An in-depth look at
Posted March 2005
greatest dynasty turns 25
The most successful college basketball team I’ve seen in person played in a gym that comfortably seated 1,500 and only received television coverage a handful of times.
But for three years, that squad reached a level of proficiency that no NCAA men’s basketball team has produced since. And the team’s lineup reached a level of play that might never be duplicated at the level they played at.
A little over 25 years ago, North Park College (now University), a school of around 1,000 students on Chicago’s north side, beat Widener 79-67 for its first Division III men’s national basketball championship. The Vikings would continue to dominate at their level, posting an 83-10 mark and winning two more titles under coach Dan McCarrell. No one in NCAA Division I, II or III men’s basketball has won three straight titles since the Vikings pulled off the feat during the 1978-80 seasons. And no Division III team has ever assembled the kind of talent the championship squads had under McCarrell — before or since.
Three players (Michael Harper, Modzel Greer and Keith French) were drafted by National Basketball Association teams after finishing their collegiate careers in 1980. A fourth, Michael Thomas, was drafted by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers in 1981. Harper eventually played for the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers while Greer had a successful career playing professional basketball in The Netherlands.
I grew up on Chicago’s south side. It was predominantly a Roman Catholic neighborhood and if you rooted for any college, you rooted for Notre Dame. I was the weird one in the neighborhood. I grew up with an affinity for North Park College because they were sponsored by the church denomination I belonged to — the Evangelical Covenant Church. So while everyone else could brag about Notre Dame football, I could crow about North Park’s basketball teams, even if no one knew what I was talking about. Unlike my friends, however, I actually got to see my hallowed team up close — really close — because the foldout bleachers jutted out to within inches of the out of bounds lines at North Park’s dinky gym.
In college hoops, the team to watch on television was UCLA, which won eight titles in 10 years under coach John Wooden and whose center, Bill Walton, was the dominating player during my youth. I wasn’t sure that North Park’s teams could ever compete with the UCLA’s of the world, but I also knew that the Vikings were much better than many people imagined. But when I went to my first North Park game in February 1978, I had no idea just how good this small college team was.
My first indicator came when I watched North Park’s 6-foot-10-inch, bespectacled center Michael Harper shoot the ball. For years I had watched players loft the ball into the hoop – this guy was so tall and jumped so high that he actually appeared to be shooting down at the basket. Needless to say, Harper’s athleticism and height gave him a clear advantage over most of the people guarding him. He became a three-time All America player, scoring 1,880 points, grabbing a school record 1,184 rebounds and earning the nickname “Dr. Dunkenstein” with 162 dunks. His unique story (he had grown about six inches between his freshman and sophomore year in college) and talent attracted numerous NBA scouts and local reporters.
The second indicator of North Park’s prowess came in the form of 6-7 forward Modzel “Bud” Greer, who could glide from one end of the court to the other in about three seconds and who added a smooth shooting touch to boot. I became an admirer of Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls when they won six championships in the 1990s and the Division III All-America Greer seemed like an earlier version. Greer eventually scored 1,826 points and nearly became a Bulls player. He was drafted and cut by Chicago in 1980 and later became a standout player for pro teams in Amsterdam, leading the RICOH Astronauts, to a championship in the mid 1990s.
Harper and Greer were often my focus as I watched North Park blew out Carthage College 91-70 on my first trip to the North Park gym. North Park beat Potsdam State 66-62 to win the 1979 Division III championship and finished off its third straight title run with an 83-76 win over Upsala in 1980 as hundreds of Chicago area North Park fans drove three hours to see the title game at Augustana in Rock Island. During those years, I was playing high school basketball and learning more about the subtle parts of the game of basketball. And as I returned to North Park, I began to appreciate some of the less spectacular players on the Vikings as they completed their championship ‘trifecta.’
Point guard Mike Thomas and reserve forward Keith French could provide spectacular moments as players. More than once I watched Thomas throw halfcourt lob passes that French dunked with authority — those plays would send the jam-packed crowds of nearly 2,000 into a frenzy and often led to 10-point North Park spurts that demoralized the opposition. I watched one of those dunks during an opening-game romp over Illinois-Chicago to start the 1979-80 season and saw its effect on a Division I team that didn’t know what had hit them. Thomas could also score. He finished his career in 1981 with a school record 2,085 points, averaging 23 points per contest and helping his team make the NCAA playoffs after Harper, Greer and French graduated.
But Thomas’ true talent was in finding ways to get everyone the ball in idea positions to score. Lobs to French or Harper, bounce passes off the break to Greer and Jim Clausen and chest passes for outside shooters like Tom Florentine and Grant Grastorf were among the ways Thomas made everyone better on the floor during North Park’s threepeat. I also began to appreciate the small things that other players like Clausen, Al May, Ernie Flores, Gregg Gierke and Scott Groot did for the North Park title teams.
For a while, it seemed like North Park would always have quality basketball teams. The Vikings would continue to stay among the top Division III programs for the next decade as assistant coach Bosko Djurickovic eventually took over as head coach and led North Park squads to championships in 1985 and 1987. Now, Djurickovic coaches at Carthage, the Vikings haven’t earned an NCAA playoff bid for a dozen years, and parity has reigned at all levels of men’s college basketball. Only two NCAA Division III programs (UW-Platteville in 1998-99 and UW-Stevens Point in 2004 and 2005) have managed to win consecutive titles. One NCAA Division I men’s team (Duke in 1991-92) and one Division II program (California State-Bakersfield in 1993-94) have earned two straight national titles.
Craig Pinley, who served as Director of Sports Information at North Park from 1988-90, has written for the Chicago Sun-Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., among others.
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