Edit (8/10/09): I originally wrote what follows in November 2008. The 2008-09 basketball Bulldogs then went out and won 20 games for only the second time in school history, resulting in the first appearance by The Citadel in a post-season hoops tourney (okay, so it was the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, but that still counts). Based on this turn of events, I am hopeful that if I write another essay prior to next season detailing the program’s less-than-stellar history, the 2009-10 edition of the Bulldogs will win the SoCon NCAA tournament.
There are only five schools that have been in NCAA Division I continuously since the classification’s formation in 1948 that have never participated in the NCAA basketball tournament. Those five schools are Northwestern, Army, William&Mary, St. Francis of New York, and The Citadel. Of those five, only one has never participated in the NIT. Army has played in the NIT eight times (and according to Bob Knight, actually turned down an invitation to the NCAAs in the late 1960s). Northwestern and St. Francis have three NIT invites each. William&Mary has made one appearance in the NIT, in 1983.
The Citadel has made no such appearances. It has never played in a game following its conference tournament. No NCAA trips, no NIT bids, nothing.
This is not a fluke.
The history of basketball at The Citadel can be likened to the long-running Peanuts bit where Charlie Brown tries to kick the football, only to have Lucy jerk it away from him time and time again, except in this case the ball is jerked away from him about 10 seconds before he can even swing his leg to kick it…but he keeps trying to kick it anyway.
(Yes, I know that’s an analogy based on a football play, and this is a post about basketball. There will be a motocross analogy later, too. Just stay with me.)
Here are some quick facts about The Citadel’s basketball program:
— NCAA bids: 0
— NIT bids: 0
— Southern Conference tournament titles: 0
— Southern Conference regular season titles (undisputed or shared): 0
— Southern Conference regular season division titles (undisputed or shared): 0
— Southern Conference tournament MVPs: 0
— NBA players, past or present, who attended The Citadel: 0
— Appearances in the Southern Conference tournament final: 1 (1959)
— Number of times winning more than one game in the Southern Conference tournament: 1 (1959)
— Southern Conference tournament semifinal appearances since 1985: 1
— 20-win seasons: 1 (1979)
— Coaches with a winning record at The Citadel since World War II: 1 (Norm Sloan)
— Best-sellers about playing basketball at The Citadel titled My Losing Season: 1
— Seasons with 20 or more losses: 11 (including the last three and five of the last six)
— Seasons finishing 10 or more games under .500: 20 (19 of them since World War II)
— Winning seasons since 1962: 10
— Winning seasons since 1962 in which The Citadel finished 3 or more games over .500: 5
— Consecutive losses in the Southern Conference tournament, 1985-1997: 13
— Consecutive losses in the Southern Conference tournament, 1961-1978: 17
— Overall record in the Southern Conference tournament: 11-55
— Coaches since 1975: 4 (nobody ever said The Citadel didn’t give its coaches a chance)
Brief Digression Number One: Every season The Citadel loses in the SoCon tourney and sets a new NCAA record for most consecutive conference tournament appearances without winning a title – and every season, the following week Clemson ties the record (which is currently 55) when the Tigers lose in the ACC tournament. Of course, Clemson came close to breaking its string of futility last year. Incidentally, The Citadel’s 58-56 win over Clemson in 1979 is the last victory for the Bulldogs over a current member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Citadel is 24-55 against Clemson, alltime. Seven of those wins came after the Tigers joined the ACC. Those are the only victories The Citadel has against a school that was a member of the ACC at the time.
The Citadel actually won a few more games than it lost in the seasons leading up to World War II. Of course, the competition in those not-so-organized times wasn’t always the best. In 1917, for example, The Citadel defeated the Charleston Navy Yard Machinist Mates 48-11. In 1925 the Bulldogs beat Standard Oil 46-18, and in 1932 The Citadel recorded a 42-23 victory over the Jewish Alliance. Alas, the Bulldogs’ 62-51 loss to the Savannah Ice Service in 1941 was a sign of things to come, because after the war things turned south in a hurry.
