To start what will be a two-year celebration, UC honored the members of the back-to-back national champion basketball teams Wednesday at Great Hall at the Tangeman Center. For those unfamiliar with their heroics (their banners hang on the wall of Fifth Third Arena) they won the national title after the 1960-61 season and again in '61-'62. And, if it weren't for a heartbreaking loss to Loyola-Chicago in 1963, it would've been THREE titles in a row (and perhaps another year of celebrating).
UC radio voice Dan Hoard was the MC, and plenty of basketball elite was on hand, including Mick Cronin's staff and current player Yancy Gates, UC alumni director and former player Myron Hughes, and Corie Blount, Terry Nelson and Armein Kirkland from the Bob Huggins years.
Of course, the featured attractions were the players and support staff from those title teams whose championship black and white videos played on the big screen on stage. Of the living who appeared were: then-Assistant Coach (and later Head Coach) Tay Baker, Bill Abernathy, George Wilson, Larry Elsasser, Tom Thacker, Dale Heidotting, Fred Dierking, Tony Yates, Larry Shingleton, Bob Wiesenhan and Carl Bouldin.
The highlight of the afternoon was toward the end when Dan Hoard took a wireless mike into the crowd and interviewed the team members. Doing something like that now often gets you short responses from shy players. After 50 years though, none of these guys were shy and they all had great stories.
I wish I was able to speak individually with each one, but as the room cleared out I was able to chase down Bob Wiesenhahn, Larry Shingleton and Coach Tay Baker.
Wiesenhahn delighted the crowd with his admission that he was "kind of pyscho" when he played. Teammate Dale Heidotting acknowledged as much when he mentioned, "Wiezy was in the locker room before the Xavier game doing push-ups!"
Naturally, I had to ask about his "Norman Bates" reputation, of which he was eager to respond.
"I psyched myself up," said Wiesenhahn. "My roommate and I used to set little fires in the trash can in the room before the game--Carl Bouldin and I. I used to like playing on the road more because people would hate me and that would fire me up more."
If you've ever seen pictures of Bob Wiesenhahn when he played, he looked like the classic "enforcer". Barrel-chested, big armed with elbows flying, Wiesenhahn was the type of player that Mick Cronin described as, "not making it to halftime in the Big East".
Wiesenhahn claims that he could dunk from the foul line like Michael Jordan back in the day and he still looks like someone who could rough you up a little if you did him wrong. He was the classic player Cincinnati falls in love with--blue collar, not polished, but constantly relying on his head and heart and busting his hump 100 percent of the time.
"I was the leading scorer on the team which is overlooked a lot," said Wiesenhahn. "I averaged 10 rebounds a game, I could do other things. I was the emotional leader, if I said something guys would all do it. We just got along so good. It was a nice bunch of guys."
Despite being the toughest guy on the team, Wiesenhahn was the most "choked up" as he recalled the unity and closeness of the team. He's been through a lot, but he really looks like he could give you five solid minutes on the floor right now if you needed him.
"I lift weights and I work out," said the 71-year-old Wiesenhaun. "I've had a lot of operations and knee problems. I've had six operations, I've had a five-way, I've had cancer, I've been shot by a gun, broken jaws, broken nose, fingers, I still take care of myself. I eat fish five days a week. I do everything I can."
Watching the Bearcats in what seems like slow motion black and white probably doesn't do them justice, but the game played 50 years ago is much different than now. However, Wiesenhahn makes some legitimate points about what is acceptable now that wouldn't have been acceptable at the Armory Fieldhouse in the early 60s.
"That was back when people didn't carry the ball down the floor and people didn't fall down," said Wiesenhahn. "Nowadays, they take one step here and another step here--that's walking. The rules haven't changed."
While it may sound like
"grumpy old men" to some of you, it sounds like great and
entertaining discussion that's probably held each time these
gentlemen get together.
Recently, those visits have been more frequent. As you can imagine, like the '72 NFL Miami Dolphins, these guys have a lot to toast. Most teams never make it to a Final Four, this group went to three and won BACK TO BACK national titles which seems nearly superhuman now.
"We started early in the summer, three summers ago and we'd get together at a restaurant and chat and tell stories about each other," said Larry Shingleton. "We're as close now as we were back when we were playing. The word 'team' is the key to the whole thing. I didn't have any problem saying to (Ron) Bonham, who could knock the eyes out of the basket, 'Damn it Ron, I'm tired of guarding your man and mine. Guard your own!' He wouldn't get mad, he'd just do what I asked him to do."
Shingleton is the guard whose
free throw could've given UC three titles in a row. Since then, he's
made a habit of sending a card to various athletes whose efforts come
up painfully short. Shingleton's thoughtfulness has made many
disappointed players feel better. It's the same care and concern he's had with his teammates for 50 years.
"Put aside the basketball, we were thick as thieves individually off the court," said Shingleton. "That common bond was transferred over to the court and we hated to lose. Whatever it took to win, that's what we did."
What it took to win, was a change of styles. Prior to UC's national titles, they went to two straight Final Fours under George Smith, who went onto become Athletic Director as Ed Jucker took over the team in 1960. Those teams featured Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, which is why everyone is surprised to learn that the Bearcats won it all AFTER Oscar turned pro.
"Go back and research that, who did they lose to?" challenged Shingleton. "They lost to the University of California and the University of California played defense primarily. Two years, back to back, that's who they lost to. So, when Juck (Ed Jucker) took over we said, 'We're going to start playing defense.' Everyone was upset, maybe we'd win 52-38, but we won."
Coach Tay Baker expounded on the Robertson years when the "Big O" scored a then-record 2,973 points in his THREE seasons of eligibility.
"Oscar's there three years and had an opportunity to win a championship," said Baker. "I think it points out that they don't hand you that national championship, you've got to earn that thing. It's a tough, tough deal. There wasn't a better team for three straight years in which Oscar played, but unfortunately, we hit a team like Cincinnati when Oscar was playing California. They were team-oriented and did a heck of a job of controlling the tempo of the game."
Thus, a concept and an idea was born sometime between March 19, 1960 and the fall of the '60-'61 campaign as Jucker took over from Smith and Baker became top assistant.
"People really come to see individual performances, but every team doesn't have an individual that's capable of performing at a level that people want to see like an Oscar Robertson," said Baker. "We had to go a different direction and say, 'Hey, if we get anything done, it's going to be collectively, not as individuals.' We had very good players who had specific skills and you put them all together and all of a sudden you've got a pretty solid team."
Baker saw that group though their college career, coaching them on the freshmen team. An avid golfer now at 83, Baker doesn't look much older than his former players who are in their late 60s to early 70s.
"I came when Oscar (Robertson) was a senior," said Baker. "You see, freshmen were not eligible then so I had Tony and Thack (Tom Thacker) and Larry Shingleton and Dale Heidotting on the freshman team. They were on all three of those teams after that, the two national championships and the runner-up. I'm kind of proud of those guys, they got a lot accomplished."
Perhaps the understatement of the day.