Dayton basketball coaching legend Tom Blackburn was stern and strict, and many of his players were petrified of him.
If they saw him in an elevator on the road, they took the stairs. If he was walking down a hall in their direction, they ducked into a doorway.
But there was one person who wasn’t intimidated by him and actually could put him in his place.
“We’d be on the bus, and his wife, Libby, would get on him, and we’d say to each other, ‘Do you hear how she’s talking to him?’ ” said one former player. “She ruled the roost.”
Libby Blackburn returned to UD for a reunion Thursday night with about 25 of Tom’s ex-players. And she said behind that military persona was a man with a tender heart toward those he coached from 1947 until his death of lung cancer in 1964.
“He absolutely loved them. He adored them,” she said. “He was just so determined that they were going to be so successful. And they were all such nice young men. He wouldn’t have had them if they weren’t. And look what’s happened to them. They all have been so successful.”
She traveled to all of the away games and laughed when told how she was remembered for not taking any guff from him.
“Somebody had to keep him in line,” she said.
Now living in Hilton Head, S.C., Libby Blackburn is about a dozen years younger than her husband. When they met, she was a graduate student at North Carolina, he an officer in the Navy.
He would have been 103 if he were alive today.
“H never told me how old he was. I didn’t know until he died. I’m serious. If I had known how old he was, I probably wouldn’t have married him,” she said, laughing.
The Flyers played 10 times in the NIT under Blackburn when that Madison Square Garden showcase was on equal footing with the NCAA tournament. After runner-up finishes in 1951, ’52, ’55, ’56 and ’58, they finally broke through to claim the crown in 1962.
Although he took them to national prominence, the early years were a challenge. When they moved into the Fieldhouse (now the Frericks Center) in 1950, his wife threw the full force of her personality behind a season-ticket campaign.
“I remember it wasn’t an easy sell,” she said. “I remember everyone said there was no way they’d ever fill the Fieldhouse, but it was filled after one season. Tom’s problem with it was, he kept saying, ‘You’re not building the Fieldhouse big enough. It’s too small.’ Nobody agreed with him.”
The 5,800-seat building was sold out for his final 13 seasons. Three years later, plans were in the works for the 13,500-seat UD Arena.
He said the Flyers would need a bigger gym, and he was right.