The agony and the ecstasy coursed through Westmont College’s campus in consecutive, emotional torrents exactly 50 years ago this week.
Its most sorrowful loss was followed by its most implausible victory.
Tom Byron, the Warriors’ beloved basketball coach, was only 42 when he succumbed to cancer on Feb. 3, 1972.
The next day, in the ultimate celebration of life, his team rallied from a 16-point deficit to upset 14th-ranked Hawai‘i, 90-89, before a delirious, overflow crowd at Murchison Gym on the Montecito campus.
Don Volle, the team’s student manager at the time, was still marveling about it a half-century later in an article he wrote for Westmont Magazine last fall. It was entitled, “My Front Row Seat to a Miracle.”
Byron had arrived at Westmont in 1965 to pump new energy into the school’s basketball program. The Warriors christened the newly constructed Murchison Gym by going 17-10 during the 1969-1970 season.
His cancer diagnosis forced him to step down the next year. He returned to the court the following season, however, after his successor, Jim Larsen, took the head coaching job at Cal State Bakersfield.
Little did the team know that Byron’s doctors had already found three malignant and inoperable tumors on his liver. He was told that he had only eight weeks to a year to live.
Ron Mulder, the freshman team coach who would later become Westmont’s athletic director, said Byron’s faith convinced him to soldier on.
“A lot of people had been praying for him, and both Tom and his wife, Dorothy, felt the Lord had healed him,” he recalled. “Right away, he wanted to get back into coaching. He was a very strong-willed individual and endured a lot without letting anyone know about it.
“But I started seeing things that seemed suspicious during the preseason, as early as Nov. 1. There were signs that things weren’t right.”
Guard Andy Hill, one of the team’s co-captains, would catch glimpses of his coach in agony.
“I remember him being sick, and all those days still showing up at practice, trying to do what he could,” he said. “That had a profound effect on my life, how courageous he was.”
A Perfect 10-0 Start
But Volle realized the seriousness of their coach’s condition before their next game on Jan. 6 at San Fernando Valley State, now known as Cal State Northridge.
“I needed to get the first-aid kit from the locker room,” he said. “Upon entering, I was startled by the sight of head coach Tom Byron. He was alone, lying on his back on a training table in obvious discomfort.
“At that moment I knew what we all feared was true. Not only had coach Byron’s cancer returned, but it was now evident that it had progressed further than any of us had imagined.”
The Warriors stumbled in the fog of their coach’s situation that night, suffering their first loss, 72-59.
“Tom was so sick that he was unable to come out and coach in the second half,” Mulder recalled. “It was the last game he ever coached.”
The team descended into a tailspin of despair, losing five of six games during a two-week span.
“There was a long period of time there when it all weighed heavily on the team,” said Charlie Mehl, a junior guard.
Guard Brian Kerkering, another co-captain, knew Byron’s cancer had worsened, “but it was a shock when he got so sick as fast as he did.”
Ten days after Northridge, with the end approaching, Byron called a final meeting with his team.
“It was hard for him to let go,” Mulder said. “He loved the team, and he loved athletics and coaching. But he was going into the hospital the next day and he knew he wasn’t going to come out. He told the players he wouldn’t be back.
“It was a very emotional meeting. A lot of us cried. He told us how much he had enjoyed the team, and coaching. He said a few things about our personal lives. You could tell by his talk that he was saying goodbye.”
Byron, who was an ordained minister and the father of two young children, asked to speak to each player individually.
Assistant coach Dave Bregante, who would later serve as a successful head coach at his alma mater, Santa Barbara High, said Byron took a personal interest in everyone he coached. Bregante had been his star player during the seasons of 1967-1968 and 1968-1969, scoring 1,004 points in just 51 games.
“I was a kid from the Eastside,” he said. “I really didn’t get around much or know much of anything before I got to Westmont, and he took a chance on me.
