When Ralph Underhill arrived at Wright State in May of 1978, the Raiders’ days of being “the other team” were done.
“I had this perception of Wright State being second fiddle in Dayton,” said Jim Brown, one of Underhill’s assistant coaches. “Ralph could have cared less about (other universities). His attitude was, we can get anybody. It gave me some confidence. Ralph said, ‘We’re going to be very, very good right away,’ and he was right.”
Underhill quickly built what would become one of the premier NCAA Division II men’s basketball programs in the country—but he had to start somewhere.
“Where did we turn the corner in recruiting? When we signed Eddie Crowe and Bob Schaefer,” Brown said.
Schaefer had signed prior to the 1975–76 season and Crowe arrived for 1977–78. Both were local high school stars who turned down Division I offers to stay home and play for the Raiders. Schaefer would go on to set the record for career points with 1,634, and was named team MVP three times. Crowe, who started all four years at point guard, left as the career leader in assists and scored 1,112 points.
Even with Schaefer and Crowe, however, Wright State struggled. The Raiders lost eight of their last nine in 1977–78 and third-year coach Marcus Jackson was shown the door.
“(Athletic director) Don Mohr said, ‘Hey, I’m going to get you guys a good coach,’ ” Crowe said. “And he did.”
Underhill, an assistant at Tennessee-Chattanooga with a reputation for being a tireless recruiter, was hired as coach on May 18, 1978.
“The hiring of Ralph Underhill was an absolute stroke of brilliance,” long-time public address announcer Gordie Wise said. “He had recruited some great players for UTC. I was convinced we could get some serious recruits. Ralph was enthusiasm personified.”
Brown, an assistant to Wright State’s two previous coaches, met Underhill for lunch — and came away with both his job intact and a higher salary.
“I immediately liked him,” Brown said.
Raiders fans also took a liking to Underhill when his first team got off to an 8-1 start. After struggling through the middle part of the schedule, Wright State closed with nine wins in 10 games before falling in the NCAA regional tournament finals.
The Raiders, as Underhill had promised Brown, were very, very good right away.
“I really felt like we started to mature as a program early in Ralph’s tenure,” said Bob Grote, a former Raider star who played on the first team to qualify for a Division II regional tournament in 1976 and returned to campus as one of Underhill’s assistants. “He changed the recruiting. Ralph brought in the concept of recruiting junior college kids. The kids were two years older and really ready to go. When we incorporated them into the program, it changed. You could tell this would be really good. The other Division II teams couldn’t keep up with us.”
Two such players were Roman Welch and Rodney Benson, who played together from 1979-81, and earned All-American honors as a Raider. Like other players, they thrived in Underhill’s aggressive system that emphasized full-court pressure defense and freewheeling offense when many coaches still embraced a stodgy, controlled half-court game.
Underhill knew recruiting, but he also knew how to motivate players once they arrived on campus.
“He didn’t cuss, didn’t swear,” Brown said. “He did some yelling, but he wasn’t a screamer. He was a communicator. He was great at getting players to respond to him. Once the game started, there was nobody better than him. He knew how to motivate players.
“He was misunderstood in a lot of ways. He had this flamboyant persona, but he was as down to earth as you get.”
Underhill’s first team was 20-8, followed by seasons of 25-3, 25-4 and 22-7. Each time, the Raiders were eliminated in the NCAA regional tournament, including the 1980–81 team that had been ranked No. 1 nationally all season.
Underhill’s style of play was fan-friendly, often packing the old Physical Education Building where the Raiders played. “There would be 3,000 people screaming and ready to go and excited about our team,” Crowe said. “My senior year, every game was crazy and fun.”
Underhill would go on to win 356 games in 18 years as head coach. It was his first four teams, however, that established a winning culture and set the stage for Wright State’s unforgettable 1982–83 season.