It was during that month that a group of men's basketball players from a small college on the prairie rose to the top of their sport – and in the process, put USD on the national radar screen.
The Coyote men's basketball squad, led by legendary coach Dwane "Cloddy" Clodfelter, put together a 20-game winning streak that took them all the way to the National Collegiate Small College Championships in Evansville, IN.
There, USD edged Southwest Missouri State and Wheaton, and in the title game played 50 years ago today (Friday), routed Saint Michaels College (VT) 75-53. To this day, it remains the only national basketball championship in USD school history.
Fifty years later, those involved say the memories of that storybook season are still as clear as they were on that blustery midwestern day in 1958.
"I can remember quite a bit about that season," recalls Roger Nelson, the starting center on that 1958 squad. "Even now, all the games and moments are right there at the front of my mind."
"It was just a great experience to be apart of," said Clayton Kiewel, a fellow starter for the Coyotes that season. "But there were so many good
things about that season, that it's hard to pinpoint just one."
"It wasn't an easy season, but the thing I remember most is how the team came together," said Jim Daniels, the starting guard and leading scorer for the Coyotes in 1958. "Whenever we needed something to be done, one of the guys rose to the occasion."
Ask any player from that championship team about that glorious 1958 season, and they'll immediately start talking about the bitter conclusion to the 1956-1957 season. Words such as "disappointment," "frustration" and "motivation" are used to describe the emotions felt after a near-championship that season.
"We were upset we didn't win it all in 1957," said Maury Haugland, a reserve on the 1958 championship team. Haugland, a self-proclaimed "ranch boy" from Murdo, is now retired and living in Gold Canyon, AZ.
Coming into the 1956-1957 season, the Coyote men had experienced just one winning season in 11 years – which came the year before, when USD finished 12-10. Equipped with the brother tandem of Jim and Cliff Daniels, who had transferred to USD the year before, the Coyotes had the pieces in place for a memorable run.
And that's exactly what happened. In the season opener, USD edged the
University of Wisconsin 78-76 in overtime in Madison, WI. The victory propelled the Coyotes to a 17-3 regular season record, including an 11-1 mark in the North Central Conference.
Following a tense 78-70 win over South Dakota State in a playoff tiebreaker, the Coyotes were on to the regional tournament. After a 62-52 win over Monmouth in the regions, the Coyotes advanced to face
Wheaton in the national tournament.
As Nelson recalls, the 90-80 defeat "made us all pretty mad. We were up by 15 at halftime and let the game get away from us."
"That was a big disappointment because we all felt we should have won," Daniels said from his home in Brooklyn, NY. "We felt like something was taken away from us. We were determined not to let it happen again."
"We tried like hell not to let that happen again," Kiewel said of the loss to Wheaton. "Coach Clodfelter got us well prepared for the next season."
The Title Season
With a taste of the national tournament fresh in
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their minds, the 1957-1958 Coyotes set their sights on another big season. But this time, their goal was to win the national title.
"Everyone was on board to get back to Indiana," Haugland recalled. "We made a real strong commitment as a unit to succeed. Coach (Clodfelter) didn't know what the word defeat meant, and that rubbed off on us."
However, winning didn't come easy at first for the Coyotes. Following losses to Wisconsin, Missouri, Purdue and Northwestern, USD sported a 2-5 record after seven games.
However, it was at that point that the Coyotes put it together. From that juncture, USD reeled off 20 straight victories and was a perfect 12-0 in NCC play. One of the staples of Coach Clodfelter's tenure at USD was his preference to schedule big-name opponents, which, players say, made the Coyotes even more prepared for in-conference action.
"During those years, we played some tough games early in the season," Nelson said. "It made us a little more humble. Even losing really helped us in the conference."
"Our whole schedule prepared us for a championship atmosphere," Kiewel said. "All of those losses made us better."
After narrowing defeating Southwest Missouri State and Wheaton in the national tournament, the Coyotes readied themselves for the national spotlight. A year removed from a disappointing exit, USD had finally reached the culmination of a year's hard work.
"We were mentally and physically prepared for that game," Haugland said. "We didn't have any thoughts about not being able to win the final game."
The Coyotes utilized their trademark fast-paced, efficient offense to rout Saint Michaels (VT) 75-53 in the title game – giving the small university in South Dakota perhaps its first national attention.
"I don't really have any vivid memories of that game; it all happened so
fast," said Daniels, who scored 40 points in the title game. "I do remember our fans rushing the court and wanting to shake our hands."
"The game itself was so damn much fun," Kiewel said with a chuckle. "We really had their number. I remember that we had great support from the Evansville fans. That's big basketball country out there, so they all seemed to appreciate how we played."
50 Years Later
The players have all moved on. Many are retired. Many maintain some sort of connection to their alma mater. Yet, none have forgotten that season.
It was the kind of team that was the flashiest squad in the country, or even the most talented. But for one season 50 years ago, they were the best.
"The beauty of that team is that they've all been successful in their lives. They were just a group of ordinary guys who made something special happen," said Nancy McCahren, a 1957 USD graduate and a staple of the university's athletic department.
"It's such a wonderful story that needs to be told and understood."
For the 40-year anniversary of the championship in 1998, McCahren narrated a short video about the team and its national title. With help from USD alumnus Tom Brokaw, the video recognized the Coyotes' accomplishments and featured game footage that some players had never seen.
The fact that their title remains the only basketball championship in USD history is something the players say they don't think about. Yet, the fact that it is may make it all the more significant.
"It's extremely hard for any team to win a national title," Haugland said. "So I guess that makes what we did even more special."
Although the current USD men's basketball team was picked by many to be a title contender but has since struggled in conference action, Nelson says fans have a new championship-caliber Coyote team.
"I was hoping the men would get to the national tournament and win it, in the 50-year anniversary of our title," Nelson said. "But now, the women's team has gotten everyone's attention. So maybe they'll win a championship for USD."
Nelson said the university is likely to honor the championship team during Dakota Days in October, much like the appreciation banquet held in their honor back in 1998.
For those involved – whether on the court or in the stands – it'll be a
ceremony well deserved.
"We hope that the university will recognize their achievements," McCahren said. "They need to be honored.
"What that team did was remarkable when you consider those were just average boys but who had an above-average season."