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Great Teams: 1974-75 (Part I)

This is the fourth 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 continue the series with the 1974-75 squad, the first of Tom Apke’s three NCAA Tournament squads. Parts II and III will run later this week.

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Tom A. or Tom B.?

 

Even before the Jays’ most successful season had concluded, rumors were swirling about potential suitors for their head coach, Eddie Sutton, despite his insistence that he was not interested in other jobs. Still, the assumption was — in 1974 as now — that a coach who succeeds at Creighton’s level will not stay for long. Sutton is a Tulsa native, and naturally, a lot of people in the media and elsewhere believed he might be interested in the Oral Roberts job. Duke made no secret about their interest in him, either. And then there was Arkansas.

A once-proud team that had fallen on hard times, Razorbacks athletic director Frank Broyles made a list of candidates they wished to interview. Sutton was one of them, though in his dual role as athletic director and coach, he was able to keep most Creighton followers — including the media — in the dark as he met secretly with Broyles.

On March 27, Arkansas scheduled a press conference to introduce their new coach, and surprisingly, that morning’s paper still had no idea who they would be introducing. Would it be Sutton? Someone else? In the absence of 24-hour cable news and internet message boards, it was a legitimate curiosity. Meanwhile, behind the scenes Sutton had resigned his post at Creighton, and instructed Physical Education Department Chair Dan Offenburger — “Mr. Everything” in the CU athletic offices and the guy who doubled as media spokesman in such situations — to tell any reporters who might call that “the last time you saw me, I was heading for the golf course with a smile on my face.”

He was smiling alright, but in Fayetteville. At a laid back late-afternoon presser, Broyles introduced Eddie Sutton as their new coach in front of about a dozen reporters but zero fans or cheerleaders. And for the record, unlike 33 years later when the same A.D. hired another Creighton coach away, there is no record of anyone calling the hogs at the press conference.

The World-Herald reported that Sutton’s new contract would pay him between $33 and $37,000 a year just to coach, an increase over the rumored $24,000 he’d made for the dual role of coach and athletic director at Creighton.

As word spread of his departure, the Bluejay Gossip Network (as it was dubbed by the World-Herald’s Don Lee) said either Tom A. or Tom B. would be Sutton’s replacement. The “A” was Tom Apke, a former Creighton standout under coach Red McManus and an assistant coach on Sutton’s staff. The “B” was Tom Brosnihan, who had been connected to either Creighton or Creighton Prep as a student, educator or coach since 1949, and who was also an assistant on Sutton’s staff. According to the Bluejay Gossip Network, as reported by Don Lee (attributing the BGN as his source!) the athletic board had interviewed both candidates and taken a vote as soon as Sutton resigned; the vote resulted in a tie.

The day after Sutton’s press conference in Fayetteville, V.P. of Student Personnel and chairman of the athletic board Rev. Michael Sheridan, S.J. convened an emergency meeting. He’d received phone calls from eight other coaches inquiring about the position, but he was still only interested in promoting from within. At the meeting, there was further debate on the two internal candidates, and another vote. Tom A. won the second vote, and following the meeting, Apke was appointed as the new head coach, and Brosnihan was asked to stay on as his top assistant.

At a press conference to announce his hire, Apke told the assembled media, “Broz and I will work as hard as we can to continue things on the high level they are now. Our first goal is to go out and do some recruiting.” Apke and Broz had been the lead recruiters of most of the talent that made up the Sutton Era teams, so there was no question he could get players to come to Omaha. The question was whether he could coach them. At just 30 years old, Apke was not only young but was a head coach for the first time.

He attempted to allay those fears after a reporter asked him about his style of coaching. “Coach McManus believed in an extremely fast and helter-skelter game, as opposed to Coach Sutton’s more conservative attack. I like to think I fall somewhere in the middle.”

Apke was an Ohio native who played his high school ball in Cincinnati, and was recruited to Creighton by Red McManus, where he became captain of the 1964-65 Jays. He graduated with a B.S. in English, and served one year as a graduate assistant (1965-66). Then he went back home and was an assistant at the University of Cincinnati from 1966-69, earning his masters degree in Education along the way, before returning to Omaha when Eddie Sutton hired him to be one of his assistants prior to the 1969-70 season.

***

Low Expectations

 

Ted Wuebben, Ralph Bobik, and Gene Harmon — arguably Creighton’s three key players from the 1973-74 tourney run — had graduated, leaving a new, unproven group of Bluejays to try and repeat that success in 1974-75. Given that fact, it was not entirely surprising when, on the eve of the season opener, World-Herald columnist Wally Provost wrote the following:

“Tom is a popular guy around town. His coaching credentials are in good order and he is a born optimist. But let’s put the Bluejay picture in proper focus: Tom’s first team is not going to be playing for the national championship next March. More than one-third of his players are freshmen.”

