Fordham Salutes 40th Anniversary of Holiday Festival Champs
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By Howard Goldin
BRONX, NEW YORK, FEBRUARY 19- Sunday afternoon’s Alumni Day at Fordham University was a special celebration of a great accomplishment of Fordham’s men’s basketball team. The Rams captured the title of the ECAC Holiday Festival Tournament of December 1974. The annual tourney played at Madison Square Garden during the final days of each calendar year usually featured several local colleges as well as ranked teams from throughout the nation.
Hal Wissel was in his fourth season as head coach of the Rams. In 1971, Wissel, after four seasons as head coach of Lafayette, replaced Richard “Digger” Phelps as coach of the Rams after the latter left Fordham for the coaching spot at Notre Dame. Phelps had led Fordham to a 26-3 mark and a place in the NCAA Tournament in his only year at the university. The Rams were 18-9 and were invited to the NIT in Wissel’s first season at the helm.
Although the 1974-5 Rams finished the season with a record below .500 (12-13), they did not travel an easy road nor was the season without highlights. The Rams played six opponents ranked in the top 16 nationally, four within the top 10. Their 1-5 record against these difficult opponents skewed what otherwise would have been a winning season. Speaking about the season’s schedule, Wissel explained, “[Freshman coach] P. J. [who also attended the reunion] was responsible for making the schedule.”
The day after Christmas of that season began a happy week for the Rams at the “Mecca of Basketball” in Manhattan. The first contest of the ECAC Holiday Festival was also the annual “Battle of the Bronx” against heavily favored Manhattan College. Fordham defeated the Jaspers, 82-70. Two days later, the Rams moved on to face the St. Joseph’s Hawks, their current opponent in an Atlantic-10 contest on Sunday of this ceremony. Similar to the 2015 game, Fordham crushed the Hawks, 93-66, on December 28, 1974. Wissel recalled one newspaper headline after that Fordham victory, “Rams Win Leads Them to Slaughter.”
Southern California, #5 ranked in the nation, crossed the country to take part in the 24th year of what at that time was one of the most prestigious tournaments in college hoops. Wissel remembered that tough opponent, “They had several seven footers and six on the roster went to the NBA.”
To the surprise of most observers the Rams easily defeated the visitors from California by 17 points, 83-66. Brown, named the MVP of the tourney, scored 25 and grabbed 14 rebounds in the tournament finale against California. Kevin Fallon, a 1976 graduate, was also named to the All-Tournament Team.
At Sunday’s post-game reception, Brown reminisced about that special day, “Forty years ago, we did something that was a team effort. That’s the Fordham way.”
During this year’s Holiday Festival, two months ago, Brown was presented with an ECAC Special Achievement Award. Brown, the 17th leading scorer with 1,233 points and 7th leading rebounder with 807 was inducted into the Fordham Athletic Hall of Fame in 1987. Brown is still happily connected to Fordham as a member of its Board of Trustees.
Wissel left Fordham after the 1975-76 season because his teams had records beneath .500. Wissel recognizes that attending a college or university is to prepare the student to successfully travel through the remainder of his/her lifetime. He explained on Sunday, “We did it the right way. We graduated our student-athletes. There were no under the table payments.”
Tom Pecora, Fordham’s current men’s basketball coach, follows the same ethical principles as his predecessor when he tells recruits to Fordham, “It’s not for four years it’s for forty.”
In addition to his many years of success as a college coach where his teams amassed more than 300 wins, Wissel worked in the NBA for 18 years. He held position as assistant coach, scout and an administrator for the New Jersey Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks and Dallas Mavericks.
Also present on Sunday was Bob Wolff, the legendary broadcaster of that well remembered tournament. Wolff, 94, has been broadcasting for 75 years, the longest career in history. Wolff achieved the mark for longevity because of his outstanding ability. He is one of only two broadcasters, along with Curt Gowdy, who has been enshrined in the Basketball and Baseball Halls of Fame.
The salute to the Fordham alumni included a special half-time program and a post-game reception. Both, as many other special athletic ceremonies were classily arranged by Associate Athletic Director Julio Diaz. The hard-working and humble administrator when complimented for his work in arranging this reunion tried to reflect the credit to Coach Wissel.