On the 9s: ’69 Cards were a Scrappy Success

This is the second in a series, remembering U of L Cardinal teams of the past, in years ending in 9.

John Dromo was pissed.

The second year head coach of the U of L Cardinals certainly let the sports editor of The Cardinal know of his displeasure about a story in the student newspaper.

“Oh yes, I remember,” advises said editor Fred Smart a half century after the dressing down.

“Dromo said his wife was on the verge of tears.”

What possibly could have irked the hoops mentor so?

At that juncture of the season, the surprising Cardinals had moved on from the graduation of Westley Unseld, who was then fashioning a Rookie of the Year, NBA MVP campaign for the Baltimore Bullets, while showing off the greatest outlet pass in the history of the game.

Yes, Louisville’s ’68-’69 season had an ignominious beginning. The varsity had been throttled at Freedom Hall in the then annual rookies vs. varsity preseason clash by the precocious incoming freshman gang of Jim Price, Henry Bacon, Al Vilchek, Mike Lawhon and Larry Carter. 107-90 was the final tally, favor of the newbies. The varsity had turned it over 15 times in the first half.

But the Cards got their act together, and at the time of Dromo’s ire in mid February were 16-3 and atop the Missouri Valley Conference standings.

What was it then that got Dromo so upset?

Turns out it was a laudatory if snarky column about the team, written by a smart aleck law student by the name of Chuck Kaplan.

After extolling the virtues of the Cardinals’ major stars — Butch Beard and Mike Grosso — and lauding the contributions of Jerry King, Dennis Deeken, Marv Selvy and Ed Linonis, the article got around to saying this about the coaching prowess of John Dromo:

“Add all these up with the fact that the time out huddles, with everyone getting a chance to offer their advice, resemble coffee klatches, plus the fact that John Dromo, contrary to majority opinion, does know at least as much about basketball as he does about buying clothes, and the success isn’t so hard to figure out.”

(Thanks to Fred Smart, who was nationally recognized for the excellence of his student sports editing, for coming up with issues of The Cardinal from back then to fill in the blanks in this homage.)

So allow that impudent student writer to make some recompense fifty years on.

John Dromo, the school’s golf coach and Peck Hickman’s assistant for years, was handed the reins when his predecessor retired out of the blue before Wes Unseld’s senior campaign. Dromo, known as a flashy but stylish dresser, only led the Cards for a few seasons, before a heart attack ended his coaching career.

At 68-23, Dromo’s .747 winning percentage is the best of any Cardinal basketball coach ever.

His signature work was with that ’68-’69 team which tied for the MVC crown, but lost a playoff game for a spot in the NCAA to Drake, which league rep made it all the way to the national semis where the Bulldogs gave mighty UCLA all it could handle before falling. The Cards season ended 21-6 in the NIT with a W over Fordham and a loss to Boston College.

That Louisville was more successful than expected is not surprising in retrospect.

Butch Beard was a stud. Especially after he realized at some point during the ’68-’69 campaign he could see clearer and shoot better with contact lenses.

He averaged 19 ppg during his three seasons as a Cardinal. He later played nine years in the NBA, was an all-star and starting PG for the ’75 champion Golden State Warriors, and eventually coached the New Jersey Nets.

He was not, as my grandma would say, chopped liver.

Mike Grosso was also the deal. No less an authority than local coaching legend Gene Rhodes said this of the Cardinal’s pivot: “He was the best high school player I’ve ever seen.” No faint praise, that. Recall that Grosso was a contemporary of one Lew Alcindor.

Unfortunately, Grosso was forced to play on essentially one leg after transferring to Louisville from South Carolina, where he injured his knee. Whether ACL or MCL or some other tear, it’s the kind of injury today that with surgery and PT would have him back on the court at just about full speed no more than a year later.

Here’s how that cheeky writer who “dissed” Dromo explained in the same article what it might be like for Grosso with that physical impediment:

“To see him gimp across the campus, his blue bell bottoms flapping in the breeze, and oversized ivy league chapeau on his head, you wouldn’t think he could play at all. Well, it’s not easy. Next time you go shooting baskets in the backyard, have someone pound you in the knee ten times with a hammer, then put a fifteen pound weight around it, and see how easy it is to play.”

Grosso on his knee, as explained to Fred Smart in another Cardinal article from that season:

“Medically the torn cartilage in my knee is not as bad as it seems. Ligaments are holding it together.”

Though he had to have his knee drained regularly, and played with a cumbersome metal brace, Mike Grosso averaged 14.2 rebounds per game during his time at Louisville, behind only Charlie Tyra and Unseld. And 15.7 ppg that ’68-’69 season, and 18.6 the following year.

A deadeye from the corner, Jerry King was a career double figure scorer. He hit 83% at the line to lead the Cards in that, his senior season.

Which, as stellar as that percentage is, belies this memory. He was Milt Wagner before Milt Wagner. Down the stretch, King headed to the line for any number of important free throws. And he drained every single one when it really mattered. Clutch is the word that comes to mind.

Another notable trait of that feisty squad was Ed Linonis’ propensity to get in fights.

Like the one that came with under two minutes to play in a big late January Cardinal W at home over Drake.

The sports page headlines of the next day’s Courier-Journal read, “Basket-Brawl! Fists Fly in Frantic Battle.” Linonis came to the aid of teammate Marv Selvy, who was being taunted by Bulldog Al Williams during a timeout.

By the by, of the W, Dromo told C-J writer Gary Schultz, “This is the greatest victory we’ve had here in two years.”

Linonis, Selvy and their mates weren’t the only U of L stalwarts mixing it up. In the same edition of the C-J, Dave Kindred told the story of Cardinal superfan Ed Campbell, who jumped in the fray when he said, “Three Drake players had a hold of Linonis around the neck and were beating him up.” Campbell, who incidentally hadn’t missed a U of L home game since 1943 and was in Freedom Hall that day instead of his niece’s wedding, explained, “I wasn’t going to put up with that. I was just trying to protect our boys.”

It was not Linonis’ last fray of the campaign. He was ejected along with a BC Eagle in U of L’s final tilt of the season.

Linonis’ side of the story, as told to Schultz of the C-J: “Costello was swinging for my head, and I just put my arms up to try and protect myself. It wasn’t the first time it happened. I got tired of it, so I swung back this time.”

Tenacious as they’d been all season, the ’68-’69 Cards left it all on the floor, and went down fighting in a successful 21-6 campaign.

— Seedy K