Stetson University basketball has experienced a resurgence of enthusiasm and hope this year with a new coaching staff and a young talented roster. A look back at the past reminds us that Stetson Hatter basketball was at its best one season, 45 years ago.
“Hats Arrive in Seventy Five.” That was the motto of Stetson University’s basketball Hatters for the 1974-75 season.
Stetson University has long been acknowledged as one of the best academic schools in the Southeast. At small schools in small towns, athletics can often be a rallying activity, not only for the student body, but also for the entire community.
Such was the case at Stetson in 1975, the year the Hatters won 22 games and lost only four. The season culminated March 5, when the Hats defeated their rival Florida State Seminoles 63-54 in the season finale.
The Hatters’ success didn’t come out of thin air, however. The year 1957 saw the arrival on campus of Dr. Glenn Wilkes as head coach of the basketball team.
For many years, the Hatters competed in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics — a college athletics association for small colleges and universities.
They eventually moved into the more prestigious National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II, with their eyes on entering Division I, which is considered the top tier of collegiate sports competition.
Many small-school athletic programs strive to join the ranks of Division I, and play against the likes of Duke University, the University of California - Los Angeles and other national powerhouse teams.
Stetson’s basketball team entered Division I in 1972 — a year in which they won only six games. The Hats rebounded in the next two seasons, however, and won 15 and 17 games, respectively.
When the 1974-75 season arrived, the Hatters were ready for the big time.
Several events set the tone for the season. First, the Edmunds Center was set to open, replacing DeLand’s National Guard Armory as the home court for the Hats.
At the time, the then-new Edmunds Center was considered the best on-campus basketball facility in the state of Florida. The first game was played on Dec. 5, 1974.
Famed college basketball coach Adolph Rupp — known as the “Baron of Kentucky” — was in attendance to help dedicate the Edmunds Center.
The Hatters rolled to a 73-58 victory over the “Thundering Herd” of West Virginia’s Marshall University. This was the beginning of what was to be a historic season of basketball for Stetson.
The team was anchored by a good group of players, some of whom were from the DeLand area. The roster included seniors Fred Ross (of DeLand High School), Bill Seitz (of Mainland High School in Daytona Beach), and Billy Williams (of Evans High School in Orlando), who were four-year lettermen — meaning, they were on the varsity squad for all four years of their college careers.
Others like Otis Johnson, Paul Morris, Steve Dixon and myself were “redshirt transfers” who became eligible to participate after one year of inactivity.
Youngsters Pete Nordhorn, Buzzy O’Connell, J.C. Bridges, Levan Anderson, Phil Pratt and Todd Loe rounded out the roster.
Coach Wilkes, who had orchestrated the move through the NAIA, NCAA Division ll, and now Division I, was at the helm.
The campus, town and community were all excited about their small university in Central Florida entering the big-time competition of Division I college basketball. The Hats were ready to play.
It truly was a magical season.
The opening victory over Marshall University was followed by a surprisingly easy 16-point road win at the University of California – Berkeley, and began a season of highlights and achievements.
The Hatters, going 22-4, had the ninth-best record in the nation among all Division I schools. Undefeated at home, the Hatters reeled off 16 consecutive victories in the Edmunds Center.
Packed houses with standing-room-only crowds of 4,000-plus fans were the norm. Fans cheered the home team to victories over the likes of Western Kentucky, Jacksonville, Southern Illinois, and Tulane universities.
There were several keys to the team’s success. Point guard Buzzy O’Connell directed the “motion offense,” which allowed for high-percentage shots. The game plan centered around pounding the ball inside, where Otis “OJ” Johnson and Bill Seitz dominated.
Defensively, the Hats used a full-court pressure attack, alternating between man and zone defense. The 1-3-1 corner trap was executed to perfection once the ball entered the front court. It was a smothering defense in which Fred Ross ran baseline corner-to-corner, while Johnson controlled the center area.
The match against Florida State was the last home game of the season. A possible invitation to the NCAA playoffs awaited the victor of that game.
Before a record Edmunds Center crowd of more than 6,100, the Hats defeated the Seminoles 63-54.
High hopes for the NCAA invitation were dashed, however, when the Hatters were passed over. Only 32 teams were invited to the March Madness playoffs in 1975.
Although disappointed by the NCAA snub, the Hats were extremely happy and proud of their inaugural season played in the Edmunds Center.
Wilkes retired from the coaching ranks in 1993, after an incredible 552 victories. He was inducted into the Stetson University Hall of Fame in 1983 and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
Fred Ross also made Stetson’s Hall of Fame in 1990, while Otis Johnson — who some consider the best Hatters basketball player of all time — was inducted in 2000.
The 1974-75 Stetson basketball year was a great season of pride for the university, as well as the community. The Hats did, after all, arrive in ’75.
— Dave Stowers played basketball at Stetson University for two years (1975-76). After graduating, he played professionally in Málaga, Spain, in the European League. Stowers is a Deltona resident who retired in 2014 after a 35-year teaching and coaching career in Volusia County’s public schools.