It was 1970, the year of Pistol Pete, Austin Carr’s 61-point game in the tournament, Bob Lanier leading St. Bonaventure to the Final Four, and UCLA trying to win its fourth straight title — this time without Lew Alcindor. And in the midst of all that, a small school that just five years earlier had been competing in the NAIA nearly won the national championship.
Before the Big Dance went prime-time, before mid-majors and RPIs and bracket busters, there was Jacksonville University and its march to the 1970 NCAA title game. They had Artis Gilmore anchoring a frontcourt that averaged 7 feet, a 5-foot-10 point guard, and those funky green-and-gold uniforms, with the letters spelling out the school’s name in a semicircular smiley face running below the numbers on the front of their jerseys.
The Dolphins didn’t come out of nowhere — the school of 2,700 (still the smallest ever to make it to the
Final Four championship game) was located in one of the quintessential Southern football cities, site of the annual Georgia-Florida showdown and the Gator Bowl — but their profile was so low and their ascent so unlikely that few observers took them or their sly, angular coach Joe Williams seriously, until the team knocked off Big Ten champ Iowa and top-ranked Kentucky to win the Mideast Region.1
Twice during the game, NBC’s Curt Gowdy mistakenly referred to the school as “Jacksonville State.”
And that’s where Paul Hemphill came in. The Birmingham native was a onetime baseball player who — after seeing his major league dreams crushed five days into his minor league tryout — had gravitated to college and writing. Recalling his jump into the profession, he explained: “‘Write what you know’ was the mantra then, as now, and since I had read more of The Sporting News than Shakespeare, I chose sportswriting.” Hemphill knew Williams from a time when both men were at Florida State. Writing for Sport magazine, Hemphill joined the culminating week of Jacksonville’s dream season, and captured not just one team’s ascent, but a glimpse of the NCAA tournament when it was on the very brink of going big time.
How Jackonsville Earned Its Credit Card
Sport, June 1970
By Paul Hemphill
IIt is still early in the season when a Jacksonville television station got carried away and put together a wonderfully hokey 60-second love poem to its Dolphins: film clips of a 7-foot-2 Artis (Batman) Gilmore loping downcourt like a giraffe and little Rex (Robin) Morgan2 spinning toward the basket like a water spout, all of it synchronized in slow motion to the strains of “The Impossible Dream.” That had been the Muzak, the music to work miracles by, as the Jacksonville University basketball team kept on winning, kept on moving up in the national rankings, kept on soaring upward on a collision orbit with the great powers like UCLA and Notre Dame and Kentucky.
Gilmore and Morgan received their nicknames in a glossy promotional brochure, showing both wearing capes, defending “Dolphin City” rather than “Gotham City.”
After all, 15 years ago Jacksonville had been a junior college. Six years ago the team had an annual recruiting budget of $250 and played to crowds of less than 1,000. Two years ago they had been losing to Wilmington College and were the fourth-best team in perhaps the nation’s weakest basketball state. One week ago they had borrowed cash from their play-by-play announcer so they could pay for dinner after beating Kentucky in the NCAA Mideast Quarter-finals. But here they were in the throne room now, coach Joe Williams and recruiter-assistant coach Tom Wasdin of the Jacksonville Dolphins, sitting in a traditional restaurant down the street from the White House on the eve of the 1970 NCAA finals, ordering brandy milk punch for a gaggle of writers representing big-city dailies and national magazines, giddy and loose and expansive and struck by the wonder of it all themselves.
“Y’all,” said Wasdin, “go ahead and order anything you want.”
“Sure you can afford it?” a writer said.
“Shoot, we got a credit card now.” 3
What they had, actually, was Wasdin’s personal credit card. He hadn’t been there a week earlier for the celebratory postgame dinner after beating Kentucky, having flown directly back to Jacksonville to work a hospitality room for a high school basketball tournament.
Somebody said, “Say it ain’t so, Tom.”
“Look here, American Ex —”
“No, I mean that story about you dressing up like a member of the booster club so you could recruit Artis. You expect us to believe that stuff?”
“Tell you the truth,” Wasdin said, “I’m starting to believe some of those stories myself. The more we win, the better they get. I’ll tell you one that did happen though.” He is a finely chiseled man with a hint of Kirk Douglas in his bronze face; he is 34, two years younger than Joe Williams.4 He spread his elbows on the white linen tablecloth and grinned like an old boy about to tell a shady story on the town beauty queen.
