Awhile back, it dawned on us here at RazorbackExpats.com that the Razorback basketball program has a very special anniversary coming up this spring. Thirty years ago this March, Eddie Sutton led the Hogs to the Final Four, marking the school's first modern-era appearance in college basketball's showcase event. Whit E. Knight, one of our favorite commenters and an occasional contributor, will commemorate this seminal event with a three-part series that will run on Wednesdays. In this first installment, he describes how Sutton and the Hogs set the stage for their magical '78 season. Many thanks, Whit. Take it away:
The fall of 1977 was a time for anticipation. I had just started my dream job as a copy editor at the Arkansas Gazette, the future Mrs. Whit E. Knight was entering her senior year of the University of Arkansas, the Expats were looking forward to their last year of freedom before kindergarten, and the growing number of fans of the Arkansas Razorback basketball team were entertaining dreams of back-to-back Southwest Conference titles and a return to the NCAA tournament.
I have been a basketball fan for as long as I can remember and a Razorback basketball fan since the mid-1960s. My all-time favorite team remains Eddie Sutton’s Final Four squad of 1977-78, which set the stage for the success of the program that culminated in the 1994 national championship. It seems like yesterday, not 30 years ago, that that team left its mark on the state’s psyche.
For starters, that group had the closest identification with the state of any of the successful Razorback teams of the last 30-plus years. Its three best players — Ron Brewer of Fort Smith Northside, Marvin Delph of Conway and Sidney Moncrief of Little Rock Hall — were Arkansans. I saw all three of them play high school basketball. Jimmy Counce, the 6-7 defensive stopper, was from Memphis White Station, just across the Mississippi River from Arkansas. Steve Schall, the skinny 6-10 center, was from Raytown, Mo., just up U.S. Highway 71 (OK, 233 miles) from Fayetteville. All five of them settled in Arkansas after their playing days were over. In addition, four of the bench players were storied high school stars from Arkansas: U.S. Reed of Pine Bluff, Chris Bennett of Little Rock Catholic, James "Rocket" Crockett of Helena and Houston Dale Nutt — yes that Houston Dale Nutt — of Little Rock Central.
Brewer, Delph and Moncrief were incredibly gifted players who could have started for any other college basketball team in the country and for all three of them to be on the same squad made this a special group.
It wasn’t like Arkansas fans were unfamiliar with winning basketball — it just had been too long since they had last seen it. The University of Arkansas began playing basketball in 1924, won the Southwest Conference championship five straight times to finish out the 1920s, and continued to rack up titles through the ‘30s and the ‘40s. The 1936 Razorbacks reached the semi-finals of the tournament to select the U.S. Olympics representatives, and Arkansas made it to the semi-finals of the NCAA tournament in 1941 and 1945. But starting in the ‘50s — except for 1958, when they lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to an Oklahoma A&M team that featured Sutton as a high-scoring guard — success eluded the program as Arkansas continually finished among the also-rans in the SWC.
After the 1973-74 Hogs won only 10 games, newly named athletic director Frank Broyles decided it was time to make a commitment to basketball. He turned things around by hiring Sutton from Creighton University, where he had just led the Bluejays to a 23-7 record and a berth in the NCAA tournament. Sutton immediately showed his eye for talent by hiring future Purdue head coach Gene Keady as an assistant and retaining Pat Foster, also a future head coach, from the previous coaching regime.
With his coaching staff set, Sutton’s next task was to halt the exodus of talented black basketball players leaving the state for other colleges.
And the 1974 class had two of the best ever to play in Arkansas: Brewer and Delph. Almer Lee of Fort Smith, a fabled high school player who had been the first black player at the U of A but who had been relegated to the bench by Sutton’s predecessor, convinced Brewer that it would be different under Sutton. And with Brewer on board, Delph was quick to sign on too. It was a real act of faith of those two to agree to play at the University of Arkansas. Both of them were recruited by other, more prestigious basketball schools, and Arkansas had not had a good team in 16 years. Another key member of Sutton’s first class was the lightly-recruited Counce, who would be called on to defend the other team’s best scorer.
In Sutton’s first season, the Razorbacks finished 17-9, the most wins for Arkansas since its last NCAA team in 1957-58 and the best winning percentage since 1947-48. Brewer was academically ineligible, so he had to spend a year in junior college before transferring to Arkansas as a sophomore. That year, he and Delph were joined by Moncrief, who led the nation in field goal percentage as a freshman, and Schall as the Hogs went 19-9. You could see that something special was building in Fayetteville.
Still, I don’t think anyone expected what happened in the 1976-77 season. After they won their first five games of the season, they were ranked in the AP Top 20 for the first time in school history. With senior Steve Stroud from Batesville and Schall alternating at center, the Hogs were an amazing 16-0 in the conference, beat a good Texas team by 28 points at Austin and lost only to Memphis State in Little Rock to finish the regular season at 26-1.
But the season came to a crashing halt when they were beaten in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Wake Forest, 86-80, after leading by 13 at the half. They had 23 turnovers, 10 by Counce alone, and missed the front end of a one-and-ones numerous times in the second half. My searing memory of the game is of a news clip showing Wake Forest’s Rod Griffin, who finished with 26 points, getting the ball on the baseline, roaring past Counce like he was a statue and slamming home a powerful dunk. In his autobiography, Keady says Sutton was so upset by that loss that he refused to speak to any of the players over the summer.
Their 26-2 record and final ranking (18 in the AP poll, 7 in the UPI poll) had given the Hogs and their fans a taste of glory. With four starters returning and the loss to Wake Forest to motivate them, the Razorbacks were determined that 1977-78 would be their year.
Next: A Season to Remember