When Southern Illinois University Edwardsville unveiled its men’s basketball program during the 1967-68 season, the Cougars turned to a legend to ignite it.
His name was Harry Gallatin, and he brought big-time credentials to a new sport on the-then 2-year-old campus, a sprawling 2,660 acres.
“We will give the students what they want,” Gallatin said in the fall of the 1967.
They wanted basketball and SIUE gave it to them.
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“We will try to give everybody as much game experience as we can,” Gallatin said before the first game against Missour-St. Louis on Nov. 23. “We’ll play man-to-man defense about 70 to 75 percent of the time.”
Gallatin, also the assistant dean of students and director of athletics at SIUE, had previously coached at SIU Carbondale and the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks. He was an All-Star player in pro basketball spanning a 10-year career, including nine with the New York Knicks. In 1991, Gallatin was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
He died in 2015, but Cougars basketball lives on, celebrating its 50th season in 2017-18.
It’s a golden anniversary for the first Cougars team.
“You have to admire what Harry did in starting the program from the ground up,” said Mike Moore of Belleville, one of the players on the Cougars’ inaugural team.
SIUE honored past players and teams, including the 1967-68 squad, during Alumni Day on Saturday when the Cougars played host to Jacksonville State at Vadalabene Center.
Once a Cougar, always a Cougar, multiple players said. Gallatin helped give them a sense of pride and focus that first season.
“We were kind of in the right place at the right time,” Moore said. “We were committed to it and we all had a love of the game.
“Harry saw a glimpse of promise in us. His influence transcended the basketball court. He was a teacher, a mentor, a friend and a role model.”
Chuck Trent, a member of that first squad, said: “Harry was a stickler on defense. He especially liked to set up his guards to steal the ball and go in for nearly uncontested layups. He called it the biggest play in basketball because it was a four-point play — two points your team gets and two points the opposition does not get. He said there was nothing bigger than a four-point play.”
Jack McDole, a graduate of Staunton High School, played three years for Gallatin and one for Jim Dudley, the coach beginning with the 1970-71 season. McDole remembers how it all began in 1967.
“If was sort of makeshift situation because everybody was living at home. We had a week of tryouts at the Shurtleff College Gym in Alton,” McDole recalled. “There were about 40 kids there Monday and some were eliminated each night. By Friday, we had our team and Harry got us together and told us that one day you will tell your children you were on the first SIUE team.”
McDole made the cut and remains a staunch Cougars fan, attending as many games as possible. So does Moore, along with Rich Essington, a key player who joined the Cougars their second season
“Harry taught us defense and how to rebound,” McDole said of the man known as “The Horse.” “Those were his fortes.”
Tom Dahncke, a member of that team and former superintendent of schools in Nashville, Ill., said he learned plenty from Gallatin.
“He stressed playing good defense, being aggressive and playing hard all the time,” said Dahncke, the team captain and Okawville High School grad. “Harry coached us with the same intensity and enthusiasm that he coached at SIUC and in the NBA.”
The first-year Cougars were equally enthusiastic about their new adventure, Dahncke recalled. They did what was needed to make it work.
“All of us drove to campus, went to classes, then drove to the gym (in Alton) to practice,” Dahncke. “Then we would go home and do it again the next day.”
SIUE hoops has gone from a Division II independent, playing at the old Edwardsville High Gymnasium (now Joe Lucco Gym), to Division I status as one of 12 Ohio Valley Conference members. The 70-year-old OVC, which has its headquarters in Brentwood, Tenn., features universities from Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee.
The Cougars posted a 5-5 record their opening season, losing their first three games before defeating Sanford Brown of St. Louis 95-82 on Dec. 6, 1967. Dahncke said the Cougars took immense pleasure in that historic first victory.
“We were excited about it and very happy about it,” he said. “We knew that the program was going to grow and take off in the future.”
Interestingly enough, the Cougars beat Sanford Brown three times and Parks Air College of Cahokia twice that first campaign for their five wins.
“Did I get into that first win?” Trent wondered, unsure about it 50 years later. “I remember playing against (Sanford Brown’s) Bob Rood in two of three games that season and I’m pretty sure I had two free throws against them in one of those games, but I could be wrong.”
Trent, like Rood, a Triad High School graduate, joked: “After all, when you averaged 1.5 points per game, it’s tough to remember them all.”
Other players on that first squad included: Gary “Bo” Collins, Nino Fennoy, John “Dusty” Gregory, Dave Skundrich, Danny Mosley, Norman Cavaletti, Jim Gates, Harold Kappier, Dennis Noble, Trent, Dahncke, Moore and McDole.
Fennoy became a nationally renown prep track coach in East St. Louis. Collins went on to coach baseball at SIUE and amassed more than 1,000 victories.
“I remember the first tryout in Alton. I went out for the team on a whim,” said Collins, a Roxana High School graduate. “After shooting around for about 30 minutes, I told Tom Dahncke that I think we are the only two guys here that can play basketball.”
McDole said: “I don’t remember a lot from that first season, but I know that we weren’t expected to do too much.”
Whatever they did, the Cougars enjoyed it.
“I was glad to be a part of that first team because it was a great opportunity,” McDole said. “We loved playing basketball and we had a lot of fun.”
Gallatin coached the Cougars for two more years. Dudley (11 years), Tom Pugliese (two years), Larry Graham (eight years), Jack Margenthaler (10 years), Marty Simmons (five years), Lennox Forrester (eight years) and current coach Jon Harris (three years) followed Gallatin.
“The first season was a strange year. Guys were coming and going all the time,” Collins said.
Gallatin and the Cougars persevered.
“When Harry coached us, he was very professional about it,” Collins said. “Harry was also the athletic director, so he was going to build the program. He was a great guy and I truly enjoyed my time with him.”
SIUE has amassed 620 wins (through Jan. 27) in five decades.
Simmons’ 2005-06 squad won the most games (25-8) in SIUE history when the Cougars reached the Elite Eight in Division II competition. They joined the Division I ranks for competition during the 2008-09 season. Three years later, the Cougars started full OVC play.
Simmons, the coach at the University of Evansville for the last 11 years, compiled an 88-59 record from 2002-07 at SIUE. Only Graham, logging a 147-84 record from 1984-92, had a higher winning percentage at .636.
Jason Holmes (1,949 points from 1993-97) is the leading scorer in SIUE men’s basketball history, while Keith McFarland (1974-75) and John Edwards (1986-87) earned Division II All-America status.
It all got going 50 years ago in a modest, but earnest way when those first Cougars took the plunge into the sea of NCAA hoops.
“I feel fortunate to have played on that first team,” Moore said. “It’s special for me because we have some lifelong friendships that are more meaningful today.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Steve Porter is a longtime metro-east sports writer and retired sports editor of The Telegraph in Alton. He writes freelance articles for the SIUE Athletics Department.