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TGS SPECIAL REPORT: THE DAYS OF ST. BONA & BIG BOB, PLUS BRACKETOLOGY
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Having been publishing since 1957, we at THE GOLD SHEET are continually reminding ourselves of seasons, teams, and players of times gone by. Which is an inevitable by-product of following sport and analyzing the teams as we have done for more than five decades.

Of all of the sports we cover at TGS, however, it is perhaps the college basketball season that jogs our memories the most. Maybe because there have been such a different collection of schools that have excelled, some over very brief periods of time, throughout our existence. And every season we are hopeful of a campaign that reminds us of some of the more memorable seasons from years past.

What has also intrigued us the most is how the college hoops configuration has evolved, especially involving the schools in the East. Indeed, college basketball has been a big deal in the region for a long time. Which might surprise some who could be excused for believing that hoops in the East didn’t really begin until the Big East was formed at roughly the same time as was ESPN. Indeed, the parallels between the Big East and the “sports leader” are remarkably similar.

Each used the other quite effectively to establish their respective brands. The success in Big East hoops even motivated the league to eventually branch out and form a football division (now effectively the American Athletic Conference), long considered out of the question for the many major Eastern independents, especially so since Penn State never had any inclination of casting its football lot with a regional conference. Joe Paterno was always thinking bigger and had his eyes on the Big Ten, which finally accepted the Nittany Lions in 1993.

But college hoops was a big deal along the Eastern seaboard long before the Big East idea was ever hatched. Indeed, there was a stab at an alliance among those many independent entries several years before the Big East was formed.

Although it was the predecessor of the modern-day Atlantic 10 that got the ball rolling in the region. Moreover, that alliance even included Penn State for all sports other than football.

The first serious attempt at organizing those various sports independents in the East was in 1976, when the old Eastern Collegiate Basketball League (ECBL) was formed. At first, it was a hoops-only league, and then changed its name to the Eastern Athletic Alliance (EAA) the next season. Mostly, however, the league was referred to as the Eastern 8, and had quite a formidable lineup in its earliest days. Try Villanova, Duquesne, Pitt, Penn State, West Virginia, George Washington, UMass, and Rutgers.

The Big East would form three years later in 1979 with a different collection of schools (Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Syracuse, Seton Hall, UConn, and Boston College) in its original configuration. Rutgers and Holy Cross declined the invitation (which would eventually lead to many “what ifs” from both institutions, though Rutgers would eventually join the fold decades later).

Slowly, however, the Big East began to siphon the bigger names from the Eastern 8, as Villanova (in 1980) and Pitt (in 1982) would eventually jump leagues. Penn State even applied for admission in 1982 but was rejected, some suggesting as a slap at none other than Paterno and his rejection of ever becoming involved in a football alliance with the same collection of schools.

The Eastern 8 would re-brand itself as the Atlantic 10 for the 1982-83 season, by that time having added St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island, Temple, and Saint Joseph’s to replace Villanova and Pitt. Future additions and subtractions to the membership group have further changed the composition of the league which hasn’t been at ten members since the ’80s, but continues to label itself as the Atlantic 10.

The A-10 has thus existed in the shadow of the Big East for most of the past three decades, although before either was formed, teams from the current A-10 were often more feared on the national stage. One of those happened to be at the epicenter of college hoops in the 1969-70 season, by us still one of the more fascinating seasons in our publishing history.

During that campaign, there appeared to be a power vacuum in the wake of Lew Alcindor’s graduation from UCLA, which won an unprecedented three straight titles for HC John Wooden with big Lew patrolling the paint. But with Alcindor gone to the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, there would be a national free-for-all (which would also include another Wooden powerhouse in Westwood) to determine the Big Lew Bruins’ successor.

What most amazes about that memorable campaign from 44 years ago is how a couple of the top contenders have effectively disappeared from the national scene in the four-plus decades since. Earlier in this publishing season, we wrote of one of those teams, Artis Gilmore’s Jacksonville. But the Dolphins were only part of the story in 1969-70, as for most of the campaign much of the national attention was focused 833 miles (at least as the crows would fly) almost straight north of Jacksonville.

