Jan. 26, 2014
University of Michigan director of athletics Dave Brandon will regularly offer his view on a variety of topics related to U-M and intercollegiate sports. All his posts, along with links to related content, will be available on his page, mgoblue.com/brandon, and he is also on Twitter at @DaveBrandonAD.
The year 1965 was something of a watershed in Michigan men's basketball history. The Wolverines made it to the NCAA championship game for the first time in the history of the program with the help of of Cazzie Russell and Bill Buntin.
Those are the big names, the ones we remember, but there were so many others. Oliver Darden, Larry Tregoning, George Pomey, John Thompson, Jim Myers, Craig Dill, John Clawson, Tom Ludwig, Dennis Bankey, Dan Brown and Van Tillotson also played a role taking Michigan to the title game.
And it was all orchestrated by their head coach -- Dave Strack.
On Saturday (Jan. 25), Dave passed away. He was 90 years old.
Until Strack took over the head coaching position, the Wolverines had only made one trip to the NCAA Tournament, and that was back in 1948. Replacing Bill Perrigo for the 1960 season, he knew he had to make some changes, and he knew he had to find talent. Buntin was his first big recruit. He brought him to U-M from Detroit Northern High School in 1962.
Then it was Cazzie.
He went to Chicago Carver High School and convinced him to visit Ann Arbor. With Buntin on campus and ready to play his varsity season as a sophomore, Strack put his recruiting prowess to work once again.
Cazzie came to campus and loved it. He enjoyed meeting his future teammates, and was 99 percent sure he would be a Michigan basketball player. All he wanted to do was to take a look at Yost Field House and see his new home court -- a 40-year-old barn, surrounded by a dirt track.
Strack was going to take no chances. As the two men approached the Field House, Strack fumbled for keys. He told Cazzie, "I must have left the key to open Yost back in my office." Cazzie never did see Yost until he enrolled.
Since freshmen were ineligible during that era, Buntin and Russell did not play together until the 1963-64 season. That's when the two All-Americans led the Wolverines to their first Big Ten title since 1948, and the program's second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
Still, the 1965 season is what everybody talked about. That year, U-M won its second of three consecutive Big Ten titles, going to the title game against UCLA. The Wolverines were 24-3 going into the game, while the John Wooden coached-Bruins were 27-2.
Yes, the Bruins won the game, but they had to shoot lights out from the field and get 42 points from Gail Goodrich to do so. Wooden won his second of nine NCAA titles, but Strack was named UPI Coach of the Year.
Michigan was now considered a college basketball destination. The expectations grew.
Anything short of a Big Ten title was now unacceptable to the U-M fans. A few years later, Strack was hung in effigy, the pressures increased. He was only making $15,000 as the head coach. He saw a better opportunity as an athletic director. He resigned his coaching position, taking over as the U-M Athletic Department business manager.
Eventually, Strack would leave U-M and realize his administrative dream. He was named the University of Arizona Director of Intercollegiate Athletics in 1972. He helped the transition of the Arizona program from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) to the PAC-10, he expanded the football stadium, he opened McKale Center for Wildcat basketball, and he hired the first African-American head basketball coach, Fred Snowden. He was a major force for Arizona.
Even though he stayed in the Tucson area after leaving athletics, his heart was still in the Midwest.
When he talked about his life in athletics, he talked about Michigan, his days as a basketball player and a coach. He was quite a player, and yes, he was even a leader at that time. He was U-M's team captain in 1945-46.
But Wolverine fans will remember Dave Strack as the U-M head coach. He was a tactician and loved practice. He had his teams ready for any possible sequence of plays on the court. He was never a screamer, but when something went awry, he would stomp his feet on the elevated wooden floor at Yost to make a point.
Today, Michigan basketball is once again a destination for college basketball, big-time talent and great coaches. A Big Ten championship, a NCAA Tournament title game appearance and a Wolverine team fighting again for both a conference title and a great run in the NCAAs are now a part of our history.
The "House that Cazzie Built" is now Crisler Center and the mural of Russell along with his career highlights is a major part of the building and, of course, is also part of our tradition.
Now, when John Beilein brings a recruit to their new home court, he doesn't have to fumble for his keys. He, along with everyone in the U-M Athletic Department, can be proud of what we have and what we have accomplished.
Strack was inducted into the Michigan Hall of Honor in 1984, but his legacy is so much more. We can point to those three Big Ten championship teams as the reason we are again a basketball destination, and we can tell the story of the man who helped orchestrate this success.
On the same Saturday the Wolverines basketball team beat Michigan State to lay claim to first place in the Big Ten -- the Wolverines also suffered the loss of a U-M basketball legend.
Thank you Dave for all you did for Michigan. May you rest in peace.
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