Tulsa Recruited Great Players in the 1960s, Early 70s

Contributing Writers

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three part series about University of Tulsa basketball through the 1960s and early 1970’s, when TU played in what was known in basketball circles as “The Valley of Death,” the Missouri Valley Conference, which at that time was one of the best in the nation with nationally-ranked teams such as Cincinnati, Louisville, Bradley, Drake, St. Louis, Wichita State and Memphis State. The author was a sports writer for the Tulsa World in those years. Last month’s article can be seen on www.gtrnews.com.

Joe Swank, who became Tulsa’s head basketball coach in 1960, inherited a major problem to which a solution was not obvious. His problem was that the very essence of college basketball had changed dramatically in the previous five years or so. The basic parameters of the game, the size and physical capabilities of the players, had increased by orders of magnitude due to an influx of talent from a prolific source that had been largely untapped. In other words, by 1960, the dominating players were very tall and very, very talented blacks from big cities – not 6-3 white players from small towns (as in the movie “Hoosiers” which takes place about 1954).

Consider the great Oscar Robertson, who was a broad 6-5 and so skilled that he in essence played point guard for Cincinnati in the late 1950s. Only a few years earlier, he might have played center. And Cincinnati, which had plenty of superb black players in the years following Robertson, was in the old Missouri Valley Conference of which Tulsa was a member and Tulsa didn’t have a talented (much less very, very talented) black player in 1960. TU didn’t have, and had never had, a black basketball player of any size or ability because … well, that was the nature of the times.

(It’s hard to believe, from the perspective of 2007, that that was the situation in 1960. But it was the case in much of the country. This was only six years after the Supreme Count decision which integrated the public schools and many parts of the country were still actively resisting. I spent two high-school years in Virginia and, in the late 1950s, it was against state law for my school’s teams to play teams with black players. We skirted this law by playing teams with black players in “scrimmages” on Saturday morning, instead of regularly scheduled games. But although these scrimmages didn’t become part of the official record, everybody involved knew these were real games and everybody, particularly the players, treated them as such.)

So Joe Swank wasn’t even at ground zero when he sought to upgrade TU’s basketball talent. He was a step below ground zero. He first had to obtain permission to recruit black players and then he had to find them and get them to TU in the face of such obstacles as very little basketball tradition, very poor facilities, a very small budget, and very high academic standards. Again, viewed from the perspective of 2007, it seems impossible but it was possible because TU did it and did it rather quickly and, in the process, came up with some of the greatest players the school has ever had and (it seems pretty safe to say) will ever have.

Swank was head coach at Tulsa for eight years and he lost one more game than he won (102 victories, 103 losses). But his tenure included at least two incredible achievements. His 1962-63 team, with no black players, finished 17-9 and defeated Purdue, Florida, Arkansas, Drake, Houston, Bradley, and lost in overtime to Wichita State and by a single point (on a last-second tip-in) at Cincinnati. That was year that Cincinnati lost in the NCAA finals in quest of a third straight national championship.

To put that accomplishment in perspective, consider this statement from Bill Kusleika (who led that team in scoring with a 17.1 average and was named All-MVC along with teammate Jim King): “We didn’t even have a place to practice. If we wanted to shoot baskets before the season, we had to go to the old Red Shield gym downtown.”

Tulsa fell to 10-15 in 1963-64 but Swank and assistant coach Jim Killingsworth (later head coach at Oklahoma State and TCU) pulled off what may have well been, considering TU’s handicaps, the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball. Tulsa brought in its three talented black players from the juco ranks – Sherman Dillard, Herm Callands, and Julian Hammond – and a freshman team that was and is the stuff of legend. The headliners on the freshman team were ultratalented guard Eldridge Webb, deluxe power forward Charlie Paulk, and 6-10 Doug Robinson. This infusion of talent let TU defeat such powers of that era as Cincinnati, Louisville, Kansas State, Wichita State, Utah State, Michigan, Bradley, and Drake in the 1964-65 and ’65-66 seasons.

NCCA rules (from 1953 through the early 1970s) did not allow freshmen to play for the varsity so schools had full schedules for freshman teams. I am included in the group (and I don’t think it’s a small one) of those who saw TU’s 1964-65 freshman team and feel that it might have been the greatest team, not just the greatest freshman team, in school history.

Hammond, Webb, and Paulk would eventually play in the NBA. Paulk was a first-round draft choice. Webb was a tragic figure; he was perhaps the most talented player ever at Tulsa but his career (and life) was shortened by personal problems. However, those who saw him play, like myself, remain in awe more than 40 years later.

It remains something of a mystery as to how this incredible recruiting coup was accomplished. “There were just two coaches,” Kusleika recalls, “Swank and Killingsworth. I can’t recall any other coaches or even graduate assistants. Killingsworth did most of the recruiting.”

Ken Hayes, who became a TU assistant in 1965 and succeeded Swank as head coach in 1968, has a different opinion regarding Tulsa’s greatest freshman team. He says the group that followed in 1965-66 was even better. This team featured Bobby Smith (whose rainbow-arced jump shot was so accurate that he was universally known as Bingo), Rob Washington, and Larry Cheatham. Hayes is certainly correct from the standpoint of which group had the greatest impact overall. Paulk never played at all for the TU varsity and Webb only about one and half seasons. Smith, Washington, and Cheatham were major factors on the varsity for three years.

Updated 03-08-2007

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