Part 1: The Pinnacle of The Program, Lipscomb’s rise to basketball dominance

The 1980s and 90s were years to remember for the Bisons. The team won its first NAIA National Championship in 1986 behind performances from the likes of Greg Caudle, Anthony Jones and Tom Kelsey. In 1990, the team played in front an NAIA record of 15,400+ at Memorial Gym. The Bisons won that game, too, 124-107 against Belmont.

During that time, Lipscomb players also broke records. Philip Hutcheson broke the college basketball scoring record with 4,106 points, which stood until another Bison broke his record four years later.

John Pierce, the only fitting successor to Hutch, broke his record four years later with 4230 points.

Also, Jerry Meyer held the college basketball record for assists in a career. His teammate Darren Henrie holds the Lipscomb University record for most blocked shots with 273 career blocked shots, holds the university record for blocked shots in a season with 87, the record for dunks with 141 during his career as a Bison and the record for dunks in a single season with 61 dunks.

Not to be outdone, Marcus Bodie is the all-time steals leader in college basketball with 440 over his career. Bodie averaged three steals per game over 148 games.

After watching Darren Henrie come within 10 three-pointers of college basketball’s all-time record, Andy McQueen set his sights on taking care of some unfinished business. McQueen was deadly from behind the three-point line, hitting 112 as a freshman, 143 as a sophomore, 124 as a junior, and 136 his final season.  McQueen would finish with 515 career three-pointers to break college basketball’s all-time record of 467 held by Bill Elliott of Mid-American Nazarene.

It was McQueen who, on the night John Pierce gained national attention for breaking the all-time scoring record, would set a new Lipscomb single game record with 11 three-pointers.

To put that in perspective, Jordan Burgason, one of the nation’s best three point shooters, has hit 281 over his career. McQueen’s numbers as a Bison are absolutely absurd.

Now, take a second and imagine all of those players on one team. It happened. Somehow, someway, it happened.

***

For the time being, we will focus on the 1986 National Championship team. Anchored by Caudle, Jones, and Chris Martello, the team started off its season with 18 straight wins. Ranked the No. 1 team in the nation for the first time in Lipscomb history, Coach Don Meyer and the Bisons stayed in form for a majority of the season. The team won their final 13 games, capturing the Bison Classic, TCAC Tournament Championship and the District 24 Championship. The Bisons led the nation in field goal percentage for the second straight year and finished with a school record (at the time) 35 wins.

The Bisons had to beat Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., to advance to the NAIA tournament. At the time, the Railsplitters were led by a promising young coach – Rick Byrd.

The next day, after the Bisons walked away with the victory, members of the athletic department spotted Byrd in Nashville. When questioning Byrd about why he was in town, the staff discovered that Byrd would be announced as Belmont’s new head coach in the coming days.

Without a doubt, it was irony at its best.

The Bisons entered tournament play as the 11th seed with games lined up one right after the other.

No breaks meant not having the chance to slow down.

In the first game of the tournament, the Bisons faced Minnesota-Duluth and Don Meyer’s good friend Dale Race. Duluth entered the tournament with a 23-7 record. The Bisons were led in scoring by John Kimbrell with 16 while Anthony Jones and Chris Martello came off the bench to score 12 each, and as the tournament went on, the bench became even stronger.

For their second round matchup, Lipscomb played against the team hosting the tournament, Emporia State. Come game night, the gym was packed with over 9,000 people. Down by six at the half, the Meyer-led squad outscored Emporia 45-36 in second half on their way to a victory and a third round game versus Central Washington.

The “Cinderella” of the tournament, Central Washington was seeded 14th in the bracket. Entering the third round, Central had already taken out the third-ranked team and were hoping to continue their run to the Final Four. However, John Kimbrell had different plans, dropping 24 points in a 80-64 win. Anthony Jones and Chris Martello came off the bench to score a combined 26 as well.

The Bisons had made it to the Final Four.

Entering the semi-final game against St. Thomas Aquinas from NYC, the Bisons had little to no chance on paper. St. Thomas Aquinas had upended the tounament’s No. 2 seeded team in the previous round and fans and reporters were calling them the team to beat. The Bisons, however, had the game of all games and defeated St. Thomas Aquinas 102-91. In the win, the Bisons hit 20 of 21 free throws and out rebounded St. Thomas Aquinas 35-23. The Bisons had five players hit in double figures led by John Kimbrell’s 23 points.

