After the Dayton Flyers had won their third NCAA Tournament game in a row – topping Virginia Tech 71-66 in overtime to advance to the Final Four – some of the UD backers and brass had a party back at the team hotel in Evanston, Illinois.
And in the words of coach Don Donoher, athletics director Tom Frericks was “lit up like a Christmas tree.”
Not from booze. From intoxicating belief.
“He told everyone, ‘We just built an arena tonight!’” Donoher remembered. “He said ‘We’re gonna ride this thing like you can’t imagine.”
The Virginia Tech game was March 18, 1967. Six days later the Flyers would upset No. 4 North Carolina, 76-62. The day after that they finally would lose to the Lew Alcindor-led UCLA Bruins in the national championship game.
And just a little over 2 ½ years later — Dec. 6, 1969 — they would tip off a new era of Flyers basketball in the brand new UD Arena.
“That to me is the whole significance of the Final Four,” Donoher said Tuesday morning as he sat in the Golden Nugget Pancake House on South Dixie and reflected on the 1966-67 team he coached to heights never seen before or since at UD.
That team – the most famous in Flyers basketball history – will be honored Wednesday night during a time out at the high stakes Dayton-VCU game at UD Arena.
The way that NCAA Tournament run 50 years ago gave birth to UD Arena is, Donoher said, “a story in itself.”
Not only did that team electrify the entire Miami Valley, it forever changed the basketball program and, in some ways, the university itself.
The new arena brought in much larger crowds, more revenue, and more recognition. In the process, Dayton became a perennial stop for the college postseason and UD Arena has now hosted more NCAA Tournament games than any other facility in the nation.
But before that Virginia Tech game, a new arena was anything but a sure thing.
“Tom Frericks was in just his third year as the AD and it wasn’t like he’d come from the Harvard School of Architecture,” Donoher said. “He had been a gym teacher and a high school basketball coach. But from the time he took over at UD, he envisioned something beyond the Fieldhouse. He knew UD basketball was getting too big for it.”
The old Fieldhouse seated just over 5,800 and a lot of name schools didn’t want to come in here and play.
“We played Marquette here one time and when Tom and I came by their shoot-around that morning, Al McGuire (coach) told us, ‘We’ve got a two-year contract, but we’re not gonna play you anymore. We come here and play in a gym and you come to Milwaukee and play in an arena. I’m not playing in gyms anymore.’”
Frericks understood, but his sales pitch here fell on dead ears.
“He was a voice of one,” Donoher said. “There was no support on campus or in town.”
When Dayton city fathers showed no interest in a partnership, Frericks realized the university would have to build a facility on its own. With the help of the prominent Boesch family, he got the parcel of ground next to Welcome Stadium.
With the Flyers trip to Final Four, people in the area were swept up with a sense of pride and celebration. There were parades and proclamations and pocket books began to open.
The original UD Arena design was a round house – Donoher has an artist’s rendering of it – but the cost was around $6 million and the university told Frericks his budget was half of that.
That’s when a new firm was brought in and, to save on steel costs, much of the arena was built below ground.
“From baseline to baseline all the way up to the 400 level, 80 percent of the customers would be courtside,” Donoher said. “That was a big selling feature for Tom, but he worried about the slope. He worried about selling those distant seats.”
He need not have.
The first season the Arena averaged 12,982 fans a game -- an all-time high -- and UD was fifth in the nation in attendance.
UD basketball has been a hot ticket ever since and Wednesday, once again, is a sellout.
A different era for Dayton
Archie Miller, the current UD coach, is celebrated, rightly so, for what he has done with the program, but consider what Donoher did over the same period.
Miller is 138-60 in his six seasons and almost surely will take the Flyers to their fourth straight NCAA Tournament. Donoher went 130-43 in his first six seasons, took the team to five NCAA Tournaments – including the national title game and two other Sweet 16 appearances – and also won the NIT when it was still a tournament of real significance.
While Donoher’s team reached heights the Flyers still strive for today, the times, in many ways, were much different.
Take Donoher’s first salary. He made $184.60 a week and that came after he “negotiated” a little bit.
When it came to scholarships though, UD was generous:
“Father Collins told me one time that they initially told Tom, he could have 25 basketball scholarships – 24 for players and one for a manager,” Donoher said.
“What’s Archie get, 13?
“Back then the theory was there’d be 12 players on varsity and 12 freshmen players. The concept, was that you’d have four each of seniors, juniors and sophomores on varsity. When your four seniors graduated, you’d take the best four freshmen of the 12 up to varsity and tell the rest to hit the road.”
The NCAA Tournament was different, too, he said: “Back then each league got just one team.”
But when the 1966-67 season began postseason glory seemed a bit like a pipe dream for the Flyers.
They were tied with (lower division) Baldwin Wallace at halftime in the season opener and were booed by the fans as they headed to the locker room.
The Flyers would rally and win and go on to a 21-5 regular season. In the NCAA Tournament opener they beat Western Kentucky, 69-67, in overtime thanks to a 25-foot shot by guard Bobby Joe Hooper with four seconds left.
In the huddle just moments before that, Hooper had told Donoher and the rest of the team to ”Give me the ball” and they had.
Next came Tennessee and the Vols’ tightly packed 1-3-1 zone defense which Hooper and fellow guard Gene Klaus shot over – making 11 of 14 attempts – to help Dayton slip by for a 53-52 victory.
After the triumph over Virginia Tech, the Flyers met North Carolina at Freedom Hall in Louisville and promptly fell behind.
That’s when UD’s defensive specialist Dan Sadlier put the clamps on Tar Heel star Larry Miller and Flyers’ All American forward Donnie May took over the game.
“He got going on a streak and made 13 straight field goals,” Donoher said.
May finished with 34 points and 15 rebounds.
“He was a rebounding fool,” said Donoher as he pulled out a folder – he has files on every team he ever coached – and went through May’s season. “Look at this: 27 rebounds against St. Louis, then there was 24, 26, 22, 21, 25 and in the tournament he goes for 20, 14, 16, 15 and 17.”
The day after the North Carolina win, the Flyers met UCLA and save for that one famed moment – Dan Obrovac getting the opening tip from Alcindor – the Flyers were overwhelmed. They trailed by 29 with about four minutes to go and when the Bruins starters were pulled they were able to make the final a more respectable, 79-64.
When the Dayton team came back home, they were taken parade style – Donoher was put in an open convertible – through the city back to campus, Along the route people waved signs, cheered and blew car horns. Although the students were on Easter break, 2,000 people greeted the Flyers at the Fieldhouse.
Tuesday, Donoher said he remembered little of that:
“I was so down. To play like that in the national championship game – to play like dogs – it was humiliating., We should have done a better job.”
Still coaching at 85
At 85, Donoher is still trim and sharp.
And he’s still coaching. He works with the Fenwick High School players in Middletown, helping prepare them during the week for their games.
It keeps him busy enough that he says he hasn’t made a lot of UD games this year, although he does watch the Flyers on TV.
He likes what he sees.
“How could you not like this bunch?” he said.
He praised the grit of the team and the way it has been able to erase double-digit deficits time and again.
“I don’t think we had the defensive capacity these kids have,” he said. “That speed. And Archie just teaches it better than we ever did. He’s good at both ends of the court.”
Donoher is also eager to see the new additions he said are coming to UD Arena:
“They’re going to make improvements – luxury suites, all kinds of things – it’s going to be exciting. Wait to you see it. It’s going to knock your socks off.”
It’s enough to leave a guy “lit up like a Christmas tree.”