Flyers revisiting their roots in NIT

Just the mention of it made Don Donoher perk up. He wrapped himself in the memory for a few seconds, smiled and finally said: “All these years later and I remember it like it was yesterday. It was like going on some game show now and winning a trip to Disney World.”

The former Dayton Flyers player and legendary UD coach was talking about his first trip to the National Invitational Tournament at Madison Square Garden. He was a sophomore on coach Tom Blackburn’s 1951-52 team that made it to the NIT title game for the second year in a row.

“I’d never been on an airplane before,” he said. “And once we got to Manhattan, well, here’s the itinerary.

“We come in on a Friday night and right off we head to the Garden as guests of the Friday Night Fights. The next night we played an opening-round game at the Garden and then on Sunday after our practice and team meal, the Garden had us over again to see the New York Rangers.

“You’ve got to remember back then coaches didn’t have all the technology we have today. So you weren’t locked up in a room watching videotape and breaking down film.

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“Come Monday and Tuesday, you played in one of the quarterfinals and you watched the other doubleheader. Wednesday night after practice we went to a Broadway play. Thursday we played in the semifinal. Friday night it was back to the fights and then Saturday we played for the title.

“Sunday you get on the plane and you wonder, ‘Was I dreaming all this?’ But then you get back to Dayton and you know. You’ve become a local hero.”

As the current Dayton Flyers head off to New York City today, March 28 — where they’ll meet Mississippi in an NIT semifinal Tuesday night and, in the process, renew a cherished tradition between the school, this town and the tournament — the guy to talk to is Donoher.

No other person in Dayton has quite the relationship with the NIT that he does. He was a UD player when Dayton made its first three trips to the tournament. Then, as the Flyers coach, he took seven different teams to the NIT and won the tournament in 1968 after a season, he said, “that has so many similarities to this season, it’s unbelievable.”

A fervor unmatched

Started in 1938, the NIT is a year older than the NCAA Tournament and for a couple of decades — with a better TV contract and a marquee setting — it was more prestigious.

Blackburn was from New York and once he took over at UD, he made the tournament his ultimate goal.

And he became more of an NIT man after his first — and only — NCAA Tournament experience. Back in the early days, a team could play in both tournaments and that’s what UD did in 1952.

After finishing as runners-up in the NIT, the Flyers headed to the NCAA Tournament and a match-up with Illinois in Chicago.

“The NCAA had a lot of background with the Big Ten,” Donoher said. “And the way Blackburn told the story, at the banquet the night before the game, one of the (NCAA) officials took the microphone and wished Illinois luck.”

Not that the Illini needed it.

Dayton was whistled for 41 personal fouls, still second all-time for an NCAA Tournament game. Five Flyers fouled out, and while Illinois made 32 of 47 free throws, Dayton — which lost by 19 — made 13 of 18.

Donoher said that left “a sour taste” with Blackburn, who focused on the NIT and sent 10 teams to New York in a 12-year span.

In the process, the city of Dayton fell in love with the tournament. Mary Lou Heckman, whose late husband Paul was Flyers Club president and a diehard UD booster, remembers the fervor one year:

“Paul and some of his buddies came up with the idea to send the team the longest good luck telegram in the world. I think everyone paid a dime to add their name to it. There were sign-up sheets in all the bars around town, at NCR, and in all the stores.”

She said the telegram, when rolled up, was as thick as a log.

While she stayed here with their two young kids, Paul — and the telegram — went off to New York and he ended up on the Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Parr.

Near the end of his show, she said Parr announced, “We have something a little unusual tonight. We’ve got a man named Paul Heckman from Dayton, Ohio in the audience and his alma mater is playing in the NIT.’ And then he had Paul stand up and unroll the telegram. And the place went nuts.

“The NIT was a big deal to everyone back then.”

And it became even more so in Dayton when the Flyers won the tournament in 1962. Bill Chmielewski, the Flyers sophomore big man, was named the MVP and with UD fans mobbing him on the court, he turned his award upside down and wore it on his head like a helmet. And the photograph of that played in newspapers across the country.

