As the 2019-20 boys’ team prepares for next Friday’s ‘Throwback Throwdown’ in the Lawless Gym, an alumnus reflects on the Friars’ improbable basketball championship 54 seasons ago.
I’ve traveled many ‘roads’ after leaving Fenwick, but I have never forgotten the lessons I learned as a member of the basketball team and particularly the 1966 team that won the Chicago Catholic League title that year – against significant odds.
We won the title in March of ’66; one of many championships won by Fenwick teams throughout its long history. But my own sense as a student of that history is that few of these teams had as amazing and improbable road to a title as we had, and it is that story that I’d like to share and use to reinforce the idea that, although the title was great, it was the ‘lessons learned’ along the way that were more lasting and more important.
As we began the 1965-66-basketball season, we knew we had a well-regarded coach in Bill Shay, but it had been almost 15 years since Fenwick had won a Catholic League Senior (over 5’ 9” players) basketball championship. In fact, the previous season, Fenwick’s Senior team finished at .500 in league play, out of the playoffs, and were maddeningly inconsistent – beating a contender one night and getting blown out another. To be honest, there was cautious optimism at best as we opened the season led by 6’6” senior center Dennis Bresnahan (St. Bernadine – Oak Park), the lone starter from the previous year and who would be joined by three talented underclassmen, including junior forward Joe Grill (Divine Infant – Westchester), junior guard/forward Steve Flanagan (Ascension – Oak Park), and junior guard John Sanderlin (St. Luke – River Forest), who had led their Frosh-Soph team coached by Jerry Hughes to a 20-0 record the year before. Coach Shay knew he might have something special in this young, untested team, but it was mostly a hope.
With Grill and Flanagan, both starting football players, not joining the basketball team until late November, things started out surprisingly rough, losing seven of our first 10 league games, albeit four by three points or less. As ‘ninth man’ on a team that usually played just seven players, my role was to scrimmage against the starters in practice and help prepare them for the games. I knew Grill, Flanagan and Sanderlin from our grammar-school days, and each one was a winner – rarely losing in anything. Both Sanderlin and Flanagan were in the so-called ‘A’ group academically and their basketball ‘IQs’ were just as impressive. Furthermore, even in scrimmages they played to win. I would say the biggest thing that these guys brought to the team was their deep-rooted will to win, a trait perhaps even more important than raw talent. And win we would.
“I always thought that the largest and one of the most impactful classrooms at Fenwick back in the day was the gym – today’s Lawless Gym.”Mike Shields ’67
The Fenwick aura of excellence
To be a student at Fenwick in the mid-60s was to be surrounded by greatness in one’s teachers and coaches. Tony Lawless, our legendary Athletic Director, had joined Fenwick when it opened in 1929 out of Loyola University and an illustrious basketball career there. He hired swimming coach Dan O’Brien (Class of 1934), whose teams would win 28 straight Catholic League titles; Lawless himself would coach the football teams, which over his 25 years (1932-57) would compile a Rockne-like record of 172-40-6 and a winning percentage of .803. In those years, Fenwick’s football teams would win 14 division titles, five Catholic League titles and three City Championships. In 1950, Lawless selected Bill Shay, another highly successful coach, to lead Fenwick’s basketball teams. I would say Lawless, O’Brien and Shay, all successful intelligent coaches, not only believed in excellence but were very (very) serious guys who helped develop the likes of 1953 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner (Fenwick ’50) at Notre Dame [who also played basketball and ran track in high school], 1964 Olympic Diving Gold Medalist Ken Sitzberger (Fenwick ’63) and legions of other great Fenwick athletes.
As Athletic Director, Lawless had also brilliantly selected 24-year old John Jardine as football coach, and Jardine proceeded to a 45-6-1 record over five years (1959-63) and an epic 40-0 Prep Bowl victory in 1962 over Schurz in front of 91,000 fans at Soldier Field. That type of serious winning ethos was palpable and expected – academically and athletically. Fenwick teams didn’t always win but they all fought very hard to win and, as our 1966 basketball team continued its journey, we all had imbibed the Fenwick ethos of excellence and high expectations. How could we not?
Bill Shay knew we could be great. We weren’t totally sure about that after our string of early season losses but, as the season wore on, our team – led by the steady and outstanding play of our Bresnahan (captain) and the development of the new three underclassmen starters – started to gel. Our practices were grueling, and Coach Shay brought the entire team, starters and non-starters alike, together us as a winning team with his experienced combination of toughness and teaching. As an aside, there were many nights after a long practice when several of us, including Sanderlin, would stand in the winter cold at the corner at East Ave. and Madison St. to catch a late West Town bus home. We were all tired, but were growing as a team and we began to win. Significantly, at a certain point, I think the winning attitudes of Grill, Flanagan and Sanderlin really kicked in and created a powerful dynamic of confidence, mental toughness and winning. They knew they were winners and were not going to settle for anything less. Adding to the new dynamic was the amazing development of two young (and tall) sophomores, 6’ 4” Jim Martinkus and 6’ 8” Bob Fittin, who Coach Shay was beginning to gradually work into the line-up: a smart move as they would both play pivotal roles in key games ahead. Our team finished strong with four victories in our last five league games and tied for 2nd place with archrival Loyola in the North Section. So, to get into the four-team Catholic League playoff, we had to beat Loyola, to whom we had lost twice during the season.