Indeed, it was an era of rare glory at St. Bonaventure, riding forth from the southern tier of western New York to plunder and defeat the Duquesnes, the Xaviers, the DePauls and all of the other paladins of Catholic basketball in America. It was also an era in which the team would often be referred to as the “Brown Indians,” and the Native American-themed mascot would endure into the early 1990s, when replaced by a wolf. But the “Bonnies” label has also been affixed to the school’s teams for decades. “Bonnies” does not refer to an animal, a tree, or a fruit; in fact, it’s not anything other than a nickname for those who attend the school, and a nickname for the Franciscan saint for whom the school is named.

The Bonnies’ home is in the town of Allegany, which is nestled in the foothills of the mountains of similar name, 10 miles above the Pennsylvania state line and, on some maps, just to the left of Olean, where everybody thinks Bona is located. The identity problem is due, mostly, to the Olean Armory, an aging stone fortress that used to accommodate all St. Bonaventure home games on a floor of planks and in an atmosphere of fury. Such specialties of the house did not exactly make for bonhomie with the visiting teams, and St. Bonaventure once won 99 straight there before the building was taken over by Company C, 127th Armored Company. This came about when the school at last built its own 5,600-seat, all-purpose University Center on campus, in Allegany.

Lying in the Allegheny foothills about 70 miles southeast of Buffalo, the campus, a collection of brick buildings and neat lawns, borders the Allegheny River and Olean. It is said that the school’s colors of brown and white were chosen to symbolize the shades of the barren hillsides during snowy winters. For years, the vision of a big time at the school has been sloshing through a foot of new snow, but basketball proved a necessary diversion to the quiet atmosphere. “If it weren’t for basketball, the students would tear the place apart,” once said the legendary school Dean, Father Gervase White.

Many considered the friar’s comment only a slight exaggeration: If it weren’t for basketball and a campus beer parlor, students would probably split en masse for Buffalo or Rochester or Canada every weekend.

For a school, at the time with barely 2,000 undergraduates, to manage ascension into the stratosphere of college hoops was considered phenomenal, although Bona had been down that road before. In the 1960-61 season Tom Stith (left), who would play briefly in the NBA with the Knicks, and future longtime NBA vet Fred Crawford led the Bonnies to a magnificent 24-4 record. That included a two-point loss in Madison Square Garden to the fine Ohio State team of the Lucas-Havlicek-Siegfried era, and an NCAA Tournament loss to a Wake Forest team that included a guard named Billy Packer, in Charlotte, N.C., a game remembered for its odd officiating.

After the Stith-Crawford years, however, Bona was up and down and back and forth, with little flair or fanfare, and Olean, a sleepy town of small industry and old faces, had to content itself with reminiscence and dreams.

But Bona re-emerged in the 1967-68 season thanks mostly to a then-6’11 sophomore named Bob Lanier, with a variety of nicknames (“Buffalo Bob,” “Bob The Boat” and “Big Cat” among them) and a virtual man-child in the promised land, down from the big city of Buffalo 70 miles away, with his 265 pounds and his size 22 sneakers, to give the Bonnies strength and life and lead them against all the world, Catholic and otherwise. The Bonnies would finish the regular season at 22-0 before running into a North Carolina whirlwind at the East Regionals, smoked by lefty Larry Miller, Charlie Scott and the rest of the Tar Heels by a 91-72 count in the Sweet 16. A 95-75 consolation loss to a Columbia team featuring future NBA star Jim McMillian and a 7-foot center, Dave Newmark, suggested the Bonnies might not have been ready for the big stage.

That team was slow, oh, man, were we slow,” said Bonnies G Billy Kalbaugh. “It’s amazing that nobody found out until the end of the season how slow we were. But I said then that we would be back.”

It didn’t happen, however, in the subsequent 1968-69 campaign. Right before the start of the season, the NCAA charged HC Larry Weise (We-see) with a minor recruiting violation and barred the team from the postseason for one year. Early on, the Bonnies were playing so purposelessly that they once lost four straight, and there was criticism, mostly about how lazy Lanier looked. “I must admit, that made me mad,” said Lanier. The Bonnies won 11 of their last 13 games. Bona would finish that season at 17-7, but still had Lanier for one more year, and would be tourney-eligible again in 1969-70.

Still, the late ’60s were an exciting time around campus, with a basketball powerhouse and an All-American presence in Lanier. Campus boosters, called the Brown Berets, resurrected a tradition from the Stith-Crawford years in the early ‘60s by encasing dummies, signifying basketball opponents, in coffins before each home game, then proceeding to a 30-foot maple tree in the middle of the campus for “hanging” ceremonies that were well-attended by students as well as many brown-robed friars.

