Jan. 17, 2014
By Tim Bourret
Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, marks the 40-year anniversary of the University of Notre Dame’s most celebrated men’s basketball victory.
On that date in 1974, the Irish ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, an accomplishment that has not been approached in men’s college basketball since. In fact, only UNLV’s streak of 45 in a row in 1989-91 is slightly more than halfway to the record.
While both teams were undefeated entering the game with the same nation-leading margin of victory (26.4 points per game) and ranked as the top two teams in the nation in both polls (UCLA first, Notre Dame second), it appeared to be a difficult task for Notre Dame to pull off the upset. The Bruins had been so dominant–having won each of the last seven NCAA championships. They had won 218 of their last 223 games dating to the 1966-67 season.
It had been 1,092 days since UCLA had lost. That loss had come in South Bend to Notre Dame, an 89-82 Irish victory in which Irish All-America guard Austin Carr scored 46 points, including 15 of Notre Dame’s last 17. It would be the most points scored by an individual against a John Wooden-coached team.
UCLA had won 72 of the 88 games by double digits during the streak–and the average margin of victory came in at 23.5 points per game. The Bruins entered 86 of those 88 games as the number-one-ranked team and 20 of the wins had come on the opponent’s home court. Eighteen of the 88 wins were over top-20 teams.
Irish head coach Digger Phelps was just 32 years of age on Jan. 19, 1974, just over half the age of Wooden. But, Wooden had already had a big impact on Phelps’ career.
“When I came to Notre Dame in 1971, I had the attitude that Notre Dame should be the best,” said Phelps. “Notre Dame can do it in football, so why not basketball? This school shouldn’t settle for anything less and the approach I took was to schedule the best. I was a firm believer that to be the best you had to beat the best, head to head.
“So, I scheduled UCLA twice a year, not once. It wasn’t that hard to get it done because Coach Wooden’s first coaching job was at South Bend Central High School in the 1940s. By playing home and home it gave him a chance to get back to Indiana at least once a year.”
Wooden agreed to the unusual non-conference home-and-home series.
“We weren’t going to be very good when I first came to Notre Dame because Austin Carr and six other seniors had graduated,” said Phelps. “They never lost to anyone, why should he be afraid of a team coached by a 29-year-old (Phelps’ age on the day he was hired in 1971) who had one year of head coaching experience?”
The first four games during the first two years of the contract showed that Wooden didn’t have much to worry about. The Bruins beat Notre Dame by a combined 128 points, including an 82-63 victory in South Bend in 1973, a victory that gave UCLA its 61st straight win, breaking San Francisco’s previous college record of 60 straight wins.
Despite the dominant data reinforcing the strength of the UCLA program, Phelps did everything he could to put his team in a positive frame of mind. On the Wednesday before the game at the conclusion of practice, he instructed the team to practice cutting down the nets at the Athletic and Convocation Center, something Carr had done when the Irish beat UCLA in 1971.
“I was always big on visualizing everything, whether it be strategy through practice or any mental intangible. At the end of practice on Wednesday, I called the team together and said, `Alright, when we win, (Gary) Novak, you go to the far basketball and cut down the nets and (John) Shumate, you go to the near basket.’ I even had specific assignments as to who would lift Novak and Shumate to cut down the nets. Practice had gone well that day and it really didn’t come to me until the end of practice.”
Digger was hoping it would be a déjà vu moment for Shumate who, as a freshman, had lifted Carr on his shoulders to cut down the nets after the 1971 win over the Bruins.
“It had an impact, no doubt,” recalls Ray Martin, who later became a member of Jim Valvano’s 1983 national championship coaching staff at North Carolina State. “Digger was the master of getting you ready mentally. Have you ever seen a better big-game coach in college? When he did that we knew he believed in us. We were now ready to play.”
Phelps also asked Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s executive vice-president at the time, to celebrate the pregame Mass. The ACC would be named in his honor 13 years later. “This is not just an ordinary day,” said Father Joyce in his homily. “The chances are good that years from now you will look back on this day as one of the most memorable in your life. Is this melodramatic? I don’t think so.”
