Looking Back... Virginia Tech's Successful Season in 1967
Feb. 1, 2007
Mention Virginia Tech and sports and the most likely response will involve the words "Beamer Ball" and bowl games. They do play some roundball up Blacksburg way. Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams can confirm. However, Seth Greenberg isn't the first Virginia Tech coach to put winning Hokie basketball teams on the floor. Four decades ago, what is arguably the best team in school history was one tantalizing possession away from joining UCLA, North Carolina and Houston in the Final Four.
Virginia Tech was seriously considered as the ACC's eighth team in 1953. But at that time the Interstate Highway system was still a twinkle in President Eisenhower's eye and the school's relative inaccessibility was too big of a handicap to overcome. Tech stayed in the Southern Conference through the 1965 season, when they left to become an independent.
Howard Shannon, a Kansas State graduate and former Boston Celtic, took over as head coach for the 1964-65 season. Shannon guided Tech to the 1966 NIT, the school's first post-season appearance. The NIT was a much bigger deal in those days and Tech relished a post-season visit to New York's Madison Square Garden. But it was a short trip. The Hokies lost their opener to Temple 88-73, ending the season at 19-5.
Tech's best player--John Wetzel--was a senior in 1966, but the bulk of the team returned for 1967. Captain Ron Perry was a senior, a versatile 6'3" player who could excel at any of the three perimeter positions and who had enough flash in his game to delight crowds and exasperate Shannon. Junior Ted Ware, a quick 6'5" jumping jack, was almost always matched up against players bigger and stronger than him, usually with good results. Sophomore Ken Talley was the center, 6'7", 220 pounds, able to hold his own inside and run the floor when the opportunity arose.
Then there was Glen Combs. Nicknamed the "Kentucky Rifle," Combs is a vivid example of one of basketball's most enduring archetypes. Combs grew up in the small town of Hazard, Kentucky. His father was the high school coach. He also was the principal. They lived across the street from the school. In other words, Combs didn't have much trouble getting access to the gym. Combs started shooting early and often and kept after it. He became a spectacular perimeter shooter, good enough to lead the ABA in three-point baskets in 1972. Combs would average 21.3 points per game in 1967. Still, Shannon wouldn't start Combs until he improved his quickness and defense. He did that and more and emerged in 1967 as a bonafide star.
Chris Ellis or Wayne Mallard usually filled the fifth spot but Tech could easily go eight or nine deep.
Combs describes Shannon as "quite, non-assuming, knowledgeable, not all that comfortable in public. He was a good guy to play for. All the players liked him."
Ware adds, "Shannon knew his stuff. His attitude was get an edge and take advantage of it."
The 44-year-old head coach had a squad with quickness, versatility, and not much size. The result was a team whose philosophy was, in Ware's words "get the ball and go."
Combs elaborates, "We were all able to run the floor and shoot the ball. We had lots of interchangeable parts. We had an effective press when we needed it."
When forced into a half-court game, Tech would use what it called the triple-post offense, a scheme not dissimilar to the triangle offense once run so successfully by Phil Jackson's Chicago Bulls. Ware describes the offense as characterized by "mobility, ball movement, discipline, and balance. It was a great offense for me because I couldn't shoot and I knew it. But I could get to the basket."
Combs claims, "Ted was the unsung hero of the team, the guy who got things done. He got less publicity for doing more things than anybody on the team."
Tech opened the season in Charlotte against Vic Bubas and his fourth-ranked Duke Blue Devils. Duke had hammered Tech 112-79 the previous season and probably didn't expect much more resistance this time around. But Tech jumped to an early lead and stayed close.
Combs remembers, "I think Duke probably took us a little lightly. We were very loose, we had nothing to lose. The longer we hung around, the tighter they got."
Tech broke open a 45-45 tie and pulled away for a stunning 85-71 win. Combs and Perry each scored 23 points, while Ware - a self-described "junkyard dog on the boards" - pulled down 10 rebounds to go along with 18 points. Ellis and Perry held Duke's Bob Verga to 16 points.
After the game, Bubas told the media, "There was no fluke about this one tonight. They just plain beat us."
Ware says, "Beating a program as consistent as Duke's was a huge confidence builder. It validated what we were doing."
Perry compares his team to a locomotive and describes the Duke win "as helping to build steam for the train. It carried us a long way down the track. It was a `hey, look at us' win."
Tech came home to its home opener in six-year-old Cassell Coliseum against Purdue. Jubilant supporters not only turned the game into an 11,500 seat sell-out but a fire-marshalls-turning-people-away-from-the-door sell-out. Combs says "seeing that crowd is still the biggest thrill in my sporting life. It showed we had arrived." Tech won 79-63, led by Perry's 26 points.
Tech lost its next game 78-75 in overtime, on the road at Wake Forest, a contest with an interesting sub-plot. Wake was led by Paul Long with 28 points, one more than Combs. Long had started his career at Virginia Tech but had transferred to Wake after his sophomore season. Combs says, "There was definitely a rivalry there."
