The sweet smell of success that now permeates Wright State basketball began as the smell of salami and baloney.
“We didn’t have a place to practice on campus so we went to Stebbins High School at 9 o’clock at night. We couldn’t get the gym until after all their teams were done,” Jim Brown, the WSU Hall of Fame coach and now broadcaster of Raiders basketball remembered of the school’s first varsity season in 1970-71.
“We vanned over there and had sandwiches for them afterwards because everything on campus would be closed. They fixed the sandwiches on campus and we’d pick them up.”
The guy often tasked with that chore was Mike Zink, who had played on the Raiders initial junior varsity team the year before. He then became the student manager and the keeper of the scorebook and now – in his 50th consecutive season with WSU basketball – serves as the Nutter Center clock operator.
Zink remembers the sandwiches were often in brown paper bags and Brown said: “We’d leave them in the vans until after practice and I remember that smell.
“The vans always smelled like salami and baloney.”
As he sat court side at the Nutter Center with Becky, his wife of 52 years, the other night before the Raiders’ ESPN-televised matchup with Northern Kentucky, Brown laughed at the long-past memory and then nodded toward the WSU team warming up a few yards away:
“The guys today have absolutely no idea.”
And just as the Raiders meals have changed – today they have training table buffets throughout the week, a team meal four hours before their games, another buffet afterward – so has everything else.
The team no longer practices at Stebbins, the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Coliseum or Spinning Hills Junior High. Now they prepare at their state-of the art practice gym in the Mills-Morgan Center and the Nutter Center has been their home court since December of 1990.
While the arena has been the stage for decades of memorable basketball moments, one of the more electric ones came last Friday night, when a lively crowd of 6,217 – most wearing green T-shirts and waving green glow sticks – watched WSU dismantle the rival Norse, 95-63.
That made the Raiders 18-4, their best start ever as a Division I program. At 8-1, they have a two-game lead in the Horizon League standings going into Friday night’s game at Milwaukee.
And speaking of road trips, the team no longer travels by van.
They were scheduled to leave Thursday on a private charter flight that will take them on their two-game swing through Wisconsin. After Friday’s game with the Panthers, they fly on to Green Bay for a Sunday afternoon contest and then charter back home.
Earlier this season they flew commercially to a tournament in Florida. And the rest of their trips to regional games have been by charter bus.
While current WSU players might not know the salami-baloney particulars of the past, they do know the importance of what came before them said Nick Goff, the Raiders director of basketball operations.
With a sense of appreciation, he noted that those early teams “built the foundation of our program.”
He’s right and no one knows that better than Zink and Brown.
Zink was a WSU freshman from Beavercreek High School when the Raiders first launched a basketball program in 1969 with a “cattle call” tryout that drew some 200 people, he estimated, to Spinning Hills. Many who showed up weren’t even students.
Zink came out of the tryouts as the team manager, but within a game head coach John Ross made him a player when other guys were having trouble with their transcripts or flunking out.
By the following year Brown – who had played at Belmont High School for Ross and then for the freshman team at University of Dayton, his alma mater – returned from serving in the Vietnam War and took a part time WSU assistant coaching job that paid $1,000.
After his student managing ended, Zink continued to keep the scorebook and 39 years ago switched to the game clock.
During all those years, he said he missed just one game: “When my dad died, his wake was the night of one of our games.”
While it’s been a labor of love, there have been a few less than Cupid moments.
One came in a December 1983 game against Chapman College of California in the old PE Building gym. Walt Hazzard, the great UCLA and NBA player, was the Chapman coach and he got so angry about a call that he came over to the scorer’s table and, as Zink remembered:
“He grabbed a glass of pop and dumped it straight on the scorebook.”
That was one of the few spills WSU suffered in those glorious days of the early and mid-1980s.
Wright State was a NCAA Division II power then, compiling a 169-37 record over seven seasons and winning a national title in 1983.
Now the program – which made the NCAA Tournament two years ago and the NIT last season – is reaching lofty heights again.
“Sometimes I just have to pinch myself,” Brown said. “I’m so proud of what has happened here. It’s phenomenal really.”
