Former Florida State Basketball star and NBA Hall of Famer Dave Cowens remembers the “Busted Flush.”
There will never be a definitive answer, but what if the Florida State men’s basketball season 49 years ago ended differently?
The Seminoles’ journey in 1969-70 could have taken a very different course historically if the team had not been banned from the postseason by the NCAA. The ruling, even decades later, still ruffles players who have enjoyed successful career paths across the country but remain connected from their time together at FSU.
Members of the team and other alumni from men’s basketball will gather for a reunion this weekend and be recognized during Saturday’s noon home game against Georgia Tech.
“All we wanted was a chance to play,” said Dave Cowens, the Seminoles’ starting center in 1969-70 who will be among the returnees this weekend.
“We were students and basketball players. We loved to play and we loved the competition. It (probation) stung us. We had set goals to be ranked in the top 10 and win a championship.”
While the ruling derailed some goals, it didn’t dampen the team’s competitive spirit.
“We had a chance to win a championship but we weren’t given that opportunity to compete,” Cowens added. “How we responded was important to us. We played with pride and passion. We represented ourselves and FSU with dignity. What are we supposed to do about this?
“Go out and kick ass, like we did.
OFF TO A STRONG START
The Seminoles were off to a 10-2 start during the 1969-70 season, with their only losses to No. 5 North Carolina and No. 19 Southern California. FSU wasn’t affiliated with a conference at the time, and under coach Hugh Durham, Florida State had a good chance for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament or National Invitation Tournament.
The team was led by Cowens, a white, fiery red-headed senior center and future Basketball Hall of Famer from Newport, Kentucky. Cowens was surrounded by a strong, talented cast that was unique for a time marked by the civil rights movement, anti-war protests and political unrest.
Four of five starters were black and hometown fans nicknamed their Seminoles team “The Busted Flush.” A former FSU player in his fourth season as head coach, the 29-year-old Durham was the first FSU coach to recruit black players. It was a vision well ahead of most of the primarily white institutions in the South.
The Seminoles pressed full-court on defense after every made basket and were creative on offense. They outscored (92 to 75) and out-rebounded (56 to 41) opponents, shot 48 percent from the field compared to 40 percent by their opponents and all five starters averaged double figures.
“What was special about us was we were rugged, we were quick and we were skilled,” Cowens said. “That helps people understand we were a cut above a lot of other teams.”
Cowens and senior forward Willie Williams, a junior-college transfer from Miami, combined to average nearly 35 points and 28 rebounds per game. Williams led the nation in field-goal percentage (63.6 percent). FSU eclipsed the 100-point mark seven times, punctuated by a 122-point effort against Pepperdine. Keep in mind it was years before the NCAA universally implemented a shot clock (1985-86) and three-point line (1986). Seven states were represented on the Seminoles’ roster.
FSU players didn’t see color or culture.
“We had a lot of very talented guys. We respected each other and we liked playing with each other — that to me was the biggest point of emphasis,” said starting guard Ahmad Aliyy, formerly known as Skip Young, who was recruited from Columbus, Ohio, and made his home in Tallahassee. “It just worked out the way it did. We felt we probably could have gone to the (NCAA) tournament and won. It was us against the world. The best we could do was still go out and have a great season.”
Great season may have been an understatement. The team finished 23-3, 12-0 at home, and at No. 11 in the final Associated Press Poll. But the season could have been better. So much better, players believe. What if FSU was not banned from the postseason by the NCAA? What if it had advanced, as expected, to the 1970 NCAA Tournament, won by UCLA.
“Going into that season, a lot of us were having conversations about that endgame, matching up with UCLA,” said Ken Macklin, a senior starter at point guard from East Orange, New Jersey. “UCLA was the dominant team at that time. We figured we were bigger, we were quicker. We developed a little chip on our shoulders. There was some anger, some hurt feelings. We felt, ‘Somebody is going to pay for this.’ We had nothing to do with this, but we were the ones absorbing the brunt of it. We looked forward to a matchup that never happened.”
Bad news from the coach
The calendar turned from December 1969 to January 1970. The Seminoles were in Tucson, ending a three-game road swing at Pepperdine, Southern California and Arizona to open the new year. They were still three weeks away from a defining victory over No. 2 Jacksonville at sold-out Tully Gym (FSU students were in their seats three hours before tip-off).
Durham summoned his players from their rooms, gathering in a private area adjacent to the hotel lobby. He had bad news. Durham informed players the program — fresh off of probation that kept it out of the 1969 postseason — was placed on probation for two years by the NCAA. This meant the team was ineligible for the upcoming postseason that FSU was positioned to secure.
