NACOGDOCHES — It was the era of muscle cars with 8-track stereos blaring Led Zeppelin and Marvin Gaye. Long hair for guys was fashionable thanks to the Beatles and Stephen F. Austin’s men’s basketball team won its first 29 games of a season that unfortunately ended with a loss to Guilford College of North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the NAIA Tournament, which in those days coincided with the NCAA Tournament.
That win streak in 1969-70 has now been matched by the 2014 team that defeated Virginia Commonwealth University Friday night in dramatic fashion in San Diego. It took an improbable four-point play from Desmond Haymon to lift the Lumberjacks into the round of 32 where they will face the iconic UCLA Bruins Sunday (6 p.m., TV: TBS).
SFA’s overtime win against VCU was just another wild chapter in the tournament commonly referred to as March Madness. This year’s road to the Final Four will take the surviving four teams to Arlington and AT&T Stadium the first weekend of April.
Twenty nine wins is something to remember and though it has been 41 years, two men who were part of that special season can still recall not only the basketball but the good times on campus in Deep East Texas.
“I was driving a 1969 Charger RT. It was dark green with a black vinyl top,” Terry Brown said. “I wish I still had it because it would be worth $100,000.”
Brown was the son of the SFA coach in those days, Marshall Brown, and played on a team that was so talented that six of its players were drafted by the NBA when their college careers were finished. Brown later went on to win All-America honors on the Lumberjacks’ golf team and is still in the golf industry today.
“We just had an amazing group of players and people would line up at noon to go to our home games at Shelton Gymnasium,” Brown said. “I remember one game against Howard Payne that was the best game I ever played in or watched. We won by nine, 135-126, and that was without an overtime period and or any three-point shots. That’s a lot of points in 40 minutes.”
An assistant coach for that team in 1969-70 was a former player at SFA. The chief recruiter for Brown, Al Barbre grew up just outside of Orange in a tiny community that loved its basketball. Only 5-11, he played guard for Lon Morris College in Jacksonville before transferring to SFA where he played for Brown in 1963 through 1965.
“I was the type of player who would run through a wall for my coach,” Barbre said. “And I was willing to take a charge and since I was a good free throw shooter, that’s how I got my points.
At SFA, Barbre was responsible for locating and signing such talented players as George Johnson, Surrey Oliver and James Silas from the small town of Tallulah, La., near the Mississippi border.
“Back then, most of the talented black players went to Grambling, until Guy Lewis of the University of Houston signed Elvin Hayes out of Rayville to put an end to that situation,” Barbre said. “We had an SFA alumnus teaching in Tallulah who told us there were some good basketball players there so we went and checked it out. We beat out Tyler Junior College for the big man, George Johnson and then signed Surry Oliver who had been talking with Houston. It must have been a case of Houston deciding to pass on him because Lewis got whoever he wanted back then. A couple of years later, we signed James Silas.”
Johnson became a first round NBA draft pick while Silas went on to play in the NBA for years for the San Antonio Spurs. All total, six players were drafted from the 1969-70 that finished the season with a record of 29-1.
“I got to guard Silas in practice every day, or tried to, and always said that I helped make him great,” Brown said with a smile. “We just had so many great players. It was just fun because it was run and gun and Shelton Gym was always packed.
“Playing UCLA is kind of neat because back when I was playing, it was Marshall Brown at SFA and John Wooden at UCLA. On our level, we were like them because I think we won 24 or more games for five years in a row. It was a combination of good recruiting, good coaching and a good reputation. It was just awesome, a great time to be playing basketball at SFA and I would love to do it again.”
This year’s Lumberjack team that has won three of its 29 straight by two-point margins after starting the year at 4-2. The SFA roster is more diversified than the team of the early ‘70s with players coming from eight different states and even Bosnia. But like this year’s team, the earlier team that won 29 straight also had some close calls along the way.
“Early in the year, we beat Henderson State of Arkansas by 34 points at home before going up there the next game and winning by only one,” Barbre said. “That Guilford College that knocked us out of the NAIA tournament was led by M.L. Carr who went on to play for the Boston Celtics and a 28-year-old big man who came out of the service to play college ball and gave Johnson fits that night.”
One player on the SFA team in 1969-70 was Harvey Huffstetler, of Waxahachie, who was a great performer for coach Floyd Wagstaff at TJC before transferring to Nacogdoches. Huffstetler was a deadly outside shooter.
“His outside shot looked funny because he was able to get his elbows so close together,” Barbre said. “But that’s good because it allows you to shoot better and he was great from the corner.”
Current SFA coach Brad Underwood, excelling in his first season at the helm, follows in the footsteps of Marshall Brown, who once coached at John Tyler High School, and Ned Fowler, who coached at Robert E. Lee High School and TJC. Brown passed away in 2008 at age 90 and learned his trade growing up in Smith County between Whitehouse and Troup in the tiny community of Buncom.
“He was a great athlete,” Brown said of his father. “He was a great baseball player and is often remembered for that more than his basketball playing or coaching. Just a while back I was in Mount Pleasant, and someone asked me about my dad because they remembered him hitting four home runs in a game up there a long time ago.”
Barbre said Brown’s greatest trait as a coach was his integrity as a person and some “advanced thinking about basketball.”
“You would never want to meet a better guy than Marshall Brown and he gave me an opportunity that others didn’t,” Barbre said. “He emphasized movement without the ball and was not afraid to spread the players around the floor in a creative way. We liked to play up tempo and that was relatively new back then.”
Barbre and Brown are both pulling for SFA’s Cinderella story in the NCAAs to continue but Barbre, like any former coach, is realistic.
“I’m 71 now, but still watch the games closely. Getting to the second round against UCLA is big monetarily for both the university and the Southland Conference, but it is tough to get back up after such an emotional win as the one over VCU.”
But as one pundit said before that dramatic win over VCU, it’s hard to pick Stephen F. Austin except for one thing — they almost always win.