I recently wrote an article recounting the top ten big ten basketball teams since 1960. I had not even thought of that great team until Hawkeye fans started bringing up the 1970 Hawkeyes. It was probably because they lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which relegated them some. Since 1970, though, only three Big Ten basketball teams have gone undefeated in conference play. Those three teams are the 1975 and 1976 Indiana Hoosiers and, of course, the 1970 Iowa Hawkeyes.
The Miller Six Pack was an intoxicatingly efficient offensive powerhouse and one of the few Big Ten teams to go undefeated during a conference season.
The 1969-70 squad earned its nickname because Coach Ralph Miller relied mainly on six players during most games. These included 6-foot-7 star John Johnson and 6-foot-5 Glenn Vidnovic at forward, 6-foot-1 Chad Calabria, 6-3 Fred Brown, 6-8 Dick Jensen sharing post duties with 6-7 Ben McGilme as post players. All were seniors except Brown.
Miller had assembled an eclectic group. Calabria and Vidnovic, hailing from Pennsylvania, were joined by Johnson and Brown, who attended separate high schools in Milwaukee before heading west through junior colleges into Iowa City via various routes. McGilmer hailed from Detroit, while Jensen was an all-stater from Madrid in Iowa.
“My father worked in a steel mill with (Iowa assistant coach) Lanny Van Eman’s father,” explained Vidnovic, known by many as ‘Stick.’ Chad was heavily recruited out of Pennsylvania for high school ball, earning the title of Mr. Basketball in his junior year; Duke wanted him, so instead he would chose Iowa over them.’
They didn’t mesh immediately, but no Big Ten team stood in their way once they did. Iowa went 14-0 in conference play with an average scoring output of 102.9 per game–scoring over 100 nine times! Remember, there was no three-point line at the time and no shot clock, which makes that scoring average even more amazing.
Iowa began that season with a 3-4 record – not an encouraging sign for what lay ahead.
Vidnovic explained, ‘Fred and Jensen both suffered from mono, so one did not appear for the initial 2-3 games; we went into those few games short-handed; once they returned and started getting involved again, we started getting our groove.”
“Once it started rolling, it really rolled.”
Miller had arrived as head coach of Iowa from Wichita State with an admirable defensive record that was far from being their strength.
Vidnovic noted, ‘Early that season, I believe Fred and John spoke with him and helped loosen some of his stances,’ Vidnovic stated. ‘He always believed in shooting from within the power zone (15 feet and in).’
“He changed, and it was for the better.”
Miller was known as an iconic figure both on and off the court.
Vidnovic recalls Miller fondly for two reasons – cigarettes and Cutty Sark (scotch). At halftime, Miller would go over to one corner of the locker room to smoke some. Assistant Dick Schultz would chat with the team. Can you imagine this happening today?
Ralph was an actor. He liked being onstage. Yet despite appearances, he wasn’t as mean-spirited as he appeared.
Johnson averaged 31.8 points in conference play and 27.9 overall. Calabria averaged 19.1 points, Brown 17.9, Vidnovic 17.5, and McGilmer 10.3.
Vidnovic noted, ‘It has been almost fifty years, but I have yet to encounter another 6-7 player like John who could handle the ball like he could, nor one his size who could pass like him either.
“John was something special; during his junior year, we made the trip down to Drake for their Final Four season starring Willie Wise and Dolph Pulliam. He destroyed everything on the court and disrespected Dolph – I knew then he was something special!”
Iowa’s most memorable Big Ten match-up came on Feb. 28, 1970, against league runner-up Purdue in West Lafayette. Iowa overcame Rick Mount’s 61-point performance and an early nine-point deficit to secure their victory 108-107 and take home the Big Ten championship trophy.
Iowa entered the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1956 – at that time, with only a 25-team bracket. Iowa would face the Jacksonville Dolphins via play-in-game victory against Western Kentucky as an opponent.
Jacksonville also boasted an effective offensive machine, led by 7-2 Artis Gilmore and 7-foot Pembrook Burrows III. Gilmore would spend 17 seasons playing professionally (in NBA/ABA leagues). Gilmore amassed almost 25,000 points.
Vidnovic explained, ‘They were favored by one point and a half. One of the few teams we had a scouting report for, Schultz and Van Eman went to watch the play-in game, after which, one of their recommendations was for us to let Burrows shoot — then he made 11-of-12 on us!’
Burrows was instrumental in Jacksonville’s win against Iowa 104-103 at Columbus, in the NCAA regional semifinal. Brown had given Iowa a late lead with 10 seconds remaining after scoring on a rebound basket; However, Iowa typically scores at an excellent rate (78 per cent); only 19 of 31 attempts against Jacksonville Dolphins were successful.
Vidnovic related that Rex Morgan of the Thundercats came up the side and attempted to shoot an estimated 30-footer, which hit the rim and was ultimately blocked, which caused Coach Miller to collapse on the court and break down as it happened. “Coach Miller quickly recognized this situation was far too dangerous. Coach Miller collapsed. It was an unsafe place.”
Two days later, Iowa easily defeated Notre Dame 121-106 in the regional consolation game after leading at halftime 75-42. Johnson and Calabria each scored 31 points; Vidnovic added 24. Austin Carr scored 45 for Notre Dame.
Five members of the Six Pack were selected by the NBA when it consisted of 17 teams back then. Johnson was taken seventh overall and became Cleveland Cavaliers first pick since their expansion; Vidnovic went to Cleveland as well; McGilmer to Baltimore 12th round, and Calabria Phoenix 14th. One year later, Brown went sixth overall and headed west for Seattle.
Johnson and Brown won an NBA title with the SuperSonics in 1979.
Vidnovic commented, ‘When people like J.J. and Fred come along every 25-30 years, you can do quite well’.
And they were.
If you enjoy hearing from the legends of pro sports, then be sure to tune into “The Grueling Truth” sports shows, “Where the legends speak”
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