The Rams went 26-3 that season, rose as high as No. 9 in the Associated Press national rankings, and made the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional Semifinals, where they lost a heartbreaking game to Villanova. With their 29-year-old first-year coach Digger Phelps and his assistant, future Fordham athletics director Frank McLaughlin, FCRH ’69—for whom the basketball court was recently named—the team captured the attention of New York City, selling out multiple games at Madison Square Garden and making them the cream of the New York college hoops crop at a time when the New York Knicks were also the reigning NBA champions.
For the team members in attendance, the celebration was overdue—they weren’t able to gather for a 50th reunion because of COVID-19, and it was the first time they had gathered at Rose Hill in such a large number since 2011. In addition to attending the game on Saturday, which Fordham won 74-71, the team gathered for several events throughout the weekend, including one of the current squad’s practices.
Fordham Magazine spoke with members of the 1970–1971 team about that magical season, the bonds they created, and the similarities they see in this year’s Rams under first-year coach Keith Urgo.
*Quotes marked with an asterisk come from other sources.
A New Coach Arrives at Rose Hill
During the summer of 1970, after a disappointing 10-15 season, Fordham offered its head coaching job to a 29-year-old assistant from the University of Pennsylvania named Digger Phelps. Phelps accepted the job and brought on as an assistant Frank McLaughlin, FCRH ’69, who was captain of the Rams team that went 17-9 in 1968–1969 and had spent a year as an assistant coach at the College of the Holy Cross after graduating.
McLaughlin: In ’68 and ’69, we had very good teams. So there was a winning culture. Then this total unknown, Digger Phelps, was named the head coach, which shocked everybody. People did not know who he was. But he came in, he was very charismatic, very enthusiastic, and it just flowed over to the team.
Tom Pipich, FCRH ’73, guard: Digger called a meeting to meet all the players. Everybody’s filtering in pretty much on time. I think Kenny [Charles] walked in maybe 10 to 15 seconds late. And Digger had something to say along the lines of, “The meeting’s at 3:30, everybody needs to be here on time.” And so Bart [Woytowicz] and I looked at each other and said, “Oh, things have changed a little bit.”
Stephen Marcellino, FCRH ’72, student manager: When Digger came in, he was very detail oriented. When you see the team picture, he had all the coaches get these camel hair blazers, right? It was unique at the time.
George Zambetti, M.D., FCRH ’72, forward: We really didn’t have any ability to evaluate what kind of coach he was eventually going to be. But he came in and he hired Frank McLaughlin, who we all knew. I think that eased the transition for him. And then he was just such a dynamic and enthusiastic coach that we all just were able to bond with him.
Wendell Holland, FCRH ’74, freshman team guard: Frank McLaughlin was an incredible influence in my life.^ He stressed to me and to us the whole concept of defense. He was the one that helped me to understand the finer things that Billy Mainor and Tom Sullivan would do when it came to defense. He was the youngest coach I’ve ever had in my entire basketball career. And because he was so young, he used to play with us. I learned so much from him.
Ken Charles, FCRH ’73, guard: [Digger] didn’t know us, we didn’t know him. Practice started October 15, but we really didn’t have an offense till November 1st, because he just wanted to see what everybody can do.
Digger Phelps, head coach: I had a good feeling. Of course, even I had no idea how good.*
A Team Identity Starts to Take Shape
As the season got started, center Paul Griswold sustained a leg injury, leaving the team with a starting lineup with no one over 6’5″. Phelps used the team’s quickness to implement a smothering full-court-press defense, which gave the team its identity.
Phelps: At first, I thought we’d start three guards. Then I decided to go with four and press all over the court because we had guys like Charlie Yelverton and Kenny Charles, Billy Mainor and Jackie Burik, who were quick.*
Marcellino: When Paul Griswold went down with an injury, the press is what Digger and Frank put together. You could tell that we were pretty quick. We were undersized, but we could score a lot. In the early parts of the season, we were racking up some pretty heavy scores. The question was, since we were small, could we effectively outrun teams? It was a vintage New York City basketball team. It was just very, very tough. Basically, we’d outrun you and outscore you. Height didn’t really overly concern us.
