Buckeyes dream season was 55 years ago

First Posted: 3/6/2015

LIMA – The walls of the office at his west-side home are festooned with team photos of Gary Gearhart’s three varsity seasons as a guard for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Of course, one of those years sticks out more than the other two.

On March 19, 1960, a sophomore-dominated Ohio State Buckeye team played a near-perfect game in San Francisco’s Cow Palace before 14,500 fans to put the finishing touches on a season that would bring the school its only NCAA basketball national championship.

Although it was 55 years ago, it seems just like yesterday to Gearhart, a backup guard who was known for his quick bursts and tenacious defense. The former standout from Dixie High School in New Lebanon, Ohio, was part of what remains today as one of the best recruiting classes in college basketball history. Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell and Bobby Knight all wound up on campus as freshmen in 1958, the prize recruits of Fred Taylor, who had just been named to replace Floyd Stahl as the head basketball coach.

“Fred Taylor felt a great responsibility to ensure that the best high-school player in the country, from Middletown, Ohio, didn’t leave the state. Of course that was Jerry Lucas, who was the first to commit. That made the rest of the recruiting so much easier,” Gearhart recalled.

The second best player in the state that that year was Columbus East guard Mel Nowell, and, according to Gearhart, Nowell made it known that wherever Lucas was going, he was going too. Lucas and Nowell then helped recruit John Havilcek, an all-state football and basketball player out of Bridgeport High School.

Orrville’s Bobby Knight, a small forward with a great shot and a reputation for tenacity soon signed on, largely on the strength of an almost immediate respect for Fred Taylor, the 34-year-old rookie head coach.

As for Gearhart, following a senior year in high school where he averaged 24 points a game, ending up at Ohio State meant he had to go back on a commitment to play at Eastern Kentucky. Gearhart was selected to play in a series of all-star games after the season against other all-star squads from Indiana and Kentucky, and it was in those games that he befriended Havlicek, who convinced Gearhart to consider Ohio State.

“Taylor said he needed another guard, and I was thrilled. He called Eastern and got me released, probably far easier back then than now,” Gearhart said.

The NCAA did not allow freshman to play back then, although they did practice. The Buckeyes went 11-11 on a team lead by Joe Roberts, Larry Siegfried and Richie Hoyt.

At the conclusion of the season, the freshman played two games in actual game conditions against the varsity and won both, much to the chagrin of Siegfried, who possessed copious amounts of what Gearhart calls “warrior mentality.”

That set the stage for the championship season of 1959-60

Remarkably, the only person on the roster that year who was not from Ohio was Gary Milliken, of Waynesville, Pennsylvania.

The starting lineup in that first game against Wake Forest included only two of the talented sophomores — Lucas and Nowell. They were joined by Siegfried and seniors Joe Roberts and Dick Furry.

“Furry got hurt early in the game, and Havlicek replaced him. Although Dick’s injury was minor, Havlicek never lost the starting position, and Furry had to get used to coming off the bench, which he did as a very valuable member on that team,” Gearhart said.

The Buckeyes went 21-3 in the regular season, leading the nation in scoring with a 90.4 average. That offense ran through Lucas, who averaged 26 points. Its three losses were all on the road to Utah (97-92), Kentucky (96-93) and Indiana (99-83), the last of which was one of just two Big Ten losses the Buckeyes would suffer over the three varsity seasons of Lucas and his mates.

Ohio State made it look easy in the 16-team tournament, crushing Western Kentucky (98-79), Georgia Tech (86-69), NYU (76-54) and defending national champion California (75-55) in a game in which the Buckeyes torched the nets at an 89 percent clip from the field in the first half and then cruised home from there.

For Gearhart, injuries curtailed much of his season. After Taylor pulled him aside prior to the season and told him that while he wouldn’t start he would play considerable minutes, Gearhart underwent an appendectomy in the very first week of practice.

“Back in those days, it took almost a full half the season before I got back to full strength. However, once I got back on the floor, I did see a decent amount of playing time.”

Despite the national title, it might surprise some that, at least in Gearhart’s opinion, the Buckeyes actually, talent-wise, weren’t even the best team in their own conference.

“Without question, I felt Indiana had more talent. While we never lost a home game that season or, for that matter, the next two seasons either, it was Indiana that almost got us at St. John. They had Walt Bellamy, a terrific low-post player and a strong complementing cast as well.”