Interesting confluence of events both personal and national last week, when embattled Rutgers University — struggling to salvage its basketball cred prior to moving from Big East to Big “10” in 2014 — hired NBA veteran Eddie Jordan to replace head coach Mike Rice, who was jettisoned after video surfaced early in April showing him crassly berating and physically abusing his “student athletes”.
[We’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that Rutgers knew about Rice’s antics long before the video was made public. That’s just more run-of-the-mill, big-time-college-athletics sleaze, and honestly, what more is there add?]
What interested me more was the return of Jordan to his alma mater, where he played in the mid-1970s as a cog in one of college basketball’s most unheralded great teams — and the fact that I learned of his homecoming while kipping in the Marin County home of my boyhood friend Tom Wadlington.
That Scarlet Knight team, which went unbeaten in 1975-76 before falling to Michigan, Ricky Green and Phil Hubbard in the national semifinals, was even more visible to me, as a budding, 12-year-old college hoops freak, on account of Tom’s arrival in my hometown just two years prior. Tom had moved to Wellesley, Mass., from East Brunswick, N.J., where his parents, if I’m not mistaken, had both worked at Rutgers. He showed up in my 4th grade class, and on my various soccer teams, spewing all sorts of Rutgers propaganda. Much of it was dismissed for what it was — the meaningless parochialism of some pre-teen interloper.
But then, midway through the ‘75-76 season, it was clear that on the college basketball front at least, Wad was not talking shit. These guys were really good, and would eventually run the table, win the East Regional and go to the Final Four (not yet so branded, I don’t believe). They did so with Jordan at the point, Mike Dabney at shooting guard, super-smooth Phil Sellers at small forward, Hollis Copeland at the 4, and Boston-bred freshman “Jumpin” James Bailey at center.
I think we all remember Larry Bird’s Indiana State team that went unbeaten before losing to Magic & Michigan State in the 1979 NCAA Final. But the long history of college basketball is not exactly littered with teams that go unbeaten over the course of a regular season, much less progress untarnished all the way to the Final Four. UCLA did it repeatedly in winning so many titles under John Wooden, and Indiana went unbeaten start to finish the same year Rutgers came so close, in 1975-76. Other teams that have won titles while going undefeated include Bill Russell and KC Jones’ USF teams in 1955 and 56, North Carolina a year later, UCLA four times, and Indiana.
But it gets thin when you search for teams that remained unbeaten all the way to the Final Four, only to lose there. Once we account for Rutgers and Indiana State, I recall these:
• Indiana went unbeaten the year before its golden campaign, only to lose in the Midwest Regional final to Kentucky, 92-90, largely because (Hoosiers will argue) star forward Scott May had broken his arm with 7 minutes to play.
• UNLV was 34-0 when it famously lost to Duke in the 1991 national semifinals.
I encourage anyone to set me straight, but I think that’s it: Seven teams went undefeated and won the title, only two more got to the Final Four unblemished.
Jordan has his work cut out for him in Jersey, to be sure. Maybe joining the Big “10” (I’m not sure how many teams are in that conference anymore, but it ain’t 10) will expand his recruiting territory, but Rice has seriously sullied Rutgers’ reputation and recruiting capability in the short term. And despite being located in the heart of a bountiful talent pool, Rutgers has never been that great or recruited many first-rate sons of Jersey (Roy Hinson tops a short list). The Scarlet Knights weren’t part of the original Big East, of course. They joined in 1995, and it could be argued, it didn’t benefit their basketball program a lick.
As for Tom Wadlington, he ultimately matriculated at Cal Berkeley and has since transferred all his propagandizing efforts (on behalf of collegiate athletics) to the Bears. But he did have this to say upon learning the news of Jordan’s hire: “He should bring Phil Sellers and Mike Dabney as assistants!”