NAIA: Black College Basketball Champions
The Tennessee A&I (State) Tigers led by Clarence Cash became the team to beat if you wanted to ‘play-out ‘ of the newly organized District-at-Large 29, created especially for the all-black college teams who wanted into the National Intercollegiate Athletic Association (NAIA) National Invitational Tournament. They were not without competition though. North Carolina College (CIAA) coached by John B. McLendon, Jr. met the Tigers in the first District 29 championship game. The Tigers prevailed and made their way to Kansas City, MO to play in the national tournament in 1953, sixteen years after the tournament began in 1937.
Black colleges began their championship era until the National Collegiate Athletic Association began to usurp the older, sanctioning body. Here is their legacy.
Tennessee State A&I, led by head coach Clarence Cash was the first Black college team on the floor in Kansas City Municipal Auditorium. Tennessee A&I was the first black college team to advance beyond the first round in 1953. They started off a little nervous but shifted gears in holding off Geneva College, 98-88 and routing St. Benedict, 79-56 before losing to East Texas State, 72-67 in the third round.
1954 The Tigers returned to Kansas City. They lost in the first round to Regis College (CO) 61-58.
Texas Southern University finally broke through the District 29 deadlock and showed off their high-powered offense, romping over Adrian University, MI, 102-83. They lost in the second-round to Gustavus Adolph, 67-55.
Both Tigers teams- Tennessee A&I and Texas Southern – made it into the NAIA tourney.
Texas Southern defeated Hastings, Neb., 108-81; eked past Rockhurst College, 64-61 and Midwestern State, 85-82.
They lost to McNeese State, 60-55 in the finals.
Tennessee A&I swept Indiana Central, 86-63; Wis-Eau Claire, 61-62 and fell to eventual champion, McNeese State, 76-68 in the quareterfinals.
Unseeded Tennessee State started out anonymously, downing Adrian, MI, 87-69; Portland State 87-70. They survived a stiff test against Western Illinois, 90-88. They met no. 1 seed Pacific Lutheran in the finals and came away with a 71-70 thriller to claim their first national championship title.
No. 8 seed Texas Southern made their way to the third round before running out of gas against Pacific Lutheran (tourney runner-up) in the quarterfinals, 91-72.
Their two victories were against Southern Connecticut, 67-66, and Ball State, 97-72.
This NAIA National Invitational Tournament would become the scene of another groundbreaker.
Again, Tennessee State(A&I) and Texas Southern made encore appearances and started their trek to the finals. TSU, led by All-Americans Dick Barnett and John Barnhill led the charge as they downed Northern Michigan, 113-45; Anderson 77-56 and 81-62 over East Texas State.
Unseeded Texas Southern, led by their star player Bennie Swain, beat Oklahoma Baptist, 79-68; Drury 91-61 and Coe College 98-78.
They met in the semifinals – the first time two Black college teams played for the national championship.
TSU ran past Texas Southern, 110-85. Barnett won his first of two Chuck Taylor Awards. Coach John B. McLendon, Jr. was awarded the Coach of the Year honors.
An unprecedented three Black college teams made it to the big dance.
1 Tennessee State Tigers were poised to defend their crown, and they did it in fast fashion: They downed Nebraska Wesleyan, 75-57, Youngstown State, 89-80, and Illinois Normal, 131-74.
They defeated no. 3 Pacific Lutheran, 97-87 to capture their third straight championship. Again, Barnett was the tourney MVP/Chuck Taylor Award winner.
Other contenders: In the first round, 4 Grambling State lost to Lenoir Rhyne 88-81 and Kentucky State fell to Central Oklahoma 72-65.
1960 Tennessee State went for their fourth consecutive title, but fell short to William Jewell, in the consolation game, 100-65.