The run begins
On the night of March 6th, Fenwick met Loyola at DePaul University’s Alumni Hall with its sunken court (aka ‘basketball pit’) and seating for about 5,000 on the DePaul campus. With Bresnahan and Grill combining for 32 points, Fenwick rolled to a 59-46 victory. We were not surprised as we expected the victory. Now that we were in the league playoffs, next up for us on Saturday night would be St. Rita led by their 6’8” All-American center George Janky, We were wary but still confident. Frankly, we were the only ones who were confident we could beat St. Rita, particularly as we had also lost to them twice in the regular season.
That Saturday night, the entire Fenwick student body showed up and Alumni Hall was jam-packed. I was on the bench with a front-row seat, and the cheering was so loud at times that we could not hear Coach Shay in the huddle. Our team though was so cohesive by then that instincts took over – our guys were determined to beat St. Rita, who frankly did not show us much respect. That would change as the game wore on, and it was clear that Fenwick was ‘in the game’ – and could even win it! After four intense quarters of play, regulation time ended with the score tied 60-60. It was a bit surreal, to be honest. In overtime, neither team scored until the very end; with St. Rita holding the ball for the final shot, guard Sanderlin stole the ball and passed it to Bresnahan, who was fouled. With just four second left, Bresnahan sunk both free throws and Fenwick had won another improbable victory 62-60. Bedlam reigned! Thirty minutes after the game though, Coach Shay brought us ‘back to earth’ and reminded us that we ‘had not won anything yet’ – the ‘only thing’ we did was earn the right to play powerful defending City Champ Mt. Carmel for the Championship. We were not favored.
So on Wednesday night March 16th, 1966, DePaul’s Alumni Hall was packed again with nearly 5,000 fans, including local celebrities such as DePaul Coach Ray Meyer. The game, with a tipoff at 8:30 p.m., was broadcast in prime time across the Chicago area on the new UHF TV channel WFLD. It was ‘a spectacle’ – even bigger then the St. Rita game. Mt. Carmel brought a record of 27-2 into the game while Fenwick’s was 15-11 and we had already lost two early-season games to the Caravan. As much of an underdog as we were on paper, though, I did not feel like an ‘underdog’ and neither did my teammates. Probably the biggest challenge we had was to stay focused and play our game and not get swept up in the spectacle of it all. We seemed to have reached a level at which we felt we could beat anyone. Coach Shay, as always, calmly went over the game plan before the game: shut down All-State guard Greg Carney (he scored just 2 points in the first half), prevent their big All-Chicago center Dave Lewis from getting the ball, and play disciplined offense ourselves with smart shot selections. In the end, although Mt. Carmel came close a few times in the 2nd half, we won the game 62-52, with 32 of those points coming on free throws, particularly impressive in such a pressure-packed atmosphere. This was Fenwick’s first Catholic League Senior Basketball title since 1950 – a truly amazing and historic feat.
Needless to say, euphoria reigned and the team headed back to Fenwick after the game. We probably arrived at the school near midnight as March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, began. Our bus was greeted in the school parking lot by an epic mob of our fellow students with the festivities continuing in the gym, where so much of our preparation had happened, including lots of ‘blood and sweat’ being spent. Coach Shay introduced each player and student manager on the team, briefly mentioning the person’s contributions, to wild cheering. This was truly a special night to celebrate the coveted Championship and the team effort behind it – players, coaches, students, staff and alumni. One Fenwick!
Back in 1966, the Catholic League Champ played the Pubic League Champ for the City Championship. It was a big deal. As Catholic League champs we would play the Marshall Commandos and their fabulous All-State forward Richard Bradshaw, who had completed an undefeated Public League season before being upset in the State Super-Sectional game by New Trier. Marshall, with its rich basketball history, was pointing to a victory over Fenwick for ‘redemption.’ The game was played on March 27th at the International Amphitheater with TV coverage again by WFLD. Our team came out ready to play, dominating the first half, but leading only 28-27 at halftime. Marshall surged in the second half and won the game 62-56 for the City Championship. One positive that came out of this loss was that two of the Fenwick players that day, sophomores Martinkus and Fittin, would gain invaluable experience from it and just two years later would lead a 25-4 Fenwick team, still coached by Bill Shay, to another Catholic League Championship and then go on to beat the Public League Champ Crane Tech 56-48 for the City Championship!
This season and experience in 1966 taught us much. We certainly learned a great deal academically in the classroom from our Dominican and lay teachers, but to be part of this championship team taught me ‘even more,’ which I carried forward throughout my life and professional career. These early lessons from that season’s experience, which I have in fact used and am sill adding to many years later, might be summarized for me (in no particular order after the first one listed) as follows:
- Win or lose, striving for excellence elevates the team and the individuals.
- Most success comes from a team effort, being ‘One,’ not just from one ‘star’.
- One never knows where the final ‘missing piece’ of a winning team will come from; often the person is ‘on the outside’ and ‘not seen’ at first.
- Sometimes it takes time for a great team to gel (we started 3-7 in 1966).
- Smart, intelligent coaching, including being creative and trying new approaches when necessary are absolutely essential to winning, when playing ‘dynamic games’.
- A team made up of players with a winning attitude, who really want to win, are at a competitive advantage to an ‘all-star’ team (with ‘all star’ resumes) that just show up.
- Playing hard and with focus at all times is essential to winning.
- The pain of losing is not ‘the end of the world’ – ‘pain’ can motivate and teach a team, which wants to be great, where and how to get better.
- The little things, practiced over and over, count (like making 20 pressure-packed free throws in the St. Rita game and 32 free throws in the Mt. Carmel game).
- Positive passion and emotion are really helpful to give a person or a team that extra push when their energy level is running low (Bill Shay was a ‘positive’ coach and our Fenwick student body during the 1966 playoffs was very loud and very positive).