published Friday, April 5th, 2013

Wiedmer: NCAA Final Four has led full life at 75

ATLANTA — Though my graying, thinning hair may hint otherwise, I really haven't witnessed each of the first 74 Final Fours in person.

So I've only read about Oregon's 46-33 victory over Ohio State in the first NCAA tournament title game. And Wyoming's 46-34 win over Georgetown in the fifth championship game. And Kentucky's 58-42 victory over Baylor in the 10th NCAA tourney.

But I'll be inside the Georgia Dome for the 75th Final Four this weekend, just as I was inside Kansas City's Kemper Arena for the 50th Final Four in 1988, the one won by Danny (Manning) and the Miracles, and all of the 24 Final Fours that have followed that one.

Needless to say, to borrow a line uttered by Michigan coach John Beilein earlier this week about the Wolverines returning to the Final Four for the first time in 20 years: "(I) feel a great amount of gratitude to be back in this situation again."

A lot changes in 75 years. Yes, they still play five on five. The game still lasts 40 minutes (without overtime). The basket is still 10 feet high and the court 94 feet long.

But to view team photos of early championship teams is to notice not a single black player until City College of New York's 1950 champs. Then came San Francisco in 1955 and 1956, with its extraordinary center Bill Russell and savvy guard K.C. Jones. The Dons won 60 straight games at one point, claimed two straight NCAA titles and played the kind of aggressive, intense defense that every great team plays today, but almost no one did then.

Though not every championship winner since has included a shot blocker to mimic, if not precisely mirror Russell, plenty of schools have included a similar dominant force in the paint, everyone from the Lew Alcindor- and Bill Walton-led UCLA juggernauts to Georgetown and Patrick Ewing to last year's Kentucky team led by a very Russell-like Anthony Davis.

A single quote from Louisville coach Rick Pitino this week to explain how overwhelming UCLA was while winning 10 of 12 titles from 1964 to 1975: "[UCLA coach] John Wooden was going to win it. That's the only thing we knew back then."

But the Wizard of Westwood retired after that 1975 title and everybody had a chance again. From 1976 to '85, only Indiana won more than one title. No one went back-to-back again until Duke did it in 1991 and '92. Then Florida repeated that accomplishment in 2006 and '07. To show you how hard it is to continue such excellence, the Gators haven't returned to the Final Four since.

My favorite Final Four moment? Like a lot of you, it's probably North Carolina State forward Lorenzo Charles dunking Houston's Phi Slama Jama gang at the buzzer of the 1983 final, the one that left Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano searching for someone to hug. No one will ever know for sure how that game changed the Final Four, but making Jimmy V a household name has meant more than $100 million for cancer research through the V Foundation since Valvano was lost to cancer.

My worst moment? I was 8 years old when Kentucky faced Texas Western in the 1966 final. My parents -- both UK grads, along with most of their friends -- were having a bridge party that night in Hopkinsville, Ky., and I'd been banished to bed. After twice getting caught attempting to steal glimpses of the game from the hallway outside our den, I was sent to my room for good.

I drifted off but was soon awakened by the sound of women crying. I thought someone had died. When I nervously approached the den to ask what was wrong, my mom and her friends said, "The [Rupp's] Runts just lost."

That was my first lesson in how much sports can mean to folks. Given that Texas Western started five blacks while UK remained lily white, it may have also been the most important title game in NCAA tourney history.

Said former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson -- and Texas Western grad -- of that contest: "If basketball ever took a turn, that was it."

But while judging a player by the quality of his ability rather than the color of his skin is noble and just, not every turn the game has taken has been an improvement.

The one-and-done rule hurts the college game and only moderately betters the NBA model over formerly allowing kids to skip college altogether. Officiating needs to improve, beginning with less physical play. Individual skills -- particularly free-throw shooting -- rarely have looked worse.

Which brings me back to those 1955 and '56 San Francisco teams, the ones coached by Phil Woolpert.

In today's world, Woolpert might be as rich and well-known as Pitino. Or maybe not. After going 103-10 in four years at USF, he soon after walked away, accepting a lower-profile coaching post at San Diego, then exiting the sport for good. His final job was driving a school bus.

A maverick by almost any measuring stick -- he was an agnostic who spent his entire coaching career working at Catholic schools -- Woolpert said this to Sports Illustrated in 1968:

"Honest coaches don't purposely try to loosen up academic standards for athletes. But with that kind of dollar pressure on them ... to get a real good kid, you might make just one exception for a low grade average. Maybe, eventually, there'll be a deal with some alumni booster to give a really great kid's father some help in his business. The pressure to win can corrupt -- insidiously and unconsciously -- the whole structure of a university ... the structure of a whole society."

Forty-five years later, there are Internet stories about bad stuff in the Auburn football program, and a coaching scandal at Rutgers, and an academic mess at North Carolina that no one wants to do anything about because it might mean looking into one's own academic practices involving athletes.

Yet beginning today, perhaps it's best to put all that aside and believe, or at least hope, that it's all getting better.

Or as Wichita State Gregg Marshall said of his players Thursday: "They're all getting interviewed. They're all getting sized for Final Four rings. They're all getting new Nike gear sent to them by the droves. What we've been teaching, 'To the victor go the spoils,' ... can never be more true than right now."

If that's a bad thing, at least it's not a new thing.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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