This is the first in a new series exclusive to White & Blue Review in which we’ll go back and look at each of the NCAA Tournament teams in Creighton Basketball history. Today we begin with the first of Tony Barone’s two teams to make the tourney, the 1988-89 squad. Parts II and III will run on Wednesday and Thursday.
On March 6, 1988, Creighton was steamrolled out of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament by 14th ranked Bradley, 101-77. It was a game that wasn’t as competitive as the score would indicate, and the score is pretty ghastly even on the surface. Following the game Bradley coach Stan Albeck, no stranger to success, commented on the Jays future. “I like Harstad and Gallagher a lot. They’re really going to be good players in our conference. If they can just recruit one top player who will fit in, they’ll be great. They do a nice job with what they have, but for them to go to the next level, I think it probably means more speed and quickness, and better athletes. ”
Bob Harstad and Chad Gallagher were freshmen on that 1987-88 Jays squad. Harstad averaged 9.0 points and 8.5 rebounds, and Gallagher 11.4 and 5.3 as both were named to the MVC All-Newcomer Team. Yet as great as those two were, Albeck was right: Creighton needed a consistent third cog, someone to provide quickness and speed to offset their interior play, someone to keep defenses from packing the paint. Creighton head coach Tony Barone recognized this, and began scouting the top junior college programs looking for someone who could contribute immediately.
Troy Bell of Odessa Junior College in Texas was the guy Barone and staff targeted. Less than a month later, Bell was headed to Omaha, and Barone was gushing about him to the media. “He gives us a young man who has played in a junior-college program that has been totally successful. He played on a team with the best junior-college player in the country, Larry Johnson.” And while his rebounding numbers — he averaged 8.9 a game — looked good in a vacuum, they looked even better when you consider he had two teammates who averaged 18.1 and 10 rebounds apiece.
What Albeck and perhaps many around the Creighton program didn’t realize, however, was that the third cog may have already been on the roster. Point guard James Farr, a junior-college transfer who averaged 12.7 points and led the team with 120 assists in 1987-88, had a full season on the Hilltop under his belt but had only begun to show what he could do. Combining Bell and Farr with Harstad and Gallagher gave Barone four top-shelf players, and bred confidence heading into the fall of 1988 that the Jays were poised for a breakthrough season. It would be Barone’s fourth year in charge on the Hilltop; after promising in the summer of 1985 at his introductory press conference that his five-year plan would bring Creighton basketball to “Cadillac” level, the clock was ticking on making good on that promise.
“The Only Thing That Can Stop Us Is Ourselves”
“We can be as good as we want to be. The only thing that can stop us is ourselves. We’ve got the talent. We’ve got depth. I think we’ll be a really good team.”
Few had any idea how prophetic those words, spoken by Bob Harstad in October of 1988, would become. Certainly not the media, who picked Creighton to finish seventh out of eight teams in the MVC. And certainly not the league’s coaches, who picked them to finish tied for fourth.
Their pessimism did little to sway Barone and the Jays, as he expressed at Media Day. “Our goal is to win the Missouri Valley Conference championship. And we want to go to a postseason tournament. If that’s the NIT, that’s great. We’ll be happy to do that.” The elephant in the room, however, was a potential one-year ban from NCAA postseason championships for all Creighton sports stemming from a failure to meet minimum participation requirements in men’s and women’s golf and women’s swimming; the school appealed the decision, and would not know until mid-January whether they would even be eligible for the NCAA Tournament. That set up the uncomfortable position of potentially winning the league, yet not being able to represent them in the big dance.
It was quite a different time on the Hilltop back then. Creighton had the lowest budget in the MVC by a healthy margin; their major sports, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and softball, received the maximum number of scholarships allowed and competed nationally. But the other sports had minimal scholarships, traveled as little as possible and played a fair number of DII and DIII schools. It was their support (or lack thereof) of those other sports which drew the ire of the NCAA, leading to being placed on “restricted” D1 status under new guidelines in 1988 aimed at assuring all D1 schools fielded well-balanced athletic departments — instead of the top-heavy style common at schools like Creighton.
The NCAA would grant them a waiver in January — giving them one year to get their support of minor sports up to standard — and the Jays would indeed be eligible for postseason. But in October of 1988 as practice began, that was far from certain. Porter Moser, the Jays junior guard, summed up the team’s attitude in the face of that uncertainty. “We still have our goals. One is a 20-win season. We would like to handle what we have control over. We don’t have any control over the NCAA decision. We have control over winning 20 games and winning our conference. Those are the things that are the focus of our attention and effort each day.”
As practice began, another obstacle was figuring out how to replace Rod Mason, their leading scorer from the year before, who had averaged 20.1 points a night. Matt Roggenburk, a junior guard from Cleveland, was one of the guys tapped to take on some of the scoring load. Barone gushed about him, telling the assembled press at media day that he was as good a shooter as Mason, and that they hoped he was as tough mentally and physically as Mason had been.
