The Changing Landscape of College Basketball

The growing importance of college sports to the overall recruitment efforts of universities was reflected in the emergence of the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament. Created in 1939 by Ohio State University coach Harold Olsen and the National Association of Basketball Coaches, the tournament long competed against others for distinction. As late as the 1950s the National Invitational Tournament was considered by many to be the tournament that crowned the national champion. But in the 1950s the NCAA began taking greater control over TV broadcast rights to collegiate sporting games and thus the revenue potential of athletic programs. By the early 1960s it had become evident to a few that NCAA tournament was destined to supersede the more regionally situated NIT. Better able to bill itself as a national tournament and profit from the explosion of TV viewership, the NCAA brought together the best teams while capitalizing upon the expanding profit potential of college athletics. [22]

Despite its growth, Coach Tom Blackburn refused to recognize the importance of the NCAA. Part of the reason was that his Flyers teams had forged a remarkable record at the NIT. Another was his animus towards the NCAA for unfairly punishing UD in the Roger Brown point shaving scandal of 1960. [23] However, Frericks held an entirely different view and was one of the earliest to recognize the NCAA’s potential. Before becoming UD’s Athletic Director Frericks, along with Donoher, had attended NCAA events, particularly the 1958 finals. Frericks took strides to build connections with NCAA officials and arrived on campus with the intention of directing the Flyers’ post-season play toward the NCAA tournament. According to Coach Donoher the shift came none too early. He believed that resentment within NCAA concerning Blackburn’s support of NIT was to blame for infamous 52 foul game in … tournament FIND DATE] [24].

Frericks’ sagacity with regards to advantages of the NCAA tournament was on full display following UD’s tournament run of 1966-1967. After each of the victories large crowds were waiting to welcome the team home. With the victory over Virginia Tech the school secured a trip to Louisville for UD’s first Final Four appearance. In the semi-final the Flyers faced Dean Smith’s storied North Carolina Tar Heels program, which was ranked fourth that year and was favored by a significant margin. Still, UD’s fans hoped that it would be a close game. Addressing the crowd at the prep rally before leaving, Rudy Waterman promised they would get just that, warning, “We’re going down to Louisville with the purpose of winning two ballgames, but if you got a bad heart don’t come down.” [25]

As it turned out, Flyer fans’ hearts rested easy. Although the game began poorly for UD, trailing 9-2 “Donoher substituted Glinder Torain and Torain fired up the team’s performance on the boards.” [26] With Don May leading the team by hitting thirteen consecutive shots on the way to scoring 34 points, the Flyers overwhelmed North Carolina, earning the spotlight and appearing in the NCAA final against UCLA. Coached by John Wooden and standing on the shoulders of its superstar center Lew Alcindor (known today as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), the Bruins built a 29-0 record en route to the finals and were the clear favorite. The Flyers did a respectable job of holding Alcinder to just 20 points, but he had the best basketball talent in the land surrounding him. The Bruins steadily built their lead over UD’s outmatched squad. The highlight of the game for Dayton came in its first seconds when Dan Obrovac (1947-2010) improbably out-jumped Alcinder for the opening tip.

Obrovac and Dayton’s big moment.

The picture of the moment appeared in Sports Illustrated and has become iconic for UD sports fans. Dayton Daily News columnist Tom Archdeacan interviewed Obrovac before his untimely death. He tells the story of Obrovac’s awe for Alcinder, whose picture had graced Obravac’s dorm room. It was an emotion that grew into something more when in 2010 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—one of the most famous players to play the game—remembered his distant adversary and sent Obrovac notes of encouragement as he battled cancer. [27]

Sports Illustrated, April 3, 1967, Scrapbooks, Box 12, Sunray Cover, University of Dayton Archives and Special Collections. Right: finals ticket stub, Don Donoher Private Collection.

Sports Illustrated, April 3, 1967, Scrapbooks, Box 12, Sunray Cover, University of Dayton Archives and Special Collections.

As for Frericks’ larger goal of building an arena, the defeat in the NCAA finals did not matter. Rather, Frericks’ strategy of playing in the NCAA paid off with enormous publicity. Another NIT victory that year for the Flyers would have been a notable addition to the schools history, but by entering the NCAA tournament the university and its basketball program received far more national television coverage. The basketball program and university as a whole had dramatically elevated its national presence. According to one story, U.S. soldiers in Vietnam named their intramural basketball team ‘The Flyers,’ even though none of them had attended UD or were even from Dayton. At home, Daytonians had become enraptured with their team, building tremendous emotional momentum that Frericks could exploit in order to get his dreamed of a new arena built. [28]