There was 1948 and 1951. Again in 1961 and 1966.
All four of “Black” Jack Gardner’s trips to the NCAA Final Four came without a national championship – 1948 and 1951 at Kansas State, 1961 and 1966 at the University of Utah. Three times his squads lost in the semifinals.
It was in 1951 that his team came closest. That season, though, was a disaster for college basketball. It involved point shaving.
Kentucky, coached by legendary Adolph Rupp, beat Gardner’s K-State team by 10 points, but there was more to it. K-State had beaten Arizona, Brigham Young and Oklahoma A&M to earn its spot in the Final Four.
Kentucky’s involvement in the point-shaving mess was still to be uncovered when No. 1-ranked Wildcats arrived in Minneapolis in search of their third NCAA championship in four years. Gardner’s No. 4-ranked Kansas State, the champion of the Big Seven, awaited.
Led by 7-foot junior All-America Bill Spivey and sophomore Cliff Hagan, the Cats won, 68-58. Rupp, the legendary Kentucky coach, had his third title.
The celebration didn’t last long. Shortly after winning the title, the point-shaving scandal broke in New York.
The real reason for Kansas State’s loss
Five of Kentucky’s players, including Alex Groza, Ralph Beard and Spivey were implicated. Groza and Beard, stars of the 1948 U.S. Olympic basketball team and eventual professionals, were thrown out of the NBA. Spivey fought the charges, but never played another game in college or the pros.
The 1966 season was Gardner’s last in leading his team into the NCAA Tournament.
Gardner, upended by Rupp in ’51, nearly squared off against him in ’66 when Texas Western hit stride, inspiring Glory Road a few decades later. But Utah, and Gardner, lost to Texas Western. Utah’s bid to take on Rupp and Kentucky for the national championship disappeared.
Rupp was portrayed by Academy Award winner Jon Voight. Haskins was played by Josh Lucas. Tons of actors portrayed various roles – reporters, rival players, boosters, racists, students, you name it. There were no roles to depict Gardner, or even Chambers.
As for Utah, there was a consolation game in those days. After losing to third-ranked Texas Western, the unranked Utes lost to second-ranked Duke, 79-77, to finish a 21-8 season.
Gardner took on college hoops’ biggest names
Marquette’s legendary coach, Al McGuire, brought his team into Madison Square Garden (N.Y.) to beat “Black” Jack’s Utes by 20 at the NIT in 1970. Marquette capped a 24-3 season with the NIT championship.
A 24-3 team? NIT? Remember, NCAA tournaments had just expanded to just 32 teams a year earlier.
Gardner’s final career game from the sidelines was a loss – by 11 points. Against BYU. At home in the Huntsman Center.
Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels got him in 1965. By five points.
Speaking of North Carolina. In 1956-57, Frank McGuire’s unbeaten Tar Heels beat Utah on Dec. 27, 1956 by 21 points en route to an NCAA championship a couple months later.
That was the crazy tournament in which UNC beat No. 11 Michigan in the semifinals before knocking off Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team in the finals – both triple overtime victories.
There was a 1964 game in which Utah knocked off a Cal-Berkeley team by 25 points. On that Golden Bears’ team was another Redlands product named Danny Wolthers (17.7 point average), who had played for Jerry Tarkanian during his Terrier days.
A couple years earlier, though, Cal tagged Utah with a 72-66 loss in the 1962-63 season opener at Berkeley’s Harmon Gym. Wolthers’ averaged 6.7 points.
That must’ve been a nice win for No. 5 Utah when the Utes outdueled No. 8 Utah State on Feb. 27, 1960 in Logan, 77-75. Aggies’ coach Cecil Baker had a 24-5 team that season while Gardner’s squad finished 26-3.
No. There was never a matchup with Jerry Tarkanian, the ex-Terrier coach who took the same pathway to major colleges as Gardner – through the junior college ranks, namely Riverside and Pasadena. Tark wound up at Long Beach State during Gardner’s final years in Salt Lake City.
Long Beach State never played Utah in that five-year span.
“The Fox” had quite a career.
Even Sports Illustrated got into the mix on Gardner.
That magazine once wrote that “he could win with an old maid on the post and four midgets.” A proponent of fundamental basketball, Gardner was an expert in fast break basketball. His Utah teams were accordingly known as the Runnin’ Redskins, later the Runnin’ Utes.
Part 3 next week.