March Madness, 1947: Herd Wins NAIB Title

While the NIT has already started and "March Madness" tipped off Thursday, March 15, Marshall fans would be well served to step back from a long lunch, or stolen work time watching the NCAA Tournament on the web, to remember a great date in Herd history. March 15, 1947, 60 years ago today, Cam Henderson took eight players to Kansas City a week earlier and came back with a National Championship.

At the Kansas City, Missouri, Auditorium, the dazzling passing and scoring of the Thundering Herd won over the crowd and carried Marshall to the national title in the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball, today's NAIA title. A grueling tournament that required the Herd to win five games in six days, it just Marshall's second trip to Kansas City under Henderson. Financially, the always short Marshall athletic administration had somehow come up with money to send just eight players and their coach, leaving back team manager Johnny Wellman and four other substitutes, to battle for the title, following an amazing 27-5 season.

Marshall started in December of 1946, going 17-0 and eventually stretched a home court winning streak at Vanity Fair (or Radio Center, located at Fourth Avenue between Sixth and Seventh Streets in downtown Huntington) to 35 consecutive games before falling to Cincinnati. Marshall had recorded victories over Xavier, Creighton, Dayton, Louisville and Hawaii to name a few and lost to only the Bearcats (twice), Miami, Ohio, Evansville and Bradley with the latter four all on the road.

Marshall's legendary coach, Cam Henderson, coached the Herd to its only National Championship in basketball when Marshall won the NAIB title on March 15, courtesy of Marshall Library

Marshall opened with a wow on Monday, March 10, dropping Wisconsin State Teachers College 113-80. Not only was the high-scoring Herd fun to watch with its zone defense and fast break, both invented by Henderson back in 1913, but the warm-up of the Herd had fans coming back early the next night. A series of behind the back and through the leg passes, now better know as the "King Drill" of the Harlem Globetrotters, was intended to warm-up the team and un-nerve the opponent.

As profiled in the West Virginia Public Broadcasting documentary, "Cam Henderson: A Coach's Story," Henderson developed the zone defense while coaching high school basketball in a rough-hewn gym that had a leaky roof. Henderson basically spread out his defense in a 2-1-2 and gave them a "zone" to defend. Basketball had been a one-on-one game up until then, with James Naismith telling players to "stick to their man like glue" when he invented the game just two decades prior to Henderson's innovation. The "breaking fast" offense, with a middle man and two wings racing up court off the rebound, was a natural extension and coaches from Claire Bee to John Wooden have aknowledged Henderson's genius in coming up with the basis of modern basketball.

After having Tuesday off while the other first-round games were played, next up for the Big Green quint was a thriller with Hamline University of Minnesota. The Herd middle-man in the break, junior Andy Tonkovich, hit a free throw to give Marshall the lead late, then took the ball out of bounds, as the old rules of basketball allowed, and dribbled away the clock for a 55-54 win.

Round three on Thursday was a bit easier win over Eastern Washington, with the Herd winning 56-48. Friday's semi-final, however, would be a game fans in Kansas City, Missouri, talked about for a long time as Marshall met Emporia State, out of nearby Kansas. It was a back and forth affair and Marshall trailed by one late in the contest. Bill Toothman, a freshman from Huntington East High School playing for his hometown college, took the in-bounds pass, weaved up over the halfcourt and hit a winning bucket from about 50 feet for a 56-55 win.

The championship game on Saturday, broadcast to the Tri-State on WSAZ 930 AM (today's MU flagship station, WRVC 930 AM, a partner of the Herd Insider magazine under the umbrella of Kindred Communications) was anticlimatic…except for the fact that Marshall won the national championship with a 73-59 pasting of Mankato (Minn.) State for the title. Mankato would later become Minnesota State, the school made famous in the television show, "Coach."

Marshall's players were ready to party after celebrating on court and getting their championship banner and pictures. Henderson, however, was running short of funds for rooms and food. The players had been promised a party at their hotel for winning, but the coach had already cancelled that and had the hotel wrap some sandwiches in wax paper to meet the team at the train depot. The dejected players reluctently boarded the train and began the Saturday night return to Huntington.

Sunday night, they were shocked when Wellman caught the train at Ashland, Kentucky, about 15 miles from Huntington and told the team to get ready for a little reception. Little, indeed. 15,000 Herd fans, perhaps even a bigger crowd than met President Bill Clinton in a whistle-stop in Huntington in 1996, met the team, blew horns, rang bells and greeted their heroes at the old C&O Railroad Station on Seventh Avenue, today's CSX headquarters, and the players and coach each spoke over WSAZ radio live to folks who couldn't make the event.

Over the next week, the team was given banquets throughout the city over the next week, receiving jewel-encrusted basketball trophies, championship watches and even cigarette cases with "National Champions" engraved on them - different time for athletes in the 1940s, especially with many of them being men who just two and three years before had been serving in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of World War II in the service of their country.

Cam Henderson would end up in the West Virginia Sportswriters Hall of Fame, the Marshall Hall of Fame and the NAIA Hall of Fame. Center Gene "Goose" James, senior captain Bill Hall and Tonkovich were all first team NAIB All-Americans, while Toothman was captain of the second team and Marvin Gutshall, who had served in the Marines in the island campaigns at Iwo Jima and other invasions against the Japanese, was honorable mention on the All-American team. The next season, Toothman, James and Tonkovich were honorable mention All-Americans on the Associated Press national collegiate team ("Tonk" was also second team NAIB All-American the next season, when Marshall beat Syracuse to win the Los Angeles Invitational, but fell in quarterfinals of the NAIB tourney). James and Tonkovich went onto play in the early days of the National Basketball Association after finishing at Marshall.

Marshall, Huntington and Cabell County would get the Veteran's Memorial Field House built as a result of the title, becoming the home team of Herd basketball from 1950-81. Henderson would coach through 1955, winning 362 games in 20 seasons at the helm of the Herd. The Herd of 1946-47 were some of the greatest players and scorers in Marshall history: Jim Bakalis, Dick Erickson and Bob Wright (1,019 points, 40th all-time at Marshall), along with Tonkovich (1,578 - 11th), Hall (1,421 - 16th), Toothman (1,326 - 19th), James (1,092 - 36th) and Gutshall won at Kansas City.

Gutshall, Hall, Henderson, James, Tonkovich, Toothman and Wellman are all in the Marshall Athletic Hall of Fame. Another big part of the 27 regular season wins were players Fred Altizer, Ed Little, Al "Babe" Mazza and Jimmy Van Zant who, along with Wellman - the only student manager in the MU Hall - will forever be Marshall's only national champions in basketball, winning the NAIB title on March 15, 1947.

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