One Last Chance: Marquette Basketball finds victory in McGuire’s last year

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The 1976-77 Marquette men’s basketball team included, pictured from left, Jim Boylan, Bill Neary, Ulice Payne, Butch Lee, Jim Dudley, Gary Rosenberger, Bernard Toone, Jerome Whitehead, Craig Butrym, Robert Byrd and Bo Ellis. Photo courtesy the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Raynor Memorial Libraries, Marquette University.

In 1977, the Marquette men’s basketball team was coming off a 28-2 season in 1975-76 and were picked to be in the top five in almost every preseason poll.

Three years prior, the team made it to the 1974 NCAA national championship game, but fell to North Carolina State 76-64.

“I was the only returning player from that team on the ’77 team. I remember making the comment after the ’74 championship that we lost that we would be back,” former forward Bo Ellis, the only player in Marquette history to play in two national championship games, says.

Ellis was a senior in 1976-77. Four games into the season on Dec. 17, 1976, head coach Al McGuire announced his retirement. Ellis notes McGuire’s decision was due to basketball taking a toll on his body. Following the announcement, the team lost the next two games on their home court in the MECCA Arena.

“That was like the craziest thing to happen in my basketball career probably, as far as being a downer,” former guard Alfred “Butch” Lee, the Most Outstanding Player at the 1977 Final Four, says. “That was like a punch in the stomach.”

Marquette went on a three-game losing streak in the MECCA, including falling in Ellis’ last home game 75-64. But the team was not rattled and lost all but one game either in overtime or by one or two points.

“We were a very confident group because we knew how good we were,” Ellis says.

With five games left, the team sat at 16-6, on the bubble of even making the NCAA Tournament.

“By the time the end of the season rolled around we had our backs against a wall,” former Marquette guard and Bucks and Bulls’ interim head coach Jim Boylan says. “We had five games left and they were all on the road. We knew in order for us to get in, we had to win (most) those games.”

The team took one game at a time, beating Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, Tulane and Creighton all on the road. Even though they fell 69-68 in the final game of the season to No. 3 Michigan to end with a 25-7 record, they reached the NCAA Tournament for the 9th time in McGuire’s career.

“We lost more games in the arena — the Milwaukee arena where we played at the time — that year than Al McGuire lost in the previous 10 years,” former forward Jim Dudley says. “Not only did we lose a number of games that year, but we lost a number of those games at home which was very unusual for an Al McGuire team.”

The NCAA Tournament wasn’t a breeze, though. After dominating the first game, Marquette barely beat No. 16 Kansas State 67-66 in a comeback win in the next round.

“Guys made a few steals here and there and turned in some unbelievable performances down the stretch and we were able to pull that one out,” Boylan says.

Two games later in the Final Four, Marquette ground out another 51-49 win over No. 17 University of North Carolina-Charlotte with a last-second tip in by junior center Jerome Whitehead to reach the National Championship.

It was a rainy night in Atlanta, Georgia, and 20,000 fans were packed inside The Omni awaiting the touted matchup between Dean Smith’s No. 5 North Carolina Tar Heels and McGuire’s No. 7 Marquette Warriors.

“It was electric,” Ellis says. “The Marquette people were fantastic. … The place was rockin’.”

In total, seven MU players were able to see the court as Marquette maintained control from tipoff.

“It was cruise mode at that point,” Dudley says. “The chemistry, the momentum, everything gelled at one time. We went into that game, we couldn’t lose.”

When the final buzzer sounded, it was complete euphoria.

“Remarkable things, almost magical things happening those last five games and it was like a culmination of a big exhale of ‘Wow, we won. Here we are. Let’s try to enjoy it and soak it in,'” Dudley says.

Even at 2 a.m., hundreds of fans packed the old Milwaukee airport. There were fellow students, professors and citizens of Milwaukee screaming and cheering as the Marquette men’s basketball team returned as national champions.

“People celebrating and having a good time, but I’ve got to say, a little scary,” Boylan says. “They put us on the bus and then they took the bus and we left with the bus, but we didn’t really leave. We just went outside the airport, turned back around and came back in again.”

Aside from the reunion ceremonies that Marquette hosts every five years, there’s still so much that reminds the university of McGuire and the 1977 championship team. This includes the dedication of the Al McGuire Center and the jerseys in the rafters of Fiserv Forum.

Ellis says his self-gratification comes from people reminiscing with him about the successes of that 1977 team.

For Ellis, McGuire was a father figure.

“Coach was concerned with us as young men more than anything,” Ellis says. “That (when) I got a degree from Marquette University, that degree was going to do more for me than basketball ever will. … He was a very caring.”

Meanwhile, Boylan’s relationship with McGuire developed more once he left MU. He went on to play and coach abroad, became assistant at Michigan State and coached in the NBA for 25 years, becoming interim coach for the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls.

“When you’re there as a player, there’s certainly a love-hate relationship,” Boylan says about his closeness to McGuire. “But then after I left Marquette, he became my mentor, guider, helper. … If I asked him to do anything to help me, he would do it in a heartbeat.”

Everyday when current Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski walks past McGuire’s statue to get to the men’s basketball offices, he sees not only the Hall of Fame coach, but also a Marquette legend.

“You have to try to live up to the things and the standards that he set for this program decades and decades ago,” Wojciechowski says.

Though the game looks a lot different from 1977, including an expansion of the NCAA Tournament, the addition of the 3-point line and the sophistication of college basketball, Wojciechowski says McGuire and his championship team provide a roadmap at Marquette.

Confidence. Talent. Chemistry. Commitment. Momentum. Discipline. These are a few qualities former players mention when reflecting on that 1977 team.

“Marquette was one of the best programs of the country so almost every player who came to Marquette was either an All-American or if not the best player from their state, one of the best players from their state,” Boylan says. “We had guys on the team who were willing to sacrifice their individual statistic in exchange for helping the team.”

Though there have been many good players and teams over the years, the 1977 team remains the only group to win it all.

“If you would’ve asked me back then, ‘Do you think Marquette’s going to win another championship in the next 45 years?’ I would have said, ‘Of course they will,'” Dudley says. “You say that there’s only 12-13 players a year who are national (champions) is one thing, but to be one of 13 players at Marquette in (the) entire history of the program to win a championship is pretty remarkable too.”

Even though 1977 was McGuire’s last season, Boylan says the team never thought ‘Let’s go win it for Al.’

“There was an underlying feeling of this is kind of a Hollywood script here — coach announces his retirement and now he’s going to win the NCAA Championship in his last game,” Boylan says. “You get out what you put in. Coach put a lot into basketball, a lot into the college game, a lot into Marquette and maybe it was time (after) all of that to give something back to him.”

This story was written by Zoe Comerford. She can be reached at isabel.comerford@marquette.edu or on Twitter @zoe_comerford.