Williams and Wasdin had coached together in Jacksonville high schools in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and he finally hired him as an assistant before his third season at Jacksonville. “I didn’t really have an assistant at first,” says Williams. “When I got enough money, I hired Tom. And I paid him more than I was making. I knew how hard he worked; I needed someone who worked as hard as I did.”
“About three years ago we’d kicked off a couple of boys and some others had gotten hurt, and we were down to nine players. Coach Williams wanted to scrimmage one day so he says, ‘Why don’t you suit up and be the 10th man, Coach?’ Well, I did, and after a while one of the kids tried to cut the baseline on me and I sort of laid a body check on him, you know, and it — you ready? — well, it broke his back. Then we had eight.” When the nervous laughter had died down, Williams told about the time the elevator in an old hotel in Cookeville, Tennessee, broke down between floors with the entire squad on it (“That’s when we were driving all day in cars for $200 guaranteed”). Then Wasdin said JU’s amazing season had brought “one real concrete offer” to him and Williams: “The president of the school called us in the other day and said no matter what happens in the tournament he thought we’d done a real good job.” And then somebody offered Wasdin a cigar after dinner and he said, “No, thanks, Artis won’t let any of us smoke,” and then the evening degenerated into burlesque.
Not everybody was laughing, of course. There was nothing particularly humorous to the NCAA Establishment about the arrival of Jacksonville University in College Park, Maryland, for their finale. There is an Establishment in college basketball, just as there is in anything else. The NCAA Establishment includes people like Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, who thinks zone defenses and tall players are Communist threats; UCLA’s John Wooden, who has all the sartorial and verbal flair of a funeral director; the anonymous coach who said that a national title for Jacksonville would “set basketball coaching back 20 years,” and even the sports writer who wrote from the University of Maryland campus that freewheeling, undisciplined, free-form play was “for playgrounds and Jacksonville University.”
The Establishment did not like it that the Jacksonville Dolphins were in the 1970 NCAA championships. “What is this, Rent-a-Goon?” said a writer, pointing at JU’s two giant black junior-college transfers, 7-foot-2 Artis Gilmore and 7-foot-0 Pembrook Burrows, III. “Just look at them, would you?” said the wife of an NCAA official, nodding toward the entrance to Cole Fieldhouse as Joe Williams and his team came to work, smacking gum and horsing around and wearing bell-bottoms and zippered racing jackets, and what she was really saying was How tacky, the very idea. Williams, they had read, had no curfew for his players, scribbled his game plans on the backs of cocktail napkins and wore this God-awful “lucky” outfit to every game; white six-button blazer, blue bell-bottoms, psychedelic tie and watermelon-red shirt.5 And their followers: route salesmen and hardware-store owners and small-town doctors, many of them still trying to straighten out the difference between charging and hooking, self-conscious and still suspicious about any game that’s played indoors. And the players: good old boys from places like Chipley and Jacksonville, who gorged themselves at the “training” table, drank beer6 in public, pulled pranks like hiding each other’s shorts, and had painted green and gold stripes on their shoes when they found out they were going to be on a color television at College Park. “Basketball is supposed to be fun,” Williams had been quoted, and that was especially disturbing to the Establishment when they realized that Jacksonville University had lost only one of its 27 games and was ranked fourth in the nation.
“I had a brown suit,” says Williams, “and I had worn it to every game that year. Finally, some of the boosters and the players — I had a TV show — and they presented me with that on the TV show, so I wore it for good luck.”
“The only one who drank beer,” says Wasdin, “was Rex Morgan — and he was 21. So what was the problem exactly?”
A lot of this incredulity, this shock, was seen on the Thursday night of the semi-finals, just after UCLA had blown past New Mexico State, and Jacksonville had slopped its way over Bob Lanier-less St. Bonaventure to set up the UCLA-Jacksonville championship game. John Wooden would be going after his sixth NCAA title in seven years Saturday afternoon against JU, and when he entered a dressing room off the floor for the postgame press conference, the writers crowded in to ask him what he thought about Jacksonville and Williams and the Mod Squad and Artis Gilmore. Wooden doesn’t normally delight in talking to the press, but it seemed as though they were all in this thing together this time; Wooden and the big-time basketball writers, making the best of it. Inflections and raised eyebrows and dramatic pauses did the job nicely:
Q — Did Jacksonville impress you with anything besides its height, John? (Laughs)
A — (After thoughtful pause) Depth. Height and depth.
