Coach Tom Blackburn

By Emily Janowski

Tom Blackburn was the first full-time basketball coach at the University of Dayton. Hired in 1947, Blackburn led the Flyers until 1964. During that period Blackburn’s astounding career ended with 352 victories and 141 losses.[1] With more than 300 wins in his collegiate coaching career, he was one of the 44 coaches in the nation to have a 71% winning percentage.[2] Blackburn led the Flyers to 22 tournaments, 6 NIT finals, a Kentucky Invitational Tournament win in 1955, and a NIT championship win in 1962. Tom’s 17 teams won 20 or more games each season, making him the second winningest coach in the University of Dayton’s history.[3]

Blackburn’s renowned coaching abilities along with his disciplinarian demeanor were what helped him bring basketball excellence and national recognition to the university. He cultivated the next generation of University of Dayton basketball royalty. Blackburn protégés, Don Donoher and Tom Frericks, continued the success of the program in coming decades. As the second most winningest coaches in University of Dayton history, Blackburn’s legacy continues to be commemorated by the university and the community.

Early Life

Leonard Thomas Blackburn was born on January 23, 1906 in rural Otway, Ohio in Scioto County.[4] The Blackburn family consisted of five boys and one girl who lived on a “hardscrabble farm.” In his book The Flyers, the sports journalist, Ritter Collett, recounted how the Blackburn boys spent their childhood attending to farm chores like dragging logs down to the railroad tracks on horse or oxen drawn wagons. When not laboring on the farm, they spent their time playing sports together. The whole family enjoyed playing baseball and Blackburn was always the designated pitcher. Blackburn’s younger brother of eight years, Wayne, who would go onto play minor league baseball and eventually become a scout for the Detroit Tigers.[5] Like his brother, Blackburn went play multiple sports in high school. In spite of his baseball skills, the sport he excelled in was football. After high school, Blackburn started working as a section hand on the N&W Railroad to save money in order to pursue a college education and play football. In 1927, he enrolled at Wilmington College where he prospered as the quarterback on the football team, a player for the basketball team, and a pitcher for the baseball team. [6]

College and Early Post-College Career

In 1931, after graduating from Wilmington College, Blackburn got his first coaching job at West Carrollton High School. Here he coached football and basketball for four years. Over the course of his coaching at West Carrollton, he led both teams to winning football records of 26-7-3 and basketball records of 58-22.[7] After leaving his position at West Carrollton High School in 1935, Blackburn began work as a golf pro at the Xenia Country Club. His main profession, however, was coaching football and basketball at Xenia Central High School. Again, he led a winning record for both teams over an eight-year period: 35-25-11 for football and 120-45 for basketball.[8] It was the basketball team that proved to be Blackburn’s most successful. He coached them to five Miami Valley league crowns, three Southwest district championships, and a state title.

These achievements caught the attention of Jack Brown, the athletic director at the University of Dayton. In 1941, Brown and Hank Malloy, a ticket manager at the university, approached Blackburn to talk about a basketball coaching opportunity at the University of Dayton. Despite leading a successful basketball coaching career, Blackburn primarily saw himself as a football coach and he told Brown and Malloy he was not interested. Brown and Malloy could not persuade him to take the position at the salary offered or bargain salary having approached Blackburn without the approval of the university they could not.[9]

Blackburn’s decision to forgo coaching at the University of Dayton initially was a good one as the World War II effort contributed to a decrease in university enrollment nationwide during the 1940s. Blackburn also became interested in participating in the war effort. By 1943, Blackburn left Xenia Central High School feeling he achieved all he could as a coach there and signed up for Navy Officer’s Training. He felt the need to contribute to the war effort, so he became an instructor for Navy pre-flight at the University of North Carolina. In North Carolina, Blackburn met Libby Porter at a friend’s dinner party in Chapel Hill.[10] A year later in 1944, Blackburn and Libby married and in 1952, he became a father to his daughter, Elizabeth (Liza).[11] Though, the New York Times obituary claims that Blackburn had previously been married and had a son named Ted; this information is not corroborated by any other sources.[12] By 1946, Blackburn left his naval position when he and Libby moved from Fayetteville, North Carolina to Dayton, Ohio.[13] In 1946, Blackburn came back to Dayton as a golf pro and club manager at Greenville Country club, but he ended this position in December to become the golf pro for Madden Park.

