In 1971, the last and only time before this season that Georgia Tech made the NIT semifinals, the college basketball postseason was a different scene than it is today.
Tech’s approach in that season explains it quite clearly.
At the end of the 1970-71 regular season, the Yellow Jackets were 20-8, just the third 20-win season in school history. Tech was independent, having left the SEC after the 1963-64 season, later joining the Metro Conference and ultimately the ACC in 1979. Coach Whack Hyder’s team was invited to play in the NCAA Tournament, which that year had a 25-team field.
And the Jackets turned it down in favor of the NIT.
Hyder left the decision to accept either the NCAA or NIT bid to a team vote, players on the team recalled this week. The problem with the NCAA bid was that, with UCLA in the midst of its seven-year streak of national championships, they realized that the chances of winning were slim. And they had good memories of playing in the NIT the previous year.
“So it was like, do you want to go play a game or two in who knows where — some college town somewhere, or would you like to go back to Madison Square Garden for a week or until you lose?” said Jim Thorne, the team’s captain. “We said, ‘Clearly, let’s go back to Madison Square Garden. We’ve got a chance we could win that one.’”
It’s difficult — maybe impossible — to imagine that even being a temptation now, but decisions like Tech’s led the NCAA to change the rules so that teams that didn’t accept NCAA bids could not play in other postseason events.
Rich Yunkus, the Tech great, wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament, but the results in New York changed his thinking. Lightly regarded, the Jackets won three games in the 16-team tournament to reach the finals, where they lost to North Carolina.
“It turned out to be a good thing,” Yunkus said.
As Tech returns to the NIT semifinals, where the Jackets will play Cal State Bakersfield on Tuesday at New York’s Madison Square Garden, it’s perhaps worthwhile to recall their noteworthy predecessors. For many, Tech’s basketball history seems to begin with the hire of Bobby Cremins in 1981. And while Tech’s Final Four teams in 1990 and 2004 deserve their just due, the 1971 team merits its own recognition.
The NIT once commanded a larger spotlight. Into the 1950s, it was considered more prominent than the NCAA Tournament. And even after the NCAA event gained supremacy, its longtime policy of accepting only conference champions (along with independents) meant the NIT had access to high-caliber teams.
That’s why, in 1971, the NIT’s 16-team field included North Carolina, the ACC’s regular-season champions, who had lost to South Carolina in the conference tournament, and Duke, the ACC’s third-place finisher. Michigan and Purdue, the Big Ten’s second- and third-place teams, were also invited, as was Tennessee, the second-place finisher in the SEC.
At that point, the entire tournament was held at Madison Square Garden. It was Tech’s second year in a row. Tech began with an upset of LaSalle, a 20-win team that had been in the AP Top 20 for seven consecutive weeks in the back half of the regular season. The Jackets then beat Michigan in the quarterfinals and St. Bonaventure in double overtime in the semifinals.
For the round-of-16 game, Tech dressed in a locker room that Yunkus alleged “wasn’t much bigger than the janitor’s closet.” With each successive game, though, the Jackets were upgraded.
“When we reached the championship game, we were in the Knicks’ locker room,” he said.
Thorne recalled that the New York newspapers panned the Southern final.
“The headlines were something like ‘Worst NIT ever,’” said Thorne, 67, married with four children and six grandchildren in Chamblee.
Out of gas and against a deep Tar Heels team, Tech lost 84-64. The Jackets finished 23-9, setting a school record for wins that stood until Bobby Cremins led the Jackets to 27 wins in 1984-85. Only four other Tech teams have won more games since then. The memories cling to Yunkus still.
“Being able to get to the championship game, that just topped off the career,” said Yunkus, 67, finishing his career as a financial advisor and married with two children and four grandchildren in his hometown of Benton, Ill.
With the run at the NIT, that Tech team became recognized as the best in school history. The unquestioned star was Yunkus, a 6-foot-10 center who remains Tech’s all-time leading scorer both in points (2,232) and scoring average (26.6 points per game) despite playing in an era when freshmen were ineligible and before the 3-point shot and the shot clock.
The accomplishment was commemorated with a banner that hung from Alexander Memorial Coliseum. However, perhaps because newer banners commemorating Final Four trips and other NCAA appearances began to take up space, the banners came down in the past several years. Thorne, in fact, took receipt of both the 1970 and 1971 NIT banners, sharing the 1970 banner with Yunkus and keeping the 1971 flag, which hangs in his basement.
It’s hardly a crusade, but players from the team would love to see the banner hanging from the McCamish ceiling. Three teams are honored with a season-specific banner, the two Final Four teams and the women’s WNIT championship in 1992.
“I think if you’re going to build tradition, you need to have history, and anything that was positive needs to be remembered,” Yunkus said.
They have an ally in coach Josh Pastner, who said that at Memphis, the school commemorated the Tigers’ NIT semifinal appearance and championship. He hoped to do the same for this team’s trip.
Told of the plight of the 1971 banner, Pastner was supportive.
“We’ll have to put it back up,” he said. “I’ll talk to the administration and see what we can do.”
He knows where he can find it.
Said Thorne, “I’d be glad to give it back if he wants to put it up.”