Sixty-six years ago, the Harvard men’s basketball team was selected to represent New England in the NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
In the 1945-1946 edition of the Dance, the Crimson was knocked out by Ohio State, 46-38, in the first round, and lost its consolation matchup to NYU, 67-61, to finish the season 19-3.
Though the tournament now welcomes 68 teams as opposed to eight, Harvard has never returned to the promised land of March Madness.
The journey to the top for the 1946 Crimson was a remarkable one, the likes of which may never be seen again in college basketball.
It involved a Buckeye, two Celtics, and a world war. Its main protagonists were named Floyd, Wyndol, and Saul, and it came during a time when the NBA didn’t yet exist.
THE NAVAL REVIVAL
As World War II raged on, Harvard went a combined 4-25 on the basketball court in 1944 and 1945.
With the draft forcing many of the country’s best minds and talents into enlistment, the U.S. Navy initiated the V-12 Navy College Training Program, enrolling more than 125,000 enlistees in universities nationwide.
The reasoning behind the program was that these young men could better serve the nation as educated officers than as enlisted men. Naturally, there were fringe benefits for the armed forces as well. A look at the athletic histories of the Naval Academy at Annapolis and the USMA at West Point exemplifies that point: Army won the national championship in football in 1944 and 1945 (World War II), and finished in the top 10 in the early ’50s (during the Korean War). Navy similarly dominated on the gridiron during World War II and Vietnam.
With the Crimson struggling on the hardwood, avid basketball fan and Harvard Navy ROTC Commander Walter Mundorf saw an opportunity. Rumor has it that Mundorf, using his connections across the V-12 program, began a massive recruiting program in which he petitioned for the best available V-12 basketball talents to be transferred to Cambridge, Mass.
The results were incredible. Wyndol Gray, a first-team All-American from Bowling Green, brought his 22.3 points per game to the northeast and became, according to a 1946 Boston Globe article, “the most phenomenal shooter to play in New England and surely the best to ever wear a Harvard uniform.”
Paul W. Champion, a 24 year-old veteran of the War in the Pacific, co-captained the Crimson with Gray. Four of the five starters were V-12 recruits of Mundorf’s and the fifth, Saul Mariaschin ’47, transferred of his own accord from Syracuse after returning from the war.
THE MAN BEHIND THE MADNESS
It was a long and winding road that brought Crimson coach Floyd Stahl to the sideline in Madison Square Garden on March 21, 1946.
He began his coaching career at the Ohio State University as the head baseball coach and offensive-line coach for the football team.