“He was a huge influence on my life with the way he handled his players … with the way he gained respect.”
The Warriors’ depression deepened after Byron’s final team meeting. Something changed, however, just days before the Hawai‘i game.
Coming to Peace
“I had a real long talk with Tom in the hospital two nights before he died,” said Kerkering, who’d also been recruited out of Santa Barbara High. “That’s when I got over it. The way he talked about dying, it was no longer a problem.
“Because he was such a Christian man, he accepted it. He didn’t concentrate on it at all. He wanted to talk about basketball, and the players. Those 40 minutes I talked to him influenced my opinion of life in general more than anything else ever has.”
Mehl had a similar experience during his final visit to the hospital.
“I wanted to minister to him … Instead, he ministered to me,” he said. “I saw he was at peace, and that he didn’t have any qualms about what the future held.”
Kerkering said Byron made no death-bed plea to “Win one for the Gipper” before the Hawai‘i game.
“He wasn’t big on pep talks, anyway,” he said. “He was probably the most purely Christian man I’ve known, and basketball was an extension of his beliefs.
“He wanted and expected you to play as hard as you could for every minute purely for the enjoyment of it. He wasn’t one of those coaches who was out there for the sole purpose of beating someone.”
Volle said that when news of Byron’s death reached campus on Feb. 3, “there was some initial talk of canceling the Hawai‘i game.” The team instead decided to dedicate their performance to their departed coach.
Mulder, who was now coaching the team with Bregante, said Hill gave a pregame talk about playing the game “the way he would want us to.”
“Sure, we wanted to win the game,” Mulder continued. “But it was more a sense that we were dedicating ourselves to playing his kind of ball.”
Facing Three NBA Draft Picks
Winning the game seemed unfathomable. Hawai‘i had three NBA draft picks in its lineup. They included Bob Nash, who would be chosen in the first round by the Detroit Pistons just four months later. A fourth player was drafted by the ABA’s Virginia Squires.
The Rainbow Warriors strutted into Santa Barbara, having already defeated three then-Pac-10 teams. They had also twice beaten nationally ranked Florida State, which would advance to face UCLA in the NCAA championship game.
When Bregante greeted them on campus, Nash instructed him to “tell that Fred DeVaughn of yours he’s in for a long night tonight because I’m going to eat him alive!”
Bregante relayed the message, word-for-word.
“Freddie had a difficult time getting up for games against teams that he didn’t think were all that good,” Mulder said. “But when we played someone good, he would come to play.
“That night, he was stoked to play against Bob Nash … Freddie wanted to show him he could play ball.”
Hawai‘i took a 16-point lead midway through the first half, but a few incidents just before halftime struck a nerve with the Warriors.
“Nash lost his cool, spitting on people and throwing punches,” Kerkering said. “Once we saw this in him, he was no longer an All-American in our minds. We were no longer in awe of him, or Hawai‘i.”
By halftime, Westmont had cut the deficit to 51-40.
Standing by Their Man-to-Man
The Warriors, wary of Hawai‘i’s superior athleticism, had played a zone defense during the first half. Mulder and Bregante, however, decided to change tactics for the second half.
“We were a good man-to-man, defensive club,” Mulder said. “And although we didn’t match up with them man-to-man that well, we decided that we would go at them tooth-and-nail.
“That suited the players just fine. I remember Andy Hill saying at halftime, ‘We want this game, so let’s go after these guys.’”
The Warriors began forcing turnovers and quickly whittled away at Hawai‘i’s lead.
“All you had to do to get us motivated was to tell us who we were playing man-to-man against,” Kerkering said. “We wanted to play man-to-man. Not one of us would get beat — you were too afraid of the other four giving you a hard time if you did get beat.”
The comeback, Hill said, was typical of the 1971-1972 Warriors.
“It was the chemistry of that team to not ever give up,” he said. “Of course, that was coach Byron’s influence … You always give it your utmost. That was the way he lived his life.”
