The voice of USF Athletics, Jim Louk, will routinely put down his radio headset and pick up the pen to share his perspective on the history of USF Athletics.
Louk has been broadcasting games for 27 years and is the resident historian in the Athletics Department hallways so this week he talks about the 1990 Sun Belt Basketball Tournament.
March 1990. The Sun Belt Tournament. Or as former USF Basketball coach Lee Rose called it a few years earlier in a moment of frustration, “The UAB Invitational”.
UAB had a lot of pull in the Sun Belt in those days. They had a central location, good basketball attendance, a large downtown arena, and a good reputation for hosting the tournament. As a result, when the Bulls got to town that spring, it marked their third visit to Birmingham for the tournament in the past six years.
In reality, conference tournament location hadn’t mattered to the Bulls much in recent years. Every year since 1983 they had faithfully packed their bags and left for Charlotte, or Jacksonville, or Hampton, Virginia, or Birmingham. Every year since 1983, they had lost the opening game, re-packed their bags, and left for home.
We told ourselves this year would be different. This year the team came to Birmingham with 17 wins. Not enough victories to get excited about? Remember that as fourth year Coach Bobby Paschal built his program, the team had only won 21 times the prior three years.
|Fred Lewis, Chris Risey and Radenko Dobras
After a good non-conference start, we got an indication that something was up on Jan. 4, 1990 in the conference opener at Charlotte. It had been an offensive showcase, but a late three put the 49ers up on the Bulls and it looked like a game that would slip away late. Then the Bulls came back with a crucial three of their own and won 89-86. It was exactly the type of game they would have lost in prior years. The mood was clear back at the hotel afterward; things had changed. Now, two months later in Birmingham, it was time to prove that to the college basketball world, once and for all.
UAB has an on campus arena now, but back then the downtown Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center was the tournament venue. Ironically, it is very near the team hotel the Bulls football team stayed at for the Papa John’s Bowl years later in 2006. After so many trips there, “BJCC”, seemed like a second home floor. But one that nothing good ever happened on.
Up first was South Alabama on March 3. The Jaguars always seemed to get the better of the Bulls in that era but this year the teams had split, with USF winning by 24 at home and losing by 2 in Mobile. It was a narrow escape that day, but the Bulls won 80-78. For me, it was brand new territory. In my seventh year of doing radio for the team, I would be able to broadcast Round Two for the first time.
The Jacksonville Dolphins were next. It’s easy to forget that JU was quite a rival for the Bulls back then and they were a very good basketball team that year. USF’s year against Jacksonville almost exactly mirrored the season against South Alabama…a 12-point win at home and a two-point loss on the road. This would be a tough one, or so we thought.
We had watched Jacksonville play a bruising first round game the day before. Maybe that was a factor, but afterward we chose to believe that the Bulls were just that good, and I think we were right.
On to the championship game; one step away from the first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
That night boosters and staff got together in the hotel to watch some of the other college basketball tournaments around the country and instead were stunned to see the passing of Hank Gathers, which put things in perspective to say the least.
March 5 was a bright sunny spring day in Birmingham. UNC Charlotte was the last piece of the puzzle. The Bulls had two knock-down, drag-out fights with them during the regular season, winning by three in Charlotte and by five in Tampa. Like those games, this one would go back and forth. But when it was over, the Bulls had won 81-74. The Sun Belt Conference Tournament jinx was over and so were years of frustration in Birmingham. What a happy plane ride home it was.
A few days later, hundreds of fans joined the players and coaches in the special events center of the old Marshall Center to watch the tournament pairings on TV. Where would we go? Who would we play?
|Chris Risey, Hakim Shahid, Fred Lewis
One by one, the teams were announced until 62 had been mentioned.
At that point a Bulls fan turned to me with a comment I’ll never forget:
“We got an automatic bid! They know they have to put us in don’t they?”
Well, not to worry. A moment later the screen said:
15 South Florida
And it was off to California for more great memories in USF Athletics history.