Former Tigers reflect on first sellout at Gross Memorial Coliseum 40 years ago Wednesday

Former Tiger players reminisce about first sellout at Gross Memorial Coliseum 40 years ago

By Randy Gonzales
Special to Hays Daily News
Fort Hays fans watch the Tigers beat Denver in the first sellout at Gross Memorial Coliseum on Jan. 20, 1981.
Fort Hays guard Mark Wilson celebrates by cutting down the net after the Tigers won a berth in the NAIA national tournament.

It was a night to remember.

Forty years ago, on Jan. 20, 1981, the Fort Hays State University men’s basketball team — the top-ranked NAIA team in the nation — rallied to defeat No. 7 Denver University 72-62 before 7,000 fans inside Gross Memorial Coliseum. It was the first sellout at GMC, which opened in 1973.

So many Tiger fans flocked to the coliseum for the big night that some of the Tiger players, as well as head coach Joe Rosado, had trouble making it to the game themselves.

“We had to walk to the coliseum, the traffic was so backed up both ways,” said Bill Giles, who was a senior guard. “We just had to walk to get there in time. You knew something was going to happen because of all the traffic.”

Senior guard Max Hamblin tried to drive to the game.

“I remember (the) Denver (game), an hour and a half ahead of time cars were a couple miles back,” Hamblin said. “Basically had to get on the curb and drive ahead so I would get into the coliseum.”

Rosado, in a guest column for The Hays Daily News in 2006, remembered running into a traffic jam shortly after he left his house on Hillcrest Drive.

“I came upon a policeman and asked what was going on and I was stunned when he said there was a huge stream of cars coming off I-70 and in all directions for the Fort Hays-UD basketball game,” Rosado wrote. “I told him who I was and asked for his help in getting to the coliseum — even with a police escort. It was not easy. When I walked into that building and saw every seat filled and people standing everywhere (the fire marshal ultimately closed the building) — I cannot describe the feelings I had.”

Dave Lambertz, a backup guard from Goodland, remembered how he learned GMC was filled to the rafters.

“As we were getting taped prior to the game, Brad Brown, our trainer, came into the locker room and said, ‘It’s getting crazy out there, filling up.’ He said, 'There are a lot of people,' ” said Lambertz, 60, now an accounting manager with a company in Wichita. “I guess the biggest thrill was coming out of the locker room, onto the floor and looking up, seeing a full house, and the noise from the crowd. The adrenaline rush was insane.”

Sophomore forward Rege Klitzke, who won a state title in high school at Russell, said that night was unlike any other.

“When you came to the arena that night there was this kind of electricity in the building,” said Klitzke, 60, an associate athletic director at Wichita State. “It was almost surreal.”

Fort Hays was 17-0 with a pair of victories over powerhouse Marymount College and another over rival Kearney State (Neb.) College going into the game. The players had an idea this team was something special. Newcomers Cesar Fantauzzi and Dino Larry provided a spark inside, joining Lionel “Zuke” Hamer in the frontcourt. Hamblin started in the backcourt with senior point guard Mark Wilson, who had sat out the season before after knee surgery. Klitzke and Giles led a bench that dubbed itself “F Troop” after the TV series.

“Once we started playing a few games we could tell that this was going to be a good team,” said Hamblin, 62, an assistant golf coach at Andover and former basketball coach with Hugoton and Andover. “We just had a little bit of everything. We had some shooters. Wilson was really good at point guard. Cesar and Lionel Hamer and Rege — we just had some size and quickness and athleticism.”

The team’s breakneck style of play was a crowd-pleaser, too.

“I think we really liked to run and push the ball,” Klitzke said. “I think that’s always an entertaining type of basketball for people to watch.”

Against Denver, however, the Pioneers — who entered the game at 14-1 — led by 10 points midway through the second half. Encouraged by the roaring crowd, the Tigers used their press to rally for the victory. The Tigers liked to pressure full-court then drop back into a trapping, 1-3-1 zone, with the 6-foot-8 Klitzke up top. The Pioneers also faced the zone trap in the first half, and they never adjusted.

“I can remember the first time they came across the half-court line,” Klitzke said. “I met (the Denver guard) right over the half-court line and trapping him in the corner. I think he had the look in his eye, ‘What are you doing way out here?’ You don’t see a 6-8 guy out at the half-court line on defense.”

Giles, who would usually enter the game at the same time as Klitzke, remembered wanting to leave his own impression on the Pioneers.

“When I got in, I wanted to block out the first guy pretty hard,” said Giles, a former standout at Hays High. "He didn’t like it too well. ‘You do that again and we’ll be fighting.’ I said, ‘Look around. You think anybody’s going to let you get away with anything like that?’ He didn’t answer.”

Wilson, who sparked the comeback, earlier in the game broke the school’s career scoring record. If he wasn’t driving and dishing, Hamblin was swishing long jumpers or Fantauzzi was delighting the crowd with rim-rattling dunks.

“It was an amazing night,” said Hamblin, an Arizona native who transferred to Fort Hays from an Arizona junior college. “Crowd was crazy. (Public address announcer) Bob Lowen was awesome, made it even better. It was just incredible. I get goosebumps talking about it.”

The night also was special because 52 Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days were freed on the same day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president. Lowen asked the 7,000 people to stand and sing the national anthem.

“That particular game with Denver, all those things coming together, made it unique in my mind,” Klitzke said. “Of course, the worldwide situation with the hostages getting released kind of added an extra boost of energy to the building.”

How loud was it?

“Very loud,” Klitzke said. “We could still hear the pep band play ‘In Heaven There is No Beer.’ It didn’t drown out the pep band.”

That magical night was part of a magical season that ended suddenly at the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City, Mo. The Tigers lost 66-64 in the first round to Hanover (Ind.) College to finish the year at 30-4.

“I think it was a thrill for all of us” to go to the national tournament, Lambertz said. “Disappointed, though, how we ended the season. The better team won that night. I’m not sure they were the better team overall.”

Despite that season-ending loss, the former Tigers agreed that night of Jan. 20, that 1980-81 season, helped pave the way for the program's future success. Two years later, Fort Hays took third at the NAIA national tournament, followed by back-to-back national championships. The team’s home games were played before raucous fans who filled the seats. Then, in the 1995-96 season, the Tigers went undefeated and won an NCAA Division II crown, again before adoring fans who filled GMC.

“The success we brought to the program definitely was a stepping stone,” Lambertz said. “The university saw what happened with the ’81 team and went to find a coach that could keep that program going.”

Hamblin said that season brought financial success, too.

“We brought in a lot of money and helped the athletic department,” Hamblin said. “I definitely think it helped because it showed what could happen at Fort Hays if you have a good team. People will support you. Just crazy the kind of support we got.”

Klitzke said the school had good teams that made the national tournament in the early 1960s, and the 1980-81 team brought success back to the program.

“I think maybe we reestablished it and took it to another level,” Klitzke said.

The Tigers went on to play before other big crowds later in that 1980-81 season. But no crowd was like the one that sold out GMC for the first time on Jan. 20, 1981.

“That year, it was just fun to play,” said Giles, 62, now a high school basketball coach in Saltillo, Texas. “You were excited going to practice.”

“I was glad to be a part of it,” Lambertz said.