Tech would get a split with Wake by beating the Deacons in Blacksburg 82-70 later in the season.
A loss to Florida was bracketed by a series of wins that left Tech 9-2 by mid-January. Among those wins was a solid 74-68 win in Charlotte over Davidson, then in its heyday under Lefty Driesell. Talley keyed this win with 17 points and 16 rebounds. Clemson handed Tech a 70-68 loss, ending a 21-game home winning streak but Tech recovered to win another seven straight, including an overtime win over William & Mary.
It got a bit messy in February. Tech had defeated East Carolina 91-62 earlier in the season. The Pirates decided to try a different approach the second time around. They held the ball and held it some more, a legal tactic in the pre-shot-clock days. Sometimes it was an effective tactic. It was on this day that Tech was curiously passive on defense. The two teams went nine minutes in the second half without anyone scoring. It was 33-33 with a minute left before East Carolina went on a 10-0 run for a 43-33 win. Combs calls this game "a fiasco."
After a win over Richmond, Tech traveled to Chapel Hill to play Dean Smith's first great UNC team. Tech had defeated North Carolina 81-75 in 1966 and, in Perry's words, "They played like they had been waiting for us for the whole year."
North Carolina placed six players in double figures and cruised to a 110-78 victory. Tech finished its home schedule with a 76-60 win over archrival Virginia. Combs had 25 points, Talley 16 rebounds. Tech finished its regular season at 18-6 with a 90-71 road loss to powerful Toledo.
As an independent, Tech had no clear route to the NCAAs. There were only 23 teams in the tournament in those days and most of the slots were allocated to conference champions. The Hokies looked like a good bet when they were 16-3 but the late-season slump left the question in doubt. Perry says, "We hoped but we weren't sure. We found out when we found out. We fell all over each other when we found out we had made the field."
The NCAA placed the Hokies in the Midwest and first sent them to Lexington, Kentucky, where they were matched against Toledo, the same team that had easily handled them in the regular-season finale. Perry sympathizes with the Rockets. "It had to be tough on them. I'm sure they had a letdown. We didn't. Our adrenaline was flowing." Toledo was 23-1 and featured two players - Steve Mix and John Brisker - who would go on to long and distinguished pro careers. Toledo led by three at the half and extended the lead to 51-43 early in the second half before the Hokies fought back. Talley had a career game, 24 points and 19 rebounds, while Combs and Ware added 18 and 17 points respectively. Tech pulled away down the stretch for the 82-76 win.
Indiana was next, in Evanston, Illinois - Big Ten territory. Combs says, "They had a big name but we had been playing big names all season. We didn't put them on a pedestal. We played our game."
Combs shot out the lights, scoring 29 points, including a 10-point explosion midway in the second half that broke open the game. Talley had another gem, 16 points and 11 rebounds, while Perry grabbed 13 boards. Tech won 79-70.
The Dayton Flyers stood between Virginia Tech and the Final Four. Dayton led by a point at intermission but Tech surged ahead down the stretch to lead 62-52.
Combs thinks Shannon made a strategical mistake. "We were too cautious. We tried to sit on the lead too early. It makes some sense to slow it down but we were an up-tempo team. We weren't comfortable holding the ball."
Ware agrees, "We slowed it down too soon. We lost our momentum. Dayton came at us, cranking with everything they had and we couldn't match it."
Dayton tied the game at 64. Tech held for the final shot. Perry was called for five seconds. "I just wasn't paying enough attention," he says. "I was concentrating on setting up the final shot. I remember it like it was yesterday."
In those days, a five-second call resulted in a jump ball. Dayton controlled the tap but Bobby Hooper missed a contested lay-up at the buzzer. Overtime.
Tech had lost its edge and couldn't get it back. Dayton's All-American forward Donnie May took over the extra period. Tech scored only once, a Perry field goal that cut the Dayton lead to 67-66. The Flyers closed out the game from the line, winning 71-66. May led everybody with 28 points and 16 rebounds. Combs, bothered by blisters on his feet, led Tech with 16 points but made only 7 of 23 field goals. Perry had 14 points, Ellis 11. Tech ended its season at 20-7.
Tech slumped a bit to 14-11 in 1968. Combs and Ware had great seasons but Perry graduated and Talley gave up the sport for personal reasons. Combs says, "It just shows how rare and special 1967 was, how difficult it is to get to that level. Don't take anything for granted. My only regret is that we couldn't close the deal and get to the Final Four."
Combs played seven seasons in the ABA, became a successful businessman in the food services industry, and now is retired and living in Roanoke. He regularly attends Tech games and loves the school's ACC affiliation.
Ware and Perry live on opposite ends of the East Coast: Ware retired in Albany, N.Y. and Perry still works in the insurance business in Miami. They also remain close to their alma mater. Perry, who played three seasons in the ABA, also teaches basketball. He uses Tech's 1967 season as an example of "where you can end up if you work hard."
"I dreamed all along and the dream came true. I was very lucky, very fortunate, but good things happen. That's a great lesson to be able to teach youngsters. I met a lot of great guys and had a lot of great times."
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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