Monday, March 22, 2010

A Long Time Coming

For DePaul men's basketball coach Ray Meyer, it was 32 long years between George Mikan's graduation in 1946 and the Blue Demons' return to national prominence in 1978. Now, another 32 years have gone by, and DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto is searching for a new head coach to lead the Demons back to glory. Her future husband Joe was one of the key players who helped turn the program around in Meyer's day. Below is the story of how it happened.

     The George Mikan era at DePaul ended with a lopsided 65-40 victory over Beloit College in the regular-season finale on March 9, 1946.
     Coach Ray Meyer began to face life without the man who would later be voted the greatest player of the first half of the century. “While he was around,” Meyer wrote, “I was a great coach.” For his part, Mikan said of Meyer, “I’d be nothing without him.” The Demons had won 81 of 98 games in the four years and finished third, second, and first in their three postseason tournaments. Now Mikan was bound for greater glory in the pro ranks, while Meyer was destined for decades of obscurity. The 32-year-old coach would see his age double before he and DePaul returned to national prominence.

     Fast forward to March 9, 1978. The Blue Demons have concluded their regular season with 12 consecutive victories and a No. 3 national ranking, and they are awaiting the start of the NCAA tournament. Fame, that fickle companion, has returned to Meyer after all these years. In the meantime, seven Presidents have occupied the White House, and Meyer has gone to work at DePaul day after day with no fanfare and little reward beyond the enjoyment he derives from coaching. He and his wife Marge have raised their six children, all of whom call him “Coach.”
     Since Mikan’s departure, the Demons had made six appearances in the NCAA tournament and five in the NIT. They had also endured a stretch from 1967 to 1973 in which they won 74 games and lost 75. The 1970-71 team, captained by Meyer’s son Joey, inadvertently became the catalyst for DePaul’s return to glory. After the Demons struggled to a record of 8-17, the university responded to the debacle by giving Meyer a recruiting budget and allowing him to hire an assistant coach for the first time. There followed a procession of top-flight players to DePaul: forward Bill Robinzine in 1972; center Dave Corzine, guard Ron Norwood, and forward Joe Ponsetto in 1974; guard Gary Garland and forward Curtis Watkins in 1975; and guard Clyde Bradshaw in 1977.
     Like their forerunners of three decades earlier, the 1977-78 Blue Demons were led by an outstanding big man. At six-foot-11 and 250 pounds, Corzine was more or less the same size as Mikan, and comparisons between the two became inevitable. Meyer considered Mikan to have been quicker and generally more athletic than Corzine, while rating both as exceptionally intelligent and competitive. “There is not a better shooting center in the country,” Meyer said of Corzine. “He’s a better outside shooter than Mikan was. George could take the ball inside, though, and I’d sure like to have him back. I’d move Dave to forward and find a way to keep both of them happy.”
     Of DePaul’s 12 straight wins to end the regular season, the biggest one by any measure was the seventh, on February 12 at Notre Dame. The Demons came into the game at 19-2 and ranked 11th in the nation; the Irish were 16-3 and ranked fourth. This was the game that made people take notice of the resurgent Blue Demons. It was a tough afternoon for Corzine, who was suffering from the flu and was double-teamed every time he touched the ball. He managed 23 points and played the entire game, but it was DePaul’s guards who made the difference in the end.
