BROOKLYN, N.Y. — BYU meets Florida State tonight at the Barclays Center in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic semifinals, but this isn't the first time the Cougars have played in a high-profile tournament in the Big Apple.
In fact, BYU won two National Invitation Tournament championships decades ago, in 1951 and 1966, when the NIT champion was considered by some as the national champion.
And in '51 and '66, the Cougars were the toast of New York City.
In 1996 — the 45th anniversary of the 1951 championship, and the 30th anniversary of the 1966 title — I interviewed several people who either participated or witnessed those tournaments.
This article features information gleaned from those interviews at that time.
Both of BYU's NIT titles were won at Madison Square Garden (the self-proclaimed "Most Famous Arena in the World") in New York City.
"Madison Square Garden had a lot of magic to it," remembered Dave Schulthess, BYU's former sports information director, who was with the team for its 1966 championship. "For most of us it was a first shot at New York City. We were drinking it all in."
Today, a pair of signs commemorating BYU's pair of NIT championships hang somewhat inconspicuously in the Marriott Center rafters. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the National Invitation Tournament had a different connotation than it does now. Then, it had only 12 teams, and it was more prominent than the NCAA Tournament, which featured conference champions and prohibited multiple teams from the same conference. The NIT was the place to be.
Why? New York City offered teams major media exposure, and a chance to play in front of NBA scouts.
"That was basketball in those days," said Pete Witbeck, a former BYU assistant coach. "Back then, the NIT champ was the big champ. We could have gone to either the NCAA or NIT. We chose the NIT because it was more prestigious. Playing basketball at Madison Square Garden is like playing football at Notre Dame."
These days, of course, the NIT is an also-run tournament for teams who don't get invited to the NCAA Tournament.
The 1951 title broke new ground for BYU and the LDS Church according to legendary coach Stan Watts, who led the Cougars to both titles and was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1986.
"It meant a lot to the Church and the school because it was the first national championship BYU had ever won," Watts said. "When you went to the movies at that time there were news shorts beforehand. After we won, news about our championship went all over the world. It's hard to measure the impact except through letters you get from fans. But I think it opened a lot of doors. We went to South America, Europe and Asia to play basketball."
In 1951, the Cougars posted of 24-7 record before accepting an invitation to the NIT. Oddly enough, that season BYU split its home games between Springville High's gymnasium and the University of Utah because the Smith Fieldhouse was under construction.
It was Watts' second season at the helm, and he had Mel Hutchins, who was named an All-American and went on to become the NBA rookie of the year in 1952-53.
With Hutchins and 6-foot forward Roland Minson, who ended up as the NIT MVP, the Cougars defeated St. Louis, Seton Hall and Dayton to claim the championship. One newspaper account read that the Cougars had "stolen away the hearts of the Garden fans with their fight, sportsmanship and clean play."
"Fans looked at us as a curiosity," guard Loren Dunn said. "Wherever we went there was a general acceptance of us. We were seen as underdogs and there was empathy for us. The Church received attention in national newspapers and magazines and put BYU on the map."
Guard Harold Christensen remembered during one of the games a black player fell to the floor. "Joe Ritchey helped him and they wrote it up in the New York papers. It was something that wasn't done in those days."
After winning the NIT, the team celebrated by going to Mamma Leone's, a famous Italian restaurant in New York City. The 1951 team was inducted into BYU's Hall of Fame in 1976.
In 1966, BYU had a 17-5 record when it headed to the NIT.
"We played three games and we were the No. 1 seed," Witbeck said. BYU beat Temple handily in the first game. In the second game, the Cougars played Army and its young coach, Bobby Knight. Yeah, that Bobby Knight.
"Against Army in the second game we were down three at the half," Witbeck said. "We had been down 13 in the first half. We were an up-tempo, transition team, as smooth as silk. They were a team that liked to hold other teams and slow things down. We played defensive in the second half. We changed our game plan to adjust to Eastern-style of officiating. Army had taken us out of our game. We had to fight fire with fire. The key was the adjustment we made from western basketball to eastern basketball. We had to do it. We were fluid and those teams back there were hanging and pulling on us."
The championship game was against New York University, a school that has since given up athletics.
"They had two or three All-Americans," Witbeck said. "It was a classic game — fastbreak basketball. It was a wonderful win. They had a parade for us in Provo. It was like winning a national championship, which it was. I coached basketball here 20 years and that was the culmination of it. That was what it was all about. You're lucky to get it once in your life. We had our day in the sun in New York City. Fans back there are very knowledgeable. You had better play well or they'd come after you. Watts was revered in New York City. When we came home everyone told us they were pinned to their radios and praying for us while they were listening."
For the championship game, Ezra Taft Benson, who was then the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and would go on to become the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was in attendance, as was BYU President Earnest L. Wilkinson. "(Former Boston Celtics coach) Red Auerback and (former Celtic star) Bob Cousy were there scouting," Witbeck said. "The Who's Who of the basketball world was there."
Schulthess remembered that trip being "the athletic department's first association with Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford, who talked to the team at practice. Cosell commented on our cheerleaders and their light complexion. After it was over, it was pure elation. It was a big event." Fifteen years after BYU's first NIT title, Schulthess remembered people asking him, "What ever happened to Mel Hutchins?"
The Cougars averaged 95.5 points per game for the 1966 season, and they shot 59 percent in the championship game against NYU. After the game, Auerbach said, "BYU simply overpowered them. They outplayed them all over the court."
The 1966 team was inducted into the BYU Hall of Fame in 1980.
Now the 2012-13 Cougars are looking to make a little history of their own this weekend in New York City.