Q — Have you played anybody as good as Jacksonville this year?
A — Yes (Quick, clipped, definite answer, bringing a burst of laughter). I won’t name them, but there are plenty of good ball clubs around.
Q — Do you think Jacksonville will outrebound you?
A — (Acid smile, the Jack Benny delivery) Well, they should.
The Establishment knew. Sitting across from each other at dining tables in the bowels of the University of Maryland field house, they were passing silent messages. Jacksonville will get theirs. They had seen these instant teams blow in from the boondocks before, the boondocks being anywhere basketball is not king. UCLA isn’t exactly Mercer or Biscayne or Richmond. Class and discipline and tradition would, they were certain, overcome.
It must have been the fall of 1962 when I first met Joe Williams. Most newspapermen, at one point or another, succumb to the illusion of public relations — thinking it is the rainbow leading to money and class and peace of mind — and I had just quit writing sports to become the sports publicist at Florida State University. It was football season all of a sudden and I was buried in brochures and 8-by-10 glossies and travel arrangements when Bud Kennedy, the FSU basketball coach, walked in one day and introduced Joe Williams as the new freshman basketball coach. Even then Williams was not the kind to make dazzling impressions. He was quiet and pleasant, tall and hunched over, a man in his late twenties, who grinned out of the side of his mouth and looked up at you, in spite of being 6-foot-4, through bushy black eyebrows. He was, it seems, sort of a part-time coach while doing graduate study or something.7 Florida State was just beginning to flex its muscles in football then, and so Bud Kennedy (who died recently) and assistant coach Hugh Durham (now the head basketball coach at FSU) and, by all means, Joe Williams sort of hovered about like extra men at a picnic softball game.
“For a while, I was working on a graduate degree at Tulane, and living in the French Quarter,” Williams says. “I was doing everything a great writer would do, except actually writing.”
Joe did have a beautiful young bride named Dale, whom he had met while he was coaching high-school basketball in Jacksonville.8 But she was the only outwardly outstanding thing about Joe Williams, and they lived in what sounded like a fishing-camp cabin in the swamps outside Tallahassee, and I suppose I had his picture taken for the basketball brochure and I suppose the freshman team played out its season. I just don’t know. I went back to newspapering very shortly, and Joe took an assistant coaching job at Furman University, both of us roughly the same age, both of us just looking for a home, and we went separate ways without looking back.9
Williams’s first marriage was a casualty, at least partly, of his basketball coach’s life. He’s been remarried, to his present wife, Wendy, for 32 years.
“Paul, we thought he was part of the Florida State aristocracy,” says Williams. “I really enjoyed my relationship with Paul — he was just the type of person you could trust.”
Jacksonville’s basketball program was, in those days during the early sixties, almost nonexistent. I had seen them play, against teams like Tampa and Valdosta State and Mercer, and it was a twilight zone of dark and airy gyms, small crowds, travel-by-car and intramural offenses. There was a line in the papers about Joe Williams leaving Furman in 1964 to become head basketball coach at Jacksonville University,10 not the most exciting announcement but at least news about an acquaintance. Jacksonville, you could find out if you bought a Jacksonville paper, got progressively worse — from 15-11 to 8-17 in Joe’s first three seasons — and people like me who had known him however vaguely were wondering whatever in the world possessed him to take a job like that.
Williams was eager to be a head coach, and was glad to return to Jacksonville. He had been recommended for the Jacksonville head coaching job by his barber, who also cut the hair of the Jacksonville school president.
The Jacksonville Dolphins began getting a little ink outside of Jacksonville in 1968-69 when they finished 17-7, but everybody knew they were still playing the same humpties who had once populated a league called the Florida Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The feeling was the same when the 1969-70 season began and Jacksonville won its first 13 games: sure, they were averaging 105 points a game,11 but they were beating up on Mercer and Biscayne and Richmond and Miami, and Florida State had ended the streak with an 89-83 victory in Tallahassee (“The prince has turned into a frog,” crowed the Florida Times-Union the next morning).
