BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
The 1971-72 men's basketball season at Western Washington State College (now Western Washington University) was one for the ages.
The Vikings won 26 of 30 contests, beginning with a 21-game winning streak, took the Evergreen Conference title, made an incredible comeback to capture the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) District 1 championship, and reached the quarterfinals at the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City, Missouri. They ranked No.5 in the final NAIA National Poll and ninth in the final Associated Press small college ranking.
The win total, victory string and national finish were all program bests, not bettered until the turn of the century.
But making that campaign's accomplishments indelibly remembered were how they brought the campus and community together during one of the most difficult periods in 20th century U.S. history.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was defiance, protest, discord and tumult going on throughout the country. The U.S. involvement in Cambodia and the unpopular war in Vietnam, following on the heels of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy (1963), human rights activist Malcolm X (1965), presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy (1968) and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1968), led to an eruption of protest movements, many held on college campuses.
Western was a politically active campus. Students from diverse backgrounds came together to speak out on a wide range of issues, either as individuals or student groups -- such as Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Student Union and Students for Peace. The Vietnam War, the Kent State shooting and ethnic diversity were all issues that Western students rallied around. In 1968, the school newspaper changed its name from "The Collegian" to "The Western Front," for obvious reasons. Amid the chaos and often radical rhetoric, campus administrators faced a dilemma on how to manage the conflict and disruption.
During the 1969-70 academic year there were 14 campus protests at Western. Included among them were marches to the federal building in downtown Bellingham, a sit-in at the office of WWSC President Jerry Flora in Old Main, and the blocking of Interstate 5.
Ultimately, Flora's leniency toward student led protests, teach-ins, sit-ins and other demonstrations quelled any potential violence that may have occurred on campus. Other universities around the country were not so fortunate.
Winning hoops brings campus and community together
Also helping to diffuse tension and bring the community and campus together was an exceptionally talented Western men's hoop team. Seven letter winners, three of them starters, were back from a 20-6 team that had tied for the Evco title in 1970-71. The trio of returning first stringers included 6-1 junior guard Mike Franza, 6-7 senior center Rudy Thomas and 6-5 senior forward Gary White, the team captain.
A huge addition was 6-2 junior guard Tom Bradley from Walla Walla CC where he had earned MVP honors at the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges (NWAACC) Tournament while leading the Warriors to the championship game and a 23-6 record. Averaging 22.3 points per game, Bradley was heavily recruited by rival Eastern Washington before choosing Western.
Bradley opted for a NAIA school to have two years of eligibility remaining since the NCAA five-year rule would be in effect if he went elsewhere. He had played one season at Elizabeth City College NC before entering the service.
The final starting spot for the Vikings was shared by 6-4 senior Roger Fuson and 6-3 senior Chip Kohr. Rounding out the squad were 6-3 senior guard Mike Preston, 5-9 junior guard Bob Nicol, 6-2 junior guard Tom Mount and 6-5 junior forward Mike Buza.
The players came from all over the country and throughout the state. Bradley from Washington D.C., Thomas from Jacksonville, Fl., via Highline CC, White from East St. Louis, Ill., via Fort Steilacoom CC, Franza and Mount from San Jose, Calif., and Buza from Anchorage, Alaska. In state, Preston, who had played at Green River CC, hailed from Seattle; Fuson from Manson, Kohr, who was born in Saudi Arabia, from Bellevue; and Nicol from Eastsound on Orcas Island.
A key dynamic of this team was that Thomas, White, Bradley and Preston were all African-Americans. Prior to 1970-71, there had not been more than two black athletes on a Viking hoop team and the majority of time none.
In his 10th season as the WWSC head coach was Chuck Randall. Completing the staff was assistant coach Rich Tucker, a former Viking player who had also run track, and student assistant Eugene Cash. Both Tucker and Cash were black.
Also bringing more of a black presence to Western's campus were the Vikettes, who performed at halftime of home basketball games in 1970-71 and 1971-72. Formed by the Black Student Union, they were a precision dance and drill team who would "step, dance and glide their way into people's hearts and souls."
The 19-member group, composed of young female members of the BSU, was the idea of Stephanie Preston, wife of the WWSC player. She felt the group would not only provide entertainment, but also be an inspiration to Western's team and fans alike.
