Richie (the Cat) Regan was watching television this week when he heard the words he could hardly believe.
"Little old Seton Hall?" he said. "Little old Seton Hall? "
Those words did not sit well with Regan, who got his nickname during his playing days at Seton Hall in the early 1950s--"Quick as a cat, you know. But they don't say that anymore."
He has spent more than half of his 58 years at Seton Hall as basketball player, assistant coach, coach, assistant athletic director, athletic director and now as head of athletic fund raising. He may be the man on campus whose chest is swelling fullest these days: It was Regan who hired Coach P.J. Carlesimo in 1982.
And he would like to tell you about little old Seton Hall.
Seton Hall may be the only newcomer to the Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament, but it has a proud basketball history--and that's without benefit of any exaggeration by Dick Vitale, who went to Seton Hall himself.
In 1953, when the NCAA tournament was 15 years old and the old Madison Square Garden was still about the grandest place one could hope to play a basketball game, Seton Hall won the National Invitation Tournament with a team co-captained by the Cat and Walter Dukes, whom Regan calls "one of the first legitimate 7-footers."
Dukes scored 861 points that season and had 737 rebounds--22 rebounds a game. Both marks remain Seton Hall records 26 years later.
The coach of that team was John (Honey) Russell, who coached at Seton Hall from 1936-43 and again from 1949-60. Along the way Russell had a stint as the first coach of the Boston Celtics, from 1946-48, and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame at Springfield, Mass., before his death in 1973.
Among the other luminaries in Seton Hall's proud history--not much of it very recent--are Bob Davies, another member of the Naismith hall of fame who some people say was a role model for Bob Cousy; Bobby Wanzer, also a hall-of-famer; and Chuck Connors, who played baseball and basketball both at Seton Hall and professionally before gaining fame in the television series "The Rifleman," which ran from 1958-63.
During the 1940s, Seton Hall was the second-winningest team in the country, with a 128-23 record and an .848 percentage. (The school didn't field teams in the war years of 1944, '45 and '46.) During the 1940s, only Kentucky, with a 240-41 record and an .854 winning percentage, did better.
Little old Seton Hall.
At the end of the 1939 season, the Pirates began a winning streak that would last until the end of the 1941 season, when it was broken at 43 games in a loss to Long Island University in the NIT semifinals. In 1940, Seton Hall went 19-0. In 1941, the Pirates went 19-0 during the regular season and won one NIT game before losing to Long Island and then losing a consolation game to the City College of New York.
It was during a 1941 game at Madison Square Garden that Davies unveiled the move that helped stake his claim as the best player in Seton Hall history--the behind-the-back dribble.
Stanford's Hank Luisetti, who has been credited in the late 1930s with being the first to use the one-handed shot, is also said to have been the first to dribble behind the back. But Davies and his contemporaries say Davies was the first to dribble behind the back in a game.
"Luisetti did it, but he did it in an exhibition, not in competition," said Davies, 69, who is retired and lives in Coral Springs, Fla. "I used it as an offensive weapon in Madison Square Garden. Of course, people thought it was the greatest thing going. Now little 13-year-old girls do it."
Les Harrison, who coached Davies when he played professionally with the Rochester Royals, is one of the people who calls Davies, "the Cousy of his era."
"Bob Cousy, when he joined the NBA, he told me that the player he copied was Bob Davies," said Harrison, another member of the hall of fame.
The glory days of Seton Hall basketball coincided with the halcyon days of the NIT and old Madison Square Garden, which closed in 1968 and was torn down, replaced by the current Madison Square Garden.
Although the NCAA tournament began in 1939, it was not until the 1950s, as it expanded from eight teams to 16 to 22, that it began to surpass the NIT in prestige.
In 1953, when Seton Hall won the NIT, Indiana won the NCAA.
"We were one and two, nip-and-tuck all year," Regan said.
"That was just about the time the NCAA started making major inroads. We turned down NCAA bids. The NIT was paying more money. And it was in Madison Square Garden. It was a local thing for us."
For Seton Hall, playing in the Garden was the pinnacle.
"It was great, the old Garden," Regan said. "I get really sentimental. It was sort of central to everything. Let me tell you it was central to the bars, too. But when you went to the Garden, the experience was (as if) you knew everybody there."