Jack Burik, FCRH ’71, guard: I’ve never been part of a situation where you never practiced an offensive play. It was all about establishing our identity from the beginning. And we’re going to press everyone and we’re going to take control of the game. We’re just playing New York back cuts and triple screens. We did things naturally because we were experienced. You’ve got to know how to play it. But to be a cohesive unit and take advantage of our quickness, that’s what Digger was all about with this full-court press. We just wore you out. We pressed you constantly. We had all kind of different traps, whether it’s zones or man to man. And then when they finally get into a half-court game, we’re still trapping you. We’re double teaming, rotating.
Zambetti: Yeah, I was actually the tallest guy that started at 6’5″, so it was my job to defend against the opponents’ biggest players. So there were a lot of 6’8″, 6’9″ centers that I had to guard. It was just a matter of trying to be more physical than they were. The expression “laying a body on them” would be appropriate because you just had to be in constant physical contact and be able to basically box them out and prevent them from getting the ball in the low key to grant them an easy basket.
Pipich: Digger always gave the impression, from the beginning, that whoever we were playing, no matter whether they were theoretically better than us, we’re going to find a way to win. It was always about how do you beat them, not how good they are.
P.J. Carlesimo, FCRH ’71, guard: Digger came in and did not a good job, but a great job. Every button he pushed that year was the right button.*
An Early Winning Streak and Adversity on the Road
With their four-guard lineup and press defense set up, the Rams started the season 11-0, including wins against Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Holy Cross, as well a pair of road victories over Miami and Florida that helped bring the team closer together, in part because of difficult circumstances off the court.
Charles: When we played Syracuse [at home on December 19], we had to get to the game early, and for some reason, it sounded so loud upstairs. I remember thinking, “The band must be right over where we practiced.” We didn’t expect what we saw when we came out to warm up. The place was crazy because we were 5-0. It was really nice to see. They had people sitting between the end stanchions and the baseline, so we barely could take the ball out. It was just so packed in there.
Paul Griswold, FCRH ’73, center: Syracuse came in and they were a very serious team with a 6’10” center. And we started off with the press, we went up by about 20 points in the first half. I watched Tommy Sullivan, at 6’4″, manhandle a 6’10” kid. And I’m saying, all right, this is interesting. And the way Kenny Charles came in and played a very, very solid role, scored when needed. Burik ran the team. He was a drill sergeant. He was the Patton, if you might.
McLaughlin: And all of a sudden as we kept winning, guys started believing more and more in how good they were. We went down and played Miami and really won a game on the road that was impossible to win. And then followed it up with a win at Florida. And I think when that happened, we started saying, “Hey, this could be something special.”
Bob Larbes, FCRH ’71, forward: I remember the Florida game vividly because it was a very hostile environment. It was the first time I was ever aware of a crowd making negative comments toward our players. And that was kind of striking, and it motivated us to play even harder.
Burik: After the [Florida] game, we’re getting on the bus in Gainesville. We’re not allowed to go in certain restaurants because of our Black players.^^ I remember like it was yesterday. Digger says to Billy Mainor and me, “What are we going to do?” I said—and Billy shook his head—”We’re staying together. I don’t care if we have to go to Georgia to get a meal.” This really brought us together. We’re all in this together. From then on, we couldn’t have been any tighter.
Zambetti: One of the things that Digger always prevented us from feeling was complacency. We were always to strive for more, and we were never to be complacent in what we had accomplished, but only look forward to what we could accomplish further.
Larbes: When we got to 10-0, we completely bought in at that point to what Digger was trying to get us to do. It turned into an us against the world mentality in a way, because we were always the underdog.
Facing a ‘Goliath’ In Dr. J
After a one-point loss—their first of the season—to Temple at Rose Hill Gymnasium on Jan. 16, the Rams traveled to Amherst on Jan. 27 to face the University of Massachusetts and their star forward, Julius Erving. This game, which Fordham won 87-79, was one of the examples author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his essay “How David Beats Goliath.”
Marcellino: “The Cage,” I think it was called, up in Amherst. It was a horrible place to play. It was brutal. Really, really hostile. It’s a very big game. Erving, I’d never seen a human being jump that high. The game was really, really hard fought, to the point where when we were going to the locker room at halftime, people were throwing things at us from the stands. When the game ended, I remember a police guard taking us through. That game really said that we were a national-caliber team.
