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Former Falcons celebrate magical 1967-68 basketball season

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    Blade archive historical file photo of Bowling Green State University 1968 basketball team, the last BGSU Falcons team to make the NCAA college basketball tournament.

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    Blade archive historical file photo of Bowling Green State University 1967-1968 basketball team, the last BGSU Falcons team to make the NCAA college basketball tournament. Center Al Dixon, Coach Bill Fitch, and F Walt Piatkowski.

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    John Compton, left, raises his arms when he is recognized as a member of the 1968 Bowling Green State University men's basketball team. The school celebrated the 50th anniversary of their Mid-American Conference title at the Stroh Center Jan. 21. Team members Carl Assenheimer, center, and Yusuf Abdullah, right, stand nearby.

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    Members of the 1968 Bowling Green State University men's basketball team are recognized on their 50th anniversary during Saturday's game between BGSU and Central Michigan.

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    Yusuf Abdullah, who was a member of the 1968 Bowling Green State University men's basketball team, is recognized on their 50th anniversary.

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    Dick Rudgers, member of the 1968 Bowling Green State University men's basketball team

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BOWLING GREEN — It is hard to match the magic surrounding the 1967-68 Bowling Green State University men’s basketball team.

The Falcons won a Mid-American Conference title that season, and they overcame some difficult hurdles to do it.

One was bouncing back from a losing record the year before, which motivated the Falcons to succeed the next season. The second was accepting and following a new leader, as Bill Fitch took over as head coach.

“Most of the guys were so disappointed with the season before, they were willing to make some sacrifices and do some things that would bring everything together in a short period of time,” guard Al “Skip” Hairston said. “We knew we had the team — we had the players.

“We just had to put everything together, and I thought Bill did a good job of putting it all together.”

RELATEDClick here to view a slide show featuring players and coaches from the 1967-68 MAC champion Falcons.

The first step in erasing the bad memories of the 11-13 season BG had just experienced was to get in shape. Fitch, a former Marine drill instructor, took that task seriously.

“What he did initially was he got us in shape — in incredible shape,” said Bob Hill, a freshman on that team. “I will never forget my first day of conditioning at Bowling Green because I never thought I would survive it.

“He took us to a farm where he had a half-mile course marked out. He had us jog to the half-mile mark, then sprint back. And we had to do that five times. Then we had to run 100-yard dashes, and the only way we dropped out was if we won them. Then we went to the gym and ran a fast-break drill for 30 minutes.

“After we were finished, I went back to my room, fell asleep, and woke up at 4 the next morning.”

Fitch said the idea behind the grueling conditioning drills was about more than just getting the Falcons in shape.

“It was good for the players, because it also helped them get on the same page together,” he explained. “If you go through that much hard work, you want to get something out of it.

“And that team put in a lot of hard work.”

The second step involved having the players understand and accept their roles.

“When I sat down with him before the season, he said to me, ‘Do you see this ball?’ said Yusuf Abdullah, who was known as Joe Henderson at that time. “I told him I saw it, and he said, ‘We’ve got five players, and there’s only one ball. And the other four guys are going to shoot. What I want you to do is play defense.’

“So I played defense. ... I felt he believed in me, and so for the team I played defense. I wanted to be a team player so we could win.”

The Falcons did just that. While Bowling Green lost its opener at Iowa by a 79-73 count, they won at Saint Joseph’s before playing a tough Niagara team at Cleveland Arena.

“I was dead against that game,” Fitch admitted. “But [BG alumnus] Nick Mileti had just bought Cleveland Arena and wanted to play a big game there.

“Niagara had Calvin Murphy and Manny Leaks, so they were really good. So I wanted that game to be at Anderson Arena.”

But Fitch and the Falcons played the contest in Cleveland — and beat the Hawks 94-86.

That game featured several professional players. BG’s Walt Piatkowski played in the ABA, while Hairston spent time with the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics. Niagara’s Murphy had a Hall of Fame career with the Houston Rockets, and Leaks played in the ABA and NBA.

That game also gave Mileti a first-hand look at Fitch, and the Falcons coach must have impressed the BG alumnus: Mileti hired Fitch as the first coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, spurring Fitch’s 25-year NBA coaching career that also included stops with Boston, Houston, New Jersey, and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Bowling Green, which had posted a 5-7 record in the MAC the previous season, opened league play at Toledo, which had won the conference title the previous year. While the Falcons lost 73-69, the closeness of the game buoyed BG’s confidence.

“We knew Toledo would be as tough an obstacle as we would face all season, but we gave them all they wanted,” Fitch said. “It showed everyone we were good, and it gave us some confidence.

“And from that point that team got better every time it played.”

Bowling Green won its next five league games before losing at Marshall, then finished with five more MAC wins — including an 85-78 victory in the rematch with the Rockets at Anderson Arena — to win the MAC regular-season title with a 10-2 mark.

And while an 18-7 season ended with a disappointing 72-71 loss to Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Falcons who returned to the BG campus Saturday to celebrate that magical season had mostly fond memories.

“I really thought we were going to win the tournament game,” Abdullah said. “I felt badly, because I thought I could have played better.

“But I really enjoyed playing with those guys.”

Those fond feelings were rekindled last weekend, starting with a private dinner full of hugs, laughs, and stories Friday night. The team also was honored at halftime of BG’s men’s basketball game at the Stroh Center the next day.

“I haven’t seen almost all of these guys in 50 years,” Hairston said. “When I left Bowling Green, I moved to Seattle — which is almost like being on the moon.

“I don’t get this way very much, so it was great to come back and see these guys.”

Contact John Wagner at: jwagner@theblade.com419-724-6481, or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.

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