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75th Anniversary Features


January 16, 2013

By Mark Krug, NJCAA Assistant Executive Director

NOTE: As part of the ongoing celebration of its 75th Anniversary, the national headquarters of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) will release nine insightful articles during the 2012-13 academic year that will make up the NJCAA 75th Anniversary Feature Series. Below is the fifth in the series, which can also be found in the January issue of NJCAA Review.

Also, a special 75th Anniversary Q&A feature with several individuals that currently help make the NJCAA’s Division I Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament such a success compliments this month’s Feature Series.

As the United States of America entered one of its most defining eras, so too did the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). The organization suspended all activity from 1943-45 due to World War II, but athletics at two-year colleges did not cease, especially the sport of basketball.

By spring of 1945 the mere existence of the NJCAA was in question. Would the organization reorganize and emerge again? Out West one man wanted to make sure it did.

Compton College (Calif.) athletic director Earle J. Holmes was one of the founders of the NJCAA and wanted to see the organization reaffirm itself as servicemen returned from war and began enrolling in community colleges. In February of 1945 he invited administrators from many colleges that were previously active in the NJCAA, as well as their basketball teams, to his campus for the Western States College Basketball Tournament. The goal was to get excitement back into two-year college athletics and to his credit the NJCAA was given new life following this event.

Two years later, after large crowds gathered and enthusiasm for two-year college basketball increased, the NJCAA emerged when President P.F. Wilhelmsen of Sequoias College (Calif.) called a special meeting, with the blessing of Holmes, at the 1947 Western States College Basketball Tournament in Compton. The meeting produced a regional and national tournament framework for the first NJCAA Basketball Championship Tournament.

The task of finding a willing and appropriate host for the NJCAA’s first national championship basketball tournament fell on new NJCAA President E.P. Coleman of Wentworth Military Academy (Mo.). The goal was to have the tournament staged in a basketball-friendly city in the central part of the United States so teams could have an easier time traveling to the event. Coleman negotiated and secured the field house on the campus of Southwest Missouri State College in Springfield to host the first national championship basketball tournament of the NJCAA in early March of 1948.

Success was nowhere to be found leading up to, during and after the inaugural NJCAA Basketball Championship Tournament. Several qualifying teams backed out due to travel costs and replacement teams were filing the bracket on a daily basis – so much so that the Springfield newspaper stopped printing the bracket due to the revolving door of teams.

Despite hosting the Missouri state high school championships earlier in the month, attendance throughout the tournament in Springfield was dreadful, which in turn resulted in a tremendous amount of financial debt for the NJCAA as ticket sales were expected to cover all operational expenses. As a result, the Chamber of Commerce and officials at Southwest Missouri State were not interested in making the tournament an annual event in Springfield. Luckily, someone else saw the tournament’s potential.

Charles Sesher, athletic director at Hutchinson Junior College (Kan.), attended the first national tournament in Springfield with the goal of lobbying the powers that be to have his school host a future region tournament. Yet, by the time he left Springfield he was convinced Hutchinson was where the national tournament needed to be held. He went back to Hutchinson and convinced civic leaders in the Chamber of Commerce as well as the administration at HJC that staging the tournament in Hutchinson would yield big things for all involved. Sesher succeeded, but the NJCAA needed a $5,500 commitment upfront to avoid the financial problems it experienced in Springfield and the Chamber and HJC had no resources to give to this cause.

Sesher then turned to the area’s local Lysle Rishel Post 68 of the American Legion due to its community involvement and deep pockets. Sesher sold its membership, made up of recent World War II veterans, on the benefits of hosting the tournament and by May of 1949 the NJCAA had publically announced that Hutchinson, Kansas was the site for the 1949 NJCAA Basketball Championship Tournament.

Supporters of the tournament’s arrival in Hutchinson knew one way the event would garner immediate local support was if their beloved Blue Dragons were to qualify. However, the 1949 HJC squad fell short and finished fourth in Region 6.

