Monday, December 6, 2010

Birth of a Basketball Program, 12/4/70

On June 12, 1969, the University of South Florida announced that the school would begin playing intercollegiate men's basketball beginning with the 1970-71 season. This week, the university celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first game in school history.

Although today the school is a proud member of the Big East conference, USF did not jump into the deep end of college basketball right away. Instead, the school would begin by fielding only a freshman team. Games against junior colleges and other freshman teams would have to come before they could reasonably take on similar-sized universities.

It was, of course, an extraordinary effort to make it to that point. The university president, John S. Allen, made himself perfectly clear on his lack of enthusiasm for intercollegiate sports, once vowing that USF would never field a football team. Other administrators and even faculty members voiced their concerns about having an intercollegiate sports program.

Frank Winkles, a member of the student senate who worked tirelessly to bring basketball to USF, recalls that Allen thought sports would compromise his grand vision for USF.

"Allen wanted to have what he called a 'scholastic' university," Winkles says. "There weren't going to be intercollegiate sports, especially football and basketball. He was very much opposed to them."

When the State Board of Regents put their seal of approval on the basketball program in July, the countdown to tip-off could officially begin. This meant finding a head coach to put together a program and start recruiting players.

Dick Bowers, the head of the school's physical education department, hired Don Williams from Milliken University in Illinois to lead the program.

Williams, who had coached basketball at Hillsborough High from 1953 to 1962, set his sights high right from the start.

"This is a major college and it is the aim of every coach to take his team and his school to the top, and no where short of it," he said. "We will go just as far as the philosophy of this school will allow us."

Williams brought in Hillsborough High head coach Bob Shriver to be his top assistant, reuniting the duo who had worked together during Williams’ tenure with the Terriers.

While Williams and Shriver worked hard to build a team together, USF experienced a change at the top when, on July 4, 1970, John Allen resigned as president. When Dr. Harris Dean took over as the acting-president, it became clear that the man who fought for so many years to stifle intercollegiate sports at USF would not be around to see the first basketball game in school history.

The big day came on December 4 against the freshman team from the University of Florida. Without an on-campus facility large enough to host a game, the Bulls were forced to seek refuge in downtown Tampa at the Curtis Hixon Convention Center. University officials were hopeful for a crowd around 2,000-3,000. Instead, they got 4,500.

Dean and Winkles were both on-hand for the historic game and took part in a ceremonial tip-off at center court prior to the game.

On their opening possession, John Kiser scored the first basket in USF history -- a free throw -- to give the Brahmans a 1-0 lead. Tommy Davis hit the first field goal a few minutes later on a jump shot. With the scored notched at 7-7, Lear put USF ahead with his second basket and the Brahmans wouldn't relinquish the lead again.

USF took the lead into the half and the Brahmans were ahead by ten points, 43-33. Although they were outscored 45-42 in the second half, USF held on for an 85-78 victory.

Bill Lear, the Indiana native and first player to sign a scholarship with USF, led all scorers with 21 points, while Kiser dominated underneath with 17 rebounds.

The following week, Williams received a letter from Dean congratulating his team on the victory.

"Not only were you magnificent as a team," Dean wrote, "but the whole affair seemed to represent a new dedication to accomplishment at USF."

These were baby steps for the burgeoning university, and although the game was not officially recognized by the NCAA nor acknowledged in the USF record books, nobody can ever take away the moment 40 years ago when USF basketball went from dream to reality.

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