Past Tournament Champions
1957 Tennessee State Tigers
1958 Tennessee State Tigers
1959 Tennessee State Tigers
It was Grambling State’s chance to roll and they did. They overcame Linfield College, 107-85, romped 80-60 over Peru State, and Anderson College, 62-54. They met defensive-minded Westminster, PA in the semi-finals and led by All-Americans Charles Hardnett, Willis Reed, and Herschell West, eked out the win, 45-44, and had an easier time in the finals as they romped over Georgetown, KY, 95-75 to win their first national title. Hardnett won the MVP/Chuck Taylor Award. Other contenders: Savannah State lost their first-round game, 80-60 to Redlands, CA. Maryland State lost their first-round game, 89-74 to Central Connecticut.
Five Black college teams earned a berth in the tournament for the first time. Newcomer No. 9 Winston-Salem State defeated Westminister, UT, 95-70 and got by unranked Black college power West Virginia State, 86-76, but got caught in Westmister’s slowdown tactics and lost a low-scoring game, 35-33.
Another newcomer made their presence felt as no. 2 Prairie View A&M got an overtime opening win over Ashland, OR, 73-64, and that propelled the Panthers to big wins over Morris Harvey, 85-70. In the Elite Eight round, they took down Arizona State, 86-48.
They held off Westminster, PA, 62-53 in the finals to win their first national title.
All-American center Zelmo Beatty was named the MVP/Chuck Taylor Award winner after setting a tournament record for most rebounds in a tournament with 96.
Other contenders: No 4. Winston-Salem State beat Indiana State, 83-71, and lost to Southeastern Oklahoma, 69-49. Savannah State beat Pacific Lutheran, 84-75, and lost Arizona State, 95-91.
Central State, Ohio came into the tournament as the No. 1 seed and did not disappoint. The Maruaders jumped on Jacksonville, FL, 78-57, cruised by Midwestern State, 75-61, Augsburg, 66-57, and Fairmont State, 91-75. They manhandled Oklahoma Baptist, 85-51 to win their first national title.
Ken Wilburn was named the Chuck Taylor MVP. In 5 games, he had 90 total rebounds (18.0 average rebounds per game).
Maryland State lost to St. Benedict’s, 75-73. Albany State beat Transylvania, 74-57, and lost to St. Benedict’s, 101-74. Southern-Baton Rouge defeated Indiana Tech, 94-77; 97-86 over Eastern Montana, and lost to Ouachita Baptist, 65-64. Lincoln, MO lost to Ouachita Baptist, 83-76. Winston-Salem beat St. Norbert College, 87-69, High Point, 78-62, and lost to Oklahoma Baptist, 71-62.
No. 3 Central State, Ohio beat Milikin College, 81-64, Valdosta State 60-53, stopped Central Washington, 66-47, and Westminster, PA, 72-51, and had enough left to hold off Fairmont State, 51-48 to capture their second NAIA championship.
No. 13 Albany State lost to New Haven, CN, 69-68.
No. 7 Alcorn State beat Henderson State, fell to 79-70 to Central Washington.
Bishop College lost to Monmouth, 102-91.
There were no championship finalists.
Maryland State (Eastern Shore) set the tone as they beat Wartburg, 99-90, Wis-Stout, 85-80, Monmouth, 99-94, and Central Washington, 93-87. They lost to Eastern New Mexico, 99-76 in the finals. Jake Ford won the Chuck Taylor MVP. He had 52 field goals in 5 games.
No. 9 Elizabeth City beat Valdosta State, 86-78, Southwestern Oklahoma, 88-81, Washburn, 90-88, and lost to Eastern New Mexico, 75-72 in the semis.
Jackson State lost to Gannon, PA, 81-58.
Central State, Ohio lost to Monmouth, 63-59.
Grambling lost to Asheville-Biltmore, 86-76.
Past Tournament Champions
1961 Grambling State
1962 Prairie View A&M
1965 Central State, Ohio
1968 Central State, Ohio
The Kentucky State Thorobreds began the second championship trilogy in the NAIA.