Brief Digression Number Two: In 1927, coach Benny Blatt’s Bulldogs finished 17-2 and actually won a postseason tourney, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament, the only postseason event ever won by The Citadel. The SIAA was the ancestor of the Southern Conference. However, by 1927 all of the current SEC/ACC schools that would eventually make up the original Southern Conference had left the SIAA, and had been replaced by mostly smaller schools, with some holdovers (like The Citadel) still remaining in the old league. In that 1927 tournament, The Citadel beat Mercer in the final. It was the fourth time The Citadel had played Mercer that season, with the Bulldogs winning all four games. All nineteen games The Citadel played that season were contested in the Carolinas or Georgia.
There is an old Peanuts TV special, “You’re a Good Sport, Charlie Brown,” in which Charlie Brown (with help from Linus) competes in a motocross race, with the winner to receive tickets to the NFL Pro Bowl. Eventually, all of the other racers (including Snoopy) drop out of the event, and Charlie Brown wins it by default. However, he finds out after the race that the organizers were unable to get the Pro Bowl tickets; instead, he receives coupons for five free haircuts at a barbershop in Denver, Colorado. Keep in mind that Charlie Brown is bald, doesn’t live in Denver, and his father is a barber.
The Citadel’s victory in the ’27 SIAA tournament has always struck me as comparable to Charlie Brown’s motocross triumph.
Bernard O’Neil’s first year as coach, in 1948, resulted in a respectable 8-9 record, but his 1949 squad lost its first 17 games before winning the season finale. He coached three more seasons, finishing with a career record of 28-72.
His replacement, the immortal Leo Zack, was 5-32 in two seasons, the latter season ending with 16 straight losses. Three of his five career victories came against Newberry. He also lost a game to Newberry, the school that during this time was better known for being the victim of Frank Selvy’s 100-point game.
Jim Browning was a respected professor at The Citadel, and also assisted the department of athletics whenever and wherever he was needed. In his later years he helped compile statistics at home football games. In the fall of 1954, he agreed to serve as coach for the basketball team. I wish I knew more about how he wound up with the job; there has to be a good story there. I vaguely recall a writeup about that season, but I don’t remember the source, and I haven’t been able to find it, at least not yet. Incidentally, Col. Browning would have been a young man in 1954, probably not much older than the players. I think his main job was to avoid forfeits, to be honest. He succeeded in that, but that was about all the success the 1954-55 squad would have, finishing with a 1-21 record. The only win was against the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.
Brief Digression Number Three: Some sources incorrectly don’t count that as an official victory, including the Southern Conference record book, with the league still listing The Citadel as having lost a conference record 37 straight games during this time period (the record is for consecutive losses against all opponents, not consecutive conference losses). However, during that era schools were allowed to count games against military bases (and AAU teams) as part of their overall record. The NCAA actually changed its record book a few years ago to take out references to the “37-game losing streak”; the mistake had been made long ago, and wasn’t fixed until 2004. (The actual losing streak was 30 games.) Besides, it’s not like The Citadel was catching a break playing service teams – the Bulldogs also lost that year to that same N.A.S., and dropped two lopsided games to the Parris Island Marines as well. The Citadel also lists a loss to Gibbs AAU for that season by a score of 121-65.
That loss to Gibbs AAU wasn’t the worst loss of the season, though. Neither was the 125-54 drubbing in the first game against the P.I. Marines. The worst defeat would be an 87-point loss at Furman, 154-67. That game would become part of an unusual record, for in the second meeting that year between the two teams, The Citadel elected to play stall-ball (why the Bulldogs didn’t try that strategy more often during the season, I don’t know). I was once told by someone that at one point during the game most of the players on both teams were sitting down on the court, a few of them amiably chatting with one another. Furman eventually won the game, 26-24. The 85-point differential from one game to the next between the same teams is an NCAA record. Normally, a record like that would occur when a team lost by a large margin and then came back and posted a dominant victory. In this case, however, The Citadel (naturally) managed to lose both games.
The next year another coach, Hank Witt, who doubled as an assistant coach for the football team, led The Citadel to a 2-19 record. Some of the losses that season were just staggering (Presbyterian beat The Citadel by 50 points – twice). After that season, somebody at The Citadel got serious about hoops. That somebody was presumably Mark Clark, scourge of Italy (and Texas). The famous World War II general had become the new president of the school in 1954 and had no use for inept varsity athletic teams, or anything else inept for that matter. The military college decided to hire a young coach named Norm Sloan. You may have heard of him.