Gilmore led the nation in rebounds that year with 22.2 per game. Second place nationally? A 6-foot-6 sophomore forward from Massachusetts named Julius Erving.
They kept coming, though, Jacksonville did, and now they were in the Top Ten and avenging their loss to FSU and whipping NIT-bound Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and suddenly they had advanced through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. And then came that Saturday when everybody in the country was watching the Mideast Quarter-finals on television from Columbus, Ohio, and there was Joe Williams wandering up and down the sideline with a hand in his pocket and the camera zooming in on him and his team, the Jacksonville University Dolphins, advancing to the World Series of college basketball by laying it on Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats, 106-100.12 “Remember?” my wife said to me. “He had a real pretty wife.” My God, I thought.
The key play in the game came late when Jacksonville’s 5-foot-10 guard Vaughn Wedeking elicited a charging foul from Kentucky’s All-American, Dan Issel, fouling Issel out of the game. Kentucky had used some of the same tactics to get Gilmore in foul trouble earlier, but the Wildcats’ legendary coach Adolph Rupp was furious after the game. “Coach Rupp, you did it to us,” said Wasdin at the time. “Why can’t we do it to you?”
There was plenty enough work to do at home, but I found myself on the phone to Jacksonville and Joe Williams Tuesday morning. Lucky I had left my name with his secretary, Joe said, because he had just about stopped returning calls. Some starlet wanted to come out and have her picture taken with the team, and the mayor wanted to work out with them that afternoon,13 and he didn’t know whether his throat would make it through the next press conference in an hour. Dale was fine, they had two young sons, and the team was flying off to College Park early the next morning.
By the time the Dolphins beat Kentucky to win the Mideast, Jacksonville was a football town in the midst of basketball hysteria. Fans were turned away from the overcrowded airport that night, with hundreds lining up on the road into town to wave at the team bus as it passed by. Somehow, in the midst of all that madness, Hemphill left a message for Williams, and got through.
“It’s been a long time since FSU,” I said.
“It sure has.”
“I didn’t believe it, Saturday.”
“Nobody did,” he said, “but us.”
A certain giddiness prevailed at the Interstate Inn, a short mile from the scene of the finals, where Jacksonville’s fans and press and players and official family had set up headquarters on Wednesday afternoon. The lobby, restaurant and bar of the motel spilled over with Dolphin fans wearing white straw boaters and oval green and white stickers that said J-U CAN DO. The very idea that this school of 2,700 students that squats across the river from a cigar factory and a paper mill in North Florida might very well be playing UCLA for the national championship within 72 hours was really too much to bear. “The deal is on,” JU fans would yell, for no apparent reason, sticking thumbs up. “JU can do,” would be the reply. “The Big A has come to play,” somebody else would yell. And in the midst of all this were Joe Williams and Tom Wasdin, who were back in their rooms tying up the Interstate Inn’s three outside lines with calls to some 50 prospects all over the country (“I just wanted to tell you to be sure and watch us on TV this weekend”).
The story of Joe Williams is as unlikely as the story of his team. His father was a Methodist preacher, sort of a circuit rider in Oklahoma, and Joe remembers that on more than one occasion Mr. Williams was paid off in maple syrup for preaching. When Joe finished high school, he went to Oklahoma City University and became a so-so basketball player for Abe Lemons, who has been, along with Hank Iba, the biggest influence on Williams’ coaching philosophy (“In a way, I was always against Adolph Rupp and his coaching, like most kids in Oklahoma were, because he was the enemy”). Two of Williams’ brothers also became ministers, but Joe had decided he wanted to coach basketball, and he somehow wound up coaching a junior-high team and then Ribault Senior High in Jacksonville.
In 1962 he coached the Florida State freshmen, in 1963 he was an assistant at Furman University. In 1964 he was offered, and accepted, the head coaching job at Jacksonville. The administration told him they wanted “a nice program that wouldn’t lose too much money.”
Jacksonville could afford no more. It was founded as a junior college in 1934 and had been changed to a four-year Jacksonville University in 1956.
Joe Williams’ recruiting budget for his first year totaled $250 (“I wouldn’t go visit a boy until about 8 o’clock at night, when I was sure he’d already eaten supper”), and he ran the wheels off his ’60 Chevrolet scouring his territory for high-school prospects.