Zink grew up on a dairy farm on Zink Road – named for his forebears – that was right next to the Wright State campus on what is now the site of the Meijer store and some nearby apartments. He played basketball at Beavercreek and when it came time for college, he chose the school he could walk to.
WSU decided to start a basketball program even though it had no money for it, no players, no gym and no place on campus to practice.
But it did have a few other things going for it. The cattle call tryout landed them a couple of good players, especially Mark Donahue from Fairmont High School.
The also had a great one-two punch in athletics director Don Moore and Ross, who had won the state title with Belmont five years earlier and was semi-retired.
That first season, WSU played a JV schedule against freshman teams – freshmen couldn’t play varsity then – from places like the University of Dayton, Bowling Green, Cincinnati and Oho State.
The Buckeyes featured 7-foot Luke Witte and Allan Hornyak, who would go on to be a high-scoring, three-time, All Big Ten guard.
Wright State travelled to Columbus and as Zink remembers it: “We were beating them a halftime.”
He drew Hornyak as an assignment in the second half.
“I held him,” Zink said with perfect timing and a smile, “to 33 points…in the second half.”
The Raiders, he remembers, “lost by 30.”
‘A hidden gem’
Jim Brown was still serving as an Army graves’ registration officer at the oft-shelled Tay Ninh base on the Cambodian border when he got the letter from Ross, his old coach, asking him to join him at WSU.
Brown would have to work as a high school teacher and in the WSU admissions office to make ends meet, but it would keep him in the sport he loved.
Before that first varsity season, he was sent onto the recruiting trail with the school’s first four basketball scholarships, each worth $500. He landed Belmont’s Dave Magil, Carroll’s Jimmy Minch, Bill Fogt from Piqua and Greg McCurdy from Centerville.
A couple of players from that JV team the year before – most notably Donahue and Jim Thacker – moved up, as well.
Recruiting was not easy then, Brown said. “Before we could make an offer to a player he had to be approved by the athletic council and they didn’t meet every day.”
“And the first four or five years we had to recruit just inside Ohio. We didn’t have much money and out-of-state tuition cost twice as much. Once we could go places like Louisville and Indiana we started having some success.:”
Through it all, Brown said he had the same sales pitch: “I was selling the school. I thought Wright State was a hidden gem.”
That gem began to really shine when the school hired Ralph Underhill as the coach. He and Brown, his top assistant, built the program that won a national title just 13 years after it began varsity play.
The Raiders became a Division I program for the 1987-88 season and didn’t miss a beat. WSU had seven straight winning seasons, capped by that NCAA crown.
The real cornerstone, Brown said, was the opening of the Nutter Center:
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the Nutter Center is the single most important thing to happen to Wright State. It was built because of basketball, but it’s held concerts, conventions, state volleyball, so many things. It’s brought people onto our campus that otherwise never would have visited the school.
“And when you pull up outside, it’s impressive. From the outside, it looks like a big-time NBA arena.”
Wright State has had a string of good coaches, especially current coach Scott Nagy, who is 84-38 in his 3 ½ seasons here.
And things have continued to change from those old salami and baloney days.
While Zink said they paid for their basketball shoes in the beginning, Goff said players now get at least four pairs of shoes for the season, two more pairs for travel and extra pairs for the postseason.
The team has four sets of uniforms. Players are given book bags, T-shirts socks, tights and other clothing. They get a “cost of attendance” stipend decided by the NCAA that supplements their full scholarships and enables them to pay other expenses they encounter at school.
“We even have a barber chair in the team lounge,” said Goff, explaining that a barber comes over from across the street and players can get 10 free haircuts a year.
While times have changed from long ago, one thing does resonate from that JV effort.
“I remember after the Ohio State game, sitting in the locker room and saying something like, ‘Well, that wasn’t too bad,’” Zink said with a smile. “And Mark Donahue just blew up. He said, ‘We’re not here just to try to play. We’re here to win!’”
The Raiders now are.
And that’s no baloney.
Thank you for reading the Dayton Daily News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Dayton Daily News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.