“Wife Libby and daughter Liza pose with Tom before 15th season, 1961-62.” Tom Blackburn Booklet. 1964. UA.011, Box 1, Folder 14. Athletics Collection. University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

Early Years at the University of Dayton

After World War II ended, Post War Era America was an era of economic prosperity. In 1944, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the G.I. Bill, provided opportunities for returning soldiers to fuel industrial growth. The G.I. Bill funded the higher education of veterans in order to generate experts who would fuel American industry. In turn, the government fulfilled corporations’ need for experts to create new consumer goods, while also spreading wealth among a broader population. The G.I. Bill created a consumer economy within the nation as men were making more money and making new products on which they could spend their money. Due to this change, a new middle-class ethos was created where one’s main objective was to achieve “the good life.” This “good life” was possible for more people than ever as it was attained through the accumulation of material goods. In this time, consumerism and leisure played a major role in one’s happiness. The new middle class was able to purchase more products and engage in more leisure activities. In fact, leisure replaced occupation as the “primary mechanism for the creation of selfhood.”[14] This is why sporting events, like college basketball, became so popular among the American population, giving Blackburn the fan-base he needed to make the Flyers national competitors.

While these post war era changes were occurring throughout the nation, the athletic director from the University of Dayton approached Blackburn again asking him to coach basketball exclusively. [15] As enrollment at the university rose due to the G.I. Bill there was a renewed interest by Blackburn and he agreed to the basketball coaching position for $1200 a year salary.[16] The University of Dayton’s basketball program was in miserable condition. The basketball coach, James Carter, ended the 1946-1947 season with a losing record of 4-17.[17] Prior to Blackburn, the basketball and football coach were the same person. Hiring separate coaches was part of the expansion of the university’s athletic department.[18]

The new changes to the University of Dayton’s athletic department and the decision to hire Blackburn proved to be successful for the university, especially the basketball team, as Blackburn’s coaching would bring basketball excellence and national recognition to the University of Dayton.[19] The Coach Blackburn Era of University of Dayton basketball began in 1947. Blackburn became the University of Dayton’s first full-time basketball coach after replacing Carter.[20] He was given a team to coach and his first game was on December 6, 1947 at the gymnasium in the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Coliseum. The Flyers played a military team from Wright Field, winning 61-30 with 900 people in attendance.

“Tom’s First Team.” Tom Blackburn Booklet.1964. UA.011, Box 1, Folder 14. Athletics Collection. University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

Blackburn ended the 1947-1948 with a losing 12-14 record, but he had developed plans to seek out players for the upcoming season. [21] After his first season, he started building his basketball team for the 1948-1949 season by recruiting high school players around Dayton and good players from the armed forces that were brought to his attention.[22] He took full advantage of the G.I. Bill, which allowed veterans to attend universities through government funding. Now, average Americans could receive a higher education, expanding the student population of universities dramatically. For Blackburn, this meant he could get more players from more diverse educational backgrounds.

According to Collett, Blackburn “turned on” his charm to assemble his basketball team, which was very different than his cold disciplinarian manner.[23] Blackburn’s normal demeanor was considered to be strict and authoritative as described by many of his players. His conduct came from his life experiences, which included the Great Depression and World War II. Both the Depression and the war revived the values of restraint within many Americans. In this sense, Blackburn was typical of his generation.[24] Blackburn kept these qualities as well as those he obtained from the Navy, which helped him become a stern, yet respected coach.

Blackburn’s “charm” worked as his attempts to form a better team were successful. The 1948-1949 team broke the University of Dayton basketball record for the most victories (16) in a single season.[25] The next season’s team broke that record by winning 24 games. This team was known as the “Cinderella Kids” as they were the first team in Flyer history to achieve such a significant winning record of 24-8 in over thirty years.[26]

 

Rise of the Program in the 1950s

Improvement of the University of Dayton teams led to the construction of a new gymnasium for the Flyers. In the early years of the basketball team, the University of Dayton played at a gymnasium in the city of Dayton’s fairgrounds coliseum. This proved to be difficult for Blackburn and his team because they didn’t have open access to its gym.[27] These circumstances encouraged Blackburn to gather alumni support for a University of Dayton basketball arena, which motivated the athletic department to aid the effort. These efforts led to the construction of the university’s own basketball arena and on November 29, 1950 the Fieldhouse opened.[28] Opening night, the Flyers played Central Missouri and lost in an upset.[29]

