Descent into my March Madness...
You have to take Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to get to my March Madness. Set the dial for 1969-'70. That’s the year the NCAA mens’ basketball tournament was devastated by a Dolphnado.
The Jacksonville University Dolphins - from my sweet little alma mater JU, where I was a sophomore - schooled up for a run through the Mideast Regionals and all the way to the finals, against John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins. Right out of the gate, the sporting press dubbed us The Mod Squad.
Ours was the smallest school (in enrollment) ever to play an NCAA Final, a record that still stands. Also, no team called the Dolphins had ever kicked serious ass in either college or pro sports; the Miami Dolphins domination of the NFL was still a couple of years out.
Nevertheless, our J Dolphs had just become the first college team ever to average over 100 points per game for an entire season. This while playing in an era with no shot-clock, no three-point line, and no dunking allowed.
(Those first two no’s would prove mere annoyances to JU, but the no dunking rule would play a huge role in the title game against Wooden’s UCLA.)
The Dolphins had not managed to evade anyone’s sonar. JU came into the NCAA tournament more like Godzilla than Cinderella, with a single loss and a number 2 national ranking. But the haters among the college basketball elite in 1970, and the haters in the national sporting press, just could not believe their own eyes until it was too late.
All season they had derided JU as a “pick-up” team, with a “playground brand” of ball, and a “rent-a-goon” frontline with not one but a pair of black seven-footers, both having transferred in that season from obscure and therefore suspect junior college programs. Haters gonna hate. But ours will always be basketball's first Twin Towers.
Both 7-footers were, in fact, down home brothers from the Florida towns of West Palm Beach, and tiny Chipley, unmarked on most state maps. One of them blotted out the gym lights at 7’2” topped with another half a foot of ‘fro. His name was Artis Gilmore and he would go on to become the ABA icon known as “the A Train” - and after that a six time all-star in the NBA. At JU Artis was still just the “Big A”. The other 7-footer was Pembrook Burrows III. Known at JU as Pembrook. After a brief career as a journeyman pro, Pembrook would go on to live out Shaq’s fantasy as the tallest state trooper in the Florida Highway Patrol.
The rest of the J Dolphs were unheralded white boys from the basketball heartland, some Hoosiers included, and some hometown players from J-ville. All of them with chips on their shoulders and two or three with serious skills. Like shooting guard Rex Morgan, a playmaker and penetrator who would make 215 free throws that season, second only to Pete Maravich. All American, drafted by the Boston Celtics.
Btw, the backup point guard was a classmate of mine and a two-sport star at J-ville’s only Catholic High School; where I once caught a pass over him on a fly route in a flag football game in phys ed class - highlight reel stuff for the likes of me, a non-player of organized sports.
The 6-10 forward was a frat brother of mine, also drafted by the Celtics. When JU went big, he was on the floor with Artis and Pembrook - on what instantly became the tallest frontline in college basketball, averaging 7 feet.
The one other brother on the squad, from the playgrounds of New York City, was the first black player at JU. His name was Charles "Chip" Dublin; he was the star sixth man off the bench, the flashiest player on the team and a huge fan favorite. We want the Chipper! Send in the Chipper!
JU Coach Joe Williams, and his ninja recruiter Tom Wasdin, had pulled off the recruiting coup of all time. They had conjured the Dolphnado and unleashed it on unsuspecting division one competition.
But I actually coined the term, in a column I wrote for the student paper, The Navigator. A sophomoric exercise, admittedly, but then I was a sophomore at the time.
I described how it first came in a dream: End of the world thunderstorm in progress. Out of nowhere a badass waterspout appears on the St. Johns, then up the riverbank at JU, and out onto our home court in our tiny sweatbox Swisher Gym.
The opposing team shrinks back in awe, as the Dolphnado spins out Artis “the Big A” Gilmore and his Mod Squad.
“We ran a controlled break,” Coach Williams would say with a straight face.
Now the J Dolphs were suddenly battering the NCAA temple walls. JU had swept into the Sweet Sixteens, where we beat the Big Ten champ Iowa on a put-back at the buzzer. Then in the Elite Eight we torpedoed the Southeastern Conference champ Kentucky Wildcats, coached by the legendary “Man in the Brown Suit” Adolph Rupp, 106-100. Rated Number One in the country at the time.
The unthinkable had become the possible. This basketball rabble was one game away the national title! The haters were having a stroke!
Fittingly, it would fall to the John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, to send this freak show packing back to J-ville and restore order to the college basketball universe.
Wooden was a lover not a hater but he was so old school he started his players on the fundamentals of getting their socks on right and their sneakers properly tied.
Coach Williams, the Zen Master of Swisher - yes! - Swisher Gym, was as hang-loose as Wooden was controlling. He did not believe in player curfews, and he was known to draw up plays on the backs of envelopes.
Artis Gilmore also said Williams was “the first white man I ever trusted.” This one year after the ’68 Summer Olympics, with the double Black Power salute from U.S. track stars on the winners’ podium. When Artis threw in with Coach Williams in the summer of ’69, JU was a tiny private liberal arts university in a racially divided city.
Williams was the closer with Artis, after Williams’ ninja recruiter Tom Wasdin had delivered the Big A to JU on a bank shot that just happened to go in. Coach Williams was always the closer; he had signed up Wasdin as his assistant coach and recruiter, at a higher salary than that of the head coach himself.
How did this unlikely good old boy duo, long-time rival high school coaches in J-ville, and before that as opposing junior high coaches - how did these two join forces? How did they get one game away from pulling off the heist of the century in college basketball?
How did their J Dolphs, branded as renegades, unite a racially divided city? How did they inspire a wave of Mod Squad Mania, with growing crowds of jubilant fans meeting the team's returning plane right there on the tarmac. Virtually no airport security in 1970, so the more the merrier. My frat brother forward recalled one autograph seeker who yanked the booty off her newborn and implored him to sign the bottom of her baby’s foot.
With even more fans pulling their cars over along the interstate into town from the airport, cheering the passing team bus and waving signs of support. With thirty-thousand plus fans on their feet at a rally in the Gator Bowl.
How did Williams and Wasdin pilot their Dolphnado all the way to the NCAA finals, against a UCLA team on a mission to win a fourth consecutive national title for their coach John Wooden?
One game, winner takes home the national title. No shot clock, no three-pointers, no dunk rule in affect.
How did it really play out? What is the untold story of the most magical March Madness Cinderella ever?
Bi-Coastal Sports Memoir by SB
Three years after this post first appeared, the story of the Mod Squad has become the centerpiece of our new feature documentary, JACKSONVILLE WHO? Our film premiered February 20th on NBA TV, as part of Black History Month.
The sports media dubbed them The Mod Squad, but to the college basketball establishment they were...Jacksonville WHO?