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1978 NIT-Abe Lemons & Texas Take Manhattan

Abe Lemons and Texas won the 1978 NIT and along the way conquered New York City 

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Kansas vs. Texas Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

I haven’t paid much attention to any NIT game that didn’t have Texas in it, but I must admit I did watch the North Carolina St. – Lipscomb contest. I was pulling for N.C. State since a Wolfpack win might have given us a “Time is a Flat Circle” ending for this year’s tournament.

41 years ago, Texas ran past N.C. State 101-93 to win the 1978 NIT Championship. It was a big deal back then, and it was an entertaining run, thanks to an iconic coach and a grab bag group of players who loved playing for him.

Leon Black, as decent a man as you will find, was the coach for Texas in the mid-70’s. He got tired of programs playing fast and loose with the rules. When he turned in Texas A&M for recruiting violations, he was outed (he readily admitted to it) and was vilified as a snitch.

Black decided that he would quit coaching and let Darrell Royal hire someone to take Texas into the next phase of the program as the new Erwin Center was close to completion.

Royal hired Abe Lemons, known for winning at smaller programs and for being the most quotable coach in the game. Abe danced to the beat of his own drummer. Lemons was coaching down in Edinburg at Pan-American when Royal called to offer the job. Abe returned the call from a truck stop in Oklahoma.

Lemons first road game as the Texas coach was another example of his style. The Horns were visiting Mississippi State. The host Bulldogs were given a technical foul for a player dunking during warm-ups. Abe hated the rule, so instructed Jim Krivacs – a 90% free throw shooter, to try them with his back to the basket.

Texas lost 91-89.

“Where? In the State?” (Abe when asked if his 2nd team had Top 20 potential)

Texas ended that first season with a 13-13 mark, but Leon Black left Abe 3 players he believed in and Abe added two more to head into the 1977-78 campaign. It was an interesting mix of players. They consisted of a true NBA point guard, a 6-7 center and three guys who looked like they made the wrong turn on their way to a YMCA 3-on-3 tournament.

Johnny Moore, Jr. Guard – Moore arrived on campus as a skinny 17-year old from Altoona PA. He was headed to Providence when Black saw him at the Dapper Dan Classic and offered. Moore grew 2 inches and gained 15 pounds his first year on campus as he started every game of his 4-year career. Abe turned him into a point guard (Moore was reluctant at first) and he was a five-tool player. He and T.J. Ford are the two best guards I have ever seen in the burnt orange & white.

Jim Krivacs, Jr. Guard – Krivacs transferred in from Auburn with 3 years of eligibility. An Indiana HS gym rat, Krivacs was in “go mode” stepping across mid-court, and that was just fine with Abe. Krivacs scored 1,673 points at Texas and there is little doubt that if the 3-point line had been in place he would at or near the top of all-time scorers for the program. Krivacs, a Southport Ind. native, in is the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

Gary Goodner, Sr. Center – 6-7 enforcer, looked like a TE/H-back of today and was just as physical. Abe would post him out well above the circle to screen and pass to other players. Great rebounder.

Abe brought in a couple of players from California, who didn’t exactly look the part.

Ron Baxter, Soph. Forward – Ron, listed at 6-5, 205 ( a weight he had last seen about the age of 14) was from Los Angeles (Dorsey HS). Baxter used his frame to punish inside (916 rebound) and averaged double figures in points each of his 4 seasons. He was a helluva lot quicker than his size would predict and was a terror on the press.

Tyrone Branyan, Jr. Forward – A 6-7, 220 transfer from Cali with the name of Tyrone might conjure up an image that did not fit reality. Lemons offered him a schollie sight unseen. He had been recommended by a former college teammate of Royal’s. Abe contacted Branyan’s JC Coach who gave him a glowing report.

Only after offering did Abe send Asst. Coach Barry Dowd out to see him play. Dowd called in and Abe said, “Well?”

Dowd responded. “Picture a pasty-faced kid with a roll of baby fat who looks like he has never seen the sun. He can’t run. He can’t jump. He releases his shot at chest level.”

Abe had a few choice words and then Dowd responded, “Now picture him with 24 points, 17 rebounds and the MVP trophy from the championship game.”