 

In a place almost unknown to Lipscomb basketball, the team had reached the Promised Land – almost. In order to reach the land that all programs vie for, the Bisons would have to defeat another Cinderella team.

Lipscomb faced the task of bringing an unranked Arkansas Monticello team down a couple notches. Like most of their other games in the tournament, Lipscomb found themselves down in the first half. However, led by Kimbrell, a familiar face in the tourney at this point, the Bisons outscored UAM 45-27 in the second half on their way to their first national championship.

During the National Championship, the announcers of the game, Bob Jordan and Jim Jobe of the NAIA Radio network were blows away by the firepower of the Bison bench. The following quotes were pulled from a 1986 Babbler.

“Anothony Jones…the best sixth man in the tournament.”

“Anthony Jones…well, he’s Mr. Sparkplug out there. He does so many things well – he excited the crowd, he gets the crowd up, shoutin’, stompin’…that helps any ballclub.”

“These Bisons…they are all great kids. They’ve got the longest team as far as bench strength in the tournament. They’ve all played well – when one guy’s down, another picks him up.”

“Caudle…he’s on the breakaway…gets a slam dunk. Well, it’s all over but the shouting, Jim. The fat lady is singing upstairs a little early… it’s 61-46.”

“I don’t think they have a first team, I really don’t. They’ve got 9 to 10 players that could start any night.”

“It’s all over now. You go home the National Champions.”

The Bisons ended the season with an overall record of 35-4 and Lipscomb’s first ever national championship in basketball. For Coach Don Meyer, the Bisons and the city of Nashville, the face of Lipscomb University was changing.

In the coming years, the program grew, garnered even more talented recruits, played a tougher schedule and more importantly, they won.

They won a lot, too.

Following the National Championship in ’86, the Bisons posted a remarkable 139-17 record over the next four seasons. During that span, the team advanced to the NAIA tournament three times and the semifinals once.

Players that have already been mentioned such as Hutcheson, Meyer, Bodie, Henrie and Pierce all contributed to the team’s success. However, it can be argued that no one contributed more the program than Don Meyer.

***

During his tenure at Lipscomb, Meyer went 665-179. That record is good for a 79 percent winning percentage over 844 games. Absolutely mind-blowing.

Dramatic growth is typical of Meyer’s handiwork. Before he came to Lipscomb in 1975, the Bisons had won 20 games only once in their 39 seasons of playing basketball. During Meyer’s years at LU, the team won more than 20 games 17 times in 21 seasons.

From the January 8, 1990 edition of Sports Illustrated: “Meyer’s first basketball camp, in 1976, had 188 players; last summer there were nearly 4,000 participants, making it the largest in the country. Three years ago, Meyer and his staff started selling instructional videotapes; they have since sold more than 8,000 to high schools and to colleges with prominent basketball programs.”

Continued… “Bisons don red or green mesh jerseys and begin a half-court scrimmage, full speed. If the opposing team returns to the locker room for a pregame talk, the players’ faces light up. Then they run full-court fast breaks.”

Can you imagine if you saw a team do that now, in 2012? They would be the laughing stock of the league. The fact that Meyer did it – and it worked – speaks volume about his innovative style

SI Article Continued: After practices and games, win or lose, the players enter the locker room, and each immediately pulls out a three-ring binder. An unsmiling Meyer writes with a felt-tip marker on a white board. His players write with their pens in their notebooks, which they fill with notes on Meyer’s remarks.

The idea is to force Meyer to organize and simplify his thoughts and help the players learn his system. “You don’t just come in there and start talking,” he says. “I’ve got to present my points one, two, three, because the players are taking notes. I like to look at Hutcheson’s notebook, because if he doesn’t get it, I know we’re in trouble.” Last year Hutcheson was named the Academic All-America Player of the Year in the college division, which encompasses all NAIA schools and those in the NCAA’s divisions II and III. He has a 4.0 grade point average with a double major in political science and communications.

“You can sweep the floor before practice, or you can deal with the media like they do in the ACC,” said Meyer.  “I don’t know which would be more fun, but I lean toward sweeping the floor. The only thing that would make me want to move to another level would be to prove that what we’re doing here can be done there.”

Don Meyer transcends sports. In his book, “How Lucky You Can Be,” Buster Olney highlights Coach Meyer as more than just “Coach.” Meyer is an innovator. He is an inspiration. He is a testament of faith.

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