     “The din in Notre Dame’s Athletic and Convocation center,” Bill Jauss wrote in the Tribune, “defied description.” Regulation play ended with the score tied 61-61. Notre Dame led 68-63 with 90 seconds remaining in overtime when DePaul’s little guys took over. Garland scored off a rebound to make it 68-65. Then Bradshaw stole the ball and took it in for a layup to make it 68-67. As the clock ticked down into the final seconds, Randy Ramsey stole the ball and fired it to Garland in the corner for an open 15-footer—which missed. Bradshaw fouled Rich Branning as the latter grabbed the rebound for Notre Dame, sending him to the foul line for a one-and-one with 10 seconds left. “I was sure I’d blown it,” said Garland.
     But when Branning missed the first free throw, Corzine secured the rebound. “I knew we were out of timeouts,” he said. “I looked up court for the first person I could see open. There he was.” He was Garland, streaking up court. Garland fielded Corzine’s baseball-style pass, dribbled to the top of the key, pulled up and let fly. The shot hit, as they say, nothing but net. Almost simultaneously the buzzer sounded. DePaul had won 69-68. “I knew it was going in,” said Garland, who had gone from goat to hero in 10 seconds. “I definitely felt it.”
     “We don’t know when we’re beaten,” Meyer said proudly.
     Exactly a month after their victory at Notre Dame, the Blue Demons opened the NCAA tournament against Creighton. Thanks to red-hot shooting, Creighton led by 20 points late in the first half and by 14 at halftime, but the Demons kept their composure and doggedly battled back. DePaul eventually won 80-78 on two free throws by the virtually unknown William Dise, who’d come into the game when Watkins fouled out. Corzine notched 19 points and 11 rebounds, but it was the unsung Ramsey, normally a defensive specialist, who sparked DePaul’s comeback. Focused to the point of obsession on Corzine, Creighton’s defenders paid no attention to Ramsey, whose scoring average was four points per game. “I told Randy to shoot!” said Meyer. After scoring his usual two points in the first half, Ramsey tallied 12 points after the intermission. “The best half he ever played,” Meyer said. “Without Ramsey, we wouldn’t have won.”
     Corzine was absolutely unstoppable in the next game as DePaul subdued Louisville 90-89 in double overtime. He made 18 field goals, almost all of which were within several feet of the basket, including the game winner with six seconds remaining. He also went 10-for-10 from the free-throw line. His 46 points gave him 1,879 for his career—nine more than Mikan’s previous school record.
     DePaul was now 27-2 and one win away from the Final Four. To get there, the Blue Demons would have to get past none other than Notre Dame. The rematch with Meyer’s alma mater was a compelling story—more compelling, it turned out, than the game itself. Corzine had dislocated a finger in practice the day before; the injury contributed to his relatively pedestrian output of 17 points and particularly hindered his rebounding. Notre Dame’s 22-8 surge early in the second half transformed a one-point game into a rout. The final score was 84-64. “We just didn’t come back,” said Meyer. “The way they rebounded on us, they just took everything away. The well just ran dry.”