When other regional tournaments completed in February of 1949, one issue that was coming into play again was the distance some teams were going to have to travel in order to participate. One team in particular, Region 16 champion Ricker Junior College of Houlton, Maine, was set to endure over 1,600 miles en route to Hutchinson. Ricker contacted tourney officials that the distance was too great and they would not be participating.

Successful ideas sometimes begin with a bit of luck, and for the NJCAA Basketball Championship Tournament the void in the 1949 bracket due to Ricker’s withdrawal was exactly that. The empty spot in the tournament’s field needed to be occupied immediately, and through an agreement and blessing of NJCAA officials, the Blue Dragons of Hutchinson Junior College were invited to complete the bracket. With the local team participating and advancing to the national title game, attendance and enthusiasm for the tournament surpassed expectations and left the Hutchinson community wanting more. After the conclusion of the ’49 tournament a special relationship between the city of Hutchinson and the NJCAA had been established and the future of both entities would never be the same.

In his book “The JUCO Classic: 40 Years of the NJCAA Tournament,” Michael Johnson’s sentiment’s put the mood of the relationship best – “In May 1948 a dying tournament stumbled into new life when enterprising men from Hutchinson, Kansas, offered to take the risk of playing host to it. With the good fortune of an unbelievable Cinderella performance, the tournament survived. Hutchinson fans witnessing the event would never forget its excitement. They were hooked…..The NJCAA Basketball Tournament had a home.”

Successful and profitable tournaments in 1950 and ’51 spurred the NJCAA’s Executive Committee to commit to a five-year contract to Hutchinson and American Legion, which allowed the event to garner a dedicated fan base.

In addition, leaders and citizens of Hutchinson sent the NJCAA a clear message that they were committed to the organization and the tournament when they passed a $1 million dollar bond measure for the construction of a new field house in November 1950.

“The construction and opening of the Sports Arena was a great source of community pride and remains so today,” explained Joe O’Sullivan who has served over 30 years on the American Legion’s tournament committee and currently is tournament director. “When it opened in 1952 the Sports Arena was the second largest basketball arena in the state, right behind the recently constructed Allen Fieldhouse (University of Kansas).”

Over time, the outpouring of support for the tournament in the area was in large part due to the local college’s success in the event. Throughout the first two decades of the tournament, the Blue Dragons of HJC qualified eight times. The success of the Blue Dragons, including great teams led by legendary coaches Sam Butterfield and Gene Keady, gave the tournament a firm foundation and passionate fan base that led to six decades of success.

In addition to potentially witnessing the Blue Dragons win a national championship, fans were also  packing the Sports Arena each March to watch some of the best basketball players in the nation.

“By the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the opportunity to see some of the best undiscovered talent in the country joined the list as to why people stood in line in the snow to get tickets,” said Johnson. “For example, 16 players that participated in the ’69 tournament alone were eventually drafted in the pros and nine had distinguished pro careers.”

Looking back at the rosters of teams that participated in the tournament over the event’s history grabs  the attention of any casual basketball fan. Coaches like Floyd Wagstaff (Tyler JC, Texas), Allen Bradfield (Vincennes Univ., Ind.), Joe O’Brien (Southeastern CC, Iowa), Ronnie Arrow (San Jacinto, Texas), Gene Keady (Hutchinson JC), Cotton Fitzsimmons (Moberly JC, Mo.), Nolan Richardson (Western Texas), Gene Bess (Three Rivers CC, Mo.) and Dick Baldwin (Broome Tech, N.J.) instructed or battled against talented players like Bobby Joe Hill (Burlington JC, Iowa), Doug Pendygraft (Lindsey Wilson, Kent.), Artis Gilmore (Gardner-Webb, N.C.), Larry Knight (Ellsworth CC, Iowa), Vinnie Johnson (McLennan CC, Texas), Spud Webb (Midland, Texas), Mitch Richmond (Moberly JC, Mo.), Walter Berry (San Jacinto, Texas), Paul Pressey (Western Texas), Shawn Marion (Vincennes Univ., Ind.) and Armon Gilliam (Independence CC, Kan.).

