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The Original Cinderella: Jacksonville University was there first

Artis Gilmore, Basketball Hall of Fame (NBA TV)

As Florida State, Florida and the University of Central Florida dream of making deep runs in this year’s NCAA Tournament, it’s worth remembering that the little-known Dolphins of Jacksonville University were the first team from the Sunshine State to ever appear in a national championship game.

Everybody remembers Billy Donovan’s Gators, who won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, but younger college basketball fans might not be aware that Jacksonville University, a relatively small school that had only recently transitioned to Division I during the 1966-67 season, was in many ways the NCAA’s original Cinderella team when the Artis Gilmore-led Dolphins fought their way into the national title game against John Wooden’s top-ranked UCLA Bruins in 1970.

Gilmore, who grew up one of nine children in an impoverished family in rural Chipley, Florida, transferred to Jacksonville University from Gardner-Webb — a junior college at the time — in the spring of 1969, instantly transforming the Dolphins into a national power.

For JU coach Joe Williams, a former assistant coach at Florida State and Furman, recruiting Gilmore was the crowning jewel in his four-year-plan to bring respectability, if not prominence, to Jacksonville University’s basketball fortunes — a long-term plan that produced a painful 8-17 record in its first year, a modest 13-13 outcome in the second year and a respectable 17-7 in 1968-69, a year JU played fifteen Division I opponents and defeated eight of them.

“Artis scares people out of their minds with his size and agility,” said Williams, who managed to pluck the shy string bean from Gardner-Webb while he was being recruited by more than a hundred other schools, including UCLA, which reportedly viewed Gilmore as its next Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

Landing Gilmore wasn’t a bad start for a coach whose first recruiting budget was a paltry $250 and for a school only in its fourth year of NCAA Division I competition.

The low-key Williams, moreover, had a wonderful coaching philosophy. He didn’t believe in berating his players or over-analyzing things. “All we want to do is win, we don’t care if it’s by one or twenty,” he said during that magical season.

“I don’t get up and bawl a guy out on the floor for a mistake. I see the mistake and I correct it in practice. But we always tell the guys that they should enjoy the game,” said the 36-year-old Williams, who later became one of only 25 coaches in history to lead three different schools to the NCAA tournament.

Williams, who took his team on excursions to Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., as well as treating them to a three-game road trip to Hawaii, during that unforgettable 1969-70 season — never once imposing a curfew on them — made it fun for the players.

“You’ve got to treat them like they’re playing a game, not going on the court to beat their brains out in a life and death situation,” said JU recruiter Tom Wasdin, who, according to Williams, was the guy responsible for attracting so many talented players to the small, private school in northeast Florida.

Williams even had a Caribbean vacation spot on the schedule that year with a planned March 5th game against the Virgin Islands, but had to cancel it at the last-minute to prepare for the NCAA Tournament.

“We get the best players we can find and try to treat them real nice,” he explained. “A trip to the Virgin Islands helps along that line. So did the trip to Hawaii we took this year. I’m trying to work it out so we can go out there every season.”

Main entrance to Jacksonville University (Photo taken in 2014)

But Williams didn’t just make it fun for his players, he made it enjoyable for the fans, too.

In a city where college hoops had never been particularly popular, the Dolphins had such a large and enthusiastic following that season that the university had to move some of its home games from tiny Swisher Gymnasium on the school’s campus to the old 10,276-seat multipurpose Jacksonville Coliseum, where the upstart Dolphins — a team that wasn’t ranked in any preseason polls — frequently played in front of sellout crowds.

Simply stated, the Dolphins were fun and exciting to watch, not only because of their size, but also because of their blurry-quick brand of basketball.

Standing 7-foot-2, the left-handed Gilmore teamed up with 7-footer Pembrook Burrows, another junior college transfer, and 6-10 Rod McIntyre, a prolific rebounder in his own right, to form the tallest front line in college basketball that season.

The three tall trees combined gave the Dolphins a bigger front line than Duquesne University’s nationally-ranked Iron Dukes, a team that boasted the bruising Nelson twins — Barry and Garry — who at 6’10” and 235 pounds each were considered one of the biggest and most powerful front lines in Div. I basketball.

“We are the biggest college team around and don’t bet against us becoming the best,” chortled coach Williams. “We’ll do some scoring and intimidating.”

Indeed. Gilmore and Burrows were quickly dubbed the “intimidation squad.” Gilmore was so dominating around the boards, grabbing rebounds and swatting opposing shots that visiting coaches frequently complained that some of his majestically soaring blocks must have been goal-tending.

