March Madness is upon us again. While Laura and I cover the current KU men’s basketball team in Omaha, this week’s edition of Images looks back at the NCAA run to the Final Four for another KU team, the 1971 Jayhawks.
KU coach Ted Owens always tells me the picture above, from the Jayhawks’ post-game celebration, is his favorite photograph from the 19 years Owens coached at KU.
“If I could name that picture for you, I’d call it ‘Brotherhood.'” Owens told me when we talked Wednesday.
There is a reason behind this gracious praise given to an image I made as a 19-year-old for the Topeka Capital-Journal. Owens believes the 1970-71 team helped heal the gaping wounds that tore the city of Lawrence to shreds in 1970. During that year, rising tensions between blacks and whites, along with ever-growing protests over the endless war in Vietnam, made the KU campus one of the most radical hotbeds in the United States.
On April 20, 1970, an explosion in the upper floors of the University’s Union set off a major fire. Those sparks could be traced back to racial tensions on campus that boiled throughout the week when the University tabled many of the black students’ demands. Called the “Days of Rage,” the campus seethed with anger. The fire remains the lasting memory of a turbulent school year that ended in May, but carried over into the 1970-71 school year.
Owens recalls that a chant began to rise in Allen Fieldhouse during that basketball season. Instead of “Black Power” or “Make Love, Not War,” Owens said the students began to cry for a “March to Houston, March to Houston.” This was not a cry for a civil rights march. No, the fans wanted to go to the Houston Astrodome where the fabled domed stadium would host a mega-show that is now commonplace for the Final Four.
The reason KU students could chant about going to Houston came about as KU marched through the season, losing only once to Louisville on the road, compiling a perfect Big 8 conference record and entered the NCAA regional with a 25-1 record. With only sixteen teams in the NCAA Championship, KU drove down the turnpike to Wichita State’s Roundhouse where they defeated Houston by a point in the Midwest Regional semifinals and then captured the Regional title with 73-71 victory over Drake. That victory provided the image of the “brotherhood” that still makes coach Owens so proud. There would be a March to Houston, but that is a story for another time.
For me, this was the beginning of being truly able to showcase the knowledge gained working at such an illustrious photographic newspaper. I was on my own for the first time for such a big event back in the days when getting photographs from that distance back to Topeka meant taking what now seems to be rather extraordinary effort.
In a Roundhouse hallway mop closet that barely fit two people, I assisted Kansas City Associated Press photographer Bill Streater as we set up a full darkroom for our black and white film. Streater was a veteran of such setups. I was constantly learning from a true professional. Before long I could load and process my film, edit wet negatives dipped in alcohol for speed drying, since we had no time or space for a dryer, and then make prints from those wet negatives while Streater transmitted my photographs to Topeka along with his for the AP.
As insane as it all seemed, I still remember loving every aspect of life in those times and the challenges they presented. That one of the images I made that weekend remains a famed coach’s favorite will always be a great honor. For all that went into that March to Houston – the timbre of the time, those NCAA games and that mop room photo lab – I will always be thankful for the education they provided someone so young.