The University of Louisville will honor its 1986 NCAA champions this Saturday at the Yum!. Allow me to pay my respects.
There was the loud, a loud like no other.
Loud beyond Nigel Tufnel’s 11, louder than a 767 or the starting line at the Brickyard.
It was a hoops hullabaloo, a b-ball ballyhoo, a Doctors of Dunk-sized din of epic proportions. It was bedlam.
Pandemonium didn’t only reign, it poured.
Freedom Hall was full with the ear splitting racket of victory, a loud more intense than it had ever felt before, twenty thousand sets of vocal chords in full throttled exuberance.
It was the cacophony of champions past and soon to come.
Maestro Milt Wagner, arms raised in an inevitable and momentarily to be secured victory over fierce rival Memphis State, led the symphony.
This was March 2, 1986. This was the moment with :02 on the clock, and the loathed Tigers up by a point in the regular season finale, that provided catalyst, precipitated that month’s run to Louisville’s second, dynasty establishing national title.
It was the moment when the basketball gods gave the surest sign that Denny Crum’s Louisville Cardinals were the Team of the 80s.
That sonorous resonance fueled a magical March.
* * * * *
Some factoids, bits of trivia and perspective on the ’86 season, and championship run:
The 32-7 title year was bookended by two mediocre campaigns. After Milt Wagner’s injury the season before1 — which of course helped set the stage for the title year, during which, under normal circumstances, he would have used up his eligibility — the squad never jelled, finishing 19-18. The year after the title, with only two returning starters, the Cards were similarly lackluster at 18-14.
Final Four MVP Pervis Ellison, a rookie, was flanked by experienced starters, 5th year senior, Wagner, two other seniors, Billy Thompson and Jeff Hall, and Herb Crook, a precocious and savvy sophomore.
Before the season, Barry Sumpter had been penciled in as the starter in the pivot. He ended up academically ineligible, not that it mattered. Asked when he knew Ellison was the real deal, frontcourt mate Crook deadpanned, “October 15.”
The ’85-’86 championship season was not without its ups and downs. At one point, U of L stood 11-6. But, Denny Crum wasn’t worried, pointing out that five of those Ls came against Top 20 teams on the road.
Crum: “I knew after losing to Kansas and St. John’s (in the Big Apple NIT) that we had as good a chance as anybody to win it all.”
There was team turmoil. Mark McSwain was sent to the locker room by Crum during one game, when the forward petulantly refused to enter the fray. Freshman Kevin Walls went AWOL for several practices and a game, only to return after apologizing.
Crum coached the 91-72 regular season W over UCLA from home. He had the flu. The game was televised — not always the case back in those days — so Crum relayed instructions by phone to manager Jerry May, who passed them along to Jerry Jones on the bench
If Ellison was famously the first freshman in decades to earn that MVP honor the final weekend, Billy Thompson was the MVP of the tournament. He’d been vilified throughout his career by many Cardinal fans, who felt he underperformed, given he’d been heralded as the country’s premier recruit. The flashpoint for that displeasure was a dunk he missed his freshman year, in the second half Cardinal meltdown against Phi Slama Jama in the national semis.
But, during U of L’s late season winning streak and tourney run, he was everything a Cardinal fan could ask for. After the Cards last loss at N.C. State, he declared to his teammates, “I’m tired of this. Let’s go for it.” He, and they, did just that.2
During the tournament, BT hit an almost incomprehensible 69% of his field goal attempts. He was 9/12 against Drexel, 5/8 in the win over 32-2 Bradley, 10/16 against #8 North Carolina, 5/10 in the regional final victory over Auburn, a just about perfect 10/11 in the semis against LSU and 6/8 on the final Monday of the season against Duke.3
That Louisville team won ten games after trailing at halftime.
So, one word to aptly describe the Cardinals run to the crown is clutch.
In the last four minutes of Louisville’s six tournament games, the Cardinals outscored their opponents by 93-42.
The W over North Carolina in the regional semi was Denny Crum’s first over Dean Smith, after five losses. That Tar Heel team featured Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith. No problem. After coughing up a big lead, Louisville still won going away, 94-79.
Of the stats from the championship game win over Duke, several stand out.
Milt Wagner didn’t score in the game’s first 34:28.
Louisville won, despite committing 24 turnovers. Jeff Hall: “We came in at the half, having committed 14 turnovers, and were only down by 3. So we knew we were in good shape.”
Louisville only made two shots longer than 15 feet the entire game. Jeff Hall hit a 16′ jumper in the first half to pull U of L within 5, 10-15. And Hall netted a 21′ J with 11:47 to play, keeping Duke within distance at 50-54.
Crum is universally credited — justifiably so — for going to a 1-3 zone late, and putting dogged Jeff Hall on Johnny Dawkins.4 But the Hall of Fame coach’s real mastery was how he stole clock with reserves McSwain and freshman Tony Kimbro in the second half, when the Cards were in foul trouble.
Thompson was whistled for his 4th foul with 13:26 to play, and needed to sit for awhile. A minute later, Wagner drew his 4th, necessitating he take a seat next to his running partner from Camden. The Cards stayed the course.
Brent Musburger and Billy Packer called the game for CBS.
The Final Four was one of the last in an actual basketball gym, Reunion Arena in Dallas. Given that that Texas is football country, the Dallas Morning News dutifully reported: “There are no NFL prospects among the Final Four teams.”
A favorite anecdote about the tourney run: There was so much hubbub on campus and in the community about the Cards’ run to the title, second year football coach Howard Schnellenberger actually delayed spring practice until the tournament was over.
“There’s too much excitement. Everybody’s too involved in basketball to put our minds on football.”