Branyan shows up and Dowd was true to his word. It took Tyrone all of pre-season and several games to into “game” shape. I was Sports Director at KTBC-TV and had season tickets. My then-child bride was a big basketball fan and while I was on press row, she was getting an earful from a loud fan behind her who thought Tyrone had broken several “truth in advertising” laws. Every time Ty would make a mistake, he would bellow his displeasure.

Betsy had enough. When Tyrone finally made a play, she stood up, cheered, turn around, glared at the offending fan and said,

“He’s my brother1”

“I play my regulars; the only way a guy gets off the floor is if he dies.”

Funny Line. Only Abe wasn’t kidding. That team averaged 84 points a game, and the starting five accounted for 75. They shot 49% from the field and 79% from the line. After an opening loss at Southern Cal, the Horns won 16 out of their next 17 games with the one loss being to #5 Marquette. They split with #2 Arkansas and tied with the Razorbacks for the title with 14-2 marks. Back then the SWC post-season really mattered, since the NCAA only took 32 teams into the tournament.

”It was the toughest seven-man zone we faced all year.”

The SWC was expected to get only two teams into the NCAA’s. Arkansas, a Top 10 team all season, was a lock. Texas needed to at least get to the finals against Arkansas to seal up a bid. They faced Houston in the semis, and it was a bitter contest that believe it or not, had both coaches bitching at the refs about calls. Finally, Abe had enough. As the head ref passed the bench, he gave him the universal choke sign, and he was tossed. Houston won 92-90 and got the automatic berth.

Houston was blown out by Notre Dame 100-77 in the first round of the NCAA’s. After Texas won the NIT Lemons joked that maybe he should send the ref from the SWC tournament game a basket of fruit to thank him for not sending Texas to that fate.

When the other team sees our guys, they’re so busy giggling they can’t play,”

The video of the championship game against N.C. State is posted below. It is worth the look for so many reasons, not the least of which are the commercials. But take a look at the introduction of the starting lineups. The Wolfpack players look the part, and Texas, well, looked like Texas. I saw this repeated time after time that year. Teams would come out for the tip, take a look at Texas and you could see wheels spinning in their minds. “We got this.”

Until the ball went up.

Texas cruised through the first two rounds of the NIT with home wins over Temple and Nebraska by a combined 33 points. Then it was on to New York where the Horns would play Rutgers while Georgetown and North Carolina State met in the other semifinal.

”We were living on $15 a day in New York, if you can believe that. Two eggs a la carte were $6.95. Nothing with them. So, I called the waiter over and asked to see the chicken. ‘What for?’ he asks. I told him I wanted to see the chicken that lays $6.95 eggs.” (Abe on the high cost of living in the big city)

Over 18,500 were in Madison Square Garden for the Semis. Clyde Austin hit a 35-foot desperation heave at the buzzer in overtime to moved N.C. State past Georgetown 86-85.

Texas meanwhile manhandled Rutgers 96-76. Krivacs & Baxter combined to hit 14-18 from the field in the first half as the Horns shot 57% for the game.

In the championship contest, that duo combined for 59 points as Texas was never really challenged after jumping out to a 14-5 lead.

As you may have noticed I haven’t spent a lot of time on particular games from this season. Didn’t see the point, since the team was so much more interesting.

One final story. The four squads were going through media day/practice in Madison Square Garden. Georgetown’s John Thompson was standing with Abe, watching Texas go through some drills.

Thompson (pointing at Baxter): “Who’s the fat kid?”

Lemons: “My best player.”

Thompson: “I assumed it was either that or he is your bastard son.”

“Finish last in your league and they call you an idiot. Finish last in medical school and they call you Doctor.”

Winning is good. You keep score for a reason. But the older I get, scores fade into the background. Plays and players stand out. Memories matter. Relationship matters.

I saw Ron Baxter just last week at the Johnny “Lam” Jones memorial service. I have to say Ron is closer to his playing weight than 90% of those in attendance.

We didn’t spend more than 2 or 3 minutes talking but both of us were smiling the whole time. We don’t see each other except in an occasional social situation. But there is an instant connection just because of shared experiences, and isn’t that what sports is all about?