The Thorobreds got going early, led by All-Americans Travis Grant and 7-0 center Elmore Smith, they teamed with guards Mike Bernard and William Graham. They led the ‘Breds to wins over Illinois Wesleyan, 64-55, and Wis-Eau Claire, 73-65. They met Central State, Ohio in the Elite Eight and won, 66-56. They ran past Guilford, 108-90 to gain their first national championship.
Grant led all scorers with 27.4 points per game, and set three tournament records, but did not win the MVP award. Smith was the top rebounder with 13 rebounds per game.
Kentucky State was on a mission and head coach Lucious Mitchell had them focused. They scored 100 points in the opening game with a 100-66 score over St. Thomas, MN. They brushed past Central Washington, 73-59, and met Grambling in the Elite Eight Round. In a dogfight the whole game, the Thorobreds went to Grant and Smith and prevailed, 93-81. The next foe- Elizabeth City– looked to be a worthy opponent, but the ‘Breds outlasted them down the stretch and won, 104-91. That set up a final with no. 6 Eastern Michigan.
They outlasted them, 102-90 to win back to back titles…the first time since the Tennessee State Tigers won three straight.
The third time around started out the same for the Kentucky State Thorobreds. With the nation’s leading scorer and leading rebounder in Travis Grant and Elmore Smith…they were the favorites going into Kansas City. The ‘Breds blew out Minot State, ND, 118-68 and West Georgia, 112-83 before getting a good fight from St. Thomas, 66-57. Stephen F. Austin managed to keep them under a hundred but lost, 87-82. Their toughest game was in the finals as Wisconsin-Eau Claire battled them but lost, 71-62. It gave the Thorobreds their third consecutive national championship…only the third time in the history of college basketball at the time (UCLA has won seven straight, 1967-73)
Elizabeth City lost to Ouachita Baptist. Xavier, LA beat Md-Eastern Shore, 102-80, lost to Westmont, 71-59.
Xavier, LA beat: Marist, 81-65, Sam Hoston State, 67-60, lost to Md-Eastern Shore, 87-80
Md-Eastern Shore defeated Eastern Montana, 114-104, Ferris State, 95-90, Xavier, 87-80 and Slippery Rock, 113-82. They lost to Guilford in the finals, 99-96
Other contenders: South Carolina State beat Hastings, NE, 82-71, lost to Wisc-Green Bay, 72-55…Kentucky State lost to Valdosta State, 90-81…Alcorn A&M lost to Oklahoma Baptist, 79-76
Alcorn State made their presence felt as they romped over Central Washington, 93-55 in the opener and held off Missouri Western, 80-72. They sprinted to a 107-102 win over Hanover and beat St. Mary’s, 76-71 to set up a meeting with upstart West Georgia who prevailed over the Braves, 97-79 in the championship game.
Kentucky State had a run that included wins over Erskine, 82-69; Hastings 75-57; Midwestern State 80-74 before falling to West Georgia, 79-75 in the semifinals.
Kentucky State fell to Malone, OH 85-77 in the first round.
The 39th edition of the NAIA National Invitational Tournament produced another Black college champion. The Coppin State Eagles led by head coach Ron “Fang” Mitchell, downed Dowling College, NY 78-55 and Wisconsin-Parkside 68-67.
They ran into perennial contender Texas Southern and overpowered them, 88-77. They eked past Marymount 82-81 and showed poise under pressure as they defeated Henderson State 96-91 to win their first national title. Joe Pace was named the tournament MVP.
One of the first trailblazers into the NAIA tournament was the last Black college to claim the national title.
Texas Southern opened with a 89-65 win over Central State, Ohio, outlasted Wisconsin-Parkside, 82-80 before defeating East Texas State in the quarterfinals.
Grand Valley State fell 69-62 in the semifinals and the Tigers overwhelmed Campbell College, 71-44 to win their first national title. Alonza Bradley was named the tournament MVP.
The Tigers were the last Black college to win an NAIA title.
Past Tournament Champions
1970 Kentucky State Thorobreds
1971 Kentucky State Thorobreds
1972 Kentucky State Thorobreds
1976 Coppin State Eagles
1977 Texas Southern Tigers