Toledo's Jonathan Williams lands on top of Bowling Green's Dylan Frye after Frye fouls him on a drive Monday at Savage Arena. BLADE/LORI KING
CLEVELAND — They say time heals all wounds, but Tim Selgo still is waiting.
As the nation never remembers the Bowling Green massacre of 2017, the former University of Toledo guard recalls the Bowling Green thriller of 1980 like it was last March.
He remembers the way the city quaked with excitement leading up to the NCAA tournament. The caravan of fans who colonized down I-75 to Bowling Green, Ky., for Toledo’s opening game against Florida State. The Rockets’ four-point lead with three minutes left. The anticipation of a looming second-round showdown against top-rated Kentucky. The madness ceding to sadness.
“That game still sticks in my craw, to tell you the truth,” Selgo said this week of the Rockets’ 94-91 defeat. “Some say that time heals. Well, I’ve got news for you: It doesn’t.”
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A generation of fans feels his pain.
For college hoops in northwest Ohio, it was the last dance.
As the MAC tournament begins its run today at Quicken Loans Arena, the Rockets — once again — will set out to douse the most confounding drought in the basketball land.
With Bowling Green last punching its ticket in 1968, it has now been a combined 86 years since either of the rivals made the tournament.
Selfishly, for the city, we hope this is the year. Hey, 86 seasons was the magic number for the Red Sox.
But forgive some for wondering.
In a conference defined by its parity, where a free-for-all tournament decides the league’s lone entry into the 68-team extravaganza, 10 of 12 men’s basketball programs have gone dancing at least once since 1996 and multiple times since 1980. A total of 10 programs have experienced the one event that can so completely galvanize a community and make a mid-major school feel truly big time.
Then there are Bowling Green and Toledo.
The famine has many fathers, but the biggest truth is simple. Not once in that span has one of their many good teams — teams of Ken Epperson and Craig Thames and Greg Stempin and Juice Brown and Antonio Daniels and Anthony Stacey — played great the one weekend that matters. The Falcons own the third-longest tournament drought in the country — behind Dartmouth (1959) and Tennessee Tech (1963) — while UT is 10th in line. Five original NCAA teams, including soon-to-be-dancing Northwestern, never have made the tournament.
Will the madness ever ... begin?
Better yet, can a Rockets team capable of walloping the best teams in the league and losing to the worst create a little chaos here this weekend?
“I do like our mentality, how we’re playing,” Rockets coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “Let’s face it, all that really matters is trying to win your conference tournament. In order to do that, you have to stay together, you have to stay healthy, you have to make shots, and you have to get some breaks.”
For those on the last tournament teams at Toledo and BG, it is hard to fathom those things never again came together.
It almost was like they turned off a faucet, their March glory punctuating a gilded era of college hoops here.
For BG, the trip to the tournament in 1968 was its third in seven years, Harold Anderson and his stars — Nate Thurmond and Butch Komives — giving way to Bill Fitch and an adrift but eager group.
It was not quite the Miracle of Richfield he later directed in Cleveland, but Fitch answered no small prayer in his one year at Bowling Green, which was fresh off three consecutive losing seasons after Anderson’s retirement.
He made it known from the start things would be different, telling his standout senior forward from Toledo he was too fat and sentencing the team to distance runs with the cross country team. His players were the ones wearing weighted vests.
It was just what they needed. Walt Piatkowski dropped 35 pounds — down to 210 — and the team rallied around their energetic 33-year-old coach, tearing to a league title. The Falcons were so good Fitch had a 7-foot dummy built midway through the season.
“We would have to shoot over it in practice,” Piatkowski said from his home in Omaha, “because he thought we’d have to go through Lew Alcindor and UCLA.”
Bowling Green never got its crack at the NCAA champions, falling to Marquette 72-71 in the first round of the then-23-team tournament. But the memories from the season carry on.
“Bill Fitch coming in changed my life,” said Piatkowski, whose son, Eric, played for Fitch on the Clippers in the mid-90s. ”A great year.”
From there, while BG retreated after Fitch left for the University of Minnesota, Toledo assured the good old days would continue.
Bob Nichols’ Rockets went to consecutive tournaments in 1979 and ’80 with a cast that endures deep in local lore. Stan Joplin. Jim Swaney. Dick Miller. Harvey Knuckles. Jay Lehman. Selgo. The names go on.
If Toledo did not get its storybook ending, it was a magical ride all the same. One where it felt like the whole city was riding shotgun. Almost 9,000 fans filled Savage Arena every night and only cranked it up come March.
Selgo remembers the roar in Bloomington, Ind., a year earlier when Joplin’s buzzer-beating shot lifted the Rockets to a 74-72 win against Iowa in the second round of the 1979 tournament, then the swath of blue and gold the next week in Indianapolis. The Rockets lost to Notre Dame 79-71 at a rattling Market Square Arena.
“The regional had Notre Dame, Michigan State, and LSU, and Toledo fans were probably the loudest of the four,” said Selgo, who recently retired as the athletic director at Division II Grand Valley State. “That meant a lot. There’s no question Toledo will provide that on any kind of run.”
Of course, the big question is when will the Rockets provide the run.
“With Bowling Green and Toledo, there’s probably a little bit of the monkey on their back because they haven’t been there for so long,” Selgo said. ”But I do think that time changes everything. I know I’ll be rooting like crazy for the Rockets this week.”