It was not a terribly optimistic outlook. Within the same column, Provost questioned their marketing and ability to draw consistently, especially in a market (and arena) they shared with the NBA’s KC-Omaha Kings. It’s long forgotten in local sports lore, but yes, Omaha once shared an NBA franchise with Kansas City, and they played between 12-18 games a year at the Civic Auditorium. Provost wrote, “In order to hold its own at the box office, doesn’t Creighton have to promote at least as aggressively as the professional KC-Omaha Kings?”

Apke had an answer. “That’s probably a good point. I think that for the average fan, college basketball is potentially more exciting than pro basketball. So if we do our jobs, more fans would pay to see us than to see the pros.”

Four seniors would be the torchbearers for Apke’s first team. The first was Tom Anderson, a 6’4″ guard from Arlington, Nebraska, who had played well in a limited role down the stretch the previous season, and was slotted for a starting role. “With our new system, everybody should be able to score,” he told the World-Herald in late November of ’74. “We should be able to control the boards a lot better this year than last year, too.”

Doug Brookins, the 6’8″ power forward/center who had been one the team’s best rebounders in 1973-74, was also back for his senior year. Wayne Groves, an indispensable bench player the year before, also returned for his final year. The 6’7″ forward from East Orange, New Jersey was expected to challenge for a starting role. So was Charles Butler, the quickest and most explosive player on the team, and a player who had missed the first 12 games in 1973-74 with a thigh injury. Anderson spent a significant amount of time bragging up his fellow guard. “He’s the best. He’s an awfully good shooter and a good defensive player too.”

Also returning were Daryl Heeke, a 6’7″ junior who would grow into one of Creighton’s best players by season’s end, and Mike Heck, the 7’1″ center from Papillion whose game had grown by leaps and bounds as a sophomore. Apke thought Heck might just be the key to the Jays season. “I think he’s going to be a great player some day. I hope that someday comes this season. The only thing that keeps him being a great player right now is his physical development — strength and endurance — but he has been working hard on this.”

Brookins and Butler had started the opener a year before, and would be looked upon early as the veteran leaders. Fellow returners Tom Anderson and Mike Heck would also start, meaning the only newcomer in the First Five was Cornell Smith. “Cornell is a competitor,” Apke commented in the World-Herald. “I know that he will play hard.” In describing his style of play, Smith told the paper “My best shot is close range and rebounding, putting the ball back up. Usually I can beat them on the quickness of my jump.”

Apke planned to run the same defensive schemes Sutton had: namely, a fierce man-to-man as their base defense, with a 2-3 zone as their changeup. The offense was where major changes were underway. “We are not going to play YMCA basketball,” Apke explained, “but we are going to look to fast break at every opportunity. And if shots come quickly, we will take them quickly.”

***

The First Seven-Footer in Creighton History

 

The Sunday before the opener, the World-Herald Sunday Magazine ran a cover story titled “For Mike Heck, A Little Recognition, Please.” The human-interest piece was a wonderful look into the everyday life of a 7’1″ person, and to that of a kid who was almost always taller than his classmates.

“I took a lot of teasing in grade school,” he noted. “I withdrew quite a bit to myself and talked only when I had something to say.” His coach said he was coming out of his shell a bit, though. “Mike is one of the quietest guys in the world. He has improved a hundred light years since coming to Creighton, but he still isn’t what you would call outgoing.”

There was agreement among media, coaches and fans that the sooner he grew into a star, the sooner Creighton could return to the NCAA Tournament. After averaging 9 points in 17 minutes the year before, the staff set ambitious goals for him following an offseason where he added ten pounds to his wiry frame, upping him to 215 pounds, and worked to get his endurance up. They hoped he could consistently play 30 to 35 minutes and contribute 18 points and 10 rebounds a night. “We’re hoping for early success for Mike to give him confidence,” Apke told the magazine. “All he needs to score more is to play more. At 7’1″ he adds a dimension that a lot of clubs don’t have. He’s not a pretty player, but he’s playing in finesse. Very few big guys look good when they play; they just get the job done.”

***

The Age of Apke

 

The morning of his coaching debut, Apke insisted he was taking it all in stride…sorta. “Well, I’m not nervous,” he told the World-Herald’s Don Lee. “I’m hyper! We’re getting kind of excited!”

“We really don’t know what to expect, but we think we’re going to be pretty good,” he added. They would find out how good they were early on, as their opener came against North Dakota, a team who went 21-8 and finished third in the DII NCAA Tournament, followed by the second annual Creighton Classic which featured perennial NCAA Tourney teams Texas El-Paso and Santa Clara, as well as North Texas State.

The Age of Apke, as the World-Herald called it (a clever play on the Age of Aquarius, if a few years too late) got off to a great start when Mike Heck controlled the opening tip by flicking it with his fingertips to Doug Brookins, who zipped a pass to Charles Butler for a nifty layup. Three seconds had elapsed, and the Apke Era was underway in style. The ease of that first bucket was a bad break, though, as Apke noted it lulled the team to sleep offensively; they got stagnant and lethargic, and the Fighting Sioux took advantage.

