Forty years ago this week, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team made history. Time marches on.
“I can’t believe young men like us played 40 years ago,” Wally Walker said, laughing. “I can’t get my head around that at all.”
Walker, of course, was the star of that UVA team, a smooth senior who averaged 22.1 points per game in 1975-76. Its head coach was Terry Holland, then only 33 years old and in his second season at Virginia.
In some ways, Holland said recently from Greenville, North Carolina, it’s easy to believe four decades have passed, “but in other ways it seems like it was just yesterday.”
This year’s ACC tournament begins Tuesday in Washington, D.C., at Verizon Center, home of the NBA’s Wizards and the NHL’s Capitals. For many years, the Caps and the Wizards – then known as the Bullets – played their home games about 15 miles away, at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland.
The Capital Centre was demolished in 2002, five years after the Wizards moved to D.C., but memories of one of its most unforgettable events live on.
“I don’t think I really realized the significance at that time,” recalled Otis Fulton, a 6-foot-11 freshman for Virginia in 1975-76. “It dawned on me later how special that was.”
Over three days in March 1976, UVA, the No. 6 seed in the seven-team ACC tournament, pulled off what was dubbed the “Miracle in Landover.” Virginia defeated three nationally ranked teams – No. 17 North Carolina State University, No. 9 University of Maryland and, finally, No. 4 University of North Carolina – to win the ACC title for the first time.
The Cavaliers had gone 0-2 against each of those teams during a regular season in which they finished 4-8 in ACC play and 15-11 overall.
Even so, Fulton recalled, “We came in with very high expectations. We were playing extremely well at the end of the season. We were surprisingly confident that we could really make something happen down there. We definitely didn’t have the mentality of a usual 6-seed.”
Fulton, who grew up in Richmond, where he still lives, was part of a tall, talented frontline that also included 6-8 sophomore Marc Iavaroni, who went on to play in the NBA, and 6-8 freshman Steve Castellan.
Walker, at 6-7, could play inside and outside. In the backcourt, most of the minutes were split among junior Billy Langloh, sophomore Dave Koesters and freshman Bobby Stokes, whose brother, Ricky, would later play at Virginia.
“We really had a young team other than Billy Langloh and myself,” Walker recalled. “It was all freshmen and sophomores playing. But we kept getting better throughout the season. Coach Holland gave us confidence and made us believe that it could happen.”
Fulton said: “It was on the defensive end that we really came together throughout the season, and we began playing as a real unit. I think that was the source of our confidence. I really felt that we could stop teams. I think that everybody had that feeling, and physically we had three enormous guys on the front line. So we were a very capable rebounding team, and if we could stop teams, we felt like we could control the tempo of the game.”
Of Virginia’s regular-season losses to N.C. State, Maryland and UNC, four were by three points or fewer. Another was by seven and the other by eight.
“Right before we drove up to the tournament,” Holland said, “I sat down with the team, and I just said, ‘Guys, somebody may beat us in the tournament that just has a hot-shooting game, but we are as good as anybody in this tournament, and we can win and should win the games that we play, if all things are normal.’”
The Wahoos had closed the regular season with an 81-73 loss to the Terrapins in College Park, Maryland, but that didn’t particularly worry Holland.
“Even some of our really good teams got blistered at Maryland in the final game of the season,” said Holland, whose assistant coaches were Mike Schuler and Bill Cofield. “That was always a tough game. You were always at a great advantage if you were hosting, as opposed to traveling to it.”
As the regular-season champion and No. 1 seed, UNC received a first-round bye and thus would have to win only two games to capture the tournament. The other six teams – Virginia, N.C. State, Wake Forest University, Duke University, Maryland and Clemson University – faced the daunting challenge of trying to win three games in three days.
In its tourney opener, against N.C. State, Virginia led 42-26 at halftime and rolled to a 75-63 victory. Walker led the ’Hoos with 25 points – he was 10 for 13 from the floor – and added six rebounds. Iavaroni contributed 17 points, and Castellan grabbed nine rebounds.
Next up was Maryland. The Terps, coached by one of the game’s great characters, Lefty Driesell, started three superb guards: John Lucas, Brad Davis and Mo Howard.
“The only thing I worried about was their speed, the fact that they were so fast,” Holland said. “Our guards were Billy Langloh and Dave Koesters, who were really good players, but they couldn’t run up and down the floor with those guys. So we had to control the tempo as much as we possibly could, while knowing that they were going to get some easy baskets, too.”
As they had in their first-round game, the Cavaliers went into intermission leading, this time by six, and they didn’t let up in the second half. Behind Walker (27 points) and Langloh (20 points) – a graduate of nearby DeMatha Catholic High – Virginia defeated Maryland 73-65.
That left Dean Smith’s mighty Tar Heels, whose regulars included Walter Davis, Phil Ford, Mitch Kupchak, Tom LaGarde and John Kuester.
UNC had the more talented team, but the Cavaliers were confident. “It sounds so clichéd,” Fulton said, “but we definitely went in thinking that if we played the kind of basketball we were capable of, that we would win.”
It helped that Virginia’s players stayed loose during their stay in Maryland, partly by pulling pranks on their beloved head manager, Frank Birckhead.