“When we got back to Dayton, people packed the airport,” Chmielewski said. “Coming down the expressway, people were waving signs and blowing their car horns. The Fieldhouse was packed, too. That’s when I realized what University of Dayton sports meant to this town.”

Overcoming issues

By the time Blackburn died in 1964 and Donoher replaced him, the NCAA Tournament was eclipsing the NIT in money and prestige.

UD made it to the NCAA Tournament title game in 1967, falling to a Lew Alcindor-led UCLA team, so the following season there were high hopes. The Flyers opened the year No. 6 in the nation, but Donoher said, among other things, there was “dissension and a lack of chemistry” and they lost nine of their first 16 games.

There was fan unrest and boos, something Donoher knew came with the territory.

“The first two years I coached, we had Henry Finkel and we went to the regional (Sweet 16) both years,” Donoher said. “I remember when Finkel left, I thought, ‘Well, we gave ’em two good years so they’ll be patient.’

“But we open against Baldwin Wallace (in 1966) and we’re headed off the floor at halftime and that end of the (Fieldhouse) bleachers booed us all the way to the dressing room. I remember thinking, ‘Aaah, that’s how this works.’ It’s been that way at Dayton since day one.”

More problematic than the boos when the Flyers stumbled from the gate in 1967-68 was the growing rift between the two black players — Rudy Waterman and Glinder Torain — and the rest of the team.

Near the end of the season, Donoher said, Phil Donohue moderated a forum on campus and Waterman stood up and “vented” on his teammates.

“From that time on — except at the end of the championship game – I didn’t play him anymore,” said Donoher, who called Waterman “a sweet kid” and years later made peace with him. “But I kind of followed Blackburn’s style and didn’t bring players in for discussions and hold their hands.”

The team, though, finished off the season with 14 straight wins, toppling a Kansas team led by the Jo Jo White for the NIT title.

The New Yorker magazine detailed the saga, noting the heroics of tournament MVP Donnie May, the grit of Bobby Joe Hooper, who scored 16 points in the championship game while playing with a broken hand and, the rift with Waterman and Torain:

“There seemed to be two separate teams on the bench — one white and one black — with a small, but always perceptible gap between them.”

The magazine also captured the postgame scene:

“Hundreds of Dayton fans, ignoring the warning of the public address announcer, swarmed out of the stands onto the court.

“Coach Donoher stood, dazed in the center of the crush, his eyes filled with tears. Sonia Donoher, his wife, and Bobby Joe Hooper’s mother wept in each other’s arms. Donnie May, Hooper and Dan Obrovac were lifted high in the air on a mass of shoulders and carried around the arena...”

When the team returned to Dayton past midnight, 3,000 fans were waiting at the Fieldhouse.

Rekindling tradition

This season’s team — which also started out with high hopes because of the glorious year before — fell short of expectations and eventually heard some boos as well.

But while they missed the NCAA Tournament, the players have embraced the NIT and in three tournament games have played their best basketball of the season.

“I was at the Illinois State game and they were just the superior team,” Donoher said. “And to go down there and beat Cincinnati, that took some hickory. Missed free throws hurt then again at Illinois, but the kids hung on.”

He said coach Brian Gregory’s teams “play with relentless pressure and that’s hard to play against. Every night they give you everything they got. Anytime you do that, you’ve got a shot.

“There are so many similarities between this team and the ‘68 team and I think it would be great to have these guys remembered alongside the 1962 and 1968 teams. And with the tradition here, that would be special. The NIT has always been a good tournament for us.”

Always?

Donoher thought a second, then smiled and shrugged: “My only bad memory was in my senior year. In the quarterfinal game against Niagara, I went to the line late. We needed two and I gagged both free throws.

“Yep, I showed my colors there.”

But those who know the history here know that’s just not true.

When it comes to the NIT, Don Donoher’s only colors are Flyer red and blue — and, of course, golden from the reflection off that championship trophy.

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