Hundreds of coaches and thousands of players have showcased their talents in front of sellout crowds that to this day keep coming back to the Sports Arena to see the best teams in the NJCAA compete for a national championship.

“Since my involvement with the tournament, I have watched many outstanding players,” said Jerry Kershaw, who has served as the play-by-play voice of the tournament on Hutchinson’s KWBW Radio since 1964. “Hutchinson fans have relished the opportunity to see players that participate in the tournament move on to major NCAA programs and the NBA. During the past 15- 20 years, nearly 55 players each year have moved on to play major college basketball.”

One of the main objectives of the starting a national championship basketball tournament for the NJCAA, according to NJCAA leadership in the 1940s, was to “stimulate an increased amount of interest in the NJCAA from junior colleges located in all areas of the United States.” Membership in the NJCAA was near 200 member colleges when the first tournament tipped off in Springfield in 1948. Just 15 years later membership in the NJCAA swelled to 329 member colleges and today it stands at over 500 member colleges in 43 states. The driving force behind the initial growth was the success and notoriety of the organization’s national basketball tournament in Hutchinson.

The consistent success of the tournament has also yielded great financial revenue for the NJCAA, which is reinvested back into the organization. The tireless efforts of the American Legion and their volunteers over the past six decades has guided the tournament into a profitable venture for the NJCAA, which has helped spur growth and development of other sports the association sponsors as well as financed key initiatives of the organization for six decades.

“I think the time was right and many factors came together in order for the tournament to be a success,” said O’Sullivan. “Leadership was one of them. It was a time when the Greatest Generation had just returned from World War II. These were men (and women) who were disciplined, goal oriented, confident in themselves, highly trained and experienced. Through the American Legion they identified with this project where they collectively worked for the benefit of a community.”

In 1969, the NJCAA hired its first executive director, George E. Killian, established its national office in Hutchinson and conducted all business of the association there until 1985. Knowing that the long-term health of the NJCAA depended upon the tournament’s success, Killian worked tirelessly with local officials and administrators at Hutchinson Junior College (by then Hutchinson Community College) to improving the tournament.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, members of Hutchinson’s Lysle Rishel Post 68 of the American Legion continued their commitment to the tournament, making sure the day-today operations of the event went on without major incidents. Bob Gilliand, Bud Obee, Guy Holt, Al Wagler, Clark Wesley, Tom Westfall, Jerry Ricksecker and Joe O’Sullivan have led the efforts of hundreds of American Legion volunteers as chairmen and directors of the tournament since 1949. Their dedication, hard work and selfless investments into the tournament has in turn made the city of Hutchinson a mecca for college basketball.

“The tournament is as much a part of the fiber of Hutchinson as the Empire State Building is to New York City or the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco,” explained Hutchinson Sports Information Director Steve Carpenter. “As much as players, coaches and teams… the volunteers, American Legion guys and others, make this tournament special. As long as this group runs the day-to-day operations, the tournament will continue to be unique and special.”

The tournament, now known as the NJCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, started out as a mere experiment. After staging a few national championship track and field meets, could the NJCAA stage and organize a national basketball tournament? Was there interest? Could the NJCAA attain more members through basketball? Most importantly, was there a city or community willing to invest in the NJCAA and its future?

After six decades of success, it is easy to answer these questions. The struggles, stresses and hard work of the event’s founders are too often overshadowed by the glory and success of recent tournaments. As the NJCAA celebrates its 75th Anniversary it is important to remember that the success of the NJCAA today is a dividend on the investment made by the people and community of Hutchinson, Kansas. For if it was not for the success of the basketball tournament it agreed to host in 1949, the NJCAA as we know it likely would not exist.

“The NJCAA and Hutchinson will always have a special relationship,” stressed current NJCAA Executive Director Mary Ellen Leicht. “The city and everyone involved with the tournament, especially the American Legion and Hutchinson Community College, helped build and shape the NJCAA into what it is today.”

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