Charlie Yelverton, FCRH ’71, forward: I had to beg Phelps to put me on [Erving]. So he put me on him, and I know how to just squeeze a guy out, because I had played against ballplayers that were quicker than he was. So I knew how to anticipate and force them to go back door. We had a great defensive team.
Joseph “Chip” Polak, FCRH ’72, student manager: Charlie really outplayed him. Charlie was so good in all factors. I mean, he could stop on a dime. He had an outside jump shot. I mean, he was like Elgin Baylor in terms of moves. He was just so good.
Charles: They were yelling at us, booing at us. I thought that game cemented the team. I remember being quiet on the bus on the way back, only because I think we were all thinking, “Damn, are we this good?” You know, really, because it crept in.
Taking Madison Square Garden—and New York City—by Storm
After the win at UMass, Fordham beat Army, Boston College, Rhode Island, and St. John’s, bringing their record to 16-1. Now ranked No. 18 in the country in the AP poll, the Rams played their biggest game of the season to date: a much-anticipated tilt against No. 14 Notre Dame on Feb. 18 at Madison Square Garden in front of a sellout, college-record crowd of 19,500.
Charles: On the way to the Notre Dame game, Howard Cosell was on the radio, interviewing Johnny Dee, the Notre Dame coach at the time. And Howard said to him, “Well, we all know you’re going to win. This Fordham team, they’ve been playing over their head the last week.” Johnny Dee said, “I’m not so sure that’s true.”
Burik: Johnny Dee’s trying to defend us. Imagine that. “Oh, I saw them play. They’re pretty good.” And Cosell said, “Oh, you guys are going to kill them. You’ve got Austin Carr.” He’s just revving people up. And oh, we’re listening to this. I can’t wait for tip off.
Yelverton: He’d say, “We don’t have to talk about that. We know how that’s going to be.” I said, “Wow.” I couldn’t wait to play, you know?
Pipich: We were kind of used to playing at the Garden. But we weren’t used to 19,500 people in the building, virtually all of them cheering for us. When we walked on for warmups, by that time, the crowd’s pretty much filled in. You could feel the electricity in those days.
Holland: You couldn’t hear the ball bounce. When it gets loud, you literally can’t hear the ball bounce as you’re coming down as a point guard. In any place, you try to block it out, but you really kind of say to yourself, “I am playing Madison Square Garden. There’s no arena like it in the entire world, and we are making a statement, us Fordham Rams.”
Fordham beat Notre Dame 94-88, boosting them up to No. 11 in the AP poll and commanding national attention. After beating Rutgers two days later, the Rams got ready for another huge, sellout game at Madison Square Garden, this time against No. 2 Marquette on Feb. 25.
Charles: At this point, the whole city was just Fordham crazy. Alumni, guys you haven’t seen, people were back on campus.
Burik: And everyone knew where we lived. They wanted to be a part of it too. Of course, we’re getting besieged for tickets. There’s no way you’re going to get four or eight tickets. It’s not going to happen. But everyone’s begging and pleading like you’re going to find a way to get in that arena. You talk about maroon and white: every person there is rooting for us against Marquette. There’s no question about it. And they were so proud to be Fordham fans. And of course, whether they were before or not, it didn’t matter. They were fans that night.
Bob: The environment was raucous. It was unbelievable that we put that many people in the stands in New York City. I grew up in Fairfield, Ohio, where the population was about 10,000. So, to be in an arena with 19,500 was remarkable. The ovation that we got at the end of the game, that both teams got, was spontaneous and heartfelt and really appreciated.
McLaughlin: We lost a heartbreaking game [85-80] in overtime, but just played great. We became the darlings of New York. Everybody was rooting for us. It created a lot of credibility for us.
Holland: This was a very special week because this is when I think the basketball world realized that Fordham was a genuine contender. Marquette didn’t come in from Wisconsin and embarrass us. We did a pretty good job against one of the top four teams in the nation.
Carlesimo: It was so special because [the fans]were there for Fordham. They weren’t there for Notre Dame, they weren’t there for Marquette. They were there for Fordham, and it was incredible. The noise level was unbelievable, from the beginning to the end.*
Galvanizing the Campus
Following that week, Fordham was at the top of the college basketball world in New York City, and players and staff alike were treated like local celebrities on campus and beyond.
Charles: I took the train home on the weekends to hang out, and all the way home, when I got off the train and walked home, people were yelling “Fordham” to me. My friends were happy, New York City was happy.