On the court, Lanier’s progress, from his year on the freshman team in 1966-67, had been nothing short of amazing. Slow and plodding as a frosh, perhaps because he was mostly unchallenged, Buffalo Bob was hardly performing up to his capabilities. Prior to his soph season, however, he lost 20 pounds and gained so much speed and agility that rival coaches began comparing him with Alcindor and Elvin Hayes. The left-handed Lanier still lacked their quickness, but was stronger than either, with an exceptionally soft touch around the basket and was not unwilling to wander the baseline or go 12 feet out for his left-handed bank shots.

There was also the matter of Lanier’s shoe size, a source of amazement to onlookers who could not believe the enormity of Big Bob’s feet. When asked about the size of his shoes, the good-natured Lanier would often remark “Oh, about a size 30" with a straight face. Lanier actually wore size 22s, a pair of which is still on display at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

By Lanier’s senior season, however, Alcindor and Hayes had already moved to the pros, and the Bonnies were once again eligible for the Big Dance. Lanier was a lot trimmer and smarter after a summer at camp with his pal Willis Reed, then the center with the NBA’s Knicks. Lanier’s senior season team also had several strong outside shooters to keep opponents from double-and triple-teaming him. A springy 6’5 soph F, Matt Gantt, was an excellent shooter who would also often replace Lanier at times for the opening game jump-ball, while the other forward, whippet-quick Greg “Bubba” Gary, helped Lanier with rebounds. (All could soar, and together--as a sign of the times when it was still not that common to field an all African-American lineup, or even frontline--the Bona bigs were nicknamed “The Soul Patrol”). Paul Hoffman, another sophomore who wore glasses and looked studious just to fool people, and Mike Kull were quick and shared the off-guard position, while the aforementioned Billy Kalbaugh, Lanier’s roommate, began his third year as court general. Though HC Weise had decent depth on his bench, he did not have a second big man. As long as Lanier stayed healthy and on the court, however, no one was thinking about contingency plans.

The Bonnies started winning and kept on winning in the 1969-70 season. St. Bonaventure became surprisingly hip, too, warming up on the court to the soulful sounds of jazz master pianist Ramsey Lewis and his hit song Wade in the Water that was the Bonnies’ answer to the Harlem Globetrotters’ Sweet Georgia Brown.

Meanwhile, Lanier had emerged as the nation’s top pro prospect, and his future destination was a topic of discussion that winter. For a while, the post-Bill Russell Boston Celtics appeared to have pole position for the top NBA pick, and Beantown was a preferred destination for Lanier. But eventually, the Detroit Pistons would fade to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, while the Seattle Supersonics sunk to the basement of the West. A coin flip would be used in those days to determine the top draft NBA pick, although Lanier was apparently a bit skeptical of moving to the Northwest. “I would like to stay in the East,” said Lanier, “although I would like to see the West, too.” Later, however, he seemed a bit nervous about the prospect of playing for the Sonics. “I hope Seattle doesn’t need a center,” Lanier said in a Sports Illustrated piece that winter.

Indeed, Buffalo Bob would likely be the centerpiece of a bidding war between the NBA and the upstart ABA, which planned to have its New York Nets franchise draft Lanier and make a serious run at signing him. In fact, Lanier had been garnering such attention from scouts and agents that he requested the St. Bonaventure switchboard not to give out the extension number in his dormitory. “We thought it was funny at first,” said teammate and roomate Kalbaugh. “We would wake up laughing every morning because there were always about 15 phone calls waiting for Bob. But then it got on our nerves.”

The Lanier aura would grow larger that winter. With his surprisingly adept supporting cast featuring Gantt, Gary, Hoffman, and Kalbaugh, the Bonnies were steamrollering opponents. With Lanier getting 29 points, Bonaventure almost ran highly-regarded Duquesne into the Allegheny River. Then came the high-profile Holiday Festival Tournament in late December at Madison Square Garden. After beating NYU and St. Joe’s, Bona faced powerhouse Purdue and star G Rick Mount in the finale. Bona unlit Mount’s rocket and pounded Purdue 91-75. Mount struggled for 19 points; Lanier, 18 of 22 from the floor, scored 50.