Phelps did everything he could in terms of preparation from a game strategy standpoint as well. In those days, no video exchanges between schools existed and games were rarely on television in the regular season, even for the powerful Bruins. But, Phelps did see the Bruins up close twice, first in December in St. Louis when UCLA ended North Carolina State’s 29-game winning streak. Somehow Digger worked his way on to the broadcast team televising that game (unheard of today for an active coach), and he took notes during commercials. Phelps also went to Chicago on Thursday night to see UCLA play Iowa in its last game before coming to South Bend.
Phelps could not have learned much from that game, however, as two-time national player of the year Bill Walton did not play in the contest due to a back injury. Walton didn’t even come to Chicago Stadium, instead resting at the Bismarck Hotel. It was actually the third straight game Walton missed. But, everyone knew he would be ready for the game against the second-ranked Irish. As a kid Walton had watched Carr and Notre Dame hand his Bruins their most recent loss.
Game day began for Shumate at 6:30 a.m. when his parents called his dorm room in Fisher Hall and they prayed together over the phone. “We prayed so that I would have faith in myself, my coach and my team, praying for confidence to accomplish what 88 other teams had failed to do,” recalled Shumate. “My mother told me, no matter what the situation, don’t lose faith in yourself.”
Those words certainly came in handy in the game’s final stages.
Unlike Notre Dame’s victory in 1971 when the Irish ran to a 9-2 lead to open the game, the 1974 Irish started slowly, but aggressively, against the Bruins. On UCLA’s first possession, Irish freshman Adrian Dantley elbowed Walton in the nose, drawing blood.
It only appeared to make the 6-11 redhead mad and the Bruins took a 33-16 lead 14 minutes into the game. The Irish cut the margin to 43-34 by halftime, but the Walton gang looked unstoppable. Wearing a corset to protect his back, Walton made six of his seven shots from the field and the Bruins shot 19 of 27 from the field for the half, a scintillating 70.3 percent pace.
Notre Dame went on a 9-2 run to open the second half, as Shumate and guard Gary Brokaw scored all nine points. But the Bruins put together their own 9-0 spurt to go back up 54-43 with 10:58 remaining. The Irish cut the margin to 64-59 with 5:24 left, but Brokaw was called for his fourth foul while trying to defend Bruin standout Keith Wilkes, one of eight players in the game who would go on to play in the National Basketball Association.
Brokaw complained about the call and received a technical foul. By today’s rules, Brokaw would have been disqualified because a technical foul now counts as a personal foul. But, in 1974, that was not the case and he remained on the court.
Tommy Curtis hit a wild jump shot from the right corner with 3:32 left to put UCLA up 70-59. Ten seconds later Phelps called a timeout. A change of strategy was necessary.
“The first thing we needed to do was put our pressing team in the game, and that meant freshman `Dice’ Martin,” said Phelps. Martin replaced 6-6 freshman forward Billy Paterno, which meant Phelps was literally going to “roll the dice” with a three-guard lineup against the already-taller Bruin lineup.
“It was time to go for broke,” Phelps said. “We had to get some steals because in a halfcourt game we were in trouble if they were able to post up.
“The second thing I did was change the press. We had been pressing with Gary Brokaw at the top, with Shumate back. All UCLA was doing was bringing Walton into the frontcourt and throwing the ball up high, which meant Brokaw was trying to steal the ball off the inbounds from a player eight inches taller. So, during the timeout, I moved Shumate to the front of the press and put Brokaw deep.”
During the timeout, Walton sat on the scorer’s table near the UCLA bench. Coming out of the commercial break Dick Enberg, who broadcast the game nationally on Eddie Einhorn’s TVS Network with “Hot Rod” Hundley, recounted all the games Walton had won in a row since high school, 143 by his count.
Talk about your announcer jinx!
On Notre Dame’s first possession, Martin worked the ball down low to Shumate and Shumate hit a quick jumper. It allowed the Irish to set up their press, this time with Shumate on Walton–and it worked to perfection. Curtis made a lackadaisical lob pass to Walton, but Shumate intercepted and scored immediately. The UCLA lead was now down to seven just 20 seconds after the timeout.