During its national run at Kansas City, Western received hundreds of telegrams from the fans back home. When the Vikings were playing, it seemed as though everyone in Whatcom County got close to a radio to hear how they were doing. During the season, they had averaged more than 3,000 in attendance.
"I remember sitting around at breakfast with the team in K.C.," Mount said. "We would read and pass around all the telegrams that came in."
In describing his team, Coach Randall said, "If the world was like my basketball team things would be in great shape -- no jealousy or prejudice, just people working together and giving to each other."
Thomas summed it up, saying, "The most important thing to me was that my teammates did not see color, and we learned from each other and supported one another. And the support that we got from the student body and the city was incredible."
"My teammates were my great experience with other cultures, and together we had one of the great experiences of our lives. To this day we still stay in contact."
Vikings unbeaten in first 21 games
Western began the season with 21 victories. Making the string even more amazing was that nearly every contest was a struggle.
Bradley tipped in a missed shot for the winning basket with two seconds left as the Vikings wiped out a five-point deficit in the final minute of a 68-67 victory over UC San Diego. Nicol made three of four free throws in the final minute, with the miss becoming a banker by White, in a 74-69 triumph over Cal State Stanislaus. Kohr, who was the poorest free throw shooter on the team, made two of them when trailing by one in the final seconds of a 77-76 overtime win at Great Falls, and White led a comeback from an 11-point second half deficit to a 78-75 win at Saint Martin's
"We had gained a lot of experience from close games the year before," said Franza. "We had a lot of confidence in what we could do. We weren't going to lose; somebody was going to have to beat us."
"There was an interesting psychology at work on that team," added Mount. "It wasn't a sense of arrogance, but it was a sense of enormous confidence. When we started a game, there was always a sense that we were going to win it. We just weren't sure how we were going to win it."
Western gets top seed at district playoffs
Western's undefeated season came to an end on a horrible shooting night in a 53-45 loss at Seattle Pacific. The Vikings finished the regular campaign at 22-2 and were picked as the top seed for the NAIA District 1 playoffs.
The best two-out-of-three game district playoff series was to be against Eastern, which had a 21-5 mark. It was the Savages (now Eagles), who had handed Western its only other regular season loss, 69-68 in overtime, at Cheney. The Vikings had beaten Eastern earlier at Carver Gym, 83-75, also in overtime. In that contest, Western held the Savages to eight points in the first nine minutes before a power outage forced a 10-minute stoppage of play.
In the district series' opener at Cheney, Western fell 71-60, as Eastern remained undefeated at home. One more loss and the season was over for the Vikings. But the next game, and third, if necessary, would be on Western's home floor where it had not lost all season. It was with that in mind that a large banner, "We Do Not Lose At Home," was hung under the basket at the east end of Carver Gym.
The second playoff game proved to be a classic. The Vikings fell behind 15-2 at the start, never led in regulation play and trailed 71-68 with less than a minute to go. Then White was fouled and made the first of two free throws. He missed the second, but Western came up with the rebound and Kohr muscled it in to tie the score at 71-all and send the game into overtime. With that the momentum shifted and the Vikings went on to a 78-75 victory before a standing-room only crowd of 4,000 roaring fans.
"I can't say enough about that crowd of ours, they were the difference between us winning and losing," said Randall following the game. "When things looked bad for us, they picked us right up. We couldn't have done it without them."
In the third and deciding game, Western led throughout and won 76-68 to take the district title and earn a berth at the NAIA National Tournament for only the second time in school history and the first in 12 years.
Eastern and Western each finished with 214 points in the three-game district series.
Kansas City bound
At that time, the NAIA national tournament was perhaps the toughest in the country. The NAIA was the first collegiate association to invite historically black institutions to become members. Many of those players went on to compete professionally. Thirty-two teams came together to battle over six days for the championship, with the loser being eliminated in all but the semifinal contests.
Seeded fourth in the tourney, Western did not have to face one of the favorites in the openings rounds. Nevertheless, Findlay OH gave the Vikings fits, though they prevailed 66-63. The next day, Western defeated a tough Northeastern Oklahoma squad 74-68.
Following that game, the Kansas City Star ran a feature on Western headlined, "Over The Hill Cage Gang Still In." The story focused on three players who had served in the military before returning to school - Bradley, who was 30 years old, Thomas 26 and White 25.