Afterward, the old Celtic, Frank Ramsey, interviewed Lanier for TV. “Are you going all the way?,” said Ramsey.

“Damn right,” said Lanier.

With Lanier scoring nearly 27 points per game, the Bonnies would suffer only one slip the rest of the regular season in a controversial 2-point loss to Villanova (Hank Siemiontkowski’s apparent goaltending call overlooked by the refs in the last seconds), but would likely have a chance to avenge that defeat vs. the Wildcats in the East Regionals at Columbia, South Carolina. Before that, in a first-round game, the Bonnies beat menacing Davidson, featuring PF Mike Maloy, 85-72, in a rugged battle. Lanier was his intimidating best, gobbling 15 rebounds and scoring 28 points. Maloy and Davidson’s excellent rebounding power was offset by the Bonnies’ Soul Patrol, and it was on to the Sweet 16.

The Western New York region had so adopted the Bonnies that upon their return back to campus from the Buffalo Airport follwoing the first-round win, fans lined much of the 70-mile route back to campus, just to get a look at the St. Bona bus wth their basketball heroes inside.

That year’s East Regional also seemed more like a Vatican tribunal, with the Franciscan fathers of St. Bonaventure, the Augustinians of Villanova, and the Vincentians of Niagara all on hand. “At a tournament like this you find out who’s closer to God,” said Fred Handler, the Bona assistant coach.

In the first game, Villanova stayed closer to Niagara star G Calvin Murphy than to the Deity and ran away from the Purple Eagles 98-73, while Norm Sloan’s N.C. State, off of a rousing upset win over favored South Carolina in the previous week’s ACC Tournament, had no answers for Lanier as St. Bonaventure won 80-68. Which set up a much-anticipated rematch of the earlier Bona meeting vs. Villanova. To combat the Nova 1-2-2 zone, Weise stationed Lanier away from the post, instead on the weak-side wing, from where he would bury several early clear looks from the perimeter. With help from smaller but quicker forwards Gantt and Gary, Bona took the boards away from the Wildcats early and surged to a 20-point lead, never to be threatened. The game was effectively over by halftime.

Then, suddenly, it was not over. With a comfy 71-51 lead over the Wildcats, Lanier, not long before HC Weise would have removed him from the game, was accidentally buckled from behind by Nova’s Chris Ford, who had tripped going for a rebound with 9:39 to play. Lanier was down, then continued playing, but after 34 seconds, he called time out, walked to the bench with a slight limp and told Weise, “I can’t move.” Lanier had torn the MCL in his right knee, and that night he went home to Buffalo on crutches for an operation.

Even after a 97-74 win, the Bona dressing room was shocked into silence following the game. “This puts a crimp in the festivities,” said G Mike Kull. The atmosphere was more somber because the Bonnies knew Lanier’s college career had come to an end on a meaningless play, long after Bona had wrapped up the regional. The Bonnies had completely outclassed a solid field in the East, and the prospect of a Lanier vs. Artis Gilmore matchup in the Bona-Jacksonville national semifinal in the Final Four at College Park the following Thursday would instead take place minus Buffalo Bob.

Unfortunately, we would not get to see a Gilmore-Lanier battle for almost seven years, after Gilmore, who played for the ABA Kentucky Colonels when turning pro, would end up with the Chicago Bulls in the dispersal draft following the merger, and would finally face Lanier. The possibility of a Gilmore vs. Lanier Final Four matchup had tantalized all during that 1969-70 season, although it seemed unlikely to materialize until the Elite Eight, when Jacksonville would upset Kentucky at the same time Lanier would be getting injured in Bona’s romp past Villanova. Gilmore’s shot-blocking prowess, and the fact he was three inches taller than Lanier, might have cut off some of the effectiveness of the Big Cat inside, but Lanier’s offensive game was refined, and it would also have been no surprise for Gilmore to encounter foul problems.

So, just when it appeared that the matchup would occur after all, it didn’t.