In 1974, there was no shot clock, so UCLA tried to stop the momentum, but it appeared the Bruins were simply dribbling around without a purpose and playing tentatively. With 2:22 left Dantley stole a pass intended for Wilkes at midcourt and drove in for an uncontested layup (dunking was illegal in college basketball in 1974).
“Now the crowd was really into it, the fans were getting closer and closer to the court, which was to our advantage,” recalled Phelps. “It made our defense even more effective.”
Now it was 70-65, and as Enberg said on the broadcast, “Pandemonium now!”
With 2:16 left Wilkes tried a long inbounds pass for Curtis, who was being guarded by Martin. “I fell down and Curtis was all alone for a layup,” recalled Martin. “All I could think of was, `This is embarrassing.’ All my family and buddies back in New York just watched me blow the UCLA game. But, fortunately, Curtis was called for traveling.”
Martin brought the ball up-court, just the second possession for Notre Dame in a set offense during the final three minutes. He passed to Brokaw who took Wilkes one on one to the left corner and hit a 17-foot jumper to cut the margin to three with 1:49 remaining.
On UCLA’s next possession the Bruins worked a shot for Meyers from the left side, but he missed (his fourth straight missed shot of the second half after going five for five in the first half) with 1:25 remaining and Shumate hauled in the rebound. Even though he gave up four inches, Brokaw proved a matchup problem for Wilkes one on one. Brokaw took another jumper from the middle of the court and it was nothing but net. It was now 70-69.
Walton made a timeout sign to Wooden, but the UCLA coach said no. “Wooden never liked to call timeout, because he thought you were giving in to your opponent and showing a lack of confidence in your own team,” said Phelps.
UCLA worked the ball to Wilkes and Martin was caught guarding him after a switch. From the right side, Wilkes decided to fake baseline and go to the middle for a layup.
“As he drove by me, he hooked me with his right arm,” said Martin, who once again was involved in a key turnover. “I went down and we got the call.”
The call was made by Richard Weiler, who happened to also be the lead official in Notre Dame’s win over UCLA in 1971. Weiler ended up working both games that bracketed the 88-game winning streak, and some of his friends in the business referred to him as “Bookend” in later years.
“For a third straight possession it was our intention to go to Brokaw,” said Phelps. “But, this time Curtis left (Dwight) Clay to help Wilkes guard Brokaw. Gary saw that Dwight was all alone in the corner so he passed the ball.”
In the final three practices leading up to the game, Irish players had been one for 15 in converting game-winning situations. But, when it counted, with 29 seconds left on game day, Clay took the shot from the deep right-hand corner and it went through. It was Clay’s only field goal of the second half and just his second field goal of the game, but it marked the fourth time in his career he had made a shot to win or tie a game inside the last 30 seconds.
“After that shot went in, Walton called time,” said Phelps with a smile. “I still don’t think Wooden called a timeout, but Walton had had enough.”
After the game, Clay said, “I didn’t think I had won the game, because there were still 29 seconds left.” His basket had given Notre Dame a 71-70 lead, its first lead of the game.
“With 21 seconds left, we were in the huddle and one of my assistants, Dick DiBiaso, said, `Let’s foul Walton and put him on the line so we have the last shot. Let’s put the game in our hands offensively because they can’t stop us.’ It was a consideration because Walton was shooting 42.9 percent from the line entering the game, but I decided to play tough defense and rebound.”
Twice during UCLA’s final possession Notre Dame seemingly let the victory slip from its grasp. Early in the possession, Shumate jumped in front of Walton and intercepted the ball near the sideline, but as he was falling out of bounds he flipped the ball back into play to Curtis. Shumate probably should have just thrown the ball towards the Notre Dame basket and killed most of the seconds left on the clock.
Curtis now had the ball 25 feet from the hoop with 10 seconds left and he seemingly panicked. He hoisted a shot from what would be NBA three-point range today–and Brokaw corralled the rebound. But in his effort, Brokaw lost his balance and lost the ball out of bounds with six seconds remaining.
