Ed Jucker was sprawled aboard a charter aircraft after the 1961 NCAA tournament. “Look at this, look at it,” said the University of Cincinnati coach as he hit a newspaper with the headline, “CINCINNATI WINS NATIONAL TITLES.”
Jucker told a reporter, “You don’t have to write a story – it tells everything.”
But there is more to the story. Sixty years ago, the Cincinnati Bearcats began an unlikely run at the top of the college basketball world, winning the NCAA tournament championship twice against the state of Ohio, and coming one basket before a third title.
UC wasn’t supposed to win in 1961. Oscar Robertson, the best player on the team and the best player in the nation, graduated and was drafted by the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals. After two trips to the Final Four, Coach George Smith was promoted to UC Sporting Director, and Assistant Jucker was promoted to head coach.
The Norwood native Jucker had played basketball and baseball for the Bearcats and was an assistant coach at UC in 1953. (As a baseball coach, he recruited Sandy Koufax to Cincinnati.)
The rookie head coach inherited a good team with Bob Wiesenhahn, Paul Hogue, Carl Bouldin, Tom Thacker and Tony Yates – but not All-Americans. Jucker had to figure out how to get over the loss of Robertson.
The big “O” was the top goalscorer and college player of the year for three years. UC’s game consisted of feeding the ball to Robertson, who scored over 50 points six times in a game and brought the Bearcats to national prominence. Still, Cincinnati has had to be content with the consolation game for third place for the past two years.
Without Robertson, Jucker installed a new ball control and defense system that he called “percentage basketball.”
“By that I mean that our offense and defense were deliberately geared towards the playing methods that have the greatest mathematical chance of success,” Jucker wrote in his best-selling book, Cincinnati Power Basketball, which detailed his theories of ball control.
It took Jucker’s system a few games to click as the Bearcats had lost three of their first seven games.
When UC, 72-53, was blown out by Bradley, their rival in the Missouri Valley Conference, the three Robertson-era veterans Bouldin, Wiesenhahn and Hogue came to the coach in the locker room and offered a silent pat on the back indicating their support.
“They let me know, ‘We respect you and stick with the system,’ and they didn’t say a word. It was in her eyes, ”said Jucker.
UC won 21 games in a row and led to the national championship against Ohio State No. 1 on March 25, 1961 at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City.
The matchup was billed as a “dream game,” the first time the two Ohio teams had met since 1921.
Ohio State was the defending champion with All-Americans Jerry Lucas, Larry Siegfried and John Havlicek (Lucas and Havlicek were future NBA Hall of Famers). The Middletown native Lucas was the top scorer in the championship game and free throws with 27 points and 12 rebounds.
“If we can stay there in the first half, we’ll stay with them, we’ll win it,” Jucker said before the game. “But if we allow the state of Ohio to take a big lead – jump in half by 10 or 15 – we’ll never catch up.”
Ohio State led at halftime, 39-38.
The UC defense harassed the guards and forced Lucas to continue shooting away from the basket. Wiesenhahn stuck to Havlicek and kept the future Boston Celtics to just four points. This upset the Ohio State pattern and shook the favored team. The game was tied between 61 and 61 at the end of regulation, resulting in overtime.
UC got the tip in OT and passed the ball to Hogue, who attempted a layup and was fouled by Lucas – his fourth foul. Hogue scored both free throws for the lead.
Then Cincinnati got into a slow control attack. Yates made clutch free throws and Thacker took a jump shot at the gun for the end result, 70-65. The Bearcats had a big surprise – and their first NCAA championship title.
“Incredible is the only word that describes the nerve-wracking conquest of the mighty state of Ohio by Cincinnati,” wrote sports writer Bill Sims in the Kansas City Star.
“This has to be classified as one of the great cage classics of all time. Everyone had said it wasn’t possible, but the Bearcats had obviously not been told that they were facing an impossible task …
“It wasn’t a coincidence. The Bearcats have shown they have everything a national champion should, but the Buckeyes, ranked the best in the nation all season, got them to deserve it. “
UC and Ohio State returned for a rematch for the national title on March 24, 1962 at Freedom Hall, Louisville.
George Wilson and Ron Bonham had replaced the departing Wiesenhahn and Bouldin. UC caused a stir with four black players (Hogue, Thacker, Yates and Wilson) in the top five – a first for an NCAA champions team.
Although the Bearcats were the champions, they were again the Ohio State underdog. UC had to win a playoff in a game against Bradley to even win the NCAA tournament.
This game was easier for the Bearcats as Lucas was hampered by a twisted knee and only held 11 points. UC led the way in the middle of the first half, then built an insurmountable lead – up to 19 points – and finished the Buckeyes 71-59. Hogue was named the most outstanding player of the tournament.
UC’s offer for a third straight championship was thwarted by Loyola-Chicago in the 1963 tournament. UC got into nasty trouble and the Ramblers returned from a 15-point deficit to tie the game, then won 60:58 in overtime.
The pressure to win took its toll on Jucker and his family. He retired at the end of the 1965 season.
“After our two national championships, the fans thought they could sit back and watch us win with 39 or 40 points. We never gave them that; Maybe we should have done it, ”Jucker said to The Enquirer.
Jucker’s NCAA tournament record is 11-1 (0.917 percent win). UC has been back to the Final Four since then.
Sources: Enquirer Files, “Bearcats !: The History of Basketball at the University of Cincinnati,” by Kevin Grace, Greg Hand, Tom Hathaway, and Carey Hoffman