Written by Sid Easley for The Banner Years...
“The Murray team...clearly indicated its superiority
to anything within the Conference.”
Eugene Boyd, The Paducah Sun Democrat Sports Writer, March 5. 1930
1930 was a special year for the Thoroughbreds. They were members of the Mississippi Valley Conference that included West Tennessee at Memphis (called the University of Memphis today), Middle Tennessee State, Delta State, and Tennessee Tech. Basketball was becoming king at Murray and the young campus was quickly gaining great pride in their team’s accomplishments.
This championship team won their first four games handily. And the entire campus and region raged with excitement over the upcoming game with West Tennessee at Memphis. The big game of the year was to be held on January 18th on the stage in the brand new auditorium. The Paducah Sun Democrat records all of the early hype.
The regional newspaper writer in speaking of Memphis and Murray knowingly wrote. “It is generally agreed that one of the two teams will be the probable winner of the tournament to be held in Memphis on March 3-6.”
The article went on to describe the players and how they had performed thus far. Willard Bagwell, the “flashy star” from the state championship Heath team was leading in scoring and was followed closely by William Smith, another star player on the same Heath team. Jim Miller who had been the previous year’s captain was third in team scoring.
At guard the team was led by a name long associated with Murray State athletics, Hal Houston Sr. Hal Sr, the father of Hal E. Houston MD, long time team doctor, and Racer fan extraordinaire, was a playmaking guard for that team.
The Paducah Sun Democrat said of him. “Hal Houston, the outstanding guard for the Murray aggregation, has played 117 minutes that being more than any other person.”
This significance of the big game against Memphis was not lost on the president, faculty, and students of the College. On Friday morning before the Saturday game the student body assembled in the auditorium.
Murray State was giving birth to the family atmosphere engendered by a winning basketball team. The Paducah Sun Democrat reporter remarked. “The band, cheerleaders, students, basketball players, and faculty members of Murray State College joined in a pep meeting Friday during the chapel hour.”
Remembering to put academics in its proper perspective the reporter commented. “The cheerleaders at the Dean’s request led a cheer for examinations.”
T. R Graham was captain of the team and he introduced the players. Dean of the college, Dr. John Carr spoke on the importance of athletics to the college and how fortunate Murray had been.
Alumni from the early years all recall the days of compulsory chapel—and most recall them fondly. Combining a certain spirituality common to all who attended, along with the enthusiasm engendered by the intuitive emotion of love of one’s home described by Sir Walter Scott in his immortal poem My Native Land, Drs. Wells and Carr and their faculty colleagues gave Murray its undaunted spirit.
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Chapel had its place, and undoubtedly helped light the fire that has become Murray State, and continues to burn brightly.
The Memphis game was played before a full house in the auditorium and the fans, who at the time were suffering from the Great Depression, left with great joy. The Thoroughbreds won the game 42 to 26 with Willard Bagwell leading the way scoring 12 points. Smith scored 8, and Hal Houston chipped in 4. The Sun writer commented “Houston played a remarkable defensive game.”
The headline in the Paducah Sun Democrat on Sunday morning read, “Murray stops West Tennessee streak at 22 games.” The Memphis school had won 22 straight, but had been upset by the upstart Thoroughbreds.
In another memorable game on February 18 of that year Murray swamped Delta State 57 to 26. The Paducah Sun again described the play.
“Bill Smith the former Heath star and Howard Harris a luminary at LaCenter High School at the same time, were the outstanding stars in Murray’s runaway victory tonight. Hal Houston and Jimmie Brookshire did sparkling work at the guards.”
This memorable team fought hard all year and entering the Conference tournament in Memphis in early March had a 16 and 2 record. They had lost only twice in the regular season—one to Memphis at Memphis, and also on the road to Middle Tennessee.
Excitement reigned as the Mississippi Valley Tournament approached. Several teams had matured as the season came to an end, and the games to be played on Memphis’ home floor were sure to be most competitive. But Murray was a competitive team, and the Heath boys who led the team were no strangers to big time competition.
