Courtesy of NIU Athletics
On the eve of what would be one of the most significant victories in NIU Athletics history, senior forward Jerry Zielinski and his teammates on the men’s basketball team are surprised by what they see as they exit Chick Evans Field House.
On a cold night with sleet covering the sidewalks, hundreds of people were camped outside the fieldhouse ticket office waiting to claim tickets.
“They were cheering, patting us on the back, and wishing us good luck,” Zielinksi said in a 2005-2006 NIU Media Guide.
The next night, Jan. 4, 1972, the Huskies knocked off the fifth-ranked Indiana University Hoosiers 85-71 in DeKalb. The win would prove to be the magnum opus of a 1971-72 team that put NIU in the national sports spotlight and landed the squad in the NIU Hall of Fame.
“It’s the biggest win in the history of the school in men’s basketball,” said Bud Nangle, former NIU sports information director emeritus, in an NIU Media Guide. “I’ve been associated with the school since 1939, and I cannot think of any win that carried more national impact than that game did.”
The buzz around the ‘71-’72 team starts with their head coach Tom Jorgenson. An assistant for three University of Michigan teams that played in the NCAA tournament, “Jorgy” joined up with the Huskies in 1970.
“The fans and players loved (Jorgenson),” said Mike Korcek, former NIU sports information director. “He was a great X’s and O’s coach who had polish.”
The team also had returning players like Zielinski, who was often serenaded by NIU fans with “Zee, zee, zee” after shooting from 20-feet out before there was a three-point line. The Huskies also had returning junior guards in Larry Jackson and Billy “The Kid” Harris, both of whom would go on to play pro ball.
Among them all, sophomore forward Jim Bradley was the poster boy of the squad. Literally. Before even playing a game for the Huskies, with freshmen not being eligible to play at the time, Bradley was showcased in a Nov. 19, 1971 issue of Sports Illustrated that previewed the men’s basketball season.
Another factor was fan support and the team wanting to establish themselves among other schools in the state.
“We want to prove we’re just as good as the kids who get a degree from (the University of Illinois) or any other school in the state,” Korcek said. “It was the same with the basketball team…The kids got into it.”
The year prior, the Huskies lost to the Hoosiers in Bloomington, Indiana, by only a point. Before meeting with the Hoosiers again, NIU suffered an early season setback 112-85 loss to Purdue University. The Huskies rebounded to carry a five-game winning streak into their meeting with an undefeated Hoosier team with 4,442 fans selling out the field house.
“It’s Indiana,” Korcek said. “I think the first thing most people think of when they think of Indiana is Hoosier basketball.”
The run-and-gun Huskies were led by Bradley’s 24 points and 20 rebounds to the upset, with Bradley seeing the game as redemption for the earlier loss to Purdue.
“Just tell Purdue thanks a lot,” Bradley said in a Northern Star article from Jan. 5, 1972.
NIU handed then first-year Indiana head coach Bobby Knight his first loss since joining the Hoosiers. Knight would go on to win 662 games and three championships with the Hooisers but it was his legendary temper that would be on display that night.
“How the hell do I know what part the home court advantage plays,” Knight said in a Jan. 6, 1972, Northern Star article. “All I know is we lost, and it doesn’t matter whose home court it is. The damn basket is still 10 feet high.”
Two weeks later, on Jan. 18, 1972, the Huskies received their first-ever national ranking among NCAA major schools when they ranked 20th in the Associated Press Top 20 Rankings.
The Huskies went up one spot before losing to an eventual Final Four team in the University of South Carolina at Chicago Stadium.
NIU finished the season 21-4 and claimed the Midwestern Conference championship, however, the Huskies didn’t make the NCAA tournament on account of a field of only 25 teams with the MWC not having an automatic bid.
The legacy of the Huskies ‘71-’72 was enshrined in the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1987. Long before NIU got a team to the Orange Bowl or helped produce NBA players like Kenny Battle and Phil Dawkins, NIU was put on the map with a win over Indiana and a star in Bradley.
Fifty years later, current head coach Rashon Burno has a chance to make history against Indiana again when the Huskies visit the Hoosiers at 6 p.m. Friday on Big Ten Network+.