To this day, Gilmore still holds the all-time NCAA record for rebounds, averaging 22.7 per game in two years of Division I play. In fact, the only time during his collegiate career that he failed to pull down at least ten rebounds came during a game at Loyola (La.) in New Orleans at the tail end of a long and weary four-game road trip in February 1970.

Gilmore’s career high was 34 rebounds against a run-and-gun St. Peter’s squad the following season, but he might have broken that record a year earlier against Georgetown if that game hadn’t been forfeited with 1:26 remaining in the first half following a scuffle at Swisher Gymnasium.

Incredibly, Gilmore had already pulled down 21 rebounds in that contest — and it wasn’t even halftime yet.

The 7-2, 245-pound giant — flat-footed Gilmore had a reach of 9-feet and 7-inches — could also score in droves, once netting 50 points against Biscayne and scoring more than 35 points on at least a half-dozen occasions while at Jacksonville.

Four of those scoring outbursts occurred during Jacksonville’s enchanted and unforgettable run for the national title in 1970.

Gilmore, Burrows and McIntyle had a superb supporting cast that season, anchored by 6-5 Rex Morgan — JU’s “Mr. Clutch” — and the late Vaughn Wedeking, a lightning-quick 5-10 Indiana product regarded by many as the catalyst behind JU’s high-scoring offense. The tenth-leading scorer in the country in 1968-69, Morgan had averaged 26.7 points per game during the previous season.

The Dolphins, coming off a respectable 17-7 finish the previous year, began the 1969-70 campaign auspiciously enough by trouncing Morehead State 117-63 to capture the Sunshine Tournament, which was hosted by JU. Gilmore had scored 35 points while sweeping 13 boards the previous night in an easy 92-74 win over comparatively mini-sized East Tennessee State.

“If there is a better team or a better big man in the country, I don’t want to play them this year,” moaned Morehead coach Bill Harrell after his team’s drubbing.

The Dolphins, who broke the century mark eighteen times that season, loved to run and — seemingly racing on rocket fuel — averaged 101.3 points per game that season, becoming the first team in Div. I history to average more than 100 points a game. They scored more than 120 points on three occasions, including a 121-87 mauling of Miami, a 124-81 romp over St. Peter’s and a 130-65 brutalization of Biscayne, which played one of the most difficult small college schedules in the country that winter.

Williams said that he didn’t have any other choice than to play at a fast pace. “Rex likes to score,” he said grinningly. “Then we brought in Artis and he likes to score. We brought in Burrows and he likes to score, too. So, we figured we’d better run up and down the floor a lot so everybody could score.” It was all part of keeping his players happy.

Jacksonville finally appeared in the AP Top Twenty during the second week in December when they were ranked eighteenth in the country. They slowly moved up in the national rankings as the season progressed and thanks, in part, to a feature story in Sports Illustrated, eventually climbed as high as the sixth spot, a ranking the high-scoring Dolphins held for six weeks during the 169-70 season.

Everybody was suddenly aware of this tall and talented team that, until then, had difficulty scheduling games with some of college basketball’s more established programs.

“Everybody wants us to play on the road next year,” said a gleeful Williams during the NCAA Tournament, “because everywhere we go we have sellouts.”

JU’s only regular-season loss that year, an 89-83 setback against Hugh Durham’s ninth-ranked Florida State Seminoles at Tully Gym in Tallahassee on January 27, ended the Dolphins’ 13-game winning streak.

The sixth-ranked Dolphins responded by winning their final ten regularly scheduled games, earning themselves a coveted at-large bid in the NCAA tournament in the process.

The newest kids on the block would face their first test in the NCAA Tournament against Ohio Valley Conference champion Western Kentucky (22-2) in the Mideast regional in Dayton, Ohio.

Only 25 teams — 10 at-large teams and 15 conference champions — participated in the NCAA tournament in those days. It was a far more elite tournament than the 68-team field today.

The school’s first ever NCAA appearance, however, proved to be a distraction of sorts for both the players and the coach. With its debut in the tourney looming on the horizon, the Dolphins were almost too excited to think about their final two regular season games.

Though his team survived a nail biter against NIT-bound Georgia Tech a few days after earning a berth, Coach Williams himself admitted he wasn’t getting much sleep in anticipation of the school’s first appearance in the Big Dance.

“I haven’t had a good stomach for two weeks and the countdown is now slapping us right in the face,” said the sixth-year head coach after his Dolphins finished the regular season with a closer-than-expected 108-97 victory over lowly Miami, a team that lost 16 games that season.