Initially, the room went quiet as players processed the message. Nobody pointed fingers, but emotions soon surfaced, ranging from disappointment to anger to shock.
“It’s hard to describe, even after all these years,” said Randy Cable, a senior reserve guard from Massillon, Ohio, who also has made Tallahassee his home. “Everyone was so disappointed. But we also realized we still had games left and it was like, ‘Hey, let’s show everyone how good we are.’ I guess it really didn’t affect us mentally at the time, simply because we were young and we had so many great players. You never know what would have happened. We might have gone in (NCAA Tournament) and lost that first game.
“But I seriously doubt it.”
Durham’s FSU program had been placed on probation by the NCAA from October 1968 to October 1969 for permitting prospective players to work out at university facilities, according to media reports. Word was a disgruntled player alerted the NCAA in a letter. Cowens, though not tied to the violation, called it “lame.” He explained it was common practice across the country for players to engage in pickup games during recruiting tips.
The new charges brought against FSU by the NCAA changed the team’s trajectory in mid-season.
The organization outlined “lavish entertainment” of three prospects during an expenses-paid, round-trip visit to Atlanta in May of 1969, according to media reports. Durham said he misinterpreted the rules and should have asked the NCAA for clarification. He pointed out the three players had already signed letters of intent to enroll at FSU — two were on the Seminoles’ freshman team in 1969-70, and the third opted to play elsewhere.
Durham, who accompanied the players to Atlanta, said an Atlanta businessman who was a friend of his picked up the bill. He said the players interviewed for summer jobs. College athletes are allowed to work in the summer, according to NCAA rules, but must first get permission from the school and the NCAA.
Durham understood the players’ reactions after he told them the news during that hastily-called team meeting in Arizona. The NCAA also said the Seminoles committed the violations while the team already was on probation. FSU imposed strict limitations on Durham.
“It was tough. The truth is I made the decision (to self-report the violation),” said Durham, 81, a Jacksonville resident who coached at his alma mater for 12 seasons and led the Seminoles to the 1972 NCAA Championship game and three NCAA Tournaments. “We were not in a league; I was reading the NCAA rulebook. … if I had to do it over again, I would have called the NCAA for (an explanation). I can understand why players were upset. None of them did anything wrong. It was a good group of guys. We really had a lot of chemistry and cohesiveness.”
“I really think that was the best team I coached at FSU.”
‘We lived up to our end of the bargain’
So much for a probation funk. FSU ended the 1969-70 season in a flurry.
Four days after being told it could not play in the NCAA Tournament, the Seminoles spanked Miami 104-63 at Tully Gym. FSU won 13 of its final 14 games, with the lone defeat at No. 2 Jacksonville, 85-81, on Feb. 18. Cowens had 20 points and 15 boards against the Dolphins. Williams added 19 points and 11 rebounds despite playing under 20 minutes due to foul trouble (he picked up fouls on consecutive possessions before Durham could substitute for him).
FSU, in a second meeting that season against state rival Miami, beat the Hurricanes 112-96 in its season finale 10 days later. Cowens, known for his all-out intensity and immense heart at 6-foot-8, ended his college career with a 30-point, 20-rebound effort against the Hurricanes.
Forty-nine years later, Cowens still doesn’t agree with the NCAA’s reasoning or rulebook. It punished FSU men’s basketball players for violations they were not involved in. To this day, the self-governing body’s list of guidelines over collegiate athletics is forever changing as it follows what many believe is a misguided mantra of protecting student-athletes.
Cowens, who was the fourth overall selection of the Boston Celtics in 1970, is hopeful what happened to FSU players decades ago isn’t repeated against other student-athletes moving forward. Last spring, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the NCAA had formed a Commission on College Basketball to help reform the sport.
“I hope the special commission to reform the NCAA rulebook is paying attention,” said Cowens, who remains a passionate supporter of FSU from his Maine residence.
The past can’t be changed for the 1969-70 Seminoles. But time has strengthened their bond, and they remain very much a group forged through perseverance.
“Nobody ever acknowledged the fact that we didn’t do anything,” Cowens said. “We were guilty by association. We were held complicit even though we weren’t involved. We did what we were supposed to do. We trained hard for the season. We lived up to our end of the bargain.
“We wanted to compete against the best, but we were denied that opportunity. I told somebody, ‘Don’t you think it would have changed the culture of FSU sports that, in 1970, we won an NCAA championship?’ That was possible. We were that good. It would be nice if somebody would have said, ‘My bad.’ It has never happened.
“I want everyone to know this team took the high road and continued to compete at a level worthy of a championship.”
The Seminoles battled back to beat the Tigers behind 45 points from their bench.
Curt Weiler, Tallahassee Democrat