* * * * *
The title was terrific. Vindication for the prodigal prodigy Billy Thompson. A belated gift for Milt Wagner’s missed season. The unveiling of Pervis Ellison. Recognition for Denny Crum and the University of Louisville Cardinals, whom the pundits proclaimed after the title, “the team and coach of the decade.”
But, for this fan, and maybe I’m alone, there was nothing that summed up the season, and the halcyon first decade and a half of U of L basketball under the command of Denny Crum, than that moment against Memphis State, when . . .
. . . with eight ticks left on the clock in that regular season climax, #7-ranked Tigers led 69-68. The Cards’ Herb Crook was forced to foul, after Wagner and Ellison missed jumpers that would have given Louisville the lead.
Andre Turner, the best FT shooter in the league, one of the best in the country, stepped to the line for a 1+1. Given that the three point shot was still a season away, a Tiger W would have been cemented had Turner converted the charity tosses.
Memphis State coach, former Crum assistant, Dana Kirk, was thinking victory.
“I thought I was holding blue chip stock.
“I thought the milking contest was over.”
Billy Thompson snared the rebound.
The Freedom Hall throng rose to its feet in anticipation. The loud commenced.
BT got the ball to Milt Wagner in the deep right corner. As the guard from Jersey let fly an improbable, nigh impossible shot, Andre Turner flew at him.
And did what villains at the juncture of their comeuppance do at such moments, did what the Gods conjure when they wish to make a point.
Turner fouled Milt Wagner.
Like an H bomb, the loud erupted, a clamor of epic proportion.
Milt Wagner raised his arms in triumph. Then stepped to line, where his mantra was “Money.”
Cards 70, Tigers 69.
Oh what a moment it was, such a moment. From the cusp of defeat just seconds prior, the Cardinals were then imbued with the spirit force of victory.
Riding the energy of that loud, the loudest loud in fabled Freedom Hall’s history, Louisville easily dispatched Memphis State again a week later in the conference tourney final, then beat Drexel, Bradley, Carolina, Auburn, LSU, and Duke for its second NCAA title.
For your convenience, the video of the championship game:
— Seedy K
Though most of this info is etched indelibly in the nooks and crannies of my brain, thanks to the following sources for jogging my memory and filling in a few blanks. Gary Tuell, “Above The Rim.” Mike Smith, “Top of the Cards.” Jock Sutherland, “Every Step of the Way.” The Courier Journal (Billy Reed, Russ Brown). The Louisville Times (Rick Bozich, Jim Terhune). The Dallas Morning News. Sports Illustrated.
17 thoughts on “Billy T’s Boffo, Milt is Money: The Cacophony of A Champion”
Seedy, thanks for the memories.
It was a simpler time.
Denny just coached.
Is Billy Packer still alive?
BlindLuck, relying on Wikipedia, which give no date of demise in his bio, I assume Billy Packer is still alive, age 75. As ACC-centric as he was, back when we hated the ACC, he was a pretty astute commentator.
this was great…man Memphis was our major enemy before the Kats…great times
While we were in the same conferences, I always considered Memphis State — forever and always Memphis State — our archest rival. Two, three games a year in the 80s against Turner and Keith Lee and Vincent Askew and William Bedford. Baskerville Holmes. Blood baths all. Which is why that game was so very special.
Was Danny Ferry the original Duke “bad-white-boy”? Remember, as the clock expired, he close-lined Jeff Hall. Jeff Dodge-Balled him—too bad it didn’t hit him in the n*ts…
I hope somebody Dodge-Balls “Trip” Allen Saturday—in fact, I will volunteer!
Ferry did indeed go Night Train Lane on Jeff Hall as the buzzer sounded. Which I was going to mention in the piece, but graciously (for some reason) decided against. The Dallas paper reported that Ferry went to shake Hall’s hand afterward, but Hall blew it off. So, yeah, Ferry does predate Laettner as the Patron Saint of Caucasian Duke Evildom.
What players make the Cards all -time all-star team? Great team, great game in 1986. Are there two in this game?
Seedy, I agree about the decibel level at that Memphis game. I was there. I was also at the Louisville-Memphis playoff game in Nashville, the 1980 championship game in Indy and the original Dream Game in Knoxville – all games with lots on the line and very vocal crowds. But nothing compares to that night.
On second thought, was it an afternoon game? That I cannot recall.
I remember a Memphis State game in Freedom Hall as a boy, in the early 1970s, I think, where there was literally a melee. A Memphis player bandished a metal folding chair on top of one of the scorer’s tables. Larry Somebody? Maybe I only dreamed this.
It was Fred Horton swinging the metal chair, 1971, and he was pissed off about Al Vilchek.
More. More. More. Terrific writing about a championship team and a rivalry without equal.
It was an afternoon game.
Fred Horton indeed. And he was pissed at Vilcheck over an incident from a game the previous season. Erroneously, I’m advised. I talked about this with Mike Grosso, who admitted he was the fellow who blindsided Horton the previous season. But when Horton turned around he saw Vilcheck first, so went after him. Then again, that following year in Freedom Hall, when he lost it. Grosso shared that he was in the pros the following season, and read about the Horton incident, and couldn’t stop laughing.
Blind….I was pissed off by Al Vilcheck for the better part of 3 years, myself; but obviously for different reasons than Fred Horton.
I still have the Dallas Morning News whose sports section proclaimed ” Louisville King of the Road” that i bought before departing Texas that Tuesday April1 morning. It capped off my lucky trips to Weber State, then directly to Houston and after a few days back home DJH and I went down to the big “D” for the big “W”. It was one of the best ways to usher winter out and welcome Spring !
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