Having reached the quarterfinals, Western faced Gardner-Webb NC on March 16. The Bulldogs were the highest scoring team in the nation, averaging 110 points a game. And remember, this was well over a decade before the three-point line came into existence.
At the half, Western led 46-45. Despite limiting Gardner-Webb to 36 points in the second period, the Vikings appeared to run out of gas and lost 81-75. Even though holding the Bulldogs 29 points below their season average, Western's quest had come to an end.
UW Eau Claire and Kentucky State reached the final game with Kentucky State prevailing for its third straight national title, 71-62. Eau Claire had brought an estimated 4,500 fans (from a student body of 8,251) to Municipal Auditorium and leading them were 30 cheerleaders. They set some kind of record for partying at Civic Plaza prior to their games, even having designated people picking up the garbage. Those attending the tourney, still remember the Blugold chants filling the three-tiered arena.
Fuson summed up the campaign when he spoke at the post-season banquet. "We were really committed to each other, not just as ballplayers, but as individuals and human beings. No matter which five was on the floor playing, first team, second team or a combination, the loudest rooters in the gym were the other five guys sitting on the bench."
On the season, Franza averaged a team-leading 16.0 points on 51.5 percent field-goal shooting, 3.4 assists and 3.7 steals. White averaged 15.4 points on 50.4 percent field-goal accuracy, 7.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists. Thomas scored at a 15.4 clip and grabbed a team-best 10.5 rebounds; and Bradley averaged 8.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, and a team-high 5.5 assists.
Franza led the northwest in scoring as a senior with a 25.6 average, earning second-team NAIA All-America honors. He set 15 school records during his career, toured Israel as a member of a NAIA all-star team and got a tryout with the Portland Trailblazers of the National Basketball Association.
White twice received All-America honorable mention and was the 1971-72 District 1 Player of the Year.
Franza was inducted into the WWU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1979, followed by Randall in 1981, White in 1987 and Thomas in 2013.
Do the Big Blue of '72 still have karma? Well, consider this. Their last gathering was a 40th reunion at Carver Gym during the 2011-12 season. That year, Western went on to win the NCAA II national championship in men's basketball.
Randall nearly misses `71-72 campaign
Randall, who completed the 10th of 18 years coaching at Western, was named Evco, NAIA District 1 and NAIA Area I Coach of the Year. But he came very close to not directing the Vikings that season.
During the previous summer, Randall received a letter from Ray Ciszek, a former coach and administrator at Western, who was working in Washington D.C. as director of the AAPHER Peace Corps Program and International Activities. He asked if Randall would be interested in coaching a team from the East African nation of Ghana which was attempting to qualify for the Olympic Games. Randall was and went so far as to arrange a leave of absence before reluctantly withdrawing from consideration when negotiations got snarled up in bureaucratic red tape.
That turned out to be a blessing as following the historic 1971-72 campaign, he said, "This is the most fun coaching I've had in my life. This team was a complete pleasure to coach and go to practice with."
"The guys accepted the philosophy of team play and played together all season. It took a lot of personal sacrifice for them to give up the spotlight. They were all stars in high school and junior college."
Major loss suffered just before season begins
Just a few days before the 1971-72 opener, 6-5 senior forward Lee Roy Shults, who had nearly averaged a double-double in points and rebounds the season before, asked Western to check on his eligibility. Prior to playing for the Vikings the previous two seasons, he had competed one year at Clark CC after transferring from Oregon State. Shults had played a few minutes in one game as a member of the Beavers' frosh team, but was injured in the contest, and did not participate for the rest of the season.
Shults wasn't sure if a medical redshirt appeal had been made at the time, and if it had, whether or not he had been granted back his year of eligibility.
The matter was looked into and an Oregon State official found that no appeal had been made. An effort was made to get the matter reviewed by the NAIA, but nothing could be done because of the length of time since it had happened. Thus, Shults's collegiate career was over.
"Lee Roy brought it to our attention and asked us to check it out," said Western Director of Athletics Dr. William Tomaras at the time. "It is to his credit that he came forward. It showed that he had the welfare of his team and his school at heart, that he didn't want to jeopardize Western's season."
The penalty for using an ineligible player is forfeiture of all games in which the player appears.
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015
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