“Remembering the Titans… And the Wizard of Nutwood”
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California State Fullerton is a major public university nestled in the heart of Orange County, California. It sits on Nutwood Avenue and N. State College Blvd in Fullerton, with an enrollment of more than 41,000. It's best known for winning multiple national titles in baseball under legendary Coach Augie Garrido. But, in 1978, their basketball team advanced to the Sweet 16 and beyond, in the most improbable way. Hold that thought...
Remember Phi Slamma Jamma?
The Fab Five?
If so, you’ll also remember that the college hoops teams of Houston (’83), Michigan (’93), Georgetown (’85) and Florida Gulf Coast ('13) all had several things in common - they were dynamic, well-coached and talented, and they all gained great notoriety during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
And the most important part?
They didn’t win anything.
Yes, it was in fact their lore - both collectively and individually - that will live forever in the annals of March Madness. Such is the case (more often than not), that the biggest stories often come from the teams who don’t win. Just ask Sister Jean and the Ramblers of Loyola University Chicago. But I digress...
In 1978, Cal State Fullerton, led by a savvy point guard from Brooklyn who couldn’t shoot, and a 6’4", 150-pound small forward (who was a poor man’s Larry Bird, one year before the real Bird), did the unthinkable.
After a non-descript regular season which included losses to William & Mary and San Jose State, the team, led by Mike Linden and sharpshooter Keith Andersen (who looked more like a chemistry major than a basketball player), got hot down the stretch. The Titans won six games in a row, including the PCAA Conference Tournament, which would ultimately punch their ticket to the Big Dance for the first time in the school’s history. But when they learned that New Mexico would be their first-round opponent in the tournament, the air came out of the Cal State Fullerton basketball balloon, and quickly.
The Lobos of New Mexico, led by future L.A. Lakers "Showtime" member and five-time NBA champion, Michael Cooper, were ranked #3 in the country and opened up as 30-point favorites. The Titans trailed by six at the half, and they were, "competing." But when they fell behind by 17 in the second half, things looked bleak. Then, the magic began. Fullerton's 6’6” forward Greg Bunch (who actually jumped center at the opening tip) caught fire, and the Titans clawed back. Led by Bunch’s 18 points and the tandem of Andersen and Kevin Heenan (who combined for 45 points), the Cal State Fullerton Titans shocked the heavily favored Lobos - and the entire basketball world - with a 90-85 come-from-behind victory.
And the tournament format in 1978 meant that Fullerton would now advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
Next up, the powerful Dons of the University of San Francisco, led by fellow future NBA champion Bill Cartwright, as well as Winford Boynes, James Hardy and Chubby Cox, all of whom also would spend time in the NBA. The Dons were loaded, and when they led the Titans by 12 at the half, it again looked, and felt, insurmountable. Cartwright was unstoppable and would go on to score 27 points that afternoon, but it wasn’t enough. The Titans fell behind by as many as 19 points, but once again, the basketball gods showed the world that often times, ‘will beats skill' - and frankly, CSF had plenty of skill.
They just didn’t look the part physically. Once again, the trio of Bunch, Heenan and Andersen combined for 51 points, and in the end, the Cinderella Titans had stunned the giant USF Dons and the entire basketball universe once again, by the score of 75-72. They were now on their way to the Elite Eight.
By this time, Fullerton's fiery head coach Bobby Dye, who was known for motivating players to achieve above what they knew they could do, was getting a ton of well-deserved notoriety. He was, in fact, dubbed, the “Wizard of Nutwood” by an L.A. Times writer. A play on words of course, as a tribute to John Wooden, aka “The Wizard of Westwood,” as the UCLA campus was just 45 minutes north of Fullerton.
Conveniently, Cal State Fullerton was located on Nutwood Avenue.
Lying in wait were now the explosive Arkansas Razorbacks, coached by Hall-of-Famer Eddie Sutton. They were led by the three jumping jacks of Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph, all of whom were All-American players. At a record of 32-4, the Razorbacks had just dispatched a very powerful UCLA team which featured six future NBA players, including both Kiki Vandeweghe and Roy Hamilton.
Right on schedule, Fullerton trailed 39-24 at the half, which prompted CBS announcer Billy Packer to say, “the Titans have got them right where they want them!" - and he was right…
Fullerton proceeded to press, scramble, force turnovers and make shots in the second half. The Titans began to get on the Razorbacks’ nerves, and it showed. You always knew they were outworking their opponents too, because by the second half their shirttails were untucked and you couldn’t shake them.
And it worked, again.
Fullerton’s frenetic pace came to fruition when they took a 58-57 lead with 1:29 to go in the game.
On Arkansas’s next possession, Brewer hit a jumper as the clock ran down and gave his team the lead at 59-58. But there was still time left, as Andersen, Fullerton's best shooter, frantically dribbled up the floor.
The world awaited, knowing he would pull up with one of his patented jumpers.
The rest is a blur, as a trio of Razorbacks converged on Anderson near the free throw line and Arkansas’s Delph ended up with the ball. Historians will argue it was a foul. Pig Sooee nation will counter it was a clean steal. Two free throws later and the clock struck midnight. The Razorbacks prevailed, 61-58.
It was not to be.
While the magic had run out, the memories would never die.
More than 40 years later, people still talk about this team, and in particular one player - Mike Niles.
Niles was a tough, built-like-a-linebacker rebounder who came off the bench and played a tremendous role for those Titans. Ironically, he was the only player on the roster to ever grace an NBA roster. He had a cup of coffee with the Phoenix Suns, but life happened and he ended up in jail.
No one could ever take away Niles' award as Cal State Fullerton's most inspirational player, however, as he even received honorable mention as an All-American after the Titans' historic year.
And no one can ever take away the memories of the 1978 Cal State Fullerton Titans.
As Bart Giamatti once famously said, “the games are designed to break your heart.”
Such is the reality of the hero in the arena. In many ways, they are the same as everybody else.
Sometimes blessed, and sometimes cursed.
Perhaps that’s why they call it “Madness”...