Few of today’s Wright State University student-athletes will associate the taste of bologna with their intercollegiate sports experience.
This was not always the case.
“Coach (John) Ross’ wife would pack bologna sandwiches for us for road trips,” recalled Mark Donahue, a member of Wright State’s first men’s basketball teams. “We washed our own uniforms. We practiced at Stebbins High School from 9 p.m. to midnight. There were a lot of things we didn’t have that today’s Division I players would take for granted.”
As Wright State celebrates 50 years of men’s basketball, those who helped begin the program can be celebrated as well. The early years, in many ways, mirror longtime public address announcer Gordie Wise’s one-word description—humble.
Susan (Barr) Gayle was the business manager for the athletic department from 1968–98. She still drives a car with the license plate “WSU1.” When financial aid director Don Mohr became athletic director in 1968, he asked Gayle to come along. Wright State’s athletic program began with men’s soccer and basketball that fall.
The athletic department employees worked long hours, but thrived on the simple enjoyment of watching the players compete, mature, graduate, and go on to become successful employers, employees, and parents.
“Our staff’s first concern was always the welfare of our student-athletes,” Gayle said.
Finding those student-athletes, and getting them to share the vision of a brand-new program, wasn’t always easy during the men’s basketball program’s formative years.
“We had open tryouts for the 1970 team,” then-assistant coach Jim Brown said. “I think something like 70 kids showed up. I was getting information from them and I asked one young man how many (credit) hours he was taking. He said, ‘Actually, coach, I was going to see if I made the team first before I enrolled.’ ”
“Home” games were played at several sites, including Stebbins.
“The sound system there was horrible,” Wise said. “We played there two or three years when I don’t know who could possibly have heard me.”
Wright State’s first men’s basketball team played a junior varsity schedule in the fall of 1969. The Raiders then took on a varsity schedule in 1970–71. The first official game was an 84-82 triple-overtime loss at Cumberland on Nov. 20, 1970. That first Wright State team started 0-6 before earning its first victory, 91-84, over Grand Valley State on Dec. 14.
Wright State finished 7-17 in 1970-71 but, two years later, was 17-5.
“The first year was a freshman/JV schedule, and we were often going against scholarship players from Ohio State, Cincinnati, Dayton, Bowling Green, teams like that,” Donahue said. “Starting with the second year, we played in our own weight class.”
John Ross was the first coach. Ross was something of a local legend, having led Belmont to a state high school championship in 1964. Wise, then chairman of Wright State’s athletic counsel, said Ross’ name was the first to be discussed when the hiring process began.
“He was called ‘The Marine’ for a reason,” Donahue said. “He was really tough. But, he was a great strategic coach. He knew the Xs and Os very well. We were very disciplined for a team with so little experience. We overperformed because of him. We won games because he taught guys how to run plays, set picks, and play defense.
He got the program off on the right foot.”
The stars of those early teams included Jim Thacker (Wright State’s 1969–70 athlete of the year), Donahue, Tim Walker, Jim Minch, and Bob Grote. Minch was the university’s athlete of the year (1972–73) and also won the Scholar-Athlete Award (1973–74). Grote was men’s basketball MVP twice and was also baseball MVP twice.
“The hardest part back then was trying to give yourself some meaning,” Grote said. “There was no history here—but that was also the reason I came here.”
Another reason Grote came was the impending opening of the Physical Education Building in 1973. No longer would the Raiders be basketball nomads. In fact, the players could take the tunnel system from their Hamilton Hall dorm rooms to the PE Building, where fans following the rising program would eventually fill to capacity later in the decade.
Ross stepped down from coaching after the 1974–75 season and moved to an administrative role within the Athletics Department, but not until he had finished assembling a team that would make its first NCAA Division II regional tournament appearance the next winter—Wright State’s “aha” moment, according to Grote.
“We really started to meld together,” Grote said. “We weren’t just playing; we were becoming a program.”
Ross retired from his administrative position in 1980, but returned to Wright State as an assistant to head coach Ralph Underhill—a man who, over the next 18 years, would take the Raiders to a level no one could have imagined during the days of bologna sandwiches.