Blackburn put together the best team in Flyer history as the first Fieldhouse basketball coach.[30] The 1950-1951 team went 24-8, landing them a bid in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in New York.[31] The NIT is a yearly post-season tournament played at Madison Square Garden in New York. The University of Dayton came into the tournament as underdogs, but prevailed with their “biggest victory” in the semifinals over St. John’s with the final score set at 69-62.[32] The team lost to Brigham Young University in the finals, but was greeted with a “welcome home” celebration at the Fieldhouse attended by the team’s dedicated fans.[33 Not only did they exceed everyone’s expectations, but their accomplishments affirmed the University of Dayton as a “big time” school.[34] This game established the Flyers as a national competitor. Blackburn said, “Once our team made it to the NIT finals it was easy for me to schedule big name teams and finally move UD to the brink of basketball recognition.”[35]

“Tom talks to fieldhouse crowd after return from 1950-51 NIT’s runner-up role.” Tom Blackburn Booklet. 1964. UA.011, Box 1, Folder 14. Athletics Collection. University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

The rest of Blackburn’s coaching career at the University of Dayton was followed by much success. This was due to his eye for recruiting, which “turned UD into a regional powerhouse and a national contender.”[36] In the beginning of his career, Blackburn tried to stock the teams with players he had known or heard about while in the military.[37] This approach worked, but he was able to extend his recruiting abilities with what Collet calls his natural charm and persuasive qualities. Recruiting players was an important part to the success of University of Dayton basketball. In his own words, Blackburn said, “we do our share of honest recruiting at Dayton because we feel you can’t win horse races with mules. But the recruiting practices of some coaches are overrated. All things considered, it is salesmanship and not money that persuades a prospect to attend your school.”[38]

The University of Dayton’s national awareness increased because of the Flyer’s participation in the NITs. Many high school basketball players became interested in the university and Blackburn. Due to this positive exposure, Blackburn recruited many noteworthy prospects to play basketball at the University of Dayton. Don Meineke played for the Flyers during the 1950-1951 and 1951-1952 seasons, leading those teams to NIT bids. He was the university’s first All American Player later went on to play professional basketball for the Fort Wayne Pistons.[39] Blackburn also recruited Bill Uhl, who was the team’s first 7-footer player. He helped the Flyers to attain three NIT bids. [40] He also played in one of the Flyer’s most significant games in which the University of Dayton won in an upset of the undefeated Seton Hall at the end of the 1952-1953 season.[41]

This continued to be an important decade for Blackburn and his team. Between 1950-1960, the University of Dayton was fourth in the nation for the highest winning percentage of a basketball team.[42]  And in 1955, he led the Flyers to a win in the Kentucky Invitational Tournament.[43] This year the team also made it to the NIT finals for the fourth time in five years. Blackburn and the Flyers ended the 1954-1955 season with a second-place finish in the tournament.[44] The Flyers continued to prosper as Blackburn hit his 200th victory for the University of Dayton in the second game of the 1956-1957 season.[45] Blackburn’s success helped establish a renowned basketball program at the university, bringing in more Flyers as both players and fans.

University of Dayton Alumnus, March 1952, University of Dayton Archives.

“Tom after 1962 NIT Win.” Tom Blackburn Booklet. 1964. UA.011, Box 1, Folder 14. Athletics Collection. University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

The Championship Decade

Although the success of the 1950s had been significant, Blackburn’s teams had failed to win NIT in their seven tournament appearances. The 1960s made way for a more victorious decade of basketball for the university as Blackburn led the team to success in the 1962 NITs. It was the ninth time within 11 seasons that the Flyers won a bid to the New York tournament.[46] However, their 20-6 record wasn’t sufficient to earn a seeded spot in the tournament.[47] Blackburn’s team played Wichita in the first round winning 79-71.[48] Blackburn warned the Flyers that Wichita was a tough team because they used a pressing defense method. The Flyers came out of the game victorious due to the strict officiating of the game, which caused two of Wichita’s star players to foul out. The next game was against Houston, which the Flyers won 94-77.[49] This victory pushed the team into the semi-finals where the Flyers faced Loyola of Chicago. They were down three points at half-time, but some angry halftime coaching by Blackburn pushed the team towards a 98-82 victory.[50] The Flyers advanced to the Finals where they played St. John’s. St. John’s had previously won three NIT titles and had been to the tournament 13 times.[51] The team prevailed with a 73-67, ending with a rush of fans racing to court to celebrate the win.[52]

The St. John’s game had been nationally televised, increasing the pressure and the exposure of the Flyers. The NITs had previously established Blackburn and his team as qualified competitors and had even encouraged prospective players to look into the university. The 1962 victory improved these outcomes and made the Flyers nationally recognized champions, making both the fans and the city of Dayton proud. The tournament win was a great triumph for the University of Dayton, but especially for Blackburn. He had participated in the NITs for ten post-seasons and half of them ending with a runner-up position. This victory was Blackburn’s ultimate triumph as this was also Blackburn’s last post season tournament.[53]