The national semifinal still had to be played, however, and it was more competitive than many envisioned. The Bonnies, minus Lanier and now shorter by seven inches per man vs. Jacksonville on the frontline, started quick, and had the taller Dolphins on their dorsal fins early when bolting to a 13-3 lead. Jacksonville would then slowly begin to take control of the game and moved to a 42-34 halftime lead, but could never quite shake Bona, which bravely hung around deep into the second half. Unfortunately for the Bonnies, they were hampered by severe foul problems, as four starters would be disqualified, including supporting star Matt Gantt, playing center in place of Lanier while conceding nine inches to Gilmore. Gantt would play only 20 minutes and heroically score 16 points, fouling out with 10 minutes to play, yet Bona, effectively reduced to using five guards in the later stages of the game, made a last desperate surge after falling behind 76-64 thanks to a flurry of outside shots by PG Kalbaugh. The Bonnies crawled back to within 4 points when cutting the deficit to 79-75 with 2:07 to play.

A potential three-point play involving Hoffman, however, was controversially reduced to just the 2-point bucket and then a foul on Hoffman after the shot at the 2:07 mark. Instead of possibly drawing within 79-76 and maybe setting up a grandstand finish, the Bonnies were still looking at a 6-point deficit on their next possession after Jacksonville's Chip Dublin was able to make the subsequent free throws. Its last chance extinguished, shorthanded Bona could not recover. (Several Bonnies beleived they had been victimized by bad offiiciating and cited the lopsided free throw numbers. of which Jacksonville converted 37 of 45 tries, both still Final Four all-time highs). Thereafter, the Dolphins managed to ease to a 91-83 win, setting up their finale vs. John Wooden’s UCLA, then featuring forwards Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks and C Steve Patterson in the post-Alcindor configuration. The Bruins, with Wicks heroically standing up to Gilmore and blocking several of his shots, would keep the national title with an 80-69 win.

As for Lanier, he would finish his Bona career with 2,067 points and 1,180 rebounds in three seasons of varsity play. As a senior, he would average 26.2 points and 15.6 rebounds. The Pistons would eventually win the coin flip for the top pick in that year’s NBA draft and tab Lanier with the first selection. Having recovered from his knee injury, Lanier enjoyed a superb pro career with the Pistons and eventually the Bucks. But there remain so many “what ifs” regarding his college days because of the injury in the East Regional vs. Villanova.

To this day, neither Jacksonville nor St. Bonaventure (nor another wheel from that year’s surviving quartet, New Mexico State) have gotten close to another Final Four. We’ll never know how that Gilmore vs. Lanier matchup might have developed in the national semifinal had Bob The Boat not been injured. Nor will we know if the Bonnies and Lanier might have been the team to end UCLA’s run of national titles in the finale.

We’ll just have to forever leave those matchups up to our imaginations to decide the winners.

(Ed. note: A superb 1995 documentary entitled Unfinished Dreams, narrated by Charles Osgood, recalls the ‘69-70 Bonnies and can be viewed on YouTube.)

* * * *


In the 44 years since Lanier’s senior season, St. Bonaventure has only made the NCAA Tournament three times (1978, 2000, and two years ago in 2012), and has not won in the Big Dance since that 1970 East Regional vs. Villanova when Lanier injured his knee. And unless the Bonnies can win the Atlantic 10 Tournament, they will miss the Dance again. But as we see things developing, several other A-10 entries have a shot to make this year’s field of 68 (we currently project four into the Dance at the moment).

For our next issue, available Monday night, we will feature another full and updated “Bracketology” report. We continue to makes adjustments, however, and after Wednesday night’s action, here are the numerical seeds by our latest calculations.

1-Syracuse, Arizona, Wichita State, Florida; 2-Kansas, Villanova, Michigan, San Diego State; 3-Michigan State, Cincinnati, Creighton, Duke; 4-Louisville, Saint Louis, Kentucky, Virginia; 5-Oklahoma, Iowa, Texas, Pittsburgh; 6-Wisconsin, Ohio State, Memphis, UConn; 7-Gonzaga, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Iowa State; 8-VCU, UMass, UCLA, New Mexico; 9-LSU, Florida State, Kansas State, George Washington; 10-Xavier, Colorado, Cal, SMU; 11-Oregon, Stanford, Tennessee, La Tech; 12-Southern Miss*, Missouri*, Providence*, Indiana*, Harvard, UWGB; 13-Mercer, Toledo, Delaware, Georgia State; 14-Belmont, Stephen F. Austin, IPFW, New Mexico State; 15-Canisius, American, Chattanooga, Weber State; 16-Robert Morris*, NC Central*, Southern*, VMI*, Long Beach State, Stony Brook. *-teams projected to participate in play-in games.


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