The schmaltz was thick enough to cut up and serve as hors d'oeuvres. This was the last time Bob Cousy would coach for Boston College, and 17,437 people had turned out for the championship game of the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden to see if the Eagles could send The Cooz out on top, just as he had gone out six years earlier with the Boston Celtics. Before the tip-off, cameras clicked at the famous Cousy mug, children pushed for autographs and ushers reached out just to touch his expensive suit.
No such attention danced around a stumpy, cotton-haired old man sitting quietly on the bench reserved for Temple, although the old man and his team stood between Cousy and euphoria. The man, Harry Litwack, had been working small miracles at Temple while Cousy was still a kid in sneakers at Holy Cross. Historically, all the basketball players in Philadelphia go to either La Salle or Villanova. Historically, Litwack takes the misfits and the hand-me-downs and, historically, he plays with the best of them. He played the best of them, including Bob Cousy, right out of the house last week and Temple had its first NIT title since 1938.
The team that Temple put on the floor against BC was vintage Litwack. The center, 6'9" Eddie Mast, came to college with only a year of high school experience. One starter, Jim Snook, transferred to Temple from the Naval Academy, and the hot-shooting forward, Joe Cromer, came along only after the other schools in town had told him he would never make it. Even 6'5" John Baum, the gifted all-round forward whom Temple rooters felt should have been the tournament's Most Valuable Player, was playing for a Philly business college when Litwack picked him up.
While Temple was taking a back-alley route to the NIT, losing eight games and having a couple of players suspended on the way, Boston College became an inspired, purposeful team in early January, when Cousy announced he was going to retire after the season. The Eagles had won five games and lost three at that point, but then they got together and won all 16 of their remaining regular-season games, including an emotional 93-72 drubbing of Duquesne in their home finale. "That was the season for me right there," said Cousy on his way to New York.
March 31, 1969
As the tournament got under way, Boston College was considered one of the favorites, along with Tennessee, the Southeastern Conference runner-up, and South Carolina, the No. 2 team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. This was, at best, a dubious distinction because this year's NIT field, as usual, was filled with runners-up and also-rans. Nevertheless, some coaches, like Tennessee's Ray Mears and South Carolina's Frank McGuire, seemed almost as happy being in the NIT as they would have been in the NCAA, and they insisted it was more than sour grapes.
"You get the exposure of the New York press, for one thing," said Mears, whose team combined with Florida to give the NIT its first Southeastern Conference participants since 1950. "Coming to New York is more exciting for our kids, too, than going to some of the places where the NCAAs are held." McGuire, a charming New York Irishman of long standing, had a more practical reason: his best players—including four starters on this season's team—always have come from the New York area. After South Carolina beat Southern Illinois in the first round, McGuire told his doting press, "This was a matter of whether our kids went home or stayed here with their mothers and fathers."
Although it was an underdog every time it took the floor, Temple actually had an easier time reaching the finals than did Boston College. Using some zone defenses cooked up by Litwack, the Owls faced a couple of superstars—Florida's Neal Walk and St. Peter's Elnardo Webster—and left them both blinking. Tennessee's fine shooter, Billy Justus, was the next victim. He got two points as the Volunteers were eliminated 63-58 in the semifinals.
With sweet success only a victory removed, the Owls began cracking back at the Philadelphia press. "All season long there were only two teams in Philadelphia—La Salle and Villanova," said Baum. "Now, whether they want to or not, they've got to notice us."
Boston College's progress in the other end of the bracket was more predictable, but also a good deal more hairy. Even with one of the nation's finest unknown centers in 6'7" Terry Driscoll, the eventual MVP, and a couple of the slickest guards since Cousy himself in Billy Evans and Jim O'Brien, the Eagles had to fly high and hard to survive the accusations, elbows and even fists that came winging their way.
Against Kansas Driscoll fouled out, Evans had to come out with a gash on his chin and Kansas Coach Ted Owens came out fuming after the ensuing Eagle slowdown. "I think it is a disgrace to the game," he said, which is about what Louisville Coach John Dromo said before his team lost to BC in the roughest game of the tournament. Two players were thrown out, and Evans, diving for a loose ball, was knocked dizzy. In the semifinals Army deployed the sort of man-to-man defense that normally is found in hand-to-hand combat training at Fort Benning. "I know we're accused of being butchers and slashers," said Army's young coach, Bobby Knight, "but we don't foul any more than anybody else." They did against BC.
By the time BC reached the final, it was obvious the Eagles were physically weaker and less alert than Temple. Evans opened the game with his right thigh mummified in tape, and whenever two players went up for a shot or a rebound, the Temple man, especially Baum, always was inches higher or split seconds quicker. Nothing Boston College did seemed to go quite right, and the added pressure of trying to win one for The Cooz only made the team tighter.
Playing more on heart than anything else, Boston College stayed in there until the final minutes, even leading by 67-62 at one point, but then Temple out-scored the Eagles 11-4 in one stretch and that was the game. Baum had three baskets during that period and a substitute named Tom Wieczerak, whom Litwack hustled up from heaven knows where, followed with two more. Baum scored 30 points and got 10 rebounds to Driscoll's 18 points and 16 rebounds. The Temple students booed lustily when Driscoll was named MVP.
"Frankly, I thought Baum deserved it," said Litwack.
After the game Litwack led all the Temple players past the Boston bench to shake Cousy's hand. There were all sorts of theories flying around concerning what Cousy would do now: go into TV? Take a Brinks truckload of money to coach the New York Nets? "I really don't know," said The Cooz. "Maybe I'll play some again. I'm competitive, too damned competitive, and so maybe I'll go overseas, to Italy or Spain or France, and work with the independent club people over there."
Nobody asked, but bet a recap for a new tire Litwack will be back in Philadelphia, combing the streets and the alleys for another hand-me-down John Baum or Eddie Mast to come play basketball for the Temple Owls. They are champions of the NIT, you know.