     Corzine’s college career, as well as Ponsetto’s and Ramsey’s, ended with DePaul’s departure from the 1978 NCAA tournament. Unlike in 1946, however, when Meyer had faced the dismal prospect of going forward without Mikan, this time DePaul had another superstar waiting in the wings. He was Mark Aguirre, a chunky, six-foot-six scoring machine from Chicago’s Westinghouse High School and perhaps the most coveted recruit in the country. “Mark was a symbol of the revival of DePaul basketball,” Meyer wrote, “for he was the sort of player we would have had no chance to get in our darkest days just a few years earlier.”
     Aguirre was joined in the starting lineup by holdovers Bradshaw, Garland, and Watkins, and center James Mitchem. His debut on November 25, 1978, at UCLA showed that he was intimidated neither by all the national championship banners hanging from the rafters of Pauley Pavilion nor by the Bruins themselves. On the first play of the game, Aguirre dunked resoundingly over UCLA’s All-American center David Greenwood. He finished with 29 points in a 108-85 loss. “He’s just going to keep getting better and better,” said Meyer. “It’s awfully tough to come onto UCLA’s home court for your opener, but it didn’t faze Aguirre. I don’t think the [Los Angeles] Lakers would have fazed him.”
     After the defeat at UCLA, the Blue Demons won their next four games by an average margin of 22 points. They lost at Wichita State, then won eight in succession. They gathered steam as the season progressed. After two narrow losses in January, the Demons won eight more in a row before hosting Notre Dame on March 2. A boisterous overflow crowd at Alumni Hall saw DePaul upset the No. 2-ranked Irish 76-72. Playing his final home game, Watkins scored 21 points while holding Notre Dame’s leading scorer, Kelly Tripucka, to eight. “You turn on the faucet and expect water to come out,” Meyer said. “You put a uniform on Watkins and expect so many points and so many rebounds.”
     DePaul opened the 1979 NCAA tournament with wins over USC and Marquette, setting up a rematch with UCLA in Provo, Utah, on March 17. From the opening tip, the Demons showed that they were not the same team the Bruins had dispatched in November. Because Mitchem could not handle Greenwood by himself, DePaul abandoned its customary man-to-man defense in favor of a zone. “We have a very active zone,” explained assistant coach Joey Meyer. “The guards go out to cover the passing lanes and make steals.” Indeed, the quickness, athleticism, and general relentlessness of DePaul guards Bradshaw and Garland proved overwhelming as the Blue Demons built a 17-point lead by halftime.
     After the intermission, Meyer and the Blue Demons were somewhat mystified when they emerged from the locker room to a thunderous standing ovation. They later learned that in returning to the floor themselves, the UCLA players had disrupted the performance of a dance troupe from Brigham Young University, which was hosting the game. The previously neutral crowd fervently cheered DePaul’s every move from then on and might have helped the Demons withstand a frantic rally by UCLA in the closing minutes. The Bruins narrowed the gap to two points before Garland’s layup with 10 seconds left decided the outcome. DePaul won 95-91, with the two seniors Garland and Watkins each tallying 24 points. “Now, when I walk down the street,” Meyer said, “people will stop asking, ‘Coach, where’s DePaul?’ Pretty soon, everybody will know.”
     DePaul was in the Final Four, and Meyer was becoming a favorite of even casual fans. His craggy, expressive face, gap-toothed grin, and ample midsection made him unmistakable either in person or on television. He was portrayed in the media as an affable, cuddly old grandpa, and his aw-shucks demeanor in interviews reinforced this impression. If he resented that he was just now being discovered by most of the audience, he never let on.
     In their national semifinal game in Salt Lake City, the Blue Demons discovered why Larry Bird was the college player of the year and, not coincidentally, why Indiana State was undefeated. DePaul battled gamely throughout, and even took a one-point lead with 1:37 remaining, but Bird simply would not be beaten. The blond, six-foot-nine wizard hit 16 of 19 shots, grabbed 16 rebounds, and had nine assists as the Sycamores prevailed 76-74. Between his 35 points and the assists, Bird was directly involved in 70 percent of his team’s scoring. (Indiana State lost the championship game to Michigan State, in the first chapter of the legendary rivalry that Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson continued in the NBA for a dozen more years.)
     DePaul was at the peak of its success and notoriety for the next few years. The Blue Demons were arguably more popular than the Bulls in this pre-Jordan period. Meyer was now a beloved elder statesman, basking in the respect of opponents, fans, and the media; he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979, only the fourth active coach to be so honored. Aguirre proved to be the genuine article; his career output of 2,182 points and average of 24.5 per game dwarfed those of Corzine and Mikan, and he was the first player chosen in the 1981 NBA draft. Virtually every DePaul game was now televised, and a crowd of reporters followed the team even on the road. The Demons left the cozy 5,500-seat Alumni Hall at Belden and Sheffield, moving to the Rosemont Horizon, which held 18,000. The trickle of prize recruits coming to DePaul became a torrent. Whereas Meyer’s previous teams had carried the aura of gritty underdogs with perhaps more heart than talent, the new Demons were a bunch of thoroughbreds.

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

1 comment:

  1. If Watkins doesn't hurt his knee in the Western Regional Finals against UCLA they beat Bird and ISU and were a great matchup against the Spartans. I believe to this day that knee injury kept them from winning the national championship.