Twenty-five years ago, a group of 15 players and two coaches from East Central University used that saying to accomplish something that only three teams in school history have been able to complete; they played in a national championship game. This time is was the 1988-89 men’s basketball team, who fell just short of the national title.
The 1988-89 team will be honored at half time of the men’s basketball game, Saturday, March 1 when ECU hosts Arkansas Tech. The game is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. in the Kerr Activities Center.
When you look back at the start of that season, most wouldn’t think that they would reach the top game in the country. The team lost the first two games of the season and was 5-4 at Christmas break after a scheduled filled with tough teams.
“We had played a pretty good schedule before the break,” said head coach Wayne Cobb. “We didn’t get things together early, but we were able to put them together when it counted.”
After the break things started to change. The Tigers won the next four games before falling to Southwestern by one (63-62). ECU then added three more wins before the final loss of the regular season to Arkansas-Pine Bluff (48-53).
“There was a lot of talent in the conference that season and every game came down to the last minute of play,” said forward/center Vernell Kemp. “After we were able to beat Northeastern on the road we started to think that we could win the OIC and that was a ring!”
That was when the real magic started, as the team went on an 11-game winning streak into Kansas City, Mo., and the NAIA National Championship game.
“I felt at the break the season this was going to be a good team and I thought we had a chance to go to the national tournament,” said Cobb. “Once we got there I felt that we were going to make the championship game and I that we should have won it.”
After defeating Oklahoma Christian in the Oklahoma Intercollegiate Conference championship to earn their ticket to Kansas City, not many, including the team, expected to get past the first round of the national tournament.
“We were just tickled to death to be in the championship series after beating Oklahoma Christian,” said Kemp. “We figured we would be one and done, but after playing the first half against Brigham Young so well, we started to think that we could win the tournament and it got a lot more exciting for the whole team.”
Despite their original thoughts, the team earned a, 66-55, win over BYU and then two more wins by 10-or-more points in the first three games of the tournament before earning a, 58-56, win over Wisconsin-Eau Clair in the semifinals.
Then came the Sunday media day with ESPN since the national championship game was going to be aired on national television.
“We went up to the tournament as lose as we could be, but on Sunday afternoon ESPN was there to film practice and interview and that made the players realize where they were,” added Cobb. “That’s when the team started to play really hard not to lose instead of playing to win like they had been the rest of the season.”
The Tigers went into the locker room with a slight 32-30 lead at the half of the championship game against St. Mary’s, but fell just short in the second half (58-61). Despite losing in the championship game, Kemp was bestowed with the honor of the NAIA Tournament Most Valuable Player. Kemp is one of a handful of student-athletes to earn the honor after playing on a team that did not claim the title.
“Getting to play at Kemper Arena with some of my best friends for a national championship was one of the most exciting moments of my life,” said Kemp. “We couldn’t have asked for a better year and it was great for coach Cobb because he deserved to be there.”
But just making it to that level was more than enough to engage not only the rest of the athletic department, but the rest of the ECU student body.
“We had a tremendous reaction from the student body and the community as a whole,” commented Cobb. “We had a couple of charter buses that brought students to the national tournament and many that showed up on their own.”
That level of support spilled over to the rest of the teams in the years to follow, as it helped increase enrollment and a high quality of student-athletes for the athletic department. The next season a group of 11 freshmen joined the football team that would work just as hard as the 1988-89 basketball team and they were rewarded with ECU’s first national championship.
“That season helped show me that if you work hard and put your team first you will succeed,” Kemp commented. “I still use that with the players I coach now; if you put yourself aside and come together no one can beat you.”
Quality student-athletes were a mainstay for Cobb and is reflected in the success of his student-athletes after they left the program.
“Every player that I have ever coached is a quality person,” added Cobb. “I was able to help them a little farther in life and they have all accomplished great things.”
“Coach Cobb taught me how to grow up,” Kemp added. “He was a tough guy, but if you could learn from him you were almost guaranteed to be successful.”