SIUE has 50 years of basketball history because NBA star had a vision

The Cougars are still thanking a Naismith Hall of Famer for starting it all.

EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – "A thrill. Just a thrill."

That's one way Jack McDole describes it.

As the college basketball season nears its end, so does a very special anniversary for the men’s team at SIUE. It’s been 50 years since the start of the program. What you may not know is that an NBA star and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer is responsible for it all.

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“We were thrilled. I just remember him summoning us to go out for basketball. I knew who he was. I was ready. I wanted to play for Coach Gallatin," said McDole, a member of the inaugural Cougars basketball team in 1967.

'Coach Gallatin' was Harry "The Horse" Gallatin, a 7-time NBA All-Star with the New York Knicks and NBA's Coach of the Year with the St. Louis Hawks. The legend coached fellow Hall-Of-Famer Bob Petit before becoming athletic director at SIUE, a campus he knew craved basketball.

“And early on our tryouts were in this little bitty gym with new seating really, in Alton, that’s where 50-60 of us tried out for the first team," said Mike Moore, another member of the inaugural team and still very good friend of McDole.

“We didn’t play on this campus. We played at the Edwardsville high school," said McDole.

Logistical issues weren't the only challenges that first season. The team suffered a 61-point loss in their first game against UMSL.

“One of our records that held for a long time, the largest deficit," laughed McDole.

But every stumbling block was worth it, getting to learn and be-friend Gallatin, who McDole and Moore both say was like a father figure.

“He was stern, but he was fair and all he wanted was 110 percent out of ya and have the right attitude," said McDole.

“A tough leader, a disciplined guy… He was tough and we knew it, but he treated all of us individually," said Moore.

The Cougars went 5-5 their first season. But that first team built a bond that transcended basketball.

“It wasn’t about the minutes or the points it was about being a member of that team," said Moore.

McDole still remembers the speech Gallatin gave to the team when they first got their jerseys.

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“The last day of tryouts, there was ten of us, Harry gave us our uniforms, said 'put em on' and he said 'be proud because one day you’re gonna proudly say to your kids you were on the first team at SIU-Edwardsville.'And he was right.”

Times have changed at SIUE. Aside from the fact they no longer have a live cougar as a mascot -- yes, that happened -- the team is now in a Division-I conference and plays their home games at the 4,000-plus seat Vadalabene Center.

“The facility you see here was Harry’s vision," said Moore. "He was thinking long term how to build this program.”

And Gallatin, who passed away in 2015, built more than a program. He built a culture.

“Now looking back it’s just been such an honor to have been on the first team and having life long friendships," said Moore.

“We might not have been the best team the Cougars ever had but we were committed to it, loved the game and so appreciate Harry Gallatin starting the program and having the opportunity to play for him," he said.

SIUE honored the 1967-68 team during Alumni Day on February 3 when the school hosted Jacksonville State.

Other players from that '67-'68 team included: Gary "Bo" Collins, Nino Fennoy, John "Dusty" Gregory, Dave Skundrich, Danny Mosley, Norman Cavaletti, Jim Gates, Harold Kappier, Dennis Noble, and Trent, Dahncke.

The 2017-2018 Cougars are currently fighting for their first Ohio Valley Conference Tournament qualification. Their last regular season home game is this Thursday night against Austin Peay.