Joe Williams needed 10 hands to keep up — he was the head coach and the recruiter and the publicist and the wet nurse, and in addition to all of that he was teaching five classes at JU and commuting to the University of Florida in the summer for his own studies. “Sometimes it was like trying to climb a greased wall,” he has said. He was even arranging for the printing automobile floor mats with Dolphin schedules on them, and organizing a booster club (which now has 125 members, paying $100 a year each14). The 15-11 finish in 1964-65 represented the best record a Jacksonville team had ever had, but then it dipped to 12-11 in 1965-66 and 8-17 the next season. About all Williams had to cling to was something told him by Abe Lemons that first year when Oklahoma City and Jacksonville happened to run into each other on the road in Memphis.
The Dolphin Century Club was a booster organization modeled on Clemson’s IPTAY (I Pay Ten A Year) club, though with a higher membership price, since Jacksonville needed to make the most of the relatively few boosters it had.
“We had been on the road nearly a week,” Joe recalls, “riding cars, playing people like Carson-Newman and Tennessee Tech for small guarantees, not even making the bills, and we’d split the trip. Abe started telling us about the fine restaurant they’d been eating in while they were in town playing Memphis State, and he said, ‘If you’re going to lose or break even, you might as well do it in style.’ I think that’s when I made up my mind on the ‘Four-Year-Plan.'”
The Four-Year-Plan is something that evolved soon after Williams hired Tom Wasdin as his assistant coach and recruiter in 1966, the year of the 8-17 disaster. They had known each other since junior-high coaching days in Jacksonville (Wasdin was the Duval County coach of the year twice, but lost two of three games he played against Williams’ team).15 Wasdin, like Williams, had also come out of nowhere: he had been a star quarterback on the six-man football team at Waldo, Florida (pop. 800), and had his Florida basketball career cut short by a sandlot football injury. He and Williams complemented each other, Wasdin being the more glamorous recruiter type and Williams being the brooding executive, and at the very beginning of their relationship, they went to the school administration and said they wanted a chance to build a major basketball program in four years and if they didn’t succeed they would leave quietly. The Jacksonville administration didn’t necessarily give Williams and Wasdin a carte blanche, but they did give their blessings.
Wasdin remembers coaching against Williams in “cafetoriums” — cafeteria by day, auditorium at night — as they directed their respective teams of eighth-graders onto the court. Williams was so involved and demonstrative that the first time they coached against each other, he drifted far downcourt until he was standing in front of Wasdin’s team’s bench. “Coach,” said Wasdin coolly, “don’t you think you should be back over there with your team?” Williams left without his sportcoat that night, but came back the next day to retrieve it, striking up a conversation with Wasdin. The two men have been close friends ever since.
The next season the Dolphins broke even at 13-13. But things were happening. Super-recruiter Tom Wasdin had rolled up his sleeves and gone to work.
Practice time at Cole Fieldhouse on the University of Maryland campus in College Park, the eve of the semi-final round of the 1970 NCAA championship tournament. A chance for the teams to get used to the strange floor and the huge coliseum. At 7 o’clock, on Wednesday night, it is time for the Jacksonville University Dolphins, and a crowd of some 800 Maryland students and sportswriters surges around the glistening floor to watch. They do not believe Jacksonville. They do not believe that a “pickup” team like this can be the first NCAA team ever to average 100 points per game during the regular season, or lead the nation in rebounds. They want to see this Artis Gilmore, the 7-foot-2 transfer who is the nation’s leading rebounder and 18th scorer; and the 7-foot playmate of Gilmore’s, Pembrook Burrows III; and the little (6-foot-5) playmaker, Rex Morgan.
The first thing they see is a little bushy-haired black player, Chip Dublin, walk to the side of the court and put a home tape recorder on the floor and turn on the electricity. Dublin has brought a reel of tape filled with soul music. The Dolphins begin shooting basketballs, but then “Sweet Georgia Brown” drifts out of Chip Dublin’s tape recorder and Pembrook Burrows III yells, “Show time!!!” and now they are all blurring around Rex Morgan, while Morgan goes through his Harlem Globetrotter drill. Then they line up and eight straight men dunk the ball, Gilmore ending the show with a twisting, backward, two-handed dunk that sends the crowd up the wall.16
Williams remembers John Wooden telling him years later that, after seeing Jacksonville warm up before the championship game, UCLA’s Steve Patterson went to Wooden and asked, “Coach, why can’t we warm up like that?”
