By Josh Weinfuss
Late in the 2010-11 season, as Harvard sought its first NCAA basketball tournament appearance in more than six decades, Don Swegan called Crimson coach Tommy Amaker to say he wanted to see Harvard in the tournament one more time before he was no longer around.
The Crimson’s hopes were dashed in a one-game playoff when Ivy League-rival Princeton earned the conference’s automatic berth.
Swegan had to wait one more year. By then, 66 years had passed.
“He put a little pressure on me,” Amaker said. “He’s an elderly guy.
“I was tickled.”
Swegan, who played for Harvard just during the 1945-46 season, knew how the drill worked when the Crimson, again, had to sweat out a berth for this year’s NCAA tournament. The 86-year-old former coach and college development officer sat at his home in a Sebring, Ohio, retirement community waiting for updates from the Princeton-Penn game March 6. The game wasn’t shown in his area.
A win by the Tigers, and Harvard would qualify for its first NCAA tournament since 1946. Princeton won by 10, and Harvard was headed back to the tournament for the first time since Swegan donned a Crimson jersey.
After the game, ESPN.com reporter Andy Katz called the Swegan to get his thoughts on Harvard’s return to the Big Dance. By the next morning, Harvard alums throughout the country, including Vince Lackner, were reading about one of three living members of the Crimson’s last NCAA tournament team.
The Pittsburgh lawyer spent his junior year at Harvard riding the bench for the men’s basketball team, a “pine brother” he called it this week. Also a member of the Friends of Harvard Basketball, a collection of alumni who support the men’s basketball program, Lackner instantly knew the Friends had to get involved with Swegan.
Eight years after Don Swegan led Harvard to the NCAA tournament, he became an assistant basketball coach at Penn State in 1954. This was during a time when schools had only two coaches on a bench, one of which was in charge of the freshman team.
During his five years in State College, Swegan befriended an assistant football coach.
His name? Joe Paterno.
Swegan and Paterno developed a friendship that remained until Paterno died in January. They stayed in touch, and when Swegan went to a basketball at Penn State during the 2010-11 season, he stopped by the football offices to see Paterno. But Paterno was out of town recruiting, so Swegan left a note. On Swegan’s trip back home to Ohio, somewhere around Pittsburgh, he got a call. It was Paterno. The two caught up, and Paterno invited Swegan to a game this past season.
“We never quite made it,” Swegan said. “I missed out on seeing Joe for the last time.”
After combing through an Internet search engine, Lackner found Swegan’s contact information and called him the morning after the Princeton-Penn game. He told Swegan wherever Harvard played, he wanted Swegan there.
“I was thrilled and surprised to know that they were interested in my being out there and participating in activities out there,” Swegan said from his Ohio home. “I was amazed and thrilled by it.”
When Harvard was sent to Albuquerque, N.M., for a second-round game against Vanderbilt, Lackner told Swegan his airfare and hotel would be covered by the Friends. The original plan was to have the three remaining players from the 1946 Harvard team that lost to Ohio State in the NCAA playoffs attend this year’s tournament. But Jack Clark caught a cold and couldn’t make it, and the other, Louis Decsi, wasn’t able to travel from his home in Florida. In their places, Lackner found two other former Harvard basketball players, Cliff Crosby (class of 1950) and Ed Krinsky (class of 1954), to travel. The Friends also underwrote their trips, to the tune of about $5,000.
Carmen Scarpa (class of 1986) was one of the Friends who helped fund the former players’ trip and said there was no hesitation on his part.
“We thought it was going to be a great thing to do for (Don, Cliff and Ed),” Scarpa said. “I think it’s just the right thing to do. I don’t know Don at all. I’ve read about him, and if this was a way to get him there and was something he wanted to do, I think it was the right thing to do.”
While Crosby and Krinsky were also on the trip, Swegan was the main attraction.
He ended up at Harvard for a year as part of the U.S. Navy’s V-12 College Training Program, which was designed to essentially replenish colleges and universities with students because most college-aged men had either been drafted or enlisted for World War II. More than 125,000 men enrolled in the V-12 program to receive bachelor’s degrees from more than 130 schools, including Harvard. What was more appealing for Swegan, however, was that it was one of the few service programs that allowed students to be eligible for athletics.
After starting his collegiate career at the College of Wooster in Ohio, he spent 16 months at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, and then was sent to Harvard for the 1945-46 school year. He returned to Wooster to finish a career that included 10 varsity letters in three sports at three schools, a feat that earned him a place in Robert Ripley’s Believe it or Not newspaper column.
The Crimson went 19-1 in Swegan’s lone season and represented New England in the eight-team NCAA tournament, four teams from the East and four from the West.
Their first game was against Ohio State in Madison Square Garden, but Harvard was overmatched. Near the end of the game, with the Buckeyes up 10, Swegan hit a left-handed hook shot near the free-throw line, the last basket Harvard would score in the NCAA tournament until Keith Wright’s layup in 2012. But the shot brought an abnormal roar from the crowd, Swegan remembered. His basket made the final score 46-38 in Ohio State’s favor, breaking the point spread (10) and causing the gamblers in the crowd to voice their displeasure – perhaps not the most admirable reason to be cheered but it’s one of Swegan’s fondest memories from the tournament.
Harvard went on to lose its consolation game to a NYU team led by future NBA players Sid Tannenbaum and Dolph Schayes, 67-61.
Those games, however, helped engrain Swegan in Harvard basketball lore.
When he arrived in Albuquerque for this year’s tournament, the Crimson fans treated Swegan like royalty. Parents of players on this year’s team swarmed Swegan to shake his hand and take his picture.
“What was so impressive was the Harvard players and their parents were so respectful and appreciative of us and wanted to be around us and have their picture taken with us,” Swegan said. “We have the common link but 66 years apart, having played in the NCAAs. It was just good all the way through.”
Unfortunately for Swegan, Harvard suffered the same fate as his team seven decades later. The Crimson lost to Vanderbilt, 79-70, but it didn’t matter for Swegan. Just being there to link the teams was enough for him.
“It was just about as exciting as it was the first time when we played in Madison Square Garden in 1946,” he said. “It was a tremendous thrill. When you’re actually playing, it’s a little different than when you’re watching it from the stands. Both were very thrilling events.
“Anybody who participates in the NCAA is forever thankful that they had that experience.”
At halftime, Swegan was finishing an interview with Harvard’s student radio station when Andy Katz, the ESPN.com reporter, walked over with two men in tow: Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, a Harvard alum, and NCAA President Mark Emmert.
Swegan and Emmert talked about Harvard and how the game changed since 1946 in terms of athleticism, ball handling and how close a defender could get to an opponent.
“He obviously had strong opinions about it and remember his game, very, very well, but of course it was quite different back then,” Emmert said. “He was the star of the Harvard crowd. They were giving him a lot of appropriate attention.
“(He’s) a real sports fan and somebody whose life was obviously hugely impacted by participation in college sport.”
After the game, Swegan spoke to a crowd of about 250 at a reception at the team’s hotel.
“He said some neat things about the journey from 1946 to now,” said Amaker, who invited Swegan to be the guest speaker at the team banquet in April. “He was there to link us from there to now. We had actual moments where we could connect the program from yesteryear to today.
“It’s one of those types of moments that it’s the way it should be and the things about it need to be told. You would hope that it happens a lot of places and I‘m sure it actually does, but I think our story, our journey is unique in that regard.”