In many respects, though it was a full quarter-century before the creation of midmajority.com, the 1978-79 college basketball season would have to be considered the season of the mid-majority. That year's Final Four included three outstanding teams that I believe the Mid-Majority Institute of Basketball Research retroactively would consider mid-majors:
Penn - The Quakers, champions of the Ivy League, put a shock into the East Region bracket with victories over Iona, North Carolina, and Syracuse. In a 40 team field (with ten teams per region), No. 9 seed Penn faced off against No. 10 seed St. John's in the East Region Final, which still has to rank as the most humiliating of the tournament selection committee's many embarrassments. Penn senior Tony Price led the Quakers to a 64-62 victory over the Redmen, earning them a visit to Salt Lake City.
DePaul - At the time, an independent playing their home games in 5,300 seat Alumni Hall, the 1978-79 Blue Demons would seem to fit comfortably within the mid-major classification. After thirty years of mediocrity in the post-George Mikan era, DePaul began a sudden resurgence in the mid-'70s. Ray Meyer's "Iron Five" swept through the West Region, avenging an early season loss to still-powerful UCLA to earn its Final Four berth.
Indiana State - Larry Bird, the garbage man-turned-basketball legend, led the most heralded of the mid-majors. In a sport that then received just a small fraction of the attention it gets today, many members of the national media managed to find their way to Terre Haute during the season to report on Bird and his teammates. The unbeaten Sycamores, winners of the Missouri Valley Conference, survived a nail-biter against Southwest Conference champion Arkansas in the Midwest Region Final to secure its Utah trip.
Despite the tremendous achievements of these three squads, the greatest mid-major story of 1978-79 might well have taken place in almost complete anonymity in rural Mississippi.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
To anyone under the age of 35, it is very difficult to explain the extremely narrow window through which one had to follow college basketball in 1979. This season ended just months before the debut of ESPN, and even then, that network was far from widely available for the first few years after its introduction. At the time, televised sports highlights were restricted to about five minutes at the end of the local news, and depending on your location, precious little of that was devoted to college basketball. Actual game telecasts were usually limited to a Saturday "Game of the Week" from the local power conference, with radio broadcasts being the main source of regular information, at least for those of us in more rural areas. Newspapers provided a limited view of game results from more distant locations via a lengthy listing of single-line scores, but any outcome from too far away (particularly the West Coast) was subject to being unavailable when the paper needed to go to press. These results were dismissed with a parenthetical "late", as in "Pepperdine at San Francisco (late)", which thereby essentially eliminated your opportunity of ever learning the outcome of that game.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Given this very limited degree of media attention available to the sport at the time, imagine the pre-season goals set by the coaches of the smaller conferences, many of which did not yet have an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. What "upside" would you have to sell to your players as your
ultimate goal? With no path available to the NCAA tournament, with few (if any) chances to compete against major conference opponents, and with basically no chance for any national exposure, how would you help your team define a successful season?
The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) was, by the late 1970s, a collection of seven historically black universities that were each in the process of transitioning into NCAA Division I status. Because of this, the conference had not earned an automatic bid to the tournament. In fact, some SWAC members were so new to Division I that they had yet to satisfy its three-year average entrance requirement, and therefore were ineligible for the tournament entirely. This was the situation for the Alcorn State Braves, one of the SWAC's perennial powers in men's basketball.
The Braves were coached by Davey Whitney, who was then beginning his tenth season at the school. Whitney's athletic career was primarily in baseball, where he was a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in the early 1950s, having taken over that position when Ernie Banks was signed by the Chicago Cubs. Whitney coached a fast-paced offense that concentrated on near-constant ball movement through passing rather than dribbling. Defensively, the Braves played a relentless full-court press that wore down its opponents, both physically and mentally. While it would be more than a decade later when Nolan Richardson would make his "Forty Minutes of Hell" defense famous in Arkansas, the Alcorn State team of late 1970s would put foes through their own form of unnamed purgatory.
6'8" junior forward Larry Smith and 5'7" point guard James "Pee Wee" Horton were the star players for the Braves during the 1978-79 season. They were supported by a roster of versatile and disciplined players, including E.J. Bell, Ronnie Smith, Joe Jenkins, Cornelius Jenkins, and Alfredo Monroe.
