A proud history
Through coaching changes, conference changes and various ups and downs, TU basketball has created a high standard of success, producing wins and top-notch student-athletes.
For more on the University of Tulsa basketball team: Click here for "The dream team," ranking the ten best TU basketball players ever. Click here for an online exclusive look at the 100 best players in TU's 100 seasons.
For most college basketball junkies, phrases such as “bracket busters,” “mid-majors” or even “Cinderellas” usually conjure images of giant-killing programs such as Gonzaga, Butler, Xavier, Valparaiso and Dayton.
But to find one of the original party crashers, look no further than The University of Tulsa.
“You’ve got smaller conference teams that have had success at the national level,” says Tubby Smith, University of Minnesota head coach. “But I think Tulsa has been able to sustain that for a longer period of time. Tulsa’s figured it out better than most non-BCS schools.”
Smith should know. He led Tulsa to its first appearance in the Sweet 16 in March 1994. That and other watershed moments in TU hoops history are part of a larger narrative that culminates this year with the school’s historic 100th season — a landmark that provides a perfect opportunity to look back at one of college basketball’s most accomplished programs.
Paving the way
While Francis Schmidt (1918-22) and Chet Benefiel (1932-39) are credited as two key coaching pioneers, TU enjoyed its first taste of big-time college basketball with the arrival of Clarence Iba (brother of Oklahoma State University’s legendary Henry Iba) in 1949.
Although Iba finished his 11-year career with a losing record (137-147), he is best remembered for taking Tulsa to its first major post-season tournaments — the 1953 National Invitation Tournament (NIT) and the 1955 NCAA tournament — and for coaching All-American Bob Patterson.
When Joe Swank took the helm in 1960, the talent pool kept flowing with All-MVC (Missouri Valley Conference) players such as Jim “Country” King (whom Iba recruited), Bill Kusleika and Bobby “Bingo” Smith, who highlighted the program’s ability to attract top-flight athletes.
From 1968-75, under the leadership of Ken Hayes, the program enjoyed seven winning seasons and featured talented athletes such as Ron Carson, Steve Bracey, Dana Lewis and Ken Smith. But perhaps no one captured the fans’ imagination better than scoring phenomenon Willie Biles, who still holds the school’s single-game scoring record, with 48 points against Wichita State University on March 3, 1973, and St. Cloud State University on Dec. 13, 1973. Hayes eventually left TU for New Mexico State University. Working with TU’s small budget had worn him down. Playing in the brutal MVC with little reward didn’t help. Jim King returned to his alma mater to fill the position but found the same reality to be too great a mountain to climb. Something special, perhaps magical, would need to take place for TU to reclaim its past glory.
The golden standard
Nolan Richardson came to Tulsa in 1980 as both a hot property and somewhat of an oddity.
He had just won a national championship at West Texas Junior College but also came to a program that had never employed an African-American coach.
It didn’t take long for Richardson’s outgoing personality and up-tempo style to grab the city’s attention.
In that first season, Tulsa defeated defending NCAA champions and No. 8-ranked Louisville, as well as No. 16-ranked Wichita State.
Although snubbed by the NCAA tournament (only 48 teams were invited that year), Richardson and his team stormed the NIT and shocked the basketball world with an overtime victory against Syracuse University in the title game.
“Basketball took off like a wildfire,” Richardson says. “I remember, when I first got here, I had about 200 tickets to just give away. I’ll never forget when (university President) Dr. (Paschal) Twyman called me in and told me we could sell those tickets now. The rest of it is history.”
After five consecutive postseason tournament appearances — two in the NIT and three in the NCAA —Richardson left for the University of Arkansas, where he coached the Razorbacks to a national championship in 1994.
J.D. Barnett had the unenviable job of replacing him. And although TU reached the post-season four times over the next six years, Barnett never recreated his predecessor’s level of success.
Ironically, Tulsa’s next coach was a former assistant coach under Barnett at Virginia Commonwealth University. Orlando “Tubby” Smith brought back the up-tempo, pressing style of basketball that TU fans enjoyed during the Richardson years.
After enduring a painful year of NCAA probation brought on by sanctions incurred by the track and field program, little was expected of the team heading into the 1993-94 season.
Led by Gary Collier and Shea Seals, TU surprised everyone by winning the MVC regular-season title. Because of an upset loss in the conference tournament, TU squeaked into the NCAA tournament as the No. 12 seed. Playing in Oklahoma City, the Golden Hurricane dominated the University of California, Los Angeles, and then came back from behind to defeat Oklahoma State University. Smith’s team duplicated the feat the following season with another Sweet 16 appearance.
When Smith departed for The University of Georgia in 1995, TU hired Steve Robinson, a University of Kansas assistant, who kept the NCAA train rolling. Two years later, he left for Florida State University and was replaced by Bill Self, Oral Roberts University head coach. By his third season, Self had concocted a formula that would take Tulsa to unprecedented heights.
Few will disagree that the 1999-2000 team was the best in TU history. The squad finished the season 32-5 and narrowly missed the Final Four with a 59-55 loss against North Carolina. Guard Eric Coley, a player that Self says, “could play with anybody,” was one of the keys to that team’s success.
While on vacation in Florida in 2000, Self received a call from ESPN reporter Andy Katz asking him about rumors he was on the list to replace Lon Krueger, University of Illinois head coach, who was leaving to lead the Atlanta Hawks. Self had not heard he was a candidate.
“If that had happened right after the season, I wouldn’t have done it,” Self admits. “I was too emotional with what was going on at Tulsa and how good everyone had been to me. It was strange timing. I didn’t want anything like that to occur because I was totally content where I was.”
Nevertheless, Self took the Illinois job June 9, 2000.
Still a force
Self’s replacement, Buzz Peterson, came from Appalachian State University. After a disappointing follow-up to the 2000 Elite Eight season, first-year coach Peterson led Tulsa to the NIT. Rumors were already swirling that he was going to leave for The University of Tennessee. In light of the possible change, TU’s players decided they weren’t ready for the season to end and kept playing all the way to the school’s second NIT title.
When longtime assistant coach John Phillips took over for Peterson April 9, 2001, it was business as usual. Phillips led Tulsa to a Western Athletic Conference (WAC) tournament title and a pair of NCAA appearances. But after a losing season in 2003-04 and a poor start to the 2004-05 campaign, Phillips bowed out on Christmas Day.
Since that time, Tulsa has once again found the balance between stability and success with head coach Doug Wojcik. The Naval Academy alum earned his basketball stripes as teammate David Robinson’s point guard and as an assistant at high-profile schools such as The University of North Carolina and Michigan State University.
Wojcik has led Tulsa to a school record — four consecutive 20-win seasons, along with three post-season tournament appearances. In 2007-08 TU made an impressive run to claim the inaugural College Basketball Invitational (CBI) title.
Throughout all the coaching and conference changes, TU basketball has somehow managed to maintain a remarkable level of competitiveness. The numbers don’t lie: 14 NCAA appearances, 10 NIT appearances, two NIT championships, one CBI championship, seven All-Americans and more than 90 all-conference selections.
Perhaps more importantly, Tulsa can proudly lay claim to some of the finest student-athletes to grace the basketball court and the classroom. For Wojcik, that’s what this 100th-season celebration is really all about.
“I represent a great community,” Wojcik says. “I represent a very good private institution academically, which I really like. I know what I have here at Tulsa. It’s a great job. I have a better job, in my mind, than a lot of people, including some BCS schools. This season is a celebration of all the former players and coaches and the success. It’s just another great way to tell people our story.”