Looking back at Utah’s improbable NCAA men’s basketball tournament title 75 years ago

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Editor's note:This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah history for KSL.com's Historic section.SALT LAKE CITY — The NCAA men’s basketball tournament tipped off Thursday and over the course of the next few weeks there is bound to be Cinderella runs, destroyed brackets and shining moments. It’s become a true March tradition.

However, Thursday also marks 75 years since Utah’s men’s basketball embarked on what became one of the most improbable runs in the tournament’s 80-year history. The Utes won it all in 1944 even though they were mostly freshmens and weren’t really supposed to be there.

R. Verne McCullough, a special correspondent for the Deseret News, summed it up this way in a March 31, 1944, edition of the newspaper: “It was simply overwhelming, stupendous and colossal. There aren’t any words to describe it. Quite beyond belief that these 17 and 18-year-old Utah lads, without any college playing experience could win the National Collegiate Basketball Championship, then beat St. John’s, the winner of the New York Invitational Classic.”

Here’s a look back at Utah’s incredible tournament run and how that team forever became known as the “Blitz Kids.”

A brief history of college hoops tourneys

First, a quick backstory about the history of college hoops tournaments. Back in 1944, the NCAA tournament only had eight teams — much smaller than the 68 now.

It also wasn’t really the biggest tournament. The National Invitational Tournament, or NIT, was founded a year before the NCAA tournament was in 1939. At the beginning, the NIT had an advantage over the NCAA tournament because schools preferred more media exposure by playing each game at Madison Square Garden, History.com noted. The NCAA began holding its title game at the same venue in 1943 to keep up.

Some schools even opted for the NIT instead of the NCAA tournament as late as the 1970s until the NCAA barred anyone invited to its tournament from participating in any other tournament, according to History.com.

The NCAA eventually took over the NIT in 2005 and it’s essentially now the sport’s consolation tournament.

Now back to Utah’s story.

An unlikely and tragic path to the dance

The Utes had a terrific season in 1943-44, but it wasn’t terribly difficult to win that season. Utah struggled to find games because many college athletes were being sent to fight World War II. Utah State, Colorado, Wyoming and Colorado State also struggled to field teams that winter, according to Utah Communication History Encyclopedia.

In fact, many of Utah’s games that year were against military base teams across the state.

The Utes ultimately got an invite to the NIT at the end of the regular season and Associated Press articles from the time noted they were considered the best team in the west that year.

A photo of the 1943-44 Utah men's basketball team. (Photo: J. Willard Marriott Library Archives)
A photo of the 1943-44 Utah men's basketball team. (Photo: J. Willard Marriott Library Archives)

They were paired with Kentucky at the NIT and played well in the first half, but eventually lost 46-38 in the opening round of the tournament. Utah’s season appeared over.

However, a college basketball tragedy elsewhere in the country changed everything. The University of Arkansas men’s basketball team was selected to participate in the Western Region of the NCAA tournament.

On March 18, 1944, and the night before Utah played in the NIT, the Arkansas team was involved in a fatal crash on their way back from a practice. An instructor was killed and two players suffered critical injuries when they were struck by a vehicle while they changed a flat tire.

Arkansas was forced to drop out of the tournament. The Razorbacks had actually tied Rice University in Texas in the regular season standings. However, Rice lost many of its players to military service, so it wasn’t a viable replacement, the Tulsa World pointed out.

In need of a team, the NCAA turned to the team that just had been eliminated from the NIT.

Utah coach Vadal Peterson got the call very early in the morning set up an impromptu team meeting early that morning to discuss whether to keep sightseeing in New York or take the next available train to Kansas City, Missouri, and play in another tournament, according to the Deseret News.

The team’s graduate manager, Keith Brown, told newspapers one the day of the meeting the team chose the tournament, according to an Associated Press wire story from March 21, 1944.

They left New York to play Missouri in the NCAA tournament two days later.

A true champion

Utah defeated Missouri and Iowa State on the following night to — ironically — earn a trip back to New York City where the quick NCAA tournament journey began. The team was paired up with Dartmouth in the finals.

The Utes weren’t a favorite to win either. Newspapers from the time state Dartmouth was on a 17-game winning streak and the Utes were a 7-point underdog.

The Utes kept pace throughout the contest and the game went to overtime. After trading jabs back-and-forth, Utah’s Herb Wilkinson eventually delivered the knockout blow with a basket just before the buzzer and the Utes won 42-40. Utah’s Arnie Ferrin was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

Back then, the winner of the NIT and NCAA tournaments played each other in what was called the Red Cross Benefit. There, Utah defeated St. John’s, 43-36 on March 30, 1944. Archived video of the game shot by Leslie Winik is available online at the J. Willard Marriott Library. You can see Ferrin toss the ball up the air in celebration at the final horn.

They became the true champions of men’s college hoops.

There were parties held for the Utes. They ended up on a national radio broadcast, they were treated like celebrities and became media darlings known as the "Blitz Kids." What did it look like at the moment?

Coach Joe Lapchick (left), of St. John's puts his arm around Herb Wilkinson (28) as he congratulates the Utah basketball team after they beat his squad at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 30, 1944. The final score was 43-36 in a game for the benefit of the Red Cross. (AP Photo, File)
Coach Joe Lapchick (left), of St. John's puts his arm around Herb Wilkinson (28) as he congratulates the Utah basketball team after they beat his squad at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 30, 1944. The final score was 43-36 in a game for the benefit of the Red Cross. (AP Photo, File)

“Utahns back in New York today can just about take possession of the town,” McCollough wrote. “In fact, you can expect them to start wearing badges today declaring to staid, stole Gotham, ‘We’re the Sons of Utah.’”

Even Peterson was among those in disbelief of what happened that March.

“It is almost unbelievable that we could win these two great championships with lads who never played college basketball before,” he told the Deseret News after coaching the win over St. John’s. “The kids have taken this big town by storm. New York likes them and they like New York."

According to “Blitz Kids” by Tres and Josh Ferrin, Arnie Ferrin’s son and grandson, the team spent 20 days on the road and 11 of those sleeping on a train. Thousands gathered to welcome them back to Salt Lake City in early April. They paraded through the city that day.

It was a true fairytale ending.

The legacy of the “Blitz Kids”

A banner hangs over the Jon M. Huntsman Center acknowledging the Utes’ 1944 title. The story of the team’s improbable run has been featured by several national outlets throughout the years.

Peterson kept coaching the Utes until he retired in 1953 after 26 seasons at the school. He coached the team to 385-230 record during his tenure, including an NIT title in 1948.

However, it’s the 1944 title team he was most associated with. They were a true basketball Cinderella story.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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