RU Basketball: The Decision and its Aftermath

Rutgers men's basketball played its very first game in 1906, but it wasn't until 70 years later that the program would achieve national prominence. However, in just a few short years, before the decade was even over, a decision was made regarding its basketball program that would send it spiraling back into mediocrity and less. It is a decision the program still hasn't fully recovered from.

Unlike football, where it can boast of having been a participant in the very first college game ever played, Rutgers can make no such claim in basketball. The overall history of Rutgers basketball, at least for the first 50 or 60 years - indeed, perhaps throughout its entirety - has been a rather unremarkable one. There are two things that are absolutely certain about Rutgers basketball: 1) That although they didn't play it first, they have indeed been doing it for a very long while, and 2) That for most of that time, they haven't been doing it exceptionally well.

During the sports early days, Rutgers was coached by a man named Frank Hill (no relation to current RU head coach Fred Hill), who from 1915 through 1943 compiled a quite respectable 223-162 won-lost record. It's also worth noting that this is the same Frank Hill, who from 1911 through 1918, and from 1919 through 1929 (they had no team in 1918-19), also compiled a 191-75 record coaching at Seton Hall. Soon after Hill's days at RU ended, however, Rutgers basketball saw its fortunes decline considerably. From 1945 through 1962, Rutgers had a won–lost record of 161-243.

In 1963, a man named Bill Foster became RU's new head coach, and things began to improve. His arrival as head coach on the Banks soon followed with the recruitments of Bob Lloyd and Jim Valvano, who would form a potent backcourt duo that would help send Rutgers into its first-ever post-season tournament. In the 1966-67 season, the Scarlet Knights, with Lloyd and Valvano, advanced to the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament, where they lost to eventual-champion Southern Illinois (which was led by future NY Knick and NBA Hall-of-Famer Walt Frazier).

The National Invitational Tournament, or NIT, is a tournament that began in 1938, one year before the NCAA tournament. For over twenty years it was a tournament that attracted many of the best teams in college basketball, and often was the more prestigious and significant tournament of the two. It was a tournament that Seton Hall, under a coach named Honey Russell and with a big man named Walter Dukes, won in 1953. Altogether, the Pirates made six NIT appearances during the 1950's, a highly successful decade for them.

As for Rutgers, the 1960's had turned into a good decade for them (they returned to the NIT in ‘68-69), and the following one would soon shape up as even better. Bill Foster would leave RU in 1971, and was replaced by Bob Lloyd's brother, Dick (now known to many as the color commentator for RU basketball on the radio). Dick Lloyd was head coach at Rutgers for just two years - where he compiled a two-year record of 29-22 and brought RU to its third NIT in '72-73 – but perhaps his most important accomplishment was bringing with him a young, energetic assistant coach named Dick Vitale.

As many who are familiar with Rutgers lore know, the arrival of Dick Vitale would soon mean the arrival of Phil Sellers. Sellers to this day has still scored the most points and pulled down the most rebounds in Rutgers history, and he was the schools second first-team All-American (after Bob Lloyd, whose career scoring mark he broke). It was his arrival as a player - and Tom Young's as a coach – that ushered in Rutgers ascent into the higher echelons of college basketball in the 1970's.

Young would add players such as Mike Dabney, Eddie Jordan, Hollis Copeland, and James Bailey, with the results being that his first six teams saw post-season play. Those teams compiled records of 18-9, 22-7, 31-2, 18-10, 24-7, and 22-9. They went to four NIT's, and far more importantly, made the schools first two trips to the NCAA's (which during the 1960's had firmly supplanted the NIT as the premier post-season tournament). The 31-2 squad went undefeated during the regular season ('75-76), made Rutgers only appearance ever in the Final Four, and put RU as close to being on top of the college basketball world than it ever had been before – or since.

Meanwhile, at Seton Hall, the fortunes of the Pirates during the 1960's went in the opposite direction of Rutgers. Richie Regan, one of the legendary players in Seton Hall history, and also a member of the '53 NIT championship team, took over for his coach Honey Russell in 1960, and the Pirates initially continued to post winning seasons. However, by the mid-‘60's the program was on the skids, and the last six years of Reagan's tenure as head coach were losing ones.

Reagan was replaced at the start of the 1970's by the man more far more well-known these days as a television college basketball announcer, the colorful and charismatic Bill Raftery. Raftery struggled at first in turning the Pirates fortunes around, but succeeded in luring talents such as Glenn Mosley and Greg Tynes to South Orange, and by the 1973-74 season, Seton Hall were winners again. Raftery would go on to post a winning record for eight consecutive years (in his last year in South Orange in '80-'81, he went 11-16), but this was clearly Rutgers decade. The best the Pirates could manage during the ‘70's were two NIT bids, in 1974 and 1977.

Up next in Part 2: RU cannot capitalize recruiting-wise on its success. The formation of the Big East / The Big East explodes. The rise of Seton Hall.  Since then - RU continues to spin its wheels.

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