The 1977 Marquette basketball team had come off a strong run in 1976 that ended in a tournament loss to Bob Knight’s undefeated Indiana team in a regional final. Al McGuire, later to gain fame as an NBC commentator was the head coach. McGuire was out of New York, colorful, witty and bombastic and in the days before the Big East got control of the New York area, was able to successfully recruit the Big Apple and get talent back to the Midwest.
McGuire turned Marquette into a consistent national contender, and had reached the NCAA final back in 1974 before a loss to David Thompson and N.C. State ended Al’s pursuit of his first championship. 1977 would be his last ride.
The Warriors (as Marquette was known before political correctness forced a changed to the current nickname of Golden Eagles) suffered early losses to Louisville and Minnesota. They were able to come back and win their holiday tournament (one this writer, growing up in the Milwaukee suburbs, used to attend with his father every year for about five years), highlighted by a win over #11 Clemson. That started a 10-game win streak and Marquette’s record would rise as high as 16-3.
The key to the 1977 Marquette team was an inside-out combo of Butch Lee at point guard and 6’9” Bo Ellis at forward. They were supplemented by sophomore forward Bernard Toone, post man Jerome Whitehead and role players Bill Neary, who hit the boards and guard Jim Boylan who could shoot from the outside. It was not an unstoppable team, as the early losses—and those still to come—would indicate but it was a tough team to beat when they were playing well.
Marquette wasn’t playing well in midseason and lost three straight to fall to 16-6. In the days where only 32 teams made the NCAA Tournament this was a true crisis. An at-large bid was in serious doubt, especially given that McGuire’s brash style had often led him into conflict with the NCAA. The coach didn’t believe he would ever get the benefit of the doubt. With his retirement after the season already announced, McGuire expected to finish his career in the NIT.
The coach’s team righted the ship, even playing their final five games on the road. They won the first four and were playing third-ranked Michigan on the final day of the season. In a sign of how much the selection process for the NCAA Tournament has changed, the Warriors found out midway through the game that they were on their way. Their one-point loss to the Wolverines didn’t matter, and America didn’t get to wait until 6:30 PM ET on a Sunday evening to have the cameras hone in on a room where Lee, Ellis and McGuire were all watching to determine their fate. Yes, March Madness has changed.
Cincinnati was the first-round opponent, and one whom Marquette had lost to earlier in the season. They won this one 65-51, but not without fireworks between Toone and McGuire. The player popped off to the coach on the sideline and McGuire had to be restrained in the locker room as he went after him. It didn’t stop the team from punching their ticket to Oklahoma City where the Midwest Regional would be settled.
In 1977 no team with as many as seven losses had ever won an NCAA crown and if Marquette was going to be the first, they would need a few miracles. One of them came against Kansas State, as they were dominated on the glass by the Wildcat duo of Darryl Winston and Curtis Redding, trailed late in the game, but somehow stole a 67-66 win behind 45 combined points from Lee and Ellis.
The cornerstones of the MU lineup came back strong again in the final against ninth-ranked Wake Forest, and got 18 points of help from Toone. They pulled away in the second half to an 82-68 win and got their outgoing coach his second trip to the Final Four.
SWAN SONG IN ATLANTA
McGuire’s first appearance on this stage came in 1974 when Marquette lost the final to N.C. State. The state of North Carolina loomed over this one as well, with upstart UNC-Charlotte waiting in the semi-final and the other side of the draw in Atlanta featuring North Carolina-UNLV, a battle of Top 5 teams. Charlotte wasn’t highly regarded, but they had an elite power forward in Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, who would go on to a solid NBA career with the Boston Celtics and contribute to two championship teams.
But on Semi-Final Saturday, Jerome Whitehead outplayed him. MU’s own center scored 21 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. The final basket was the gamewinner—Whitehead caught a long pass downcourt from Lee and put it in at the buzzer to secure a 51-49 win. Another miracle in the books.
The wins over Kansas State and UNC-Charlotte were in the miraculous category, but as the Warriors got set to face North Carolina on Monday night the relative ease of the draw was also worth noting. Wake Forest was the highest-ranked opponent they’d faced and Charlotte’s upset of Michigan in a regional final was a big boost.
As good as Maxwell was, it’s impossible to think that Marquette could’ve beaten the Wolverines with the kind of subpar games they’d gotten from Lee and Ellis on Saturday. North Carolina, meanwhile, had to take out elite opponents in Kentucky in the East Regional Final and then UNLV. It was McGuire and a young Dean Smith, each gunning for their first national title, in the old Atlanta Omni.
North Carolina was led by point guard Phil Ford, the National Player of the Year and the ACC champs were favored to win on Monday night, in front of the NBC cameras with Dick Enberg and Billy Packer calling the game. With an eight-point lead in the second half, Smith made a fatal decision. He went to his “Four Corners” offense, which in the days before the shot clock, was designed to stall and force Marquette out of their 2-3 zone.
What it did was kill the momentum the Tar Heels had been building and the rest of the game was all Warriors. Ford ultimately scored only six points, while Lee and Ellis combined for 33 and Whitehead grabbed 11 rebounds. The final was 67-59 Marquette and the indelible image of that game is the old warhorse himself, McGuire on the bench with tears rolling down his cheeks, a champion in the last game he ever coached.