Sloan did a fantastic job, winning 57 games in four seasons. In his third season, The Citadel would finish 15-5, losing to Jerry West and West Virginia in the SoCon tourney final, the only appearance The Citadel has ever made in the title game. (West Virginia would go all the way to the NCAA championship game that year, losing 71-70 to California.) Sloan left after the following season to coach Florida (the first of two stints with the Gators; of course, in between he would win the national title at North Carolina State).
Brief Digression Number Four: Sloan recruited the midwest exclusively while at The Citadel. He seemingly had no interest in local players. In the fall following his first season as coach, he held an open practice for cadets interested in trying out for the basketball team. Well, maybe not so open. Sloan walked into the gym and greeted all the candidates, and then asked them to line up single-file, facing him. He then said, “Everyone from Ohio, Indiana, or Kentucky, take one step forward.” A few of the cadets stepped forward. Sloan then barked, “The rest of you are cut,” and walked out of the gym.
Sloan’s replacement, Mel Thompson, had one good year, and then the program went downhill, including a 3-20 debacle in 1963. Thompson did manage to put together two consecutive winning campaigns after that season (with records of 11-10 and 13-11). However, Thompson and the program then suffered two more losing years with a combined win-loss total of 15-33. His final season eventually spawned a best-selling book in which the coach was portrayed as something less than human, or all too human, depending on your point of view.
After Thompson’s departure, the program went through a seven-year period of .445 ball under two different coaches. Dick Campbell coached for four seasons. Campbell came to The Citadel after an enormously successful run at Carson-Newman, where he had averaged 25 wins per season in his last seven years as coach. At The Citadel, however, Campbell would finish with a record of 45-54. He left the military college to take the head coaching job at Xavier. His career as a college coach would end two years later, after a 3-23 campaign for the Cincinnati school.
George Hill took over from Campbell. Hill had been the head coach at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where in two years he had won 11 games, all 11 victories coming in his second season (the USCGA was 0-21 in his first year as coach there). He couldn’t provide any forward momentum at The Citadel, though, going 33-42 in three seasons, all losing campaigns. Hill would later become a sportswriter and an author.
Les Robinson, who had already been an assistant coach for several years, was then promoted. Robinson, one of three North Carolina State graduates to coach The Citadel (Sloan and Thompson had also played for the great Everett Case), would start off the first season of his eleven-year head coaching career at The Citadel by winning four of his first five games. Three games later, his squad was still in good shape at 5-3, but it would then lose its last twelve games. Robinson would follow that up with a 17-loss campaign and two 19-loss seasons before finally finding success, with his 1978-79 team finishing with a 20-7 record and actually winning a SoCon tourney game, the school’s first postseason victory since 1961. After a few middling-to-bad seasons, Robinson’s final Bulldog team would win 18 games. He then left to become head coach and AD at East Tennessee State. Four years later, Les Robinson would finally take a team to the NCAA tournament. He would later become famous enough to have an invitational named after him.
His replacement, Randy Nesbit, had played for Robinson, and was only 26 years old when he got the top job. In seven years, Nesbit had more 20-loss seasons (two) then winning seasons (one). In all fairness to Nesbit, he didn’t have a lot of luck, even by the meager karma standards of basketball at The Citadel. Among other problems, The Citadel’s ancient basketball arena, McAlister Field House, underwent a renovation that left it unusable for two seasons during his tenure. McAlister could occasionally be a surprisingly difficult place to play for opposing teams (it was often described in its original incarnation as resembling an airport hangar). In Nesbit’s third season as coach, however, his squad played no games on campus, with the designated home games played at a local high school or at the College of Charleston’s gymnasium.
The following year, The Citadel elected to play its home games at its physical education building, Deas Hall, one of the more bizarre places to serve as a home court for a Division I basketball team in the modern era of college basketball. McAlister would eventually reopen, but Nesbit’s final two teams would lose a combined 40 games anyway. Nesbit is now the head basketball coach at Roane State Community College in Tennessee (he also teaches in the business school there). One of the players on his current squad is 73 years old.
Brief Digression Number Five: Nesbit did have one great moment while coaching The Citadel. In 1989, Nesbit’s Bulldogs shocked South Carolina in Columbia, 88-87, breaking a 36-game losing streak to the Gamecocks that had dated back to 1943. The key basket in the game was a clutch three-pointer made by Nesbit’s younger brother, Ryan (if he had missed it, the adjective “clutch” would have been changed to “reckless”). The Gamecocks were marching to their first NCAA bid in many years when they were stunned in the late-season matchup, but George Felton’s best team actually recovered from the loss and won enough games to make the dance anyway (losing to North Carolina State in the first round). The victory in Columbia was The Citadel’s 16th of the season, and, as it turned out, its last. Thus it was the final win in the career of one Ed Conroy, a senior guard on that team, and now the head coach of the Bulldogs.