Once the 1969-70 season had ended, Tom Wasdin was being called one of the very strongest recruiters of basketball talent in the United States. He denies it — “except for Pembrook, we sort of fell into all of these boys” — but when you see the sort of talent he was able to recruit in competition with schools that have so much more to offer than Jacksonville, you have to give him a large amount of credit. Jacksonville has a limit of 15 basketball scholarships to give out (the Southeastern Conference has 25, for comparison), there is no freshman team and it is extremely difficult to lure a hot prospect to a school that plays some of its games in exotic places like Tallahassee and Greenville, North Carolina. It happened this way:
ARTIS GILMORE — Grew up in Chipley, Florida, a depressing little town in the scraggly piney woods of the Florida Panhandle some 250 miles west of Jacksonville. The son of a yardman, he was a good high-school basketball player at a black school in Chipley and — in his senior year, when he became too old to play in Florida — at the black school in Dothan, Alabama. First discovered by George Raveling of Maryland, maybe the premier scout of black talent in the nation, but couldn’t get into Maryland and was put under a rock, more or less, at tiny Gardner-Webb Junior College in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. Was averaging 23 points per game at G-W but was unhappy there. Wasdin, who had tried to get him out of high school, received a letter from another unhappy G-W player who wanted to transfer to JU and bring “a friend of mine who is 7-2.”17 Wasdin went after Gilmore, who wanted to be close to his aging parents and liked Williams, and he got him.
The player was Ernie Fleming, who didn’t get the requisite college credits to be eligible for the 1969-70 season but did play two years at Jacksonville, and still holds the single-game scoring record for the Dolphins, with 59 points against St. Peter’s in 1972.
REX MORGAN — From Charleston, Illinois, he was also courted by Wasdin when he was graduating from high school, but decided to go to the University of Evansville in Indiana. Unhappy there (according to one story, he didn’t like it because the freshman team was given sandwiches in brown paper bags on road trips), he moved to Lake Land Junior College in Illinois. Still unhappy, he called Jacksonville and came running. “Morgan may be the original tramp athlete,” says one cynical writer who has covered the Dolphins, but he gave the team go-power and set the style for it.18
“Rex was the one that got things started,” says Wasdin, when asked to name the key recruit in the program’s rise. Coming along for the ride, after being offered one of the school’s 15 basketball scholarships, was Morgan’s friend Frank Casey, who wound up serving as the school’s associate sports information director — and who during the 1969-70 season became one of the very first stat men to track blocked shots statistics, to monitor the imposing duo of Gilmore and Burrows.
CHIP DUBLIN — An all-city prep player in New York City, he signed with Loyola of Chicago but didn’t like it and left after four months. Wasdin was in New York trying to recruit another player when the player’s coach suggested he forget that one and find Dublin. Wasdin found Dublin working as a clerk at Chase Manhattan Bank on Wall Street and easily convinced him that playing basketball would be a lot more fun.
PEMBROOK BURROWS III — Came out of West Palm Beach and was so awkward he didn’t make high-school varsity until his senior year, and then scored a grand total of nine points in the two games he played. Started putting it together at Brevard Junior College (in Cocoa, Florida, where Wasdin once coached) and hit 69.4 percent from the field his second year there.19 This is the one Wasdin had to work on, against stiff competition.
Wasdin had watched Burrows facing off against Gilmore at the National Junior College tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas. “I can remember thinking,” he says, “that if we can get these two guys, we were going to be hard to beat.”
“What’s writing all about?” says John Crittenden of the Miami News. “It’s sticking around and asking one more question and not getting your feelings hurt, and that’s Wasdin as a recruiter.” Says another writer, on the usual suspicions that arise whenever a small team comes out of nowhere: “Hell, Jacksonville was so broke it couldn’t afford to cheat.” Says Williams: “I just called practice one day and they all showed up.” However they got to Jacksonville — these two 7-footers and these transfers — the fever began to rise before the season ever got started. All five of the starters were back from a 17-7 team, and now JU — with Gilmore and Burrows — had the tallest team in the world, probably.20
That front line of 7-foot-2 Gilmore, the 7-foot Burrows, and the 6-foot-10 Rod McIntyre prompted the immortal line from legendary Evansville coach Arad McCutchan, after Jacksonville had won Evansville’s holiday tournament: “Jacksonville is very vulnerable. An eight-footer would murder them.”
