1951: The Championship Season
The dozen or so BYU Cougar octogenarians who reconnect over lunch a few times a year to discuss their families, their faith, and their love of sports don’t draw much attention. As they walk into a restaurant, some with slow gaits, some with canes, chances are none of the nearby diners realize they are in the presence of giants who once made BYU proud.
All played basketball in the early to mid-50s under legendary coach Stanley “Stan” H. Watts (BS ‘38) during an era when Provo went from a western backwater school to a university with a national championship—a victory that was splashed on newsreels all over the world.
Veteran Deseret News sports columnist Richard S. “Dick" Harmon (BA ’78) calls them “a team for all seasons.”
Each player remains loyal to their legendary coach Stan Watts. As great as they were athletes, even greater is their character. According to Harmon, “Watts once said of this team, the thing that stood out was how they became leaders in the community, faithful churchmen, and stayed married to the same woman.”
At one point, BYU beat the celebrated K.C. Jones and Bill Russell of the University of San Francisco and defeated UCLA in back-to-back games, earning a number 5 national ranking. Later in the 1951 season, BYU beat Dayton in the finals, snagging the NIT championship. The Cougars had the choice of playing in either the NCAA or NIT, and chose NIT because, back then, the National Invitational Tournament was the more prestigious contest.
It was Watts’ second year as coach—a challenging one, considering the team did not have a practice court. The Smith Fieldhouse was under construction, so the team played at Springville High School and the University of Utah.
Sixty-five years later Dean L. Larsen (BA ’57) remembers playing San Francisco that season as his personal highlight. “We were tied, and I was fouled as the game buzzer went off,” he says. “I was allowed two foul shots and said, ‘No sweat.’ Well, I missed the shot, and then it was sweat. I made the second shot, which gave us the game.”
Boyd O. Jarmon (BS ’54) has a different sort of lasting memory. “We were playing the University of Utah in Denver and Kent Bates from the U was making Mel Hutchins look pretty bad [Melvin R. Hutchins (BS ’51) became a top NBA draft choice and rookie of the year]. I was sitting on the bench and kept telling Coach Watts, ‘Let me play. I’ll kill him.’ Well coach let me play, and the next thing I know I’m sitting on my fanny under the basketball hoop. Everyone else is on the other end of the court. Bates had hit me in the Adam’s apple with his elbow and knocked me down. Yeah, I was going to kill him, alright.”
One of the best players, Terry Tebbs ('53), wasn’t even recruited.
Tebbs, affectionately known as “Cowboy” because of his native state (Wyoming) and for wearing boots around campus, walked onto the team. He became the team’s leading scorer with 19.9 points per game. “I used to go to the gym an hour or two before everyone else and play,” he says. “I was warmed up before anyone showed up; I was going to make the team. I was successful because I loved the game.”
Ed Pinegar (BS '56) was one of the best rebounders on the team. However, that wasn’t where his joy came from. “The greatest thrill in basketball is when you make a beautiful assist. That captures the essence of the game: the assist. All of the greats, LeBron, Magic, Bill Russell, cared about the assist.”
After his days on the team, Pinegar accomplished much, including time at BYU as a Book of Mormon professor. “While I taught, basketball players Marty Haws, Andy Toolson, and Jeff Chatman were my students. When I left BYU to serve as a mission president, I told Andy and Marty to teach Jeff the gospel; Jeff ended up getting baptized.” Their sons, Tyler Haws, Jake Toolson, and Jordan Chatman, are recent contributers to BYU basketball.
Robert Craig (BS ‘51) was recruited by Stan Watts from Boise High, as a point guard for the BYU team. His brother Wesley Craig (BA ‘56) remembers that Bob’s first two years on the team were unexceptional. But by working hard and learning from his teammates and Coach Watts, he became a vital player during his remaining years. “Bob loved the close bond felt among the players of that team,” says Wesley. Bob went on to become a popular high school coach in Beverly Hills and a mentor at a summer youth recreation camp he ran in Antimony, Utah. His son Steven would later play for BYU, too.
For John W. Taylor (BS ’57) leaving Utah for the first time and traveling throughout the United States was a highlight he subsequently repeated many times. After his BYU play Taylor served a mission in Argentina before spending several years in Europe with the U.S. Air Force. Wherever he went he played and coached basketball, from community teams in Argentina to inter-base competitions throughout Europe.
Their banter comes easily whenever they meet, and what stands out more than their love of BYU basketball are their friendships, and even deeper, their love for the gospel.
Watts taught the players memorable lessons about what matters most. One that stands out to Herschel N. “Bones” Pedersen (BA ’56) occurred the year President Ernest L. Wilkinson made the players dig ditches for a water line. “The president said there would be no scholarships if we didn’t dig. One guy on the team rebelled, saying, ‘No pay, no play,’ but when we complained to Stan he said to me, ‘You’ve been on a mission, and you know the value of a soul. If you can make a change [of heart] in that player and convert him to the Church, it will be worth it if we lose every game.”
The team won, not only on the court, but also in life. “Some have said they have been involved in more church service than any other athletic team at BYU,” Harmon says. Among their callings: missionaries, mission and temple presidents, MTC presidents, bishops, stake presidents, and regional representatives. The late Elder Loren C. Dunn (BS ’56) served in the First Quorum of the Seventy. “When you please Heavenly Father, it is an exceeding great joy. Even more than a beautiful assist,” Pinegar says.
Nine of them are gone, but none should be forgotten. They are BYU giants. On the court and off.
—Charlene Renberg Winters (BA ’73, MA ’96,) Collin T. Mathias (’16) Melissa Barber Garrison (’16), Morgan Davis Bench (BA ’15)