Nesbit was followed by Pat Dennis (also known as “the long-suffering Pat Dennis”), who had been an assistant for Dick Tarrant at Richmond. Dennis would last for fourteen years, the longest tenure of any of The Citadel’s basketball coaches. His sixth squad finished 15-13, the first winning season at The Citadel in a decade, and actually won a SoCon tourney game, the first in 13 years for the school. After a few more losing years, Dennis would have consecutive winning seasons in 2001-02 and 2002-03, one of only two times The Citadel has had consecutive winning seasons in the last 42 years. The perpetually frustrated Dennis would lose 20+ games in three of his final four seasons, however. Dennis finished with a career record at The Citadel of 156-235.
On the bright side, Dennis had a winning record against each military school he faced while coaching The Citadel (11-7 against VMI, 2-1 against Navy, 3-0 against Army, and 1-0 against Air Force). So he had that going for him, which was nice.
The current coach of the Bulldogs, Ed Conroy, is 13-47 in two seasons at the helm. Conroy was hired by none other than Les Robinson, who had returned to The Citadel as AD. Conroy had actually been recruited by Robinson when he was a high school senior, although Robinson would leave for ETSU before ever getting a chance to coach Conroy at The Citadel. Ed Conroy is a cousin of Pat Conroy, a relationship that was well documented when Ed took over the program.
Last year, Conroy made news by playing a squad almost entirely made up of freshmen. Some of them actually showed promise (albeit while only winning two games against Division I competition), so perhaps he can be the coach to lead the Bulldogs to the promised land – the NCAA tournament. I’m rooting hard for him – he’s a nice guy – but it’s going to be very, very tough. When The Citadel beat South Carolina that cold night in 1989, Conroy was quoted as saying the victory would be “the one we’ll remember all our lives.” Winning the Southern Conference title as head coach of The Citadel would be a much more memorable moment.
I always tell people that if The Citadel were to ever advance to the NCAAs in basketball, that would probably be a sure sign of an imminent Apocalypse…
It can be difficult to be a fan of college hoops — and I really enjoy college hoops — when your school is always terrible in basketball. Not just occasionally terrible, mind you, not just those inevitable slumps of a year or two or even a bad decade, but always. It’s like there’s a really cool party going on, and the party never really stops, but it doesn’t matter that the party lasts forever, because you still don’t have a ticket and you may never get one, and what really irks you is that practically every other person in the free world has been to the party, even some out-and-out losers who don’t even realize how great the party really is, and you are still left out in the cold.
It would be great to even consider the possibility of turning on the tournament selection show, and watching James Brown announce something like, “in the South regional, with these games being played in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the #2 seed is Georgetown, and the mighty Hoyas will take on the #15 seed, the Southern Conference champion, The Citadel [brief pause, as Brown shakes his head in disbelief], making its first NCAA tournament appearance in school history.” This would be followed by a live shot of cheering cadets, possibly with no hazing involved.
It would be absolutely surreal.
It hasn’t come close to happening, though, and really, if it were to happen (and this is important), I would like it to be in a year in which The Citadel was actually good. I don’t want it to be a year where the Bulldogs go 11-18, and then get lucky and win the SoCon tourney because all the other teams’ players came down with food poisoning or something.
Besides, in that case, The Citadel would almost certainly land in the utterly reprehensible, completely despicable play-in game. If The Citadel were to ever make the NCAAs, and the tournament selection committee then put the team in the play-in game, I would immediately drive up to Indianapolis and just start assaulting people.
That scenario isn’t likely to happen, though (which is just as well, as the drive to Indy would probably be really boring). The Citadel has only won two games in the conference tourney once in its history. It’s hard to conceive of it actually winning three times in one weekend.
I fully expect more hard times on the hardwood. I hope for the best, but you have to be realistic. After all, it’s a small military school with no hoops tradition whatsoever. If Charlie Brown were to have a favorite college basketball program, this would be it.
Still my team, though.
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