Sunday, January 16, 2011

Revisiting an Old Issue: Northwestern’s Unrecognized 1931 Basketball National Title

Regular reader Mike D. brought to my attention a worthwhile issue I want to talk about today. I figure looking back a major positive is a probably a good idea in the wake of yesterday’s disappointment. Recently Northwestern’s athletic department added a number of banners recognizing the accomplishment of a number of teams to the Welsh-Ryan Arena rafters. Absent for those banners is the greatest accomplishment of a team that calls that building home. I’ve brought up this issue in the past, but for those that don’t know, NU was awarded the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Title for their 16-1 season in 1931. Admittedly the title was retroactively awarded when in 1939 a group of basketball experts at the Helms Foundation decided it was unjust that no titles were awarded for the first 38 years of the 20th century. But still the others schools who won titles through that manner celebrate their accomplishments. The list includes Big Ten member Purdue (who won the year after the ‘Cats in 1932), North Carolina, and as can be seen in the 1923 banner here the Kansas Jayhawks. When I think college basketball, I think Kansas and North Carolina. They are pretty much the bluest bloods of the sport. If a Helms Foundation National Title is good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.

I can’t understand why NU doesn’t want to acknowledge this great accomplishment and the great people who were part of it. Looking at the record of NU’s 1931 Head Coach Dutch Lonborg it quickly becomes clear he was one of the most respected basketball coaches of his era and his success at Northwestern was primarily the reason. Although he coached at three different schools (McPherson College, Washburn College, and NU), Lonborg recorded 73.3% of his career wins at NU. Aside from the National Title and Big Ten Title in 1931, Lonborg also led NU to the Big Ten Title in 1933 and second place finishes in 1932 and 1934. He is also Northwestern’s longest tenured head basketball coach coaching NU from the 1927-28 season until 1949-50.

NU’s 1931 Captain Joe Reiff was also a history making player. On a Wildcat team which featured a number of talented players, Reiff was the star. He picked up not only the MOP award from the Helms Foundation, but also was named a first team All-American. Reiff’s All-American award during that 1931 campaign was the first ever earned by a Wildcat. While earning that All-American award, Reiff led the Big Ten in scoring. Amazingly he was just a sophomore at the time.

In 1932 Reiff and the Wildcats finished second in the Big Ten to Helms Foundation National Champ Purdue. Reiff finished second in the league in scoring and was named a third-team All-American. That might have been something of a disappointment, as it was certainly a step back from that national title caliber team from the year before, but Reiff and Wildcats rebounded the next season to capture their second Big Ten Title. Again, Reiff led the Wildcats and the Big Ten in scoring. In fact, he set what was at the time a Big Ten record by scoring 168 points (14.0 PPG) in Big Ten play. Obviously, the offense flow of basketball was a little different in the early 1930s, but I say again that doesn’t change the significance of what was accomplishment. Reiff’s teammate Elmer Johnson finished second in the league in scoring. For his efforts, Reiff earned his second first team All-American honor in 1933 making him the first and second Wildcat All-American. Overall the Wildcats were 15-4 in that season. That Big Ten Title Reiff led the ‘Cats to in 1933 is also the last time Northwestern won a Big Ten Title in Basketball.

Why NU has chosen to ignore Lonborg and Reiff’s National Title is beyond me, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that given NU’s new emphasis on acknowledging history with the new Welsh-Ryan Arena banners, a great opportunity exists to finally acknowledge what those men and the best NU hoops squad ever accomplished.

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