Wednesday, October 24, 2007

'Cats emerged as national power in 1960's

When Davidson College first started playing basketball, the games were nothing more than friendly matches between classes of Davidson men…a glorified B-league, one might say. That all changed forever in 1907 when a student named James Wendell Rhea decided to put Davidson's name on the line and form a traveling basketball team that would compete against other schools. In the school's first season, a team of six won its first ever game against Guilford College before losing to Wake Forest and Duke. Davidson basketball was born.

For many years, Davidson basketball competed outside of what we now understand to be the general structures of college basketball. The NCAA had only been formed in 1906, and there was no tournament until 1939. Davidson didn't join the Southern Conference until 1936 when the College was invited to join the likes of Clemson, North Carolina, Duke, Maryland and South Carolina. Those teams would not split off to form the ACC until 1953.

Until the late 1930's, Davidson basketball was relatively unheralded. The team mostly played against regional YMCA squads. On the other hand, Davidson football seemed to have been getting all sorts of attention, with stadium improvements and scholarship fundraising to compete with the larger schools in the Southeast. In fact, the "Wildcat" nickname came after a 1917 football game against Georgia Tech.

In 1949, George "Buddy" Cheek put Davidson on the national map when he became the first Wildcat basketball All-American. In his three years at Davidson, Cheek led the Wildcats to a record of 54-25. Three years later, in 1952, Hobby Cobb arrived on Davidson's campus. During four years, he scored 1,424 points and grabbed 836 rebounds. Cobb has since been inducted into the Davidson Hall of Fame and his retired #21 jersey hangs from the rafters. Cobb is still a season ticket holder and tries to attend every Davidson basketball game, home or away.

Although Davidson experienced some team success in the days of Cheek and Cobb, the sport of basketball was still just an athletic exercise meant to stimulate the bodies and minds of the College's student-athletes and supporters. Davidson basketball was not a brand; it was not a reason to know about a small liberal arts school in North Carolina. In 1960, that changed forever.

In the spring of that year, the Davidson administration hired a former Duke basketball player who had never been the head coach of a college basketball program. His name was Charles "Lefty" Driesell. Over the course of his career, Driesell tallied 786 wins. He was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

When Driesell came to Davidson, he didn't see the restrictions of a small student body. He refused to believe in an attitude of small-time athletics. During his nine-year tenure with the Wildcats, Driesell went to the NCAA Tournament three times and recruited three All-Americans and a number-one NBA draft pick.

Fred Hetzel and Dick Snyder were the first two Davidson stars of the Driesell era. Hetzel ranked eighth in the country in scoring during his senior year and Snyder ranked 14th nationally the next year. Between 1963 and 1966, Hetzel and Snyder helped lead Davidson to national rankings in the AP and UPI polls, as Davidson finished sixth in the nation in 1965. Both Hetzel and Snyder went on to prestigious NBA careers and were inducted into the Davidson Hall of Fame.

The real story of Lefty Driesell was not necessarily what he accomplished as a coach, but how he accomplished it. Although he had a very limited recruiting budget, Driesell knew that he had to travel outside of the Southeast to find some of the nation's best basketball players. He also knew that image was everything. Snyder remembered that Driesell would drive to regional airports around the country and get the parents of his recruits to pick him up, making the families believe that he had the budget to fly around the country. Driesell's recruiting creativity was unmatched even in his own time.

Back in Davidson, Driesell was able to schedule more and more home games at the Charlotte Coliseum for maximum exposure. Driesell apparently would sneak into the coliseum and put up Davidson signs around the concourse entrances to make the Coliseum look like Davidson's home arena. Driesell even opened a pizza parlor on Main St. and encouraged students and fans to mingle with him after games.

Driesell wanted to make Davidson a national powerhouse in college basketball. The 1964-65 Sports Illustrated College Basketball preview issue recognized his merit by selecting Davidson as their preseason number 1 pick. By the middle of the 1960's, Davidson basketball was a national brand, and its stock had nowhere to go but up.

***This is the second piece in a four-part Davidsonian series on the 100th anniversary of Davidson basketball.

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