Roggenburk, Moser and Todd Eisner, all of whom had been role players previously, were the only players entering the season with more than one year of experience, which likely played into the media’s harsh predictions for the team despite the presence of four bonafide top shelf players. “We’re still young,” Barone told the World-Herald in October. “I guess we’ve been saying that every year. But I like our enthusiasm. I like our skill level. I like our depth. I’m really excited about this basketball team.”
The depth that Barone gushed about would be put to the test early, as the injury bug bit the Jays before they’d even played a game. Farr spent two weeks in a walking cast after injuring his knee in practice on October 21, and Harstad missed several days of practice with a bad back. Both injuries were hot topics on that week’s “Talking With Tony”, Barone’s Tuesday night radio show on WOW 590. He assured both the callers, and the fans who came out to Tommy’s New York Style Deli to see the show in person, that neither injury was serious and both players would be ready for Opening Night. The prognosis for Duan Cole was not as sunny, unfortunately, as the sophomore tore his ACL in early November and after playing sparingly in three games, would take a medical redshirt.
Three Public Scrimmages
To prepare for the season opener in Lincoln, three — yes, three — public scrimmages were held. The first was held on November 3 at the Creighton Prep gym, where admission was $3 with all proceeds going to charity. These were full-fledged 40-minute scrimmages, with teams divided up by the staff that stayed together for all three games, making for an intriguing series of scrimmages for both fans and coaches alike. Chad Gallagher, playing for the Blue Team, had 34 points and 11 rebounds in the opening scrimmage despite playing with a cold. Bob Harstad, playing for the White Team, had 19 points and 10 rebounds, while Matt Roggenburk showed signs of things to come with 21 points in helping his team to a 91-78 win. It was a little hard to get a read on things, though, as neither Farr nor Cole, the top two point guards on the roster, played due to their injuries.
The second scrimmage took place in the Creighton gym (now known as the Vinardi Center) on November 5, and was a decidedly lower-octane affair, both in terms of scoring and intensity. The Blue Team again got a solid effort from Gallagher, who had 16 points, but the star was newcomer Troy Bell, who scored 20 points and had 11 rebounds. Keyed by those two performances, the Blue Team earned a 66-63 win to even the scrimmage series at one game apiece.
For the third scrimmage, the Jays took a bus trip down I-80 to Hastings, a trip that served two purposes. One, to increase visibility in central and western Nebraska, and two, “We need to go on a bus trip to a game, so that’s not a shock when we go to Nebraska,” as Barone explained it to the World-Herald. “It’s not that big a deal, but we want to get them on the road to get the feel of what it’s like to travel.”
The Blue Team won the rubber match of the three-game scrimmage series, as Troy Bell once again starred. The JuCo newcomer scored 30 points and added 14 rebounds in an 82-63 win. Bob Harstad missed the scrimmage with a sprained ankle, leaving seldom-used post player Bill O’Dowd to lead the White Team with his 19 points and 13 rebounds.
Their lone exhibition game came on a Sunday night, November 13 at the City Auditorium (the building which would later be known as the Omaha Civic Auditorium) against the National Team from Turkey. Despite the three scrimmages, a ton of questions surrounded the team. “Matt Roggenburk has earned playing time,” Barone commented. “His commitment to basketball has been tremendous this year. Bill O’Dowd has earned playing time. Todd Eisner has earned playing time. Tony Ball has earned playing time. How are we going to use all these guys? I don’t know. That’s the question we’ve got to answer.”
Three of their top players missed the exhibition, leaving plenty of playing time for others to try and impress the staff. Harstad was still nursing the sprained ankle he’d suffered prior to the final scrimmage, while Cole and Farr were still out with their injuries from October practices. That led to a starting lineup of Roggenburk, Gallagher, and three newcomers: Tony Ball, Troy Bell and Latrell Wrightsell. Bell struggled with nerves in his first game at the Auditorium, going 2-14 from the floor with four points in 25 minutes.
In front of an announced crowd of 2,418, they jumped out to a 14-5 lead just six minutes in. Porter Moser nailed a three to make it 35-20 with 2:46 left in the first half, and the Jays never looked back. Gallagher wound up with 19 points and 13 rebounds, and Roggenburk had 21 in the 75-66 win.
A National Sensation
In the weeks leading up to the season opener, Creighton Basketball became a bit of a sensation on the national stage. CNN and USA Today did features on them. The LA Times sent a reporter to Omaha to do a story on them. Ditto the Washington Post. ‘Good Morning America’ requested a live interview with the head coach. CBS showed a piece on them during halftime of a college football game.
What was all the fuss about? Barone had decided his players would spend Thanksgiving working at a local homeless shelter, giving back to the community. Strange as it sounds today, this was an idea out of left field in 1988, when the world of intercollegiate athletics was populated by an increasing number of dubious characters, and the public approval ratings for many of the people surrounding programs was at an all-time low. It was just a year after SMU Football had been handed the Death Penalty, after all.
