January 18, 2010

by Pete Spiewak '10

Replacing a legend is never easy. At Saint Joseph's, replacing Dr. Jack Ramsay was impossible. In 1966, Ramsay took a job with the Philadelphia 76ers as general manager, leaving Hawk Hill after 11 years of excellence as head coach of the Hawks.

Moving on without Ramsay, the Hawks stayed in-house to find their next head coach. They chose Jack McKinney, one of Saint Joseph's assistant coaches, who also coached the freshman team at that time. McKinney played under Ramsay in the mid-1950's when the legendary coach was first starting as head coach on Hawk Hill, and also starred on the school's track team as an undergraduate.

Not only was he trying to fill the shoes of a coaching icon that would eventually be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, but he was taking over after Ramsay and the Hawks had just gone 24-5 and 26-3 in the past two seasons, making two consecutive NCAA Tournament runs, as a part of a larger run that included seven trips to the tournament in eight seasons. McKinney would be taking the reigns for the 1966-67 season with just one contributing player from the previous year's team, which swept the Big 5. This was no easy task for McKinney.

Luckily for the former two-sport athlete, that one returning contributor was Cliff Anderson--a 6'3 forward that is one of the two best big men to ever play for St. Joe's, and one of seven players to ever have his number retired on Hawk Hill. With Anderson, McKinney managed to take the Hawks to a 16-10 record--respectable by most standards, but falling short of what had become the norm at Saint Joseph's.

With pressure mounting, McKinney and Saint Joseph's missed the tournament for a second straight season in the 1967-68 season but improved by one game, going 17-9.

After struggling to match the success the Hawks had under Ramsay during his first two seasons, McKinney would prove over the next six years that he was the right man to take the place of Ramsay.

Saint Joseph's returned to the NCAA Tournament in 1969, powered by strong performances from juniors Dan Kelly and Mike Hauer, who averaged 18.8 and 20.6 points per game, respectively, that season. McKinney's team finished that season with a 17-11 record.

The Hawks would again miss postseason play the next season, winning just 15 games in the 1969-70 season, but McKinney would lead Saint Joseph's to four consecutive postseasons, including three NCAA Tournament appearances, over the next four years.

McKinney won at least 19 games during each of those four years, his final four years on Hawk Hill. Saint Joseph's' accomplishments during those years can be largely attributed to McKinney's recruiting successes over that period. A 1969 recruiting class of Mike Bantom and Pat McFarland would give Saint Joseph's one of the most dominating front courts that the school has ever seen, and two players that McKinney will forever be linked to.

During Bantom and McFarland's first season in 1970-71, the two sophomores scored 18.1 and 17.0 points per game, leading the Hawks to a perfect sweep of the MAC - winning the six regular-season conference games, as well as two games in the conference playoffs - including two wins against city rival La Salle, who was ranked in the top 25 during both games. In the MAC championship, the Hawks knocked off the #19 Explorers in overtime, 81-76, to advance to the NCAA Tournament.

However, in the opening round of the tournament, Saint Joseph's would fall to Villanova, 93-75, despite a double-double from Bantom, who scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. Howard Porter paced the Wildcats with 26 points and would eventually lead Villanova to the national championship game that year.

In the 1971-72 season, the Hawks went 19-9 and made a trip to the NIT, where they were defeated by Maryland, led by Len Elmore, in the first round.

The next year, McKinney and Saint Joseph's would once again go undefeated in conference play, and would beat Temple in the MAC championship. However, McKinney could not manage to get past the first round of the NCAA Tournament even with Bantom and McFarland in their senior season and the Hawks entering the tournament on a seven-game win streak. St. Joe's was knocked out by Providence, led by guard Ernie DiGregorio, who would be the third overall pick in the NBA Draft in 1973.

Although McKinney did not win a postseason game in three years with Bantom, who is widely considered to be the greatest big man to ever play on Hawk Hill, he helped develop one of the country's best players at the time. Bantom ranks ninth on the all-time scoring list at St. Joe's, and is the school's second-ranked rebounder--both impressive feats for a three-year varsity player.

After Bantom and McFarland graduated, McKinney may have had his greatest triumph ever during his last season on Hawk Hill. Heading into the 1973-74 season, very little was expected out of Saint Joseph's. Prior to the season, a local reporter summed up the Hawks' prospects as "grim, grisly, and gruesome."

Losing Bantom and McFarland would mean that St. Joe's needed to replace over 40 points and 18 rebounds per game, and nobody believed McKinney had the talent to do that.

In what would be considered one of the best coaching jobs in the history of Hawk hoops, McKinney would get more out of his team than anybody could have imagined. St. Joe's had no star player, but with feisty guard Jim O'Brien running the point, the Hawks would win 19 games that season, greatly exceeding expectations; some believed Saint Joseph's would win no more than four games that season.

McKinney, who preached teamwork, had a balanced attack that included four players averaging double digits. He would lead his team to one of the most unlikely conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances in the 100-year history of Saint Joseph's basketball. Despite losing to Pittsburgh in the first round, McKinney earned Eastern College Coach of the Year honors in 1974.

Following that season, McKinney was let go by Saint Joseph's and began his NBA coaching career. He started off as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks and would be a head coach for three different teams: the Los Angeles Lakers, Indiana Pacers and Kansas City Kings.

Continuing the tradition of Hawks coaching professionally, McKinney is one of seven St. Joe's players to become a head coach in the NBA.

Jack McKinney won 144 games over the course of eight seasons and took the Hawks to four NCAA Tournaments. He has the third highest winning percentage ever at Saint Joseph's, ranking behind only Ramsay and Jim Lynam.

It has been 36 years since McKinney coached at Saint Joseph's, but his tenure will not soon be forgotten.