Friday, February 26, 2016

Fifty years ago, a championship team and season

      (Second in a series)
     One reason the 1966-67 Louisiana Tech basketball team was special to me, other than the friends: It was the first conference championship team I experienced in my four years (fall 1965-spring '69) at Tech.
     That 1966-67 team was my sophomore year. The only other Tech team to win a conference championship in those years was in golf of my senior spring, the last of many championships for legendary athletic director/football and golf coach Joe Aillet.
     Great as the football tradition was -- and is -- at the university, not even Terry Bradshaw, in his breakout junior season, could deliver a title (he did with the 1969 Bulldogs, but I had graduated). 
     Great as the Tech baseball tradition was, we missed a championship by a half-game in my freshman year, losing both ends of a final-day doubleheader after winning six consecutive doubleheaders.
Charlie Bishop and Richard Peek, back row, left side. Bob Watson ducked
out of this photo. (from the Shreveport Journal game story)
     So basketball provided the big thrills in many ways in that 1966-67 season, remembered for our "Triple Towers" at center -- Richard Peek, Bob Watson and Charlie Bishop.
     But that team had so much more ... and we thought from the start of practice this would be a great season. It was.  
     We had two veteran guards who could flat-out shoot -- senior Leon Barmore (you might have heard of him, as a women's basketball coach chosen to the Basketball Hall of Fame) and junior Jimmy Pruett, back after a redshirt season (knee injury).
      The other starter was senior small forward Jon Pat Stephenson (6-foot-3), the team's most versatile, fastest and all-around best athlete.
      The bench was strong, led by two juniors -- rugged 6-7 forward Tommy Gregory and tenacious defensive star Malcolm Smith (6-4). In many of the key games, they were on the floor at the finish.
      All five of those players, like Bishop, were from Louisiana. Two other top reserves were guards -- senior Billy Ray Stokes (Yazoo City, Miss.), a junior college transfer in his second year at Tech, and true freshman Wayne Smith (Tishomingo, Okla.) in his only year at Tech.
      Three key factors in this team's success: (1) the big guys, Peek and Bishop as a devastating low-post combo; (2) great balance, all five starters averaged scoring in double figures -- Barmore 15.6, Bishop 14.6, Peek 14.1, Pruett 11.4, Stephenson 11.1; and (3) solid defense -- if you played for Coach Scotty Robertson, you had to play defense ... or you'd sit.
       The season began with a victory against a "major" -- at Texas A&M. But December was rough, with four consecutive losses (none all that close) to SEC teams, and a tournament loss to Morehead (Ky.) State in Shreveport.
       Then came 17 victories in the next 19 games -- and an 11-1 record (and championship) in the Gulf States Conference, an all-Louisiana league with bus road trips and longstanding, strong and often heated rivalries.
       No rivalry then, and for the next few years, was more intense than Tech vs. Southwestern Louisiana -- USL. Coach Beryl Shipley had one of the first integrated programs in the Deep South, maybe the first, and Shipley had gone far to recruit very talented -- and many suspected, well-financed -- players.
        This USL team was the first of that program's powerhouse era, which included a couple of NCAA Tournament Division I bids and -- eventually -- a "death penalty" handed out by the NCAA for a large number of rules violations.
        Frankly, we did not like those guys. There was an arrogance about the Ragin' Cajuns. So beating USL twice was the highlight of the season, the difference between first and second place.
        In the first meeting, the first game of 1967 (Jan. 4), Tech won 72-66 on USL's floor. I won't forget that score, hopefully; I remember looking at the scoreboard afterward at old Blackham Coliseum in Lafayette and thinking: This is a huge win.
        But the second meeting, a month later in Ruston, was -- in reality -- the conference championship game. We were tied for first place, and Memorial Gym (which seated 5,000) was crammed to the rafters with about 6,000 fans. It was one of the tightest, most tense games I can remember. I've rarely been more nervous about a game -- and I was just keep statistics.
        Our fans went crazy often that night, especially on dunks by Peek and Bishop which shredded USL's vaunted, stretched 1-3-1 defense. Barmore had 22 points, Bishop had 20 and Peek had 14 rebounds.
        Tech 80, USL 78. Beautiful. Good Guys beat the Mercenaries.
        (I have told people for years: In my four years at Louisiana Tech, this game and victory were topped in athletics only by the Terry Bradshaw-to-Ken Liberto, 82-yard touchdown pass in the final 25 seconds to beat Northwestern State in the 1968 State Fair Game in Shreveport.)
        The GSC title clincher came a few games later by beating another hot rival, Northeast Louisiana, at Memorial Gym. And with a final 19-7 regular-season record came an NCAA Tournament (College Division) invitation -- a first for Tech.
        So it was off to the four-team Midwest Regional in Bloomington, Ill., where Illinois State was the home team. It was a plane trip (rare for Tech teams in those days), but without Bishop and Wayne Smith because freshmen were ineligible for College Division postseason play and in Division I, period.
        Without Bishop, the opening-round game was a challenge because North Dakota (19-5 record) had a gangly 6-8 forward/center who was setting all sorts of school records and, we heard, was a hot NBA prospect. His name: Phil Jackson.
        Yes, that Phil Jackson -- two NBA championships as a player (New York Knicks), a record 11 rings as a head coach, and currently running the Knicks.
        The North Dakota coach was Bill Fitch, who 14 years later coached the Boston Celtics (with Robert Parish) to an NBA championship. Fitch's assistant, Jimmy Rodgers, also went on to become a Celtics' head coach.   
        Jackson played well against Tech (21 points, 9-of-13 from the floor), but he didn't dominate. Fact is, Jim Hester -- future New Orleans Saints tight end -- was the Sioux's top scorer with 22. But Tech's balance -- five double-figure scorers, led by Barmore (20) and Stephenson (18), and one near-miss (Gregory had eight) -- led to an 86-77 victory. Peek had 13 points, 10 rebounds.
       That set up a game against Illinois State for a trip to the College Division final eight.
        In the consolation game the next night, Jackson had 52 points against a school named Parsons. The regional title game that followed wasn't pretty for us.
        Illinois State won in a rout and our wonderful season (20-8 record) was finished. So were the college careers of our seniors, including Peek and Watson.
        Bishop remained at Tech for three more seasons and he wasn't a great star, but he starred in many games. Tech basketball played on -- for 50 years, and the women's program founded in the mid-1970s became more of a national power than the men's program.
         Life had just really started for those of us at Tech then, adulthood -- hard as some of us fought it -- and careers awaited. But we had those sweet memories of that basketball season.
         (Next: Bob Watson, big man in town) 



  1. From Stan Tiner: Shipley v. Robertson battles were epic. Many jackets were shed, slammed to the floor, and if memory serves, were stomped. Really great coaches, players and fans. Memorial Gym packed. It was pure fun.

  2. From Bud Dean: Love it, especially the digs at USL.