Call them a team for all seasons.
They are younger than what we know as the greatest generation, their time was after World War II, during the conflict in Korea. But their personalities and core are the same, they believe in hard work, honesty, God, country, family, and as a basketball team, they were simply one the best in all collegedom in 1951.
They were men who to this day are loyal to the teeth to legendary coach Stan Watts, whom they credit for influencing their lives to this very second.
They took on KC Jones and Bill Russell and beat the University of San Francisco team on a made free throw with no time left by Dean Larsen. They beat Dayton in the finals of the NIT at Madison Square Garden in 1951, a feat that was considered more prestigious than the NCAA championship back in the day.
I was lucky enough to sit down and visit with about a dozen of these players this summer during one of their reunions. They were hilarious, correcting one another on memories, poking fun of things they did and said. Their silver heads of hair are a little thinner, some walk with a shuffle and one, Boyd Jarman, came in a wheelchair. But their smiles were wide and genuine, their spirits still unconquerable.
Louisville has its NIT title banners hung proudly in its arena, and BYU’s big wigs would be smart to do the same with this team’s NIT milestone. These guys were the cat’s meow back in their day, and if you dish out golden nuggets for lifetime milestones, these guys would fill train cars.
In 1951, they didn’t have a home court due to construction on the Smith Fieldhouse. They played in the Springville High gym and for Skyline Conference games, they were required to compete on the University of Utah’s home court. They finished ranked in the top 10 at 28-9 and once rode a nine-game win streak. Star Mel Hutchins went on to earn NBA All-Star honors as a top draft pick.
Watts once said of this team, the thing that stood out the most was that they turned out to be leaders in the community, faithful churchmen and stayed married to the same women. Most all are celebrating 60 and 62nd wedding anniversaries.
“Stan was the kindest and most honest man I ever met,” said Sherman Crump. “He was hard-working, determined and made us play unselfishly.”
All the players I visited with praised Watts and paid tribute to their trainer, the late Rodney Kimball.
Herschel “Bones” Pedersen was one of the team leaders, along with Larsen and the late Harold Christensen. Pedersen had been a missionary to Denmark and players looked up to him. According to former athletic director Glen Tuckett, it was Pedersen who started a tradition of going to an opponent’s bench and shaking the hand of players who fouled out.
Nicknames? Nick Mataljean was “The Greek,” Harry Anderson was called “Yak Yak,” Crump got called “The Worm,” and Terry Tebbs from Wyoming was “The Cowboy.” Pedersen was “Soup,” or “Soup Bone,” or just plain “Bones.” They called Ed Pinegar “Squeaky,” Paul Kitchen earned the name “Jungle Jim,” Neil Stephens was “Spud” and Dave Lewis “Skeeter.”
Some have said this team, comprised of student-athletes who competed from 1950 to 1954-55, has been involved in more church service than any athletic team in BYU history. The callings include full-time missions, couple missions, time as mission and temple presidents, MTC presidents as well as bishops, stake presidents, regional representatives and an LDS general authority in First Council of Seventy member Loren Dunn.
At least two players were headed elsewhere out of high school. One was Tebbs, who dreamed of playing for Wyoming. Arizona native Dean Larsen was ready to go to Arizona State, but when he went to the registrar at Mesa High School and asked her to send his transcript to the Sun Devils in nearby Tempe, she told him he needed to go to BYU. “I told her to send a transcript to BYU too. I had offers to go to Arizona, Utah and Utah State.”
Pedersen, who worked as general foreman of the blast furnaces at Geneva Steel, remembers one summer BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson ordered the basketball team to work manually two hours a day digging a water line to the engineering building.
“Besides practicing and in the middle of the season, if we did not perform the work there would be no scholarship money.” Coach Watts and the athletic department encouraged players to obey and they’d get it changed, which they did. One of the players refused to work and his scholarship money was held back and he refused to practice hard, saying “no pay, no play.”
The Cougars had a road trip at Wyoming and Colorado State and got blown out at Wyoming, with the rebellious player “dragging his feet.” After the game, Larsen and Crump called a team meeting and the player was excluded.
Pedersen was asked to talk to Watts and tell him if that player started at Colorado State, the team would rebel. “I believe it fell on me because I’d been in the military for two years and had been on a mission. I was the oldest,” said Pedersen. “I spoke to coach Watts and Eddie and Rod Kimball.”
Watts told Pedersen since he’d been a missionary, he should understand the worth of a soul and that the player’s soul was precious. “If we could change him and make him a better person, it would be worth losing every game,” Watts said. “He was more worried about what kind of a person he could be than a win,” Pedersen said.
This group, which played together during parts of five seasons, has lost nine players who have passed on. All are in their 80s, and they speak respectfully of one another, their leader, coach and trainer as if they were back on a plane heading for South America or the Big Apple and Madison Square Garden. They are cancer survivors, they’ve had heart surgeries, joint replacements and heart attacks.
In their time, they competed at the highest level and battled the very best the game had to offer. Many are in their school’s hall of fame, and they never forget to share their tales of glory with grandchildren and great-granchildren.
As they’re firmly settled in to the twilight of their lives, it is fun to see them reunite, a ritual they relish, and as the sparks and twinkles in their eyes ignite with the telling of their stories, it’s a pleasure to listen and learn.
Former BYU student and Gonzaga law school graduate Rocky Steele wrote a book titled, "The Forgotten Champions," which chronicles the path taken by the team in 1951.
They should never be forgotten.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at [email protected].