“We didn’t give this Miami game much consideration and if we’d lost it wouldn’t have dampened our spirits for the national tournament. Our mind was in Dayton and our bodies in Miami,” lamented Williams, who later went on to coach at Furman University and Florida State.

Hoping to become the first NCAA newcomer to win a national title since 1955 when the legendary Bill Russell led the University of San Francisco to the first of two consecutive championships, the low-key but colorfully-dressed Dolphins — donning orange, pin-striped trousers with double-breasted green blazers and psychedelic ties — arrived in Dayton knowing they were entering the tournament against long odds.

Critics complained that the Dolphins had played a weak schedule and few, if any, sportswriters thought they would survive the first or second rounds.

JU would have to prove itself before becoming the tourney’s darlings.

In their first-round game with Western Kentucky — a contest billed as a clash between dueling giants Artis Gilmore and the Hilltoppers’ seven-foot sensation Jim McDaniels — the Dolphins prevailed 109-96. Gilmore and Pembrook completely dominated the inside play, forcing Western Kentucky to do most of its scoring from long range.

Artis Gilmore (Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos)

The upstart Dolphins then edged Big Ten champion Iowa in the second round, defeating the high-scoring Hawkeyes in a 104-103 thriller when Burrows — JU’s other skyscraper — followed up on a missed shot with two seconds remaining to put Jacksonville in the Mideast Regional championship game against top-seeded Kentucky, coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp.

Unlike Williams, who was just getting his first taste of the pressure-packed tournament, Rupp’s teams had competed in 44 previous NCAA tournament games while winning four national championships over a period of several decades.

Behind hot-shooting Rex Morgan’s 28 points, the Dolphins stunned the Wildcats — and the basketball world — in a 106-100 shootout. Gilmore scored 24 points and seized 20 boards to put the upset-minded Dolphins in the Final Four.

Not bad for a school that lost to the likes of Wilmington College only a few years earlier!

Jacksonville’s tournament inexperience, however, began to show during its semifinal game against third-seeded St. Bonaventure, a stubborn and crippled squad playing without its star center, 6’11” All-American Bob Lanier.

The undersized Bonnies kept the game much closer than anyone thought possible, holding the Dolphins to an 8-point halftime advantage and closing to within four points during an erratically played five-minute stretch late in the second half.

But with Gilmore again dominating the glass — he scored 29 points and almost effortlessly grabbed 21 rebounds — the Dolphins ultimately prevailed 91-83, thereby earning their way into the championship game against UCLA, coached by the immortal John Wooden.

Analysts and pundits suggested that Jacksonville wouldn’t have won if Lanier had been able to play, but Williams sharply disagreed. “Everybody says that St. Bonaventure would have won if they had Lanier,” he remarked. “But how can anybody prove it? We were supposed to win, and we did.”

Lanier or not, Jacksonville was in the championship game.

While JU’s luck was about to run out, the anticipation in the sleepy River City couldn’t have been greater. Old timers say it was “the day Jacksonville stood still.” Everybody, it seemed, was glued to their television sets.

Seeking his sixth national championship in seven years, the “Wizard of Westwood” had his post-Lew Alcindor crew, led by stalwart Sidney Wicks, ready for the upset-minded Dolphins.

JU jumped out to an early 14-6 lead, but the Bruins dominated the rest of the way with the 6’8” Wicks — giving up a full 5 ½ inches to Gilmore — limiting the Dolphins’ much taller center to 9-29 shooting from the floor and only 16 rebounds en route to a relatively easy 80-69 victory.

UCLA’s interior defense harassed Jacksonville’s 7’2” center into one of the worst shooting performances of his collegiate career, far below his 58 percent field-goal percentage for the season.

Wicks, moreover, blocked five of Gilmore’s shots, causing JU’s towering treasure to lose his poise and —uncharacteristically — force a number of bad shots that he normally wouldn’t have taken. Gilmore missed his first five shots in the second half as UCLA pulled away.

“That Wicks looked as if he had springs on his feet,” a gloomy and disappointed Gilmore quipped after the game.

Incredibly, some 10,000 fans on the First Coast turned out at the Jacksonville Gator Bowl to welcome the team home on March 22.

Long regarded as an overgrown country town, Jacksonville was now on the map, at least in college basketball circles as everybody suddenly wanted to include JU on their schedules.

The Dolphins, unfortunately, were unable to repeat their miraculous run in 1970-71, but they did earn another trip to the NCAA tournament, only to lose a 74-72 last-second heartbreaker to Western Kentucky in the opening round.

Darcy G. Richardson is a historian and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Loyola's Improbable Ramblers: 55 Years in the Making, available now on Amazon.

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