In 1962, Blackburn was diagnosed with lung cancer, but he kept the severity of his condition a secret. He continued to attend and participate in all of the basketball practices despite his weakened state.[54] The Flyers had entered their 1963-1964 season when Blackburn’s health worsened. On September 9, 1963, a cough sent him to the hospital for “tests.” Two weeks later he underwent exploratory surgery at the Miami Valley Hospital. A day later he was notified that the doctors found a tumor in surgery. Blackburn’s strong-willed personality pushed him through the first two weeks of practice of the season. However, on November 7, 1963, he was hospitalized for a “dehydrated condition.” Later, he came back and told the team about his cancer, but he also said that he felt cured of his condition. Blackburn thrived through the beginning of the season and so did the Flyers as they won their first seven games.[55]

Death and Legacy

In January of 1964, Blackburn’s health was weakening, and the team was on a five-game loss streak. This was the longest streak of games the University of Dayton had lost in a row under Blackburn’s coaching. Blackburn became so unstable that he eventually had to get an arm chair to coach courtside. February 26, 1964 was the last time he was able to direct the team because three days later he returned to the hospital. On March 6, 1964, Blackburn passed away at 6:30 PM, just 26 ½ hours before the close of the Flyer’s season. His last wish before he died had been to make it through the end of the season.

The final game of the season was dedicated to Blackburn. The team played DePaul but ended up losing 73-79. The team tried their best to stay focused, but the atmosphere surrounding the game was full of sorrow. Blackburn was beloved among his players and the University of Dayton community. To commemorate Blackburn, the game’s receipts were given to the Blackburn family. The Tom Blackburn Memorial Scholarship Fund was also established with an initial gift of $1000 from the Flyers Club to commemorate his eye for recruiting.[56]

As a coach, Blackburn was known for his use of single pivot offense.[57] He also emphasized man-to-man defense as he wanted to outlaw zone defense.[58] The players respected his coaching decisions as he was tough and a strict disciplinarian. To show is devotion to the team, he would write a letter to every player at the middle of the season, which highlighted each player’s strengths and emphasized what they needed to improve on.[59] These coaching qualities along with his incredible winning record qualified him to be inducted posthumously into the University of Dayton Athletic Hall of Fame in January of 1969.[60]

Blackburn’s greatest legacy at the University of Dayton was establishing a winning basketball program. He set a foundation of what was to come next under his former player Don Donoher who after Blackburn’s 17 years, took over as head coach on March 17, 1964. The success achieved by Donoher was initiated by Blackburn’s coaching of the 1963-1964 recruits and the knowledge that he passed onto Donoher. Another one of Blackburn’s players, Tom Frericks, was major contributor to the expansion of the university’s basketball program and athletic department. Donoher and Frericks, along with all the other Blackburn players have contributed to the prolongment of Blackburn’s legacy by keeping his memory alive.

On November 21, 1997, the university hosted a Blackburn Dedication Dinner. At this dinner, the university dedicated the court in the arena to Coach Blackburn and the proceeds of the dinner went towards the Donoher Basketball Center. Many close friends of Tom believed he would not have enjoyed having anything dedicated to him because he was a very modest man.[61] However, he made such an impact on the University of Dayton that it was difficult to not acknowledge him in some way. On July 1, 2004, some of Blackburn’s first NIT team players arranged another memorial event for him. The players put together money to purchase a new 2-piece tablet-style monument for his grave identifying him as the University of Dayton coach. The man behind this idea was Leland “Junior” Norris, the captain of the 1951-1952 team. Again, the players were unsure whether Tom would have liked the attention received from this event and the monument, but they felt it was necessary to recognize his accomplishments as a coach along with his military achievements that were already represented on his grave.[62] Tom’s legacy is still felt and honored by the University of Dayton as it is a university centered on basketball culture, which Tom helped develop into the successful program it is today.

Endnotes:

[1] Bucky Albers, “A Final, Fond Farewell,” Dayton Daily News (Dayton, OH), July 1, 2004.

[2] University of Dayton Arena Website Article, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 9, Athletics Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[3] “Winning Coaches: Tom Blackburn” in Tom Blackburn Booklet by Joe McLaughlin, 1964, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 14, Athletics Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[4] Ritter Collett, The Flyers (Dayton: Landfall Press Inc., 1989), 29.

