A Look Back to Look Ahead

If you’ve lived in Louisville for any extended period of time, you’re likely at least somewhat familiar with the heartbreak the UofL basketball team endured at the Final Four in 1975.

With Kentucky having already defeated Syracuse by 16 in the first national semifinal, the burden of completing the setup for an all-Bluegrass State title game fell on the Cardinals. The obstacle in the way was UCLA, owners of a 26-3 record and champions of 10 of the last 12 NCAA Tournaments. The team was also playing in the final season of the career of legendary head coach John Wooden, who also just so happened to be the former boss and mentor of Louisville head coach Denny Crum.

After a regulation that had been mostly controlled by Louisville ended in a 65 all tie, the two teams played five more minutes. The Cardinals again seized control in the extra period and were ahead 74-71 before a pair of free-throws from UCLA’s Dave Meyers cut the lead to one with just 57 seconds to play. With no shot clock at the time, Crum directed his team to get the ball to free-throw specialist Terry Howard, who had connected on all 28 of his attempts from the charity stripe on the season.

Howard dribbled expertly around the UCLA defenders as Wooden shouted from the bench for his players to try to steal the ball or force Howard to pass it to a teammate. Finally, with 20 seconds remaining on the game clock, the Bruins relented and sent Howard to the free-throw line for a 1-and-1.

To this day, Howard seems perplexed that his first attempt didn’t earn him the bonus.

“It hit the right side of the rim, then the left side of the rim,” Howard said in The Rivalry: Red v. Blue “It went in … and then it bounced out. It still comes up in my life every single day.”

UCLA’s plan following the miss was to get the ball in the hands of Richard Washington, who had connected in his last six straight field goal attempts in the game. Despite Louisville’s best attempt to deny Washington the ball, Marques Johnson fed the junior forward a beautiful pass just outside the key. Washington took one dribble and buried a 10-foot jumper with just two seconds to go.

That’s the Louisville heartbreak portion of the story, and it’s fairly well-known. What’s less-discussed is what happened immediately following the game that would drastically impact the UCLA program for decades to come.

After Allen Murphy’s prayer went un-answered, the mostly-UCLA blue crowd, which had been stunned the year before when the Bruins were defeated in the national semifinals, stormed the San Diego Sports Arena court. Little did they know that it was in those celebratory moments that Wooden made the decision that his next game coaching would be his last.

In the book “The Ultimate Book of March Madness: The Players, Games, and Cinderellas that Captivated a Nation,” Drollinger recounted how Wooden broke the news to them in the locker room:

“He said, ‘You know, alumni just told me, ‘Thanks Coach, you owed us that one from last year.’ And he just had a guarded disgust in his voice that was somewhat the precursor for the motive for saying I’m bowing out. In other words, if that’s what my spoiled alumni think, I don’t need any more of this. And that was the somewhat underlying tenor of the retirement announcement, which turned out to be very motivational.”

Wooden announced his decision minutes later during his postgame press conference, and the media uncharacteristically gave him a standing ovation. Two days later, UCLA sent Wooden out on top with a 92-85 win over Kentucky.

UCLA fans had reached a point in 1975 where they demanded victories as opposed to celebrating them. As a result, the program’s head coach walked away from the greatest dynasty the sport has ever seen, and the Bruins have won just one national title in the 42 years that have followed.

The lesson is also a valuable one for Louisville fans today. Just 15 years ago, the Cardinals were in the midst of a five-season span where the program failed to win a single NCAA Tournament game. Now, UofL is about to be a top four seed in the big dance for the sixth straight time (discounting last season’s absence). Here’s hoping everyone associated with the program is fully embracing the good times. VT