NCAA hopes can have their crushing moments

Twice now as a passionate follower of Kansas State men’s basketball have my NCAA tournament hopes been crushed by women. The first time was back in 1964, when K-State was one of the participants in the Final Four at Kansas City. The most recent came a day ago (Thursday, March 22) in Atlanta, where Loyola of Chicago prevented my Wildcats from reaching their first Final Four since that KC hoops spectacle of some 54 seasons ago.

Ever since K-State surprisingly had dispatched the Kentucky Wildcats this past Thursday at Atlanta, I had been thinking about the possibility of my Sunflower State’s Wildcats reaching another Final Four. Much of that consideration came while whiling away time during my early Friday morning dialysis treatment (I was still celebrating from the night before), with thoughts carrying me back to when I had accompanied the Kansas State entourage to Kansas City as the university’s sports publicist.

For a man, it is always demeaning (tongue in cheek) that a psychological setback can be caused by a woman. But this time, there she was – Sister Jean, that spunky 98-year old nun and Loyola of Chicago’s basketball team chaplain for 24 years. She has been a long-time Rambler fan who has witnessed more than a half-century of her team’s basketball history – for almost as long as I have followed my K-State men’s basketball scores. For Sister Jean, though, it would be her school’s first Final Four. My school has reached a quartet of Final Four gatherings (1948, 1951, 1958, 1964), having lost in the championship game to Kentucky in 1951 (I was 10 years old at that time).

The one Final Four (in 1964) that I was able to see first-hand included semifinal match-ups between Kansas State and UCLA and between Duke and Michigan. How that tournament began and how K-State’s basketball team and its fan base were impacted by a group of women is reminisced in a column I wrote two dozen years later while serving as editor of the Belvidere Daily Republican. The column follows:

(April 2, 1988)

POM PON GIRLS STEAL NCAA TITLE

By Bernie Gilmer Belvidere Daily Republican

There are those who contend today’s NCAA semifinal basketball contests and Monday’s title match-up comprise the top attraction in all of sports. That includes the Super Bowl, the Indy 500 and the Calaveras County Frog Jumping Contest.

No doubt about it. Final Four college basketball is big-time. Officials of cities that have hosted the event will substantiate this claim. Ask those in New Orleans where twice in the last six years the NCAA Final Four staging has rivaled the Mardi Gras as an economic draw.

Needless to say, it’s a “really big shew” in Kansas City this season. And so it was 24 years ago when Kansas City last hosted a Final Four tourney. I know because I was there representing one of the Final Four schools – Kansas State University – as sports publicist.

That 1964 extravaganza is a memorable one. Not because of the bitter cold and wintry conditions; those are commonplace for residents of the Great Plains. And not just because I had the opportunity to watch the games in person.

What is memorable is the arrival of the sun-tanned California pom pon girls during one semifinal contest. Also making a distinct impression was the play of a Kansas State team consisting mostly of small-town recruits coached by a very patient taskmaster, Tex Winter. And the fact that the unsuspecting contingent came within minutes of doing something that might have altered drastically the history of college basketball as it was recorded the following dozen years.

On the surface, Kansas State might have looked like it least belonged among the Final Four. Winter’s starting line-up featured a popsicle-stick pivot, two blue-collar guards and one forward who used to sell concessions at rival University of Kansas basketball games as a high school student.

All right, so Winter had one bona fide All-American – a 6-6 forward named Willie Murrell who later that summer led the Olympic trials in scoring but was left off the United States squad by Olympic Coach Hank Iba, the taskmaster at Big Eight foe Oklahoma State. Iba had wanted Murrell, who grew up in the all-black town of Taft (Oklahoma), to come to Oklahoma State. Murrell, however, opted for junior college and then Kansas State.

But possibly the most interesting player was Roger Suttner, the Kansas State center from Ridgway – that’s a Southern Illinois community of fewer than 1,200 residents in Gallatin County (not far from where Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky all share the Ohio River). Suttner was billed as being from the popcorn capital of Illinois, if not the world.

At any rate, Suttner was the first 7-footer in Kansas State history, although on a good day he might have weighed 180 pounds. Deep-voiced Rog discovered early that when the Big Eight basketball winds blew, he toppled over like corn rows in a Dyfonate commercial.

Remember, I said Winter was patient. The first thing he had to teach Suttner was how to walk backwards. In his first varsity game – some three seasons prior to the 1964 Final Four and against the roughhouse St. Louis Billikens – Roger went for a rebound and was deftly hipped into the two-bit seats at Kiel Auditorium. He promptly called time out and informed Winter rather apologetically: “Coach, I don’t think I’m ready yet.”

But three seasons later – after considerable patience on the part of Winter – Suttner was ready. He blended in rather well with the four other small-town guys. By the way, Kansas State’s sixth man was Gary Williams, the highly touted Peoria (Illinois) prep whiz who later would play collegiately at Abilene Christian and Oklahoma City.

So, the 1964 Final Four field was set. The semifinal pairings pitted Kansas State against UCLA and Michigan against Duke. Michigan might have been the tourney favorite had the Wolverines’ All-America selection Cazzie Russell not been out with an ankle injury. As it was, any of the four schools appeared to have a solid chance of winning the NCAA title.

For 33 minutes it appeared Kansas State’s small-town guys would make the championship game. They had big-city UCLA on the ropes and reeling, sporting a seven-point lead with about seven minutes to play.

But then it happened! The weather apparently had broken and a previously delayed flight carrying the UCLA pom pon girls had arrived in Kansas City. And their sudden emergence – sun-tanned California beauties enthusiastically waving pom pons – obviously captivated the crowd, disrupted Kansas State and served to charge up UCLA.

Needless to say, UCLA rallied to beat Kansas State and then went on to defeat Duke in the finals. This represented UCLA’s first NCAA basketball title, a feat the Bruins and fabled Coach John Wooden would repeat nine times in the next 11 seasons.

But as far as I am concerned, the credit shouldn’t go to Wooden and his players – some such as Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich and Keith Erickson, who would go on to become household names in the professional ranks.

The true credit for starting UCLA’s dynasty should go to the pom pon girls. Had they not arrived when they did, who knows? …maybe a kid named Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) from Power Memorial High School in New York might have favored the gently rolling hills of Manhattan in Northeastern Kansas, … or perhaps an academic giant like Duke.

This year’s Final Four will provide additional memories, and certainly add to the history of perhaps the truly greatest spectacle in sports.

But history also carries strange accounts. It is interesting to note this season that three of those Final Four teams that made it to Kansas City some 24 years ago were still hopeful for a return trip after this year’s tourney field had been trimmed to 16 possibilities. Michigan, Duke and Kansas State all had a chance for today’s return journey. Of the 1964 foursome, only UCLA – a school whose program has fallen on rather ordinary times of late – was not a part of this year’s 64-team bracket.

Maybe the Bruins should be out recruiting pom pon girls!