Down 34-31 at the break, Tom Apke’s first half as coach hadn’t exactly gone as scripted. “We were pretty tight the first half,” Charles Butler noted at courtside following the win. “We decided we were playing too slowly, so we went out to get the ball and take off.” Take off they did: a variety of fast-paced transition baskets and intimidating defensive stops turned the pace up, to a speed at which the Sioux couldn’t compete. Brookins wound up with 18 points and 10 boards in the 71-66 win, and Butler added 10 points and 4 assists. But it was Mike Heck who stole the show, with 24 points on 8-15 shooting, including an impressive repertoire of jump shots, hook shots and put-backs. He added 9 rebounds and perhaps most impressively, played 33 minutes. As Apke had noted before the season, the only thing keeping him from scoring more was playing more, and for one game at least, Heck proved that to be true.

He exited the court with just over a minute left to a standing ovation from the Jays faithful, as they no doubt remembered another Apke quote about Heck being key to their return to the NCAA Tournament. A 24-point, 9 rebound night indicated he might be progressing faster than even the most optimistic followers could have hoped.

Two days later, he would be dead.

***

“Very Few Things in My Life Have Shocked Me More”

 

On Thursday, December 5, 1974, 20-year old Mike Heck was found dead in his seventh floor dorm room in Swanson Hall on campus. Teammates Tom Anderson and Daryl Heeke, roommates in a first-floor room, were among the first to learn of his passing, almost by accident. They saw James Keenan, a College of Business Administration faculty member and the acting Douglas County Coroner, heading for the elevator late that night, and became suspicious; shadowing him out of curiosity, they were horrified to learn it was their teammate Keenan was there to examine.

Keenan told the World-Herald the next day, “The preliminary autopsy showed he had a very large heart, even for a man of his size, and we think it was some kind of cardiac disorder.” That would ultimately be listed as the official cause of death.

Dr. Lee Bevilacqua, the longtime team physician, told the paper Heck was very healthy, and that “he hadn’t had any major problems. I saw him less than any other player on the team.” He did note Heck had trouble gaining weight, but that he wasn’t using any drugs to help him gain muscle. Indeed, authorities found only antihistamine tablets, some salt tablets, and vitamins, and County Attorney Donald Knowles was quick to point out that Heck’s stomach was clear of any drugs. He also noted the player likely died just after falling asleep Wednesday night.

His mother told the paper she had talked to her son just before midnight that evening. “I told him what a good game he had played Tuesday. We talked about details of the game. It was one of his best.”

The noon mass at St. John’s that Thursday was not officially any different from noon mass any other day, but the size of the congregation said otherwise. Over 500 students packed the church for the regular daily mass, and according to accounts in the Creightonian, tears welled in many of their eyes.

Eddie Sutton, who’d brought Heck to the Hilltop from nearby Papillion, was devastated. “Very few things in my life have shocked me more,” he told a UPI reporter. “I always felt that Mike would be one of Creighton’s all-time great players by the time he graduated.”

Sutton recalled the recruitment of Heck, and noted he’d never worked harder to get a kid to play for him, since over 150 schools were vying for his services — virtually every coach in D1 had contacted him at some point. “He was the type of student-athlete every university tries to recruit — a young man with the highest character, athletic ability and high intellect. It’s a combination that’s hard to find. He was such a credit to his family and the university. He made such remarkable progress as a person in the two years I had him. I feel so sorry for his mom and dad. They’re such fine people. They were so proud of his accomplishments.”

Current Bluejay coach Tom Apke convened a team meeting early Thursday afternoon. “I did all the talking,” Apke told reporters, “and then asked for comments from the players, but no one could say a word. I think you can tell by the looks on the players faces he will be missed as an athlete and as an individual. He was such a fine person. I had a tough time looking any of them in the eye…it was so emotional. They were all very somber.”

That he’d had his best game two nights before was not lost on the coach, either. “We certainly thought he was reaching his fulfillment. He thought so, too.”

A World-Herald reporter waited outside that team meeting, and asked players for comment afterward. Understandably, none were willing to speak. Daryl Heeke was sobbing, and responded to questioning by saying politely, “Can’t you ask me this some other time?” Doug Brookins was similarly distressed. “It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out how we feel,” he noted.

As the events of Thursday unfolded, three teams were already en route to Omaha for that weekend’s Creighton Classic, making it difficult to do the natural thing: cancel the games while Heck’s family and teammates mourned. Apke was already leaning towards playing, given that the teams were in Omaha, when he got a phone call from Nick Heck, Mike’s father.

“Tell the boys to play,” he told the coach.

At the regularly scheduled Jaybacker luncheon that Friday, Apke made it clear he had no idea what to expect that night. “I suspect that it’s going to be very difficult for our athletes to go out and play with this shock and trauma. Right now, we’re so emotionally drained it’s tough to tell how we’ll perform.”

In Part II, Creighton’s coaches and players bury one of their teammates, play in tournaments against two of the top five teams in America, and then win a remarkable 14 straight games.

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