[5] Collett, The Flyers, 29.

[6] Collett, The Flyers, 29-30.

[7] Bob Smith, “Tommy Blackburn, Scholastic,” Dayton Herald (Dayton, OH), February 13, 1947.

[8] Smith, “Tommy Blackburn, Scholastic.” Dayton Herald.

[9] Collett, The Flyers, 25-30.

[10] Albers, “A Final, Fond Farewell,” July 1, 2004.

[11] Collett, The Flyers, 38.

[12] “Tom Blackburn Is Dead at 58; Coached Basketball at Dayton; Physical Education Professor Led Flyers to 351 Victories and N.I.T. Title in 17 Years,” New York Times (New York City, NY), March 7, 1964.

[13] Smith, “Tommy Blackburn, Scholastic.” Dayton Herald.

[14] Todd Uhlman, “Post War America: Part 1.”

[15] Collett, The Flyers, 30-38.

[16] “Tom Blackburn” in Tonight Signals the End of an Era by Jim Zofkie, 1969, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 14, Athletics Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[17] Collett, The Flyers, 27.

[18] Smith, “Tommy Blackburn, Scholastic.” Dayton Herald.

[19] Larry Schweikart, Voices of UD (Dayton: University of Dayton, 2000), 141.

[20] “Our Golden Years” in Tonight Signals the End of an Era by Jack Brown, 1969, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 14, Athletics Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[21] Collett, The Flyers, 36.

[22] “Our Golden Years,” Brown, 1969.

[23] Collett, The Flyers, 36.

[24] Uhlman, “Post War America: Part 1.”

[25] “History on the Hardwoods” in Daytonian, 1949, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 15, Athletics Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[26] “Cinderella Kids Top Record” in Daytonian, 1950, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 15, Athletics Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[27] Collett, The Flyers, 31.

[28] Collett, The Flyers, 13.

[29] “A Great Nineteen Years” in Tonight Signals the End of an Era by Ritter Collett, 1969, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 14, Athletics Collection. University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[30] “This Is It” in Tonight Signals the End of an Era by Si Burick, 1969, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 14, Athletics Collection. University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[31] Collett, The Flyers, 13.

[32] “Tom Blackburn,” Zofkie, 1969.

[33] Jim Harlan and Paul Horn, “Dayton Daily Camera News,” Dayton Daily News (Dayton, OH), March 19, 1951, 12.

[34] “Our Golden Years,” Brown, 1969.

[35] Nick Sharkey, “Late Coach Well Remembered: Blackburn’s Anniversary Tomorrow,” Flyer News 11, No. 21 (Dayton, OH), March 5, 1965.

[36] Schweikart, Voices of UD, 143.

[37] Collett, The Flyers, 35.

[38] “Tom Blackburn Is Dead at 58, New York Times.

[39] Schweikart, Voices of UD, 142.

[40] Schweikart, Voices of UD, 142-143.

[41] “A Great Nineteen Years,” Collett, 1969.

[42] Sharkey, “Late Coach Well Remembered,” March 5, 1965.

[43] “Hall of Fame Inducts Late Tom Blackburn,” Flyer News 16, No. 22 (Dayton, OH), January 31, 1969.

[44] “National Invitational Tournament” in Daytonian, 1955, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 15, Athletics Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[45] Daytonian, 1957, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 15, Athletics Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[46] Collett, The Flyers, 97.

[47] Collett, The Flyers, 100.

[48] Collett, The Flyers, 100.

[49] Collett, The Flyers, 102.

[50] Collett, The Flyers, 102.

[51] Collett, The Flyers, 106.

[52] Collett, The Flyers, 106.

[53] Collett, The Flyers, 97-106. 2

[54] Schweikart, Voices of UD, 144.

[55] Joe McLaughlin, Director of Sports Information, 1964, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 14, Athletics Collection. University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[56] Joe McLaughlin, Director of Sports Information, 1964.

[57] “Tom Blackburn,” Zofkie, 1969.

[58] “Si-ings” Tom Blackburn Booklet by Si Burick, 1964, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 14, Athletics Collection, University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[59] Collett, The Flyers, 34.

[60]  “Hall of Fame Inducts Late Tom Blackburn,” January 31, 1969.

[61] The Blackburn Dedication Dinner Invitation, October 20, 1997, UA.011, Box 1, Folder 14, Athletics Collection. University of Dayton Archives, Dayton, OH.

[62] Albers, “A Final, Fond Farewell,” July 1, 2004.