Jan. 12, 2012
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
By Kent K. Sherwood
The echos still hang gently in Sam Carver Gymnasium. If you listen carefully, you can still hear them.
It was 40 years ago this season that a tightly-knit group of men heated up a cold city in the middle of an otherwise bleak winter.
Ten men led by a wise and impish coach set ablaze a community otherwise mired in the cold, gray clutches of Jack Frost's grip.
Officially, this odd collection of assorted backgrounds, talents and personalities combined to form the then Western Washington State College (now WWU) men's basketball team. When the season ended in Kansas City, Mo., after it had acquired the conference and district titles and finished among the top eight teams in the nation, these men had become a strongly bonded family unit known, simply, as the "Big Blue of '72."
As a basketball team, the credentials were impressive: 26-4 overall record, good enough to be ranked as high as fourth in the nation during the course of the season; winning its first 21 games before tasting defeat; Evergreen Conference and NAIA District 1 champions; reaching the quarter-finals of the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City.
But it was in the way these individuals were first brought together and then came together that keeps the echoes afloat in Carver's rafters.
This was a team that rarely blew its foes off the court with spectacular offensive displays. It was a team that generally suffocated its opponents with strong man-to-man defense and always found the right offensive combinations to pull out the victory.
Five of the Vikings' 30 games went into overtime. Eleven of the 26 wins were by margins of 10 or fewer points; eight of those wins had margins of five or less and six of them were decided by three or fewer points.
Three men involved with that team are now members of the WWU Athletic Hall of Fame: Head coach Chuck Randall, captain and forward Gary White and guard Mike Franza. To illustrate the team's balance, White, Franza, and center Rudy Thomas led the Vikings in scoring with season averages of 14.7, 16.2, and 14.8 points, respectively.
But it was, perhaps, a big loss early that accounted for all the victories to come.
The team was coming off a highly successful 1970-71 season, the best in school history.
Western was 20-6 and Evergreen Conference co-champions. Only two losses to arch-rival Central Washington kept the Vikings out of the district playoffs.
With only one starter gone via graduation and a highly-touted replacement in hand, success in 71-72 was expected.
But, days before the season-opener with Saint Martin's, high-scoring forward Lee Roy Shults suggested WWU officials check into a possible eligibility descrepency from his days at Oregon State. That check ended his season before his potential ineligibility cost the Vikings any games.
But Randall, a member of the NAIA National Hall of Fame and long known for his ability of getting the most out of players in less than ideal conditions, inserted an unheralded banger named Roger Fuson to replace the soft long-range jumpers of Shults and the resulting combination became nearly unbeatable.
Age and experience had a lot to do with the team's success. Point guard Tom Bradley, the new recruit, was 30-years-old. White was 26, and Thomas 25. All three had completed military service before playing college basketball. Of the starters, only Franza, a junior at 20, was what would be considered "normal" college playing age.
"We had gained a lot of experience from close games the year before," recalls Franza, who the next year as a senior earned second-team NAIA All-America honors as he led the northwest small colleges in scoring with a 25.6 average. "We had a lot of confidence in what we could do," said Franza. "We weren't going to lose; somebody was going to have to beat us."
While Franza, White and Thomas gained most of the headlines, the team spread the glory and the heroics.
A Bradley tip-in at the buzzer to beat UC San Diego on the road, 68-67; two free throws by Chip Kohr (a 49.0 percent season free-throw shooter) to defeat Great Falls, 78-76, in an overtime game at Montana; clutch shooting by reserves Mike Preston and Bob Nicol in other close games and Fuson's strong defense and tough rebounding.
Completing the squad were Mike Buza and Tom Mount.
The team won 21 times before an ice-cold shooting performance led to its first loss, 53-45, at Seattle Pacific. A 69-68 overtime setback followed in the Vikings' next game at Eastern Washington, WWU's only conference loss of the year.
This set up a best-of-three district championship series with Eastern for the trip to Kansas City. In the series' opener at Cheney, the then-Savages won an 11-point thriller.
But the next two games were in Carver Gym, where the Vikings were undefeated.
WWU did not lead in regulation but made an amazing comeback in the final minute of game two to eventually win, 78-75, in overtime and send the series to its heart-stopping conclusion.
The Vikings opened up the deciding game late in the second half the next night to win the district title, 76-68, and secure Western's second-ever trip to a national tournament.
"We were not worried after the loss at Eastern," said Franza. "Those things happen. We had a lot of confidence in playing at Carver."
At Kansas City, Western opened with a pair of victories, defeating Findlay College OH, 66-63, and Northeastern Oklahoma State, 74-68, before falling in the quarterfinals to high-scoring Gardner-Webb NC. Even in defeat there was a solace as the Vikings held the Bulldogs to 81 points - 34 below their season average.
But the "Big Blue of '72" was more than a simple compilation of points for-and-against and a glittering win-loss record.
It was a group of guys from such far-flung places as San Jose, Calif., Washington, D.C., East St. Louis, Ill., Anchorage, Alaska, and Manson, Wash., who came together in Bellingham to prove team ball was still an art form that could provide success in an entertaining, albeit nail-biting, fashion.
"There was a lot of glue to that team," remembers Franza fondly. "First, the guys were good guys who had been there - Chip and Roger and others. They knew how to play ball the way we play it at Western.
"When I think about that team, I just see the guys - Rudy, Gary, Mike, Chip, Roger, Bobby - and I see them playing ball. It was a special team; the success that year was something special."
Special enough to still swath Carver Gym with wonderful memories - wonderful Big Blue memories - even 40 years later.