Westmont’s shots also seemed to be guided by angels during the second half. The team made 72% of them during the final 20 minutes, with DeVaughn, Hill, Charles Anderson, Tim Skelly and Kerkering doing most of the damage.
Hill ended up with 16 points and even seven rebounds from his guard position. Anderson got 13 points and eight rebounds.
And DeVaughn played like a man possessed, taking Nash apart with 34 points and 22 rebounds.
“Coach Byron changed my life,” he would explain later. “The whole school was going through a lot.
“When I found out coach Byron had died, I had to keep my emotions in check. I had a job to do. I knew I was being used for greater purposes. I’m so glad that the Lord was able to use me as a vessel at that precise moment in time.”
Holding Off Hawai‘i
The Warriors surged ahead by as many as nine points. With four minutes remaining, however, they went into a delay game.
“Looking back, I think we went into it a little too soon,” Mulder said. “They began to come back at us.”
Hawai‘i drew to within a basket, but Hill held them off by making three clutch free throws in the final minute.
“I remember Brian coming up to me and saying, ‘There’s no pressure, we know you’re going to make them,’” Hill said. “I wasn’t a great shooter but I knew stepping up there that I was going to make those.”
DeVaughn increased Westmont’s lead to three points with a driving hook shot as the clock wound down. Hawai‘i scored an uncontested basket just before hearing the final buzzer — and then came a thundering roar from the crowd.
“The pandemonium that resulted was incredible, everyone went bananas,” Mulder recalled. “I’ve never seen a crowd surge onto a floor like that before.”
Hawai‘i’s team reacted with emotion, as well.
“Their players were going out of their minds,” Kerkering said “They thought there was no way they could lose to a little school like Westmont.”
But he also heard the Hawai‘i radio announcer say, “No way was it a home job … These guys just plain out beat us.”
The foul count was nearly even, with 33 going against Hawai‘i and 29 against Westmont.
The Nash-ing of Teeth
Nash, however, became inconsolable. Mulder said he threw a punch at referee Jerry White when he spotted him on the stairway to the locker room.
“Luckily, Jerry ducked,” he recalled. “We had a big guy from the track team by the name of Dan Bryant working security at the game and he whisked the two officials off into a professor’s office.
“Since we used the same locker room as the opposing team, we also pulled all our players out of there and kept them in a conference room until Hawai‘i had dressed and left.”
Volle, however, failed to escape Nash’s wrath when he delivered towels to the locker room. The Hawai‘i star grabbed him by the hair and “screamed that I had no business in their locker room.”
“Fortunately for me, two other Hawai‘i players pulled him off and told him to let me go,” Volle said.
At the same moment, Mulder was inviting Byron’s 11-year-old daughter, Annie, to join the Warriors as they waited in the conference room. Volle said Kerkering noticed her nervousness and motioned for her to sit next to him.
“Brian playfully tossed a few pieces of popcorn in her direction which proved to be a great relief to Annie,” Volle recalled. “That following summer, Annie was a junior bridesmaid in Brian’s wedding.”
Earning a Trip to Kansas City
Westmont continued on to one of the best seasons in school history.
Byron had set three goals for the Warriors at the start of the year: Win more than 20 games, beat Hawai‘i, and punch a ticket to the NAIA National Championships in Kansas City by winning the District 3 title. They accomplished all three, finishing with a 21-9 record and advancing to the NAIA quarterfinals.
Byron lived to see none of it, but his players refused to see the cruelty of that.
“He realized there was more to basketball than just wins and losses,” Hill said. “He always taught us that if you live life to its fullest, you’ll never have regrets.”
But to this day, the team’s manager wonders about the spiritual implications of those fervent days of 1972.
“Does God really care about the outcome of a basketball game?” Volle asked at the end of his Westmont Magazine essay.
“For one night at a small college in the hills of Montecito, it sure felt like He did.”
— Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.