action in Springfield. Rayhle had overcome a pair of surgeries for a malignant bladder tumor as a sophomore and would go on to play tight end for the Seattle Seahawks for two seasons.

Assistant coach Underhill, Shumate’s right-hand man for six seasons, would go on to win his own Division II national title as head coach for Wright State in 1983. He retired after 33 years as a coach and died due to complications from diabetes in 2011.

All were remembered Saturday.

And my hopes are, one day soon, that the four people who spent that weekend in a Gold Duster will get together and drink a toast to the Mocs who made it all the way. And all the way home.