“I’m fed up with the jerks in college sports stealing all the headlines. Cheating, robbing, raping, fighting, snorting, lying, dying. The usual stuff,” Barone told Scott Osler of the Los Angeles Times on November 15. “It’s getting to be an old scenario. On Thanksgiving Day, our kids will go into the community, work in shelters, food kitchens, spend a couple hours trying to give something back, as opposed to taking. I know it sounds like I’m on some kind of high horse, but I’m sick of the negativism that surrounds the world of intercollegiate sports. Somewhere along the line they’re going to have to take hold of this image and clean it up.”
The LA Times story described the creation of the Creighton Basketball Pride Club, where for $5, “you get two tickets for any game, and one buck goes to the homeless in Omaha. Your name goes on a huge plaque, which will be the hugest plaque in the history of plaques,” Barone told the reporter.
He refused to allow TV cameras or reporters to follow the players into the soup kitchens, however. Not because he didn’t want the national publicity, but because he felt it would come at the expense of the dignity of the people enjoying a meal. “It’s nothing heroic, anyway. I just wanted something that would make people say, ‘Hey, the kids at Creighton aren’t idiots.’”
Opening the Season against the Big Eight
As the season opener neared, which players were healthy enough to play was the question on everyone’s mind. James Farr and Duan Cole, the top two point guards, had been out since late October, and Bob Harstad hadn’t played since the second scrimmage in early November.
“Bob’s ankle is going to be a problem all year,” Barone told the World-Herald the day before the first game. “His status will depend on how much he can strengthen it and how much pain he can handle, but he’ll play. Bob is a very tough, hard-nosed kid. I’m more concerned about his conditioning than anything else because he hasn’t been practicing.”
Even the coach got into the injury madness: just days before the opener, Barone busted a toe kicking a chair in practice after a defensive breakdown enraged the ever-feisty coach.
That the opener would take place in the Devaney Center, where the Jays had never won and against an opponent they had not beaten in the modern era of college basketball (going 0-6 since the resumption of the series in 1977) was intimidating enough. That they’d be doing it at less than full-strength was even worse.
No matter. Creighton came out on fire, making their first six three-pointers, and took a ten-point lead into the locker room at halftime. Matt Roggenburk, the junior guard from Cleveland, Ohio, was 4-4 from behind the arc in the first half alone, and 5-6 for the game. The 48-38 lead at the half showed that Barone’s plan to play a more up-tempo style of play this season was not only exciting, but that they could be successful doing it.
Nebraska scratched and clawed to cut the lead to five with 10:21 to play, and then clamped down defensively — holding Creighton scoreless for the next eight minutes and ten seconds. The Jays last lead came at 69-66 with 9:26 to play, and they wouldn’t score again until Chad Gallagher threw down a ferocious dunk with 1:16 remaining. The big man then, improbably, hit two straight three-pointers in an effort to bring the Jays back. It wasn’t to be; Nebraska hit all ten of their free throws in the final minute as they pulled away for the 86-77 win.
The Jays had the game in control until they stopped making baskets, a fact that didn’t escape the head coach of their next opponent. “I thought they were very good,” Iowa State’s Johnny Orr told the World-Herald. “I was impressed with (James) Farr, although he got in foul trouble. Roggenburk made some great, great shots. (Chad) Gallagher has improved tremendously. I think (Troy) Bell and (Tony) Ball are good additions. They’re going to have a good team.”
The year before, Iowa State had blown out Creighton in Ames, 115-73, as Jeff Grayer scored 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the ‘Clones. Was revenge a motivating factor heading into the rematch? Barone gave the media an unequivocal “No”, preferring to talk about things like protecting home court and establishing a winning attitude. “We’ve got to establish in the minds of our basketball team that we’re not going to lose a game at home. We’ve got to establish enthusiasm in the arena based on the way we play. I’m going to make a big point of that today with the kids. We can’t expect enthusiastic support from the fans if we don’t play enthusiastically, so we’re going to try to do that.”
A fired-up crowd of 6,268 was silenced early as Iowa State built a 19-3 lead, and Creighton shot as poorly as any time in their storied history. That’s not hyperbole; the 88-58 loss was their worst home loss ever, and left the usually loquacious Barone speechless. Speaking in hushed tones during his postgame press conference, the head coach said “This is a tough loss for us. I was disappointed. Gee, we had a good fan turnout. We just mentally didn’t play. I have absolutely no answer for it, and I don’t think the film is going to show what happened tonight. I think the film is going to be meaningless.”
It was a thorough domination. Iowa State blocked nine shots, and by Barone’s estimation, “they probably had another 10 or 15 that they intimidated us on.” Creighton missed 11 of their first 12 shots, made 22% in the first half and 28% in the second half, and for the game, made only 19 of 75 shots attempted. Most alarming: they missed 27 shots in the paint.
As they prepared for a road game at Cleveland State — a homecoming game for Roggenburk — the Jays sat at 0-2, trying desperately to keep their season from spiraling out of control. The schedule wasn’t going to get any easier with Notre Dame and Marquette still to come.
Tomorrow in Part II, Creighton tries to pick up their first win of the season, and the injury bug strikes again — this time taking down one half of the Dynamic Duo.