They began the season with a string of wins over a number of largely local opponents, and consistently ranked among the nation's leaders in team scoring, rebounding margin, and field goal percentage defense - a statistical trifecta that accurately reflected their overall dominance. Their most contested games were wins over Alabama State and an overtime win over Whitney's alma mater Kentucky State. They cruised through the majority of the SWAC schedule, and stretched their record to 21-0. While compiling all of these impressive numbers, they continued to be unrecognized throughout the basketball world, never reaching higher than 40th in any national poll.
Game number 22 was a visit to Southern University, and that contest posed the greatest challenge for the Braves. Southern held an eight-point lead with 1:20 to play, but Alcorn State's pressure forced a number of late turnovers, forcing the game into overtime, and the Braves survived with a clutch jump shot from Joe Jenkins near the end of the extra session.
The regular season concluded with a visit to Grambling, a game which was covered by Sports Illustrated, giving the team its first taste of national attention. Grambling stayed close throughout most of the game, and pulled into a tie in the final minutes. However, clutch baskets by Ronnie Smith and a late layup by Monroe gave the Braves a 76-74 victory. They then swept through the SWAC tournament and ended the regular season with an unblemished 27-0 record.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
These days, a small mid-major school that had completed a perfect regular season would be ceaselessly promoting its case for a favorable seed in the NCAA tournament, but in March of 1979, Alcorn State was left simply to hope for an NIT bid. While they did receive a spot in the 24-team NIT field, they were somewhat insulted to be sent about 200 miles across the state to play on the road in the first round at Mississippi State, a predominantly white school from the SEC that had never before agreed to schedule the Braves. In a highly competitive contest, filled with emotion for both teams, the outcome was in doubt until the final seconds. A baseline jumper from Larry Smith at the buzzer gave the Braves an 80- 78 win, and provided their fans that made the trip with a thrill of a lifetime, even if their celebrations were seemingly unappreciated by the hometown supporters. Next up for the Braves - a trip to Bloomington, Indiana.
Alcorn State may have been a bit in awe upon entering the Assembly Hall, but they were far from intimidated on the court. Their undefeated season ended that night in a 73-69 loss, but their performance left a significant impression on their opponents. All-American forward Mike Woodson would later recall Alcorn State to be the toughest team he played against in his four years at Indiana.
In a season in which they had no opportunity for their ultimate goal, Alcorn State bought into the philosophies of Coach Whitney and built one of the most successful seasons of any mid-major. They knew that virtually no one would be aware of their achievements, but instead of pouting about what wasn't available to them, the Braves pushed forward and made history.
The Braves would lose just once during the 1979-80 regular season, and the circumstances of its loss were just as remarkable as the loss itself. Alcorn State was defeated in the championship game of the season-opening Babe McCarthy Tournament by the host school -- Mississippi State. The Braves would avenge that loss by beating the Bulldogs four weeks later in the opening round of the Senior Bowl Tournament. In the 32 seasons to follow, the teams would meet just once more.
With a 27-1 regular season record, the 1979-80 Braves did earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament, defeating South Alabama in the first round, and becoming the first historically black university to win an NCAA tournament game. Their season ended with a ten-point loss to top-seeded LSU in the second round.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
In retrospect, it seems to me that Alcorn State's 1978-79 season is remembered by so few largely because so few knew about it as it was happening. Were they to have such a season now, I would expect many of the all-sports networks to send one of their lower-tier reporters to the depths of Southwestern Mississippi to provide a token report on "the little mid-major that could", and then resume their daily briefings on the major powers of the sport.
So instead, let those of us within The Mid-Majority assume the responsibility, and the privilege, of covering the modern day Alcorn States. Not just those teams who manage a very special undefeated season, but all of those teams who work together to achieve something special, whether that be an entire season, a single game, a particular stretch of play within a game, or a single brilliant defensive stop against an opponent on a key possession. For Season 9 again allows Our Mid-Majority Teams the opportunity to chronicle Our Game, sharing our experiences with each other, and helping All of Us feel the special moments that Each of Us witness in person.
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