There was a closed-doors practice game against Davidson in Jacksonville before the season started, and the results of it had Gene Pullen writing about a national champion in the Jacksonville Journal: “Jacksonville led by 12 points at the half and ate ’em alive. We started going with that game, and everybody was laughing at us.” The thing is, the players believed in themselves and in Joe Williams, their hunched-over young coach who listened to jazz and read existentialist authors and visited museums on the road. “What’s discipline?” asked Williams. “It’s getting them to do what you want them to do.”
There were the openers, all of which JU won — East Tennessee State, Morehead State, Mercer, Biscayne. Jax lead Georgetown 41-26 and Gilmore had 21 rebounds with 1:23 left in the first half when a fierce fight broke out. Morgan was belted above the eye and bled like a stuck pig. The Dolphins won it on a forfeit.
They were 13-0 when they went to Tallahassee to play Florida State, and as noted above FSU won by 89-83 (Gilmore scoring “only” 21 points), but it was to be the only regular-season loss.
For the first time, Jacksonville was showing up in the national rankings of the wire services. The legend was growing about “the Mod Squad” (at Richmond, 5,000 showed up for Jacksonville a week after another Spiders game had drawn less than 1,000). JU was making money now, packing the Jacksonville Coliseum with between 6,000 and 10,000 fans a game (they made $10,000 off the FSU-Jax return match, which drew a state record crowd of 10,500). The year before Williams had gotten to Jacksonville, gate receipts for basketball had totaled $3,000 for the year, but if the Dolphins could make it to the NCAA finals they could gross nearly $100,000 for the season.
They made it. They were 23-1 when they went into the NCAA’s first round at Dayton against Western Kentucky (“Jacksonville Who?” read a motel marquee back in Bowling Green). Then they knocked off Big Ten champion Iowa and Southeastern Conference champ Kentucky in a space of three days at Columbus in the Mid-east Quarter-finals, and all that stood between them and a national title were St. Bonaventure (which had lost star Bob Lanier to injury) and, most likely, powerful UCLA.
Artis Gilmore was sitting all alone in a booth in the Interstate Inn dining room, working on his fourth Coke and staring through the rain-spattered plate-glass window, when the writers caught up with him on Friday afternoon. It had been a long, restless day for him, and although most of the other Dolphins were already leaving for the movies, he looked as though he were going to stay there until he got sleepy. The Jacksonville performance against St. Bonaventure the night before had been listless, even if JU had won the game, 91-83. Artis Gilmore had scored 29 points and taken 21 rebounds, but he had been heckled by the St. Bonaventure fans, and when 30 sportswriters crowded around him in the dressing room after the game, most of their questions implied that they thought he had played badly. And in the morning paper, he was referred to as a giraffe. So it was not a good day for the nation’s leading rebounder.
He is a brooding man, a dusky giant with sad eyes and a trim goatee. Few white people besides Joe Williams had ever been able to talk with him. He is courteous to almost everybody, but he simply doesn’t unwind and talk about the weather or girls to anybody who comes along. He is a black man from the Florida Panhandle, and maybe that is why. It is poor country, for black and white, and in the past two Presidential elections the area has gone overwhelmingly for Goldwater and for George Wallace. So maybe Artis Gilmore hasn’t had much practice with white men.
There were three or four writers who moved in on the booth with Gilmore, all of them traveling with Jacksonville, and Gilmore was reluctant to say much at first. He had had about 15 offers when finished at Carver High in Dothan, he said, Florida State not “showing much interest,” and when George Raveling had recommended Gardner-Webb Junior College to him he had gone. He didn’t like to think about Gardner-Webb, he said.
“Somebody said the coach was always slapping you.”
“No slapping,” Gilmore said. “Pinching and kicking.”
“Did you try to leave?” somebody asked.
“A lot of times I laid in bed and thought about it. But then I thought about losing hours in school and everything. One time I went to the bus station and bought a ticket, but it was late and the coach came and got me and took me back.”
“Why did you decide on Jacksonville?” he was asked.
“Because,” Artis Gilmore said, “Coach Williams was the first white man I ever trusted.”