Polak: We were having a great time. There used to be a bar across the train tracks—the Penny Whistle Pub or the Web, we used to call it. And after games, I used to come back and stand on the bar and read the stats.
Marcellino: Just being a lowly student manager, we were like the gods. There was a little deli across the street on Webster Avenue, and we couldn’t buy food. They put our pictures—student managers’ pictures—in the window of the delicatessen in our Fordham gear we had on. At the Web—of course the drinking age was different then—you couldn’t buy a beer. Professors would come into class and say, “How we doing?” The whole school, from the top academic administration all the way down, that was the focus. It really put our University on the map at that point.
Griswold: It really brought so much to the campus. My recollection, more than anything, is just the way it galvanized the campus.
Ups and Downs in the NCAA Tournament
To close out the regular season, Fordham picked up wins against NYU, Georgetown, Fairfield, and Manhattan College, and earned a No. 9 national ranking. The team had been invited to both the NCAA Tournament and the NIT, and they decided to play in the former. After defeating Furman in a play-in game at St. John’s Alumni Hall, the Rams traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, where they faced off against No. 19 Villanova on March 18.
McLaughlin: Villanova was loaded. They had great players. But what happened, I think looking back, Charlie Yelverton picked up a third foul in the first half, and we sat him. And hindsight would say, “Hey, don’t sit him. Let’s just roll with Charlie and see what happens.”
Charles: The Villanova game was the only game I wish I could play over, because I was sick and I couldn’t do what I needed to do. So it sticks in me. It really does. All these years later, I still wish I was feeling better that game, but it was a great experience.
Larbes: That was heartbreaking. It was literally heartbreaking because in our minds we were headed for the [finals at Houston’s]Astrodome. And we deserved to be there, and then it didn’t happen. It was quite a shock, and there were lots of tears in the locker room. But in those days, you had another game to play.
Two days after their 85-75 loss to Villanova, the Rams played in the consolation game against South Carolina, a team that had several New York City connections.
Marcellino: South Carolina at that point had the New York Express. [Former Archbishop Molly star] Kevin Joyce was down there; [former St. John’s coach]Frank McGuire was the coach. We beat them 100 to 90. It was a consolation game, but still it was New York versus New York. That game actually had meaning for us.
Polak: South Carolina was all New Yorkers. And they went out and they went up on a 12 to two run or something, and Digger called timeout. And he said, “Stop being nervous. Just have fun.” And we won by 10. It was pretty cool for Sully and me because one of our really close friends, Jimmy Powell, was playing on the other team, and we knew Kevin Joyce and then Bobby Carver. They were unbelievable. I think they were preseason No. 1. So even though we played a consolation game, it ended on a really good note.
Burik: You talk about a game I will never ever forget, it was that one. Because who’s best in New York? Well, we just proved who was best in New York, pal, by us beating you.
Phelps Moves On
In early May, Digger Phelps accepted the head coaching position at Notre Dame—a job he had been candid about always having dreamed of. After a historic year, the Fordham program would have to prepare for another coaching transition.
Charles: It was a rumor that he would be leaving. And then, when it became a reality, I was like, “Oh, no. Start all over again.” It was like a malaise. It took a while for everyone to just get into it. But you’ve got to make the best out of it, so we just played.
Griswold: He talked to the team and he said, “Look, I’ve always wanted this job.” I think he even produced an old letter that he had written [saying that].
Pipich: It was a difficult transition after a year that, you come to think there are certain things you do well, and it takes a while for the new coach to recognize that, or he may not have placed the same value on what you’re doing in one system as he has in his own system. And to be fair, it was difficult for a new coach coming in like that.
McLaughlin: Unfortunately, when Digger left for Notre Dame, some people badmouthed them. And it was very, very unfair. I think what happened was people were very, very hurt and they didn’t know the true story. Then people tried to protect themselves by making Digger the scapegoat. But Digger has a great love for Fordham.
Retiring a Team Leader’s Number
In addition to belatedly celebrating the 50th anniversary of the season in late February, Fordham retired Charlie Yelverton’s No. 34. After four years at Fordham, Yelverton played for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers for a year, then enjoyed a long, successful European career, including a Euroleague title with Ignis Varèse in 1975.
