The first meeting of African-American coaches in an NCAA tournmament game occurred in 1976, when Fred “The Fox” Snowden of Arizona matched wits against Georgetown’s John Thompson, who died today because of health reasons at 78.
Snowden, hired before the 1972-73 season, was the first African-American to be hired as head coach of a major university program. Arizona was a Division I program in the Western Athletic Conference. Thompson, who was hired by Georgetown the same year, was leading a Hoya program that was in the NCAA University Division. The program elevated to the Division I East Coast Athletic Conference in 1974.
Snowden, who passed away in 1994 from a heart attack at 58 years old, coached the Wildcats to an 83-76 win over Georgetown in the first round game of the 1976 NCAA tournament at ASU’s arena at Tempe.
Arizona’s Jim Rappis led the Wildcats with 20 points, Al Fleming had 12 rebounds and Herman Harris finished with eight assists.
Arizona’s interior strength with Bob Elliott, Fleming and Phil Taylor was too much for Georgetown. They had 31 rebounds compared to the 11 from the Hoyas’ inside players. Elliott, Fleming and Taylor also combined for 41 points while Georgetown’s Bill Lynn, Merlin Wilson and Al Dutch had only eight.
The Hoyas were openly frustrated by the dominance. With about 10 minutes left, Georgetown’s Garry Wilson, after he picked up his fourth foul and was headed to the bench, was assessed a technical foul for spitting on an Arizona player. The Wildcats gradually pulled away.
“Instead of a display of temper, the Cats remained calm,” Arizona Daily Star reporter Dave Adam wrote. “Al Fleming calmly sank two free throws. Senior guard Jim Rappis hit the technical foul shot. The Wildcats than brought the ball inbounds on the possession and Rappis canned a 12-foot jumper from the baseline left.
“The five-point play gave Arizona a 67-52 lead with 10:09 left.”
Snowden was quoted as saying, “If it had been nip and tuck, we have a good enough basketball team we still would have won.”
The Wildcats went on to the Sweet 16, where they beat UNLV 114-109 in overtime at Pauley Pavilion before losing in the Elite Eight against UCLA on the Bruins’ home court.
My father and John were dear friends. As a child I remember the two of them on the phone almost nightly in those early years if being coaching pioneers. So saddened by the loss of another great in basketball history. https://t.co/ACdp58puNM
— Stacey Snowden (@snowdenhoops) August 31, 2020
Arizona would not play Georgetown again until the 1986-87 season, when Steve Kerr was out with a knee injury. The Wildcats lost 82-74 at the Capital Centre in Washington, D.C. The Hoyas never returned to Tucson in the home-and-home arrangement because Thompson balked at the idea of Pac-10 referees working the game at McKale Center. The scheduling agreement allowed for only neutral officials to work the games; Big East refs did not work the game in D.C.
“That was the Pac-10’s fault, not Georgetown’s,” Arizona coach Lute Olson, who passed away last Thurday, said before the Wildcats played the Hoyas in 1995 in the Preseason NIT at New York City. “The Pac-10 does not allow neutral officials. They allow switch crews, which means Georgetown can come in with Big East officials.
“Looking back, we should have played the game in Phoenix at the (Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum) because you can have neutral officials at neutral sites.”
Arizona beat Georgetown and Allen Iverson 91-81 in the game at Madison Square Garden in 1995, so Thompson was 1-2 in his career against the Wildcats.
Georgetown visited McKale in 1991 when the Hoyas played in the first and second round of the NCAA tournament that year. They opened with a win over Vanderbilt and then lost to No. 1 UNLV 62-54. Georgetown had Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo who countered the Running Rebels’ Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon. Jerry Tarkanian’s team improved to 32-0 with the win. They eventually lost to Duke in the Final Four to finish 34-1.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.