In the first game of the tournament Murray struggled against Delta State failing to get their two platoon offense untracked. The news report from Memphis described the game this way. “Hal Houston, the tricky floor guard stole the limelight and scored nine points. Only the Murray defense saved the Thoroughbreds from defeat, because the offense was not functioning in the usual good order.”
How many times would the outcome of future Thoroughbred and Racer games be decided in the same way—by a tenacious defense.
Murray walloped Tennessee Tech in the semifinals 61 to 21 and prepared for the finals against Memphis, a team they had split with during the year.
The Paducah Sun described what was termed Murray’s finest hour in their four years of basketball. The Sunday Morning edition read:
Murray, Ky. State Teachers College whose record outshone all others of Mississippi Valley quintets reigns supreme as the best basketball team in the Valley….” They had beaten mighty Memphis for the championship on their home court. The final score was 36 to 31.
“The Murray team in winning the championship displayed the best brand of ball that has ever been shown in a Valley tournament, and clearly indicated its superiority to anything within the Conference.”
Willard Bagwell and Jim Miller were named to what was called the “mythical five” or the all-tournament team.
The excitement of Murray State fans and the College could not be contained. The Paducah Sun reported the celebration.
“The band was playing, the students cheering, and the speakers orating at Murray State Teachers College Wednesday when the Thoroughbreds champions of the Mississippi Valley Conference came back from Memphis, Tennessee.”
“The champions were escorted to the steps of the administration building where President (Rainey T.) Wells welcomed the men and women players.”
Other talks were made by the editor of the College News, former Mayor T. H. Stokes, Dean John W Carr, and Murray students and debaters Waylon Rayburn, and Forrest Pogue.
The team that year outscored their opponents by a total of 1041 points to 577, and compiled a record of 19 and 2. This was the first year of play for one who was to become Murray’s first All-American candidate—Williard Bagwell from Heath. Bagwell remained the all-time leading scorer for the Thoroughbreds through the year 1946.
It was in the year 1946 that Lt. D. S. Brumbaugh compiled his informative Twenty One Years on the Hardwood, a history of Murray State Thoroughbred basketball.
Bagwell would go on to play in 69 games and score 936 points in his four year career. Incredibly he amassed these points in a day of slow basketball, no three second limit under the basket, and the constant interruption of a center jump after each basket. Also the circumference of the ball was larger in the years Bagwell played. Later in the 30’s the size of the ball as well as its weight was to be reduced. The ball circumference was reduced by a full two inches.
J. D. Rayburn played with Bagwell and remembers him well. “He was a great player,” said Rayburn. “He had led Heath High School to the Kentucky State Championship in basketball and came directly to Murray.” “He could shoot with the best of them, but when he missed, he was a master at following his shot. He had the best nose for the ball I ever saw. He was simply a natural basketball player.”
Always pointing out that basketball was a team game Rayburn continued. “Bagwell was a forward, and he depended on a fellow forward Bill Smith (a Heath teammate) to feed him the ball.”
Two of the students present that day on the steps of the administration building would meet again on the battlefields of Europe. Hal Houston, a guard on the 1930 team, finished medical school and became an outstanding surgeon. He entered the military and served as a neurosurgeon for the 128th evacuation hospital. From June 1944 to May 1945 accompanying combat units in both France and Germany he performed 841 battlefield surgeries with an incredibly low casualty rate. For his service he was awarded the Legion of Merit.
Forrest Pogue received his PhD from Clark University in Worcester, Mass then taught at Murray before entering military service. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall chose Pogue as one of the combat historians of the Army, and Pogue became the first historian at D-Day. Later he would become the official biographer of General Marshall. He was fluent in French and was able to interview Charles De Gaulle without an interpreter.
Pogue records in his diaries published as Pogues War entries describing his last week in London before the D-Day invasion.
“I had talks with a number of friends from the United States that came from nearby stations…. A former schoolmate, Captain Hal Houston, came by to say he would go in with the first hospital unit. I was to see his unit in Normandy and to visit him much later in the Bulge.”
Remarkably these Murray graduates that stood on the steps of the administration building to celebrate their college’s tournament victory in 1930 again met on the battle fields of Europe--each had achieved greatness in their respective fields of endeavor.
Basil Crider was the center on that team, and he was almost 6 ft 4 inches.