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Bob Ryan

Retracing Harvard’s 1946 NCAA odyssey

Crimson were served well by veterans’ presence

Photo courtesy of harvard athletic communications

The 1946 Harvard squad was 19-1 heading into its first NCAA game.

Bracketology? An incomprehensible concept.

RPI? A nice school in Troy, N.Y. They’ve been known to play some pretty good hockey there.

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The year was 1946. Nope, no Selection Sunday, either. The path to Harvard’s first NCAA Tournament participation was a bit different.

It was fairly simple. The Crimson were winning a lot of basketball games, and the people who mattered were paying attention. By the end of February it was kind of a given that if Harvard, which had lost only to Holy Cross, could defeat New Hampshire on March 2 in its last regular-season game, the Crimson would receive a bid as the New England representative in what was known as the Eastern Bracket of the eight-team NCAA Tournament, the games to be played at Madison Square Garden on March 21 and March 23.

A 71-43 victory took care of that matter. Harvard was in. The only problem was how to handle the next three weeks.

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Rip Valenti, better known as a boxing mogul, had a team of seasoned professionals known as the Good-Wins, and he offered to play the Crimson, an idea heartily endorsed by Globe columnist Jerry Nason, who declared that “the Hahvuds would get a lot more out of working against [the professionals] than mowing down some inferior opposition in ‘tune-ups’ for the N.C.A.A.’’

It didn’t happen. Crimson mentor Floyd Stahl instead booked two games with the Chelsea Naval Hospital, a club his squad already had beaten by 15. Harvard won by margins of 23 and 25, and those W’s were added to the tally, making them 19-1 heading into their first NCAA game, against Ohio State.

So how did Harvard, a 2-13 team the previous year, get so good? The answer: transfers.

All across America, service veterans who had been enrolled in college prior to their enlistment were part of a massive program run by the Navy that allowed them to re-enroll at another institution at government expense. Harvard was an especially fortunate beneficiary of the program, picking up the likes of Lou Desci (Bucknell), Don Swegan (Wooster), Jack Gantt (Bowling Green), and, most prominently, Gantt’s Bowling Green teammate Wyndol Gray, a 6-foot-1-inch guard who would play for the Celtics and St. Louis Bombers.

In addition, Paul Champion arrived from what was called the “V-12 Program,’’ Ralph “Pete’’ Petrillo came directly from the Army, and Saul Mariaschin, another future Celtic, arrived from the Naval ROTC.

Stahl, best known in collegiate basketball circles as an eight-year assistant to highly respected Harold Olsen at Ohio State, was not exactly the life-of-the-party sort. Globe columnist Harold Kaese summed it up. “Extremely thorough,’’ wrote Kaese, “Stahl is about as dramatic as a slide rule.’’

Harvard had compiled an impressive record, but there was an asterisk. Among those 19 victories were the three over Chelsea Naval Hospital and two each over MIT and WPI. A victory over Rutgers represented its only non-New England affair.

And so . . .

Globe basketball writer Jack Barry: “The schedule, recently completed, although not of the stiffest nature, nevertheless had its good points in that the boys are not stale or overworked.’’

Kaese: “Harvard played a comparatively weak schedule, because Harvard basketball went formal only after the war ended.’’

Coach Stahl: “We didn’t play too difficult a schedule.’’

All of which prompted Nason to put this entire Harvard basketball experience in perspective.

“New England basketball is generally scorned,’’ he declared. “And Harvard’s basketball is usually rated somewhat lower, on a national scale, than an ant’s spats.’’

But the quality of Harvard’s regular-season competition was not the Crimson’s biggest concern. Of paramount interest was the status of Gray’s ankle, which he injured, according to Barry, “prior to the Quonset Fliers game on February 20.’’ With the rallying cry of “Win for Wyndol’’ the Crimson defeated Quonset, BU, Chelsea Naval, and New Hampshire, and some people were actually suggesting that, nah, they don’t need him. Weren’t they 4-0 without him?

Stahl felt otherwise, although he did submit that, “It gave the players confidence to win without him.’’

The Crimson arrived in New York on the evening of Thursday, March 20, with a 10 a.m. workout scheduled at the Garden on Friday morning. Barry, who was Boston’s reigning basketball expert among the media for more than 30 years, noted that, “The game is scheduled for 8 o’clock, to enable the Crimson to catch the 11 o’clock plane to Boston.’’

He also told the world that “Should Gray be ‘on’ in his one-hand shooting and his intricate clever passing, the Crimson will be a push-over for no one.’’

I might as well get right to it. Harvard stunk up the joint and it was a minor miracle it only lost to Ohio State by 8 (46-38). Then, as now, it was very difficult to win when you shoot 10 for 72 from the floor.

Gray, clearly hampered by the balky ankle, did not have it. Only one of his mates, in fact, looked like his normal self.

“. . . Followers of John Harvard in the huge audience,’’ wrote my great friend Jack Barry, “could relish only the consistently fine floor play and set-shooting of black-haired, aggressive Saul Mariaschin, Brooklyn born, who seemed perfectly at home in his native surroundings.’’

Barry felt compelled to note a time-honored New York phenomenon. “The most rousing cheer of the game,’’ he wrote, “indifferently played and continuously slowed up by the officials’ whistles, came in the closing moments when the gamblers were pleading for two additional Ohio points which failed to materialize.’’

Not everyone was displeased. Swegan, a surviving member of the team, recalls that when he made the final basket of the game, a sweeping hook shot, it beat the point spread and “people were upset.’’

Good to know some things never change.

Harvard returned two nights later for a consolation game with NYU, and lost that one, too (67-61), closing the books on Harvard NCAA participation for 66 years.

Now we can reasonably assume one thing. Whatever happens Thursday when Harvard plays Vanderbilt, the Crimson will shoot better than 10 for 72.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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