Holland: I’m going to be very prejudicial in saying this: I think he was the greatest basketball player in Fordham history. I am so grateful that I was there with him at the time. Charlie epitomized determination; he never gave up. He could play virtually any offensive player at any time and shut him down.
Polak: Charlie was our leader. And he was just such a good person and a hard worker. My picture of Charlie is after he graduated that summer, before the [NBA] draft, he would be in the gym. All the lights were out. It was like 150 [degrees], and he’d just be going from baseline to baseline with the ball dribbling through his legs, just working on his ball handling.
Marcellino: There’s no question that Charlie was the leader. You had no doubt about that whatsoever. At 6’2″, just going up against some of these guys. Marquette was enormous, and he was fearless. Him being fearless, I think, set the tempo for everybody else. Once, he said, “I don’t care. 6’8″, 6’10”, it doesn’t bother me. I’ll do my thing and you guys do your thing.”
Zambetti: Charlie is not only a great player, he’s a great personality. He’s almost a transcendent personality and athlete and a great combination of talent and enthusiasm and camaraderie that makes him a fabulous teammate.
Larbes: Charlie is the best player I was ever on court with. And he appreciated everybody who played against him, which was kind of surprising. But more than a good player, a great player, he’s a great person. When we had our 40th, we were all at dinner, and Charlie was late, of course. And when he came in the room it was like somebody turned the lights up. It’s like, “Charlie’s here, now the party can begin.” He’s so full of life and energy. He’s truly a blessed individual who spreads it around to everybody on the team.
A Lasting Legacy
Looking back at the 1970–1971 season, the team’s players, coaches, and managers say it was not only a memorable time for them as individuals but also an important period in the University’s history.
Stephen: So many folks went onto great professional careers after that club. People did great things in life. The ethos was, again, these were the kind of guys that would bring a lunch pail to work. Fordham was really a heavily New York school. We had 26 kids from Brooklyn Prep, a Jesuit high school, going there. Fordham Prep had 40 kids going there. Regis, Loyola. It really built in this Jesuit high school tradition. We were always proud to call ourself a Jesuit school.
McLaughlin: It was a group of hardworking, dedicated guys that had a charismatic leader in Digger Phelps, and that just overachieved. And from that year on, there is not a day gone by that people don’t talk about that team and the success and what the team meant to the University. It was a great emotional feeling. And it still is today.
Larbes: Not only did it end that period in my life, it was a bridge to the next period of my life because I went on to coaching. I coached basketball for 16 years. And I think it was that team and that feeling and trying to recapture that, that led to my career, which lasted 39 years. The sense of loss, though—I kind of realized then I would never recapture it.
Zambetti: I had my 50th reunion last May, and the overwhelming emotion and remembrance and people’s greatest memory of their years at Fordham in many cases was that one season. It was really a huge part of the student body’s experience at Fordham.
Pipich: As the years go by, you have more and more respect for your teammates and what you did back then.
Phelps: I still say it was the greatest single year of college basketball New York has ever seen. We really had the city falling for us. We had it going so well. It was incredible.*
Shades of 1970–1971 in This Year’s Team
Those who have kept up with Fordham basketball over the years say the 2022–2023 squad has shown some of the same qualities that the 1970–1971 team had. The current Rams finished the regular season with a 24-7 record, including a Fordham record 12 wins against fellow Atlantic 10 conference opponents. On the eve of the A-10 Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Rams are looking to make a run that returns the program to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992.
Griswold: What they’ve got going this year is—if it’s not a mirror image, it’s very similar to what I felt we had in ’70–’71. The coach clearly has built in the confidence for the players. Players compensate, they pick up. They all step up, and that’s really what I like and what I see [similar]to what I remember us having.
Pipich: I think the biggest similarity clearly is that playing with intensity. Just playing intensely on defense. I mean, really just getting after it and playing together as a group.
McLaughlin: They’re playing better than they think they are. People are supporting them; they’re overachieving. But I thought the big thing about the ’70–’71 team, and this year’s team too, is the institutional pride. Every day people are coming up to me saying, “I’m a Fordham graduate.” I mean, they had never done this before, but it shows you the importance of having a first-class athletic program and creating an institutional pride that we all relate to.
Burik: I had my brother at the [Rhode Island] game. He lives in Princeton. And he said, “I’ve never seen anything like it except way back when.” And it’s just incredible that the same thing’s going on. It’s the beginning of something great.