What happened in the finals was, the best team won. UCLA fell behind quickly to Jacksonville, but when Johnny Wooden made some adjustments to shut off Artis Gilmore, the Bruins closed the first half with nine straight points and went on to win, 80-69.
There was no great joy that night at the Interstate Inn, but neither was there a wake. Of the key players, only Rex Morgan would not be around next season.
“We’re in pretty good company,” Tom Wasdin was saying. It was almost midnight and he was in the crowded motel bar with the tension off for the first time in months.
“How’d you feel tonight, before?” he was asked.
“I felt like we were a team of destiny.”
Throats were cleared and a round of drinks ordered. Wasdin insisted on buying. “We had a pretty good payday today,” he said.
“That’s what I understand.”
“But don’t forget,” said Dr. Judson Harris, the crew-cut JU athletic director, “we haven’t eaten breakfast yet.”
The Sunday after the finals, the city of Jacksonville honored its Dolphins with a huge banquet. On Monday morning Joe Williams went fishing and Tom Wasdin taught four classes. On Tuesday the Boston Celtics drafted Rex Morgan and forward Rod McIntyre, the latter a star two years earlier, but now buried in the shadow of Artis Gilmore. As though they had just discovered the game of basketball, Florida papers that week after the tournament were pouring out thousands of words about Jacksonville. Then it was announced that Joe Williams was leaving to become head coach at Furman University and would be replaced by Tom Wasdin. The money was one thing, Williams said (he was being boosted from $12,000 to $18,000 a year),21 but the real reason for the switch was that Furman is a basketball school. “There were too many extra duties at Jacksonville,” Williams said, and nobody had to have it explained.
“They offered me more money than that story said,” says Williams. “They doubled my salary.”
After Williams left Jacksonville, he coached two other teams — Furman and Florida State — into the NCAA tournament before retiring at the end of a 22-year college coaching career. Meanwhile, Wasdin coached Jacksonville to three 20-win seasons and two more tournament appearances, before retiring into business. “I know I did recruit some good players,” says Wasdin. “I was the front man, but the head coach is the guy who really, really has to close. And Joe did that.”
The success of the team’s players on and off the court put in sharp relief the easy stereotypes cast upon them — the team’s rotation featured two NBA players (Gilmore and Morgan), a cardiologist, a lawyer, two dentists, and many who were successful in business. “We just had an amazing group of kids,” says Wasdin. “No arguing, never used profanity.” Williams remembers Gilmore, dressed in a dashiki, patiently walking around the Jacksonville campus, trailed by fellow students. “I learned as much from Artis as he learned from me,” says Williams.
Hemphill continued his frequent contributions to Sport magazine, often handling the long story — called “The Sport Special” — that was the monthly magazine’s answer to Sports Illustrated‘s long, writerly takeouts known within the halls of SI as “the bonus piece.” Along the way, Hemphill became close friends with Dick Schaap, who took over as editor of Sport in 1973.22 Later, Hemphill gravitated to books. “He used to joke that he did the redneck trifecta — country music, NASCAR, and minor league baseball,” recalled his widow, Susan Percy.23
Hemphill’s collection, Lost in the Lights: Sports, Dreams, and Life, was dedicated “In memory of Dick Schaap.”
His onetime colleague (at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) and editor Billy Winn once said, “You know, Paul Hemphill is incapable of writing a bad sentence. That must be a terrible burden to carry around.”
As for the tournament that Hemphill captured, you know the rest. Later in 1970, ABC debuted the new series Monday Night Football and proved that spectator sports could garner a significant audience in prime time. Just three seasons later, the Final Four moved from a Thursday evening-Saturday afternoon schedule to a Saturday afternoon-Monday evening sequence, with the national championship game played in prime time for the first time. By 1979, Larry Bird was leading a little-seen Indiana State team into the national championship game. But nobody was telling stories about $250 recruiting budgets, or a ramshackle group not being able to pay their restaurant tab.
There would be dozens more Cinderellas at the Big Dance, but never another Jacksonville.
Michael MacCambridge is the author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, and the editor of the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia.
Previously from Michael MacCambridge:
Director’s Cut: ‘Back in Play’ by David Remnick
Director’s Cut: Bringing It All Back Home
Director’s Cut: Silent Season of a Hero
Director’s Cut: The Making of a Goon