“One was Bear Bryant and the other was Ted Williams,” Liza’s husband, Doug, said with a chuckle.
Talk about a trio of prominent sports figures!
While Bryant and Williams would generate far more national fame, around the University of Dayton, Tom Blackburn — and Libby — forever hold a place of prominence.
“I always like to call it Team Blackburn,” former UD basketball coach Don Donoher said. ”Tom took care of the basketball court and Libby took care of all the rest.”
Doug Phillips agreed: “We call her ‘The Mother of Dayton Basketball.’”
That was evident when her husband took over a lowly Flyers program in 1947, quickly brought it national prominence and kept it there during his tenure, which ended when he died late in 1963-64 season from lung cancer.
“Libby was the ultimate promoter, not just of UD basketball, but for all of UD,” Doug said. “She was a one-person PR department.”
Today she still holds sway among those who remember the Flyers’ glory years of 1950s and early 1960s. And it’s why Donoher, several other former UD players from Blackburn’s era and after and some UD officials will gather to memorialize Libby, who died April 30th in South Carolina.
She was 99 and still vibrant – involved in social and civic functions and still driving her car – until a fall left her with a fractured femur and hip joint just after Easter.
Tuesday morning at 10:30 a memorial service will be held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakwood. Her ashes will then be inurned at Woodland Cemetery where Tom is buried beneath a small stone noting his war service with the Naval Reserve and a larger monument donated by his former players.
It designates him as Dayton Flyers coach and includes an engraved sentiment at the bottom:
“I didn’t want anything but the best for you and of you.”
The same could be said for Libby, though while her husband often did it with no-nonsense, task-master measures in practice, she did it with urbane sensibilities and Southern charm away from the court.
“They came on board when the Fieldhouse was just in plans and soon to open up,” Donoher said. “And she kind of rolled up her sleeves and targeted the people in the community, the leaders of the community, to be season ticket holders. She did a lot for UD’s popularity.
“She cultivated everybody who was anybody here and tried to make UD basketball a place to be and a place to be seen.”
And it was.
For 13 years, the 5,808 seat Fieldhouse was filled.
While Tom took care of business on the court – compiling a 352-141 record as the Flyers coach – Libby became a fixture in the community.
And it was no different when the Flyers began to make New York City their second home. They’d play in the annual Christmas tournament at Madison Square Garden and over an 12-year span appeared in 10 NIT Tournaments at the Garden, making the title game six times and winning the prestigious tournament in 1962.
“Those New York sportswriters never knew what hit them,” Doug said. “She was very worldly (she had a Master’s degree in social work from Duke) and also had that Southern charm. She cultivated them and they started writing about UD and the Flyers became a favorite there. That started the momentum for UD basketball.”
Putting UD on the map
Tom Blackburn was three-sport standout at Wilmington College and a successful high school basketball coach – taking Xenia High School to the state crown in 1942 — before he joined the war effort.
His capabilities really showed at UD and just four seasons after he took over the Flyers, he had a team that put the school on the map.
The 1950-51 Flyers didn’t just make their first-ever NIT, they advanced to the championship game, finished with a 27-5 record and ended the year ranked No. 13 nationally.
The next season they won 28 games and played in both the NIT and NCAA Tournament.
Yet everything wasn’t always roses.
UD fans, at times, became too rabid and Liza remembered when she was a kid and the Flyers had lost two straight games. A rock came flying through the window of their Oakwood home and she said it hit the babysitter and knocked her out.
“The most traumatic thing for me as a child though was when the newspaper published a picture of someone hanging my dad in effigy,” she said. “That was pretty upsetting.”
And once there was a classmate who came up to her in school the morning after a Flyers loss and informed her that his dad said her dad’s strategy for the Flyers wasn’t any good.
Doug heard the story from Libby, who said Liza responded: “Well, I don’t even know who your dad is!’”
Liza covered her face as her husband told that story: “Oh don’t tell that. That doesn’t even sound like me. I was a pretty shy child.”
Her dad though was known across the college basketball world and that’s why it was such a shock when he died at age 58.
Donoher took over the program and lifted it to even more prominence, yet he always defers to Blackburn, as the guy responsible for his success and that of UD basketball, to this day.
“He’s always so gracious, he’s just the most awesome guy you’ll ever find.” Liza said. “But I want to say something about his wife Sonia, too.
“She is my absolute hero. I worship the ground she walks on.”
During Blackburn’s final season, the team was in New York for the Christmas tournament, and Sonia sought Liza out.
“I was maybe 11 and she took me out to lunch in New York City and we had the best time,” Liza said. “I never forgot that. She was such an absolute angel. To this day, I want to grow up and be Sonia Donoher.”
Libby Blackburn. Dayton Daily News FILE PHOTO
She kept Flyers close to her heart
After Tom Blackburn died, Libby taught home economics at Oakwood High School and eventually remarried and moved to Fort Lauderdale, where Liza went to high school, .
When that husband died, she married again and has lived in Hilton Head for the past 35 years or so. She kept some ties here and UD remained close to her heart, especially as her husband was honored on several occasions.
He was inducted in the UD Hall of Fame in 1969. The trophy for the once-annual Dayton-Xavier game was named the Blackburn /McCafferty Trophy. UD Arena now features Blackburn Court. And every year the Blackburn Scholarship is awarded to a deserving Flyers player.
While her husband was trumpeted for his on-court achievement, Libby was celebrated for her post-game feats.
“After UD games she would host a cocktail party,” Doug said. “It became a great thing to be able to go to one of those things and actually talk to the coach afterward. And not just Tom Blackburn. She also invited the opposing coaches and many times they came there. Ray Meyer (DePaul) often did. It was a pretty unique experience.
“I asked her once if it wasn’t a problem getting Tom to agree to that. She just laughed and shook her head.
“She said, ‘You know, back then we didn’t really lose at home.’”