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Thursday, March 14, 2013

When March Madness Turned To March Sadness

Bobby Cremins told Here & Now's Alex Ashlock, "We could have really done something special for coach McGuire, for the city of Columbia, for South Carolina. We really had something really really special going on." (Courtesy of South Carolina Athletics media relations)

Bobby Cremins told Here & Now’s Alex Ashlock, “We could have really done something special for coach McGuire, for the city of Columbia, for South Carolina. We really had something really really special going on.” (Courtesy of South Carolina Athletics media relations)

I was 12 years old and living in Durham, North Carolina, home to the Duke Blue Devils, and I was obsessed with college basketball. I sat down to eat breakfast one morning and there before me was a stack of tickets, two season tickets to Duke games at Cameron Indoor Stadium from my mom.

She had already taken me to a few games there, so I knew the place was magical, but now I would be going to a season’s worth of games there. It was unbelievable.

John Roche is pictured playing for the South Carolina Gamecocks. (Courtesy of South Carolina Athletics media relations)

John Roche is pictured playing for the South Carolina Gamecocks. (Courtesy of South Carolina Athletics media relations)

This was the 1967-68 season and our seats were in the final row behind one of the baskets. Duke had a good but not great team. The first game I saw was a 103-61 Blue Devils’ win over Virginia. Then a very good Princeton team with Geoff Petrie came to Durham and left with an 85-79 loss.

My season at Cameron ended on March 2, 1968, when North Carolina made the eight-mile trip from Chapel Hill to Durham. The Tar Heels were one of the best teams in the country but that Saturday afternoon Duke outplayed them. The hero was a journeyman player named Fred Lind, who wore glasses and one of those ugly straps to hold them on just like I did when I played.

Lind scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds and the Blue Devils won 87-86 in triple overtime. When the game ended the Duke students carried Lind out onto the quad. It remains one of the favorite memories of my life.

It’s hard to articulate how intense ACC basketball was in those days. When South Carolina came to play Duke that year, Duke fans reportedly spit on the Gamecocks’ head coach, Frank McGuire. South Carolina won that game 56-50. It was Duke’s only home court loss that season.

In those days only 25 teams made it to March Madness, the NCAA Tournament, and the only way to get there if you were an ACC team was by winning the post season conference tournament. That season North Carolina was the ACC regular season champion and the Tar Heels won the conference berth in the NCAA by also winning the ACC Tournament.

Frank McGuire is pictured coaching the South Carolina Gamecocks. (Courtesy of South Carolina Athletics media relations)

Frank McGuire is pictured coaching the South Carolina Gamecocks. (Courtesy of South Carolina Athletics media relations)

My team, Duke, lost to North Carolina State, 12-10, in the semifinals. Yes, 12-10. Those were also the days when there was no shot clock and teams who felt that stalling was their only chance to win would just hold the ball while the clock ticked away. As aggravating as this was to watch, it was also oddly compelling because it magnified any actual basketball that occurred to an incredible level.

That Duke loss to North Carolina State was crushing for me in 1968 but it pales when compared to what happened to South Carolina at the end of the 1969-70 season.

The Gamecocks had a team that had a very real chance to win the national championship. The leader was John Roche, a tremendous guard from New York City who was one of the best players in the country. His coach, Frank McGuire said watching Roche play was like listening to music.

South Carolina swept the ACC regular season, finishing 14-0. The ACC Tournament in March 1970 was played in Charlotte, North Carolina, and South Carolina survived a Clemson slowdown in the first game and won 34-33.

But then in the semifinals against Wake Forest disaster struck. Roche went down with a terrible ankle injury. The Gamecocks won the game but the next night against North Carolina State in the championship game, Roche came off his crutches and basically played on one leg. South Carolina lost in double overtime, 42-29. The season was over.

Bobby Cremins, who was Roche’s backcourt running mate, was so distraught he disappeared into the mountains of North Carolina with teammate Corky Carnevale for several days.

In this Dec. 29, 2008, photo, College of Charleston coach Bobby Cremins talks to Andrew Goudelock (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Davidson in Charleston, S.C. (Mary Ann Chastain/AP)

Bobby Cremins coached for College of Charleston from 2006-2012. He’s pictured here in December 2008 talking to Andrew Goudelock (3) during an NCAA game against Davidson in Charleston, S.C. (Mary Ann Chastain/AP)

“It was really heartbreaking for me,” Cremins told me this week. “I didn’t respond very well. I was an emotional mess. I wish now I would have dealt with that a little bit better. But I was just too heartbroken to go back to school. I finally drifted back. I don’t even know how I got back. Corky and I hitchhiked. I think we hitchhiked back.”

Roche, who went on to play pro basketball for nine seasons, still calls what happened in 1970 the most disappointing thing that ever happened to him in college basketball. Coach McGuire, with Roche starring again, would lead South Carolina to their one and only ACC title the following season. When McGuire died in 1994 he was eulogized like a head of state (see videos below).

After he came down from the mountains, Bobby Cremins got into coaching, first as an assistant to McGuire and later as a head coach at Appalachian State, Georgia Tech and the finally the College of Charleston.

He had a great coaching career, winning more than 500 games and retired just last year. In 1990, Cremins led Georgia Tech to the Final Four after the Yellow Jackets won the ACC Tournament in Charlotte. It was the first time the tournament had been played there since South Carolina’s bitter disappointment there in 1970.

WISTV report on South Carolina basketball:

Special reports on the death of South Carolina coach Frank McGuire in 1994:

Guest:

  • Bobby Cremins, captain of the 1970 South Carolina team. He told Here & Now’s Alex Ashlock, “I still have nightmares about that game. We have a tape of the game that I tried to watch one time and I couldn’t.”

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  • Anne

    Nice work Alex!   A great story.

    • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

      Thanks Anne. I have been wanting to tell this story myself for a long, long time. 

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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