BYU basketball: Looking back at the Cougars' two NIT championship games in the Big Apple
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."
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