“He was the source of so much good humor,” Walker said of Birckhead, who passed away in October. “A lot of it was directed right at him. We’re all missing Frank.”
In 1976, a conference could send no more than two teams to the NCAA tournament, and the ACC tourney champion would get an automatic bid. Win or lose, North Carolina (25-2) was assured a spot in the 32-team field, but if Virginia prevailed in the final, Maryland would be out.
Driesell was a Duke alumnus, and “I think there was a quote from Lefty after we beat Maryland in the semis,” Walker said, “something along the lines of, ‘This may be the first time in my life I’ve ever cheered for Carolina.’”
For UVA, this was uncharted territory. Not only had the Cavaliers never played in the NCAA tournament, they had never reached the ACC championship game before 1976. And they were battling fatigue on March 6, the day of the title game.
“Billy Langloh and I were roommates and close friends, so whatever time we woke up – it wasn’t early – I can remember us kind of looking at each other, and one of us said, ‘How are we going to play tonight?’” Walker recalled.
“It was a night game, so we had all day to wait. But we hadn’t played three games in three nights before, and that wasn’t the norm in college, of course, mostly because we hadn’t gotten to the finals before.
“So we were tired. We felt like we belonged in the game. We’d certainly played well enough. But we were really plowing new ground. We didn’t know how physically we were going to do it.”
By then, though, the ’Hoos felt like a team of destiny, and with most of the fans at the Capital Centre urging them on, they summoned the necessary energy against UNC. Virginia led 35-30 at the break. The Heels rallied in the second half, but Langloh hit five of six free throws in the final 34 seconds, and Virginia walked away with a stunning 67-62 victory.
Walker, nicknamed “Wally Wonderful” for his heroics at the Capital Centre, led the Cavaliers with 21 points in the championship game. In his three games in Landover, he made 28 of 41 shots from floor to run away with MVP honors.
After the game, Fulton recalled, UVA’s president, Frank Hereford, came into the locker room, “and I’ve never seen a happier guy than he was. He was grinning from ear to ear. He was high-fiving us, and he was just laughing. It was really great to see him.”
Hereford, who served as UVA’s president from 1974 to 1985, died in 2004.
“He was a wonderful old-school UVA guy,” Fulton said. “He was a physicist who had become a college president somehow. I remember when I was recruited, they took me into his office, and he was just such a gentleman.”
As part of the All Sports Reunion Weekend, the 1975-76 team will be recognized Sept. 24 at Scott Stadium during Virginia’s football game against Central Michigan. Because of work commitments, many of the team members would not have been able to return to Charlottesville during this basketball season.
One week after the Cavaliers’ historic win in Landover, their postseason run ended in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they lost 69-60 to DePaul University in the NCAA tournament’s first round. Virginia led 39-31 at halftime, but the Blue Demons dominated the final 20 minutes.
“They were a big, strong, rugged group, and they just gradually wore us down,” Holland said. “We couldn’t put the ball in the basket and couldn’t rebound to get a second chance at it, either.”
Walker said: “Whether we were still basking in the glow [of the ACC title] or weren’t quite ready for a different style, different team, I don’t know, but I wish we could do it over again.”
With Walker gone to the professional ranks, Virginia struggled through the 1976-77 regular season. They went 2-10 in conference play and 10-16 overall. UVA closed the regular season with a win over Maryland at University Hall but still entered the ACC tournament as the No. 7 seed.
Even so, Holland said, laughing, “We should have won the darn thing again.”
After knocking off second-seeded Wake Forest in the first round, Virginia upset No. 3 seed Clemson in the semifinals. That set up another showdown with top-seeded North Carolina in the championship game, this time in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Tar Heels won 75-69.
“We just ran out of gas in that game,” Fulton recalled. “It would have been especially sweet to have beaten Carolina two years in a row, but that’s a tough order.”
Holland said: “I think it was fatigue as much as anything. Again, we’d played three games, and they’d only played two.”
The years passed, and Virginia’s quest for a second ACC title continued. The Cavaliers reached the championship game in 1982, ’83 and ’90 under Holland, and in 1994 under his successor, Jeff Jones. Not until Tony Bennett took charge of the program, however, did the ’Hoos celebrate another championship.
In Bennett’s fifth season at UVA, his team won the 2014 ACC tournament in Greensboro. Nobody was happier about the Cavaliers’ feat than the members of the 1976 championship team.
“We’re delighted not to be the only ones,” said Walker, whose son is a second-year student at the University.
Fulton said: “It meant so much to me when those guys won that, and I think so much of this program right now. It’s been great the last few years.
“We won the way that this modern UVA team wins. We played ball-possession basketball and very physical defense. That’s one of the other reasons I really am very fond of this particular brand of basketball that’s in the program now.”
Walker, a former president and CEO of the NBA’s SuperSonics, still lives in Seattle. Before coming to UVA, Bennett coached at Washington State, where his teams caught the attention of Walker.
“I know how encouraging and supportive he was when I was a candidate for this job, because he had watched us at Washington State,” Bennett said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “So I have the utmost respect, and I’m thankful for him, because without at least his stamp of approval, I wouldn’t be here.”