Could there be some symmetry and synergy involved or invoked, that the 2015 NCAA men's Final Four basketball tournament will take place in the same city where the University of Louisville registered its first national title nearly 35 years ago? In Indianapolis? It's possible.
The future, before it happened, belonged to Nostradamus. The Cardinals' first championship run was orchestrated by Darrell Griffith, who wore #35 in red, some 35 years ago.
However, Denny Crum's team was not just the high-flying guard (he of the 48” vertical) and a supporting cast. It was a team filled with leaders, who toted a lunch pail to practice every day and were conscientious, disciplined and very determined.
Nevertheless, having a player who averaged 20 points a game in the 1979-80 season was nothing to sneeze at. “He was the best player in the country,” said the man who often fed Griffith, point guard Jerry Eaves.
Furthermore, he was no stranger to basketball fans around the country. Maybe his teammates were, at least until tournament time, when the spotlight radiates on all.
Who knows if the Cardinals would have won it all if the many talented players had not subjugated their (offensive) games for the greater good?
Eaves, a radio talk show host for WKJK 1080 AM in Kentucky, said, “We had multi-talented guys who fit their roles perfectly. Derek Smith, what a talent; Rodney McCray, myself and Wiley Brown, with Roger Burkman, Tony Branch and Poncho Wright off the bench. Anything Coach Crum asked us to do, we could do. We fit well together.”
For example, when Griffith, the man dubbed “Dr. Dunkenstein,” fouled out in the first round of the tournament, the Cards were forced to play the overtime without their fearless leader.
“We played the entire overtime without Griff, but there was never a doubt,” said super sub Roger Burkman, the current athletic director at Louisville's Spalding University. “It wasn’t like we were going to fold our tent and tuck our tails and go home. We had more character than that.”
Regardless, the team leaned heavily on the 1980 Wooden Award Winner, which was presented to the best college basketball player in the land. “He (Griffith) was our Mr. Clutch all year,” Burkman said. “He would take over games,” added Eaves.
Burkman embodied the team concept and was nicknamed “Instant Defense” by Crum for the kinetic energy he mobilized off the bench. The two are fishing buddies now as peers. A scorer in high school, Burkam said, “My role was to be a coach on the floor; although I could score, that would not have helped the team.”
Going into the '79-'80 season, the U of L team was focused on the present, not the fact that they were ousted by Arkansas in the Midwest regional semifinal in 1979. The Razorbacks had been led by Sidney Moncrief's 27 points and U.S. Reed's 18 en route to that 73-62 victory.
Crum ordered a full-court press in the second half that led to a Cardinals' rally, but time ran out. Crum didn't forget that, and was intent on implementing the discombobulating defense more often when the team officially gathered for practice on Oct. 15.
“We knew we had to focus ourselves a little bit more,” Eaves said. “But it was never an issue (winning the title) because we always thought we were the best…it was the normal progression.”
The first real bump in the road occurred in the third game of the season when starting forward Scooter McCray went down for the season with a knee injury. Burkman described the mood of the team as “somber,” but in stepped his brother Rodney, and the team didn't skip a beat.
After an early loss to Illinois, the team rattled off 18 wins in a row, and if not upset by Iona College (Jim Valvano's former team, led by All-American center Jeff Ruland) at Madison Square Garden, the Cardinals would've reached 27 straight (they finished 33-3 and a pristine 12-0 in the Metro Conference).
Nevertheless, they entered the Midwest Region as the number 2 seed, but morphed into the “Cardiac Cards” in the first two rounds. Call it opening-round jitters?
Eaves disagreed with the assessment. “The level of competition wasn't close,” he said about the 32-team field, half the size of today's 64. “Kansas State back in the day was a final-eight team.”
The Cardinals had handled K-State at Freedom Hall 85-73 in early January.
Not only did Louisville have to fight for its life, surviving to win their tournament opener in overtime over those Wildcats (led by future NBAers Rolando Blackman and Ed Neeley) 71-69, they likewise needed an extra period to defeat burly Texas A&M, 66-55, in the Sweet Sixteen.
“They were huge on the front line, but everybody was bigger than us that year,” Burkman said of A&M.
In the regional final (Elite Eight), the Cardinals were matched up against the number 1 seed in the region, LSU. That is when the tournament became interesting.
What ensued was a good old-fashioned butt-whipping behind the proverbial woodshed, as U of L thrashed the over-confident Tigers, 86-66.
“We killed them--ran them right out of the building,” Eaves recalled.
Furthermore, when Griffith broke free ahead of the field and performed his “around the world dunk,” which brought the house down at the old Summit in Houston, it was a seminal moment in that championship run. (Look for it on YouTube.)
An interesting tidbit was offered by Burkman. “Before the game a bunch of the LSU football players were cursing at us--giving us a hard time under our basket during warmups,” he explained. “After we won I always thought it would be nice to send the LSU football team a thank you card for that added motivation.”
The game also had something of a local flavor as several of the LSU players were from Louisville, such as star forward Rudy Macklin, who happened to be good friends with Griffith, and Gus Rudolph, who was Eaves' roommate during summer all-star games.
After the big win, the team jetted off to Indy and the school's first Final Four appearance.
In the semifinals, they squared off against Iowa, who had upset Georgetown and number 1 East seed Syracuse, with performances worthy of the Cinderella tag. Hawkeyes guard Ronnie Lester's play on one leg was inspirational (he had injured his knee earlier in the tourney), as he was their version of Griffith.
Despite Lester’s heroics, Louisville dispatched the pesky Iowa team 80-72 to reach the championship game. Up next would be upstart UCLA, appearing in their 11th championship final game, and coached by Larry Brown.
However, the Bruins were anything but dominant that year, having lost nine times entering the final game. They upset the number 1 West seed DePaul, 77-71 in the second round, and knocked out Ohio State and Clemson to become regional champions.
Griffith scored 23 points in the team's 59-54 victory, earning U of L its first NCAA basketball championship. The Cards trailed by two at the half, but turned up the afterburners to outscore their opponents 33-26 in the second half.
The only thing left to do was pass around the scissors and cut down the nets. It was especially gratifying for Burkman, an Indiana native (he grew up a half-hour from Indy) who somehow secured 20 tickets so family and friends could attend the game.
“It's something you never forget; it was a blessing,” he said.
Naturally, the players all have moved on to other phases of their life. Many are family men; Griffith has six grandchildren. “Everyone has done well for themselves,” added Eaves.
Burkman resides in Louisville with his wife, the Honorable Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman, and their two children, Elisa and Lukas.
Eaves, who coached at North Carolina A&T from 2003-12 has two sons, Frank and Anthony, who are both basketball players.
Griffith, the man who leaped over tall buildings, now has one named after him. The “Darrell Griffith Athletic Center” is located at 36th and Virginia Avenue in Louisville, just blocks from where Griffith grew up. The $2 million project will help the youth of the area and gives them a place to play ball.
“You’d never think that someone wants to name a building after you,” Griffith told the Louisville Courier-Journal. The gymnasium was dedicated in October.
Today, players from that team are treated like royalty when spotted at the KFC Yum Center. “The fans that grew up with us still recognize us, and thank us, for what we accomplished for the community and the university,” said Burkman.
Obviously, his children were not born back when the magic happened in his hometown. Might there be a trip for the next generation to Indianapolis this March? It quite possibly could be in the Cards.
NOTE: This story was originally published in the winter edition of Cardinal Authority magazine.