So, UCLA had the ball out of bounds to the right of its hoop (as you face the basket). The Bruins had timeouts remaining, but they did not call one to set up a play. In retrospect, maybe they should have.
“The location of the ball was important because it put Walton on the wrong side of the hoop,” said Phelps. “He liked to take the ball from the left (as you face the basket) and turn toward the lane and shoot his little jumper or hook shot. This time he was on the other side.”
Curtis threw the ball into Walton, who was guarded by Shumate. Walton immediately turned toward the middle of the lane, but his natural shot wasn’t there. With Walton being right handed, it was easier for Shumate to contest the 10-foot shot and the ball fell off the rim, just Walton’s second miss in 14 attempts the entire game, and his only miss of the second half.
But, with Shumate away from the hoop guarding Walton, it opened offensive rebounding opportunities for UCLA. Bruin guard Pete Trgovich, who was from the state of Indiana (East Chicago), missed the first rebound attempt, then Meyers had a tap at the basket from three feet away. Finally, Shumate got back to the basket, caught the ball and threw it straight up in the air, knowing the laws of physics would exhaust the remaining seconds of the game.
The horn went off and everyone rushed the court. Notre Dame student manager Ernie Torriero, who would later become a news writer for the Miami Herald, caught the ball and secured it, knowing it would be a precious keepsake for the Notre Dame sports archives.
The scene was electric. One student paraded a banner that read, “Dear John Wooden, God did make Notre Dame number-one,” signed Bear Bryant, in a reference to Notre Dame defeating top-ranked Alabama and Bryant 24-23 to win the football national championship for the Irish 19 days earlier. For the first time in college history, the same school ranked number one in football and number one in basketball.
The students crashed the floor in a matter of seconds. “The only thing we messed up the entire day was cutting down the nets,” said Phelps. “We had rehearsed Novak and Shumate cutting down the nets. Novak did his part, but Shumate was nowhere to be found. After he got that rebound he was knocked down in the crush of the fans and ended up on the floor.”
“Dwight Clay and I seized the moment,” said Martin. “We were both under the basket as the game ended, and students were putting us on their shoulders. So we started taking the net down at the basket where Shumate was supposed to be. Since the photographers were at that end of the court to shoot the last play, Dwight and I got in all the pictures that ran around the country. I’ve never seen a picture of Novak cutting down the nets, just me and Dwight.”
After the game Phelps played host to one of the biggest parties in the history of South Bend. “I don’t know how many people were there, but one of them was Indiana Governor Otis Bowen,” said Phelps. “I think I stayed up until about 2:30 in the morning. People told me all five bars in South Bend near campus had run out of beer by 11 that night.”
The next week Notre Dame students ran to their dorm mailboxes expecting to see Clay’s shot on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Instead, it is the only recorded time that thousands of male Notre Dame students were disappointed to see the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Clay and the Irish faithful had to settle for a four-page feature story inside the magazine.
This win also had a favorable impact on Notre Dame’s football program. The UCLA weekend was the big recruiting weekend for Irish head coach Ara Parseghian’s program. Among the future Irish players on official visits were quarterback Joe Montana and tight end Ken MacAfee, later to become leaders of Notre Dame’s 1977 national championship football team.
For Martin and many of the players, one of the great memories of the day took place at the South Dining Hall that night.
“Brokaw, Shumate, Clay and I walked into the South Dining Hall with our trays and when we sat down, the entire hall gave us a standing ovation that lasted about five minutes,” said Martin.
“Whenever someone asks me what it was like to play basketball at Notre Dame in the 1970s and what the Notre Dame spirit is all about, that image comes to my mind.”
— ND —
Tim Bourret was a University of Notre Dame freshman in 1974 and one of the many who stormed the court after the Fighting Irish victory over UCLA that ended the Bruins’ 88-game winning streak. He is the author of “Digger Phelps’ Tales from the Notre Dame Hardwood.”