- UConn Fast Break
- The story of UConn's first Elite Eight appearance
The story of UConn's first Elite Eight appearance
After tragedy struck in Storrs, a new head coach took the Huskies to great heights in his first year.
The House That Fred Built: How a first-year coach brought UConn to its first Elite Eight
They won just 14 regular season games, splitting the Yankee Conference title. Compared to the country’s elite programs, they lacked depth, size, and athleticism. They had just five full scholarship players. The face of the program for so many years, head coach Hugh Greer, was no longer with them.
But the 1963-1964 UConn men’s basketball team accomplished something that no other Huskies club had before. It reached the regional final of the NCAA Tournament, what is now known as the Elite Eight.
With a new head coach and a battle-tested team that embraced him, the Huskies made Connecticut basketball history in March 1964. In the process, they upset a team led by one of the most celebrated players in the history of college basketball.
In January 1963, UConn’s legendary head basketball coach, Hugh Greer, died at age 59. Over 17 winters, his teams won 12 Yankee Conference titles and never finished worse than second. They reached seven NCAA Tournaments, becoming the pride of the Nutmeg State and an eastern basketball stalwart. Freshman coach George Wigton took over as the interim coach in 1963, earning another Yankee Conference crown and the school’s eighth NCAA bid.
The Tournament went as usual. Connecticut bowed out in the first round, at the hands of West Virginia, 77-71.
That spring, university officials went in a different direction when selecting Hugh Greer’s permanent replacement. They hired a 31-year-old Duke assistant named Fred Shabel, who brought a cornucopia of contemporary basketball tactics and organizational methods with him from Tobacco Road.
After the announcement of Shabel’s hiring, the players met privately in the Physical Education Building. They committed themselves to embracing the new coach as they pursued another Yankee Conference title.
The combination of Shabel and a veteran Connecticut basketball team proved to be fruitful.
For one, starting shooting guard Al Ritter, a rising senior from Cranford, New Jersey, took an immediate liking to the detail-oriented Shabel and his decidedly modern approach.
“Fred may have had more wide-ranging thinking about what we could do to win a game [than Greer]. He got to know each player really well—what we could do, what we couldn’t do—so he gave us different assignments before a game to put in place as the action started. I’d never known another coach like that,” Ritter said.
Before coming to UConn, Ritter was a two-sport star at Cranford High School. During the spring, he earned a reputation as one of the state’s top prep pitchers. During the winter, Ritter and future UConn teammate Billy Della Salla played basketball for future NBA Hall of Famer Hubie Brown.
Ritter and Brown became lifelong friends. Out of high school, Ritter was offered a scholarship by UConn’s basketball program and a baseball contract by the New York Yankees. Following his parents’ advice, he chose the relative surety of a college scholarship.
“Shabel came in as a young guy with systems and organization supreme. A great knowledge of the game. He was an innovator, a strategist, and a pusher,” Ken Libertoff said. Libertoff was a sophomore forward on the 1963-1964 Connecticut men’s basketball team. “Shabel was the kind of person that could also be a vice president at IBM. Practices were organized by the minute.”
Libertoff had grown up in Rockaway, Queens, New York, and starred at Far Rockaway High School. A relative of his taught at UConn and he’d been up to Storrs on a couple of occasions to see games.
“Hughie Greer was a very warm, friendly, quiet person. He talked to me about how it would be great if I went to UConn. It didn’t take a lot of arm pulling,” Libertoff said. To a city kid like Libertoff, Storrs seemed decidedly picturesque.
“It was completely different when Fred Shabel came. He was more business-like. Very well organized,” Ken Whitney said. Hailing from Maine, Whitney was also a sophomore on the 1963-1964 club and close friends with Libertoff. The city kid and the kid from rural Maine hit it off immediately and became roommates for two years.
“We ran multiple offenses and multiple defenses, which was kind of unusual in those days. We had set plays set up for specific people to take the critical shot. Everything came from Duke University, pretty much, except for our zone presses, which came from Dr. Fred Lewis at Syracuse,” Whitney said of Shabel’s tactical approach.
While Greer relied on tried-and-true mid-century basketball tactics, Shabel was an enthusiastic adopter of new strategic approaches to the game. Whitney recognized more fully the virtues of Shabel’s methods when he became a coach in his own right.
“Hugh Greer was the fatherly type. He would really make you feel comfortable. I had a lot of extra time to spend with him and his folks,” Whitney said.
Whitney had ended up in Storrs by word of mouth. A friend of Hugh Greer’s who lived one town over from Whitney’s hometown of Bridgton, Maine turned the longtime Huskies coach onto the dynamic guard. When Whitney visited Storrs, the coach told the Mainer that he could stay at the Greer home (located on the UConn campus) during his freshman year to help defray costs. He accepted the offer and came down to Connecticut.
Whitney was at the Greer home when Hugh Greer suffered a massive heart attack in January 1963. He ran next door to summon Doctor Ralph Gilman, UConn’s longtime health services director. Doctor Gilman arrived within minutes but Greer was already gone. Whitney attended the funeral with the Greer family, which he described as a tremendous honor.
During his 17 seasons, Hugh Greer ran the UConn program with the frugality expected of him by university administrators. Conversely, Shabel insisted the basketball program needed modern amenities to compete at a championship level, campaigning for more significant investments.
“I always believed we could compete on a national level,” Shabel told the CT Mirror. “I just had to get UConn to believe it.”
By all accounts, the Huskies started staying in better places on the road and traveling in better buses once Shabel arrived. Fred Shabel may have also been the creator of pre-game pump-up music. His jock jams of choice were the new sound of the time.
“Fred Shabel had a Victrola that the sophomore guys had to carry as we went on road trips. Fred had discovered this new band that came out, I hadn’t heard of them. It was the Beatles’ first album. We ended up all loving the Beatles and singing their songs constantly,” Libertoff said. “I still remember when we played a game at the Palestra, I forgot the record in my hotel room. I had to take a taxicab back to the Palestra because we played it before and after every game in the locker room.”
The Huskies always benefitted from a tremendous home-court advantage at the Field House. It was bolstered in 1963-1964 by the addition of the school’s first sanctioned pep band. Shabel convinced school administrators to invest in this significant aspect of the game night atmosphere.
“There was no better place to be than that old field house on a Saturday night with the stands filled with fans very close to the court and the pep band going, it was a great college experience in a simpler time,” Libertoff said.
Shabel and UConn forward Toby Kimball (UConn Athletics)
Roster-wise, Shabel walked into a solid situation. Connecticut lost four seniors who played regularly for the 1962-1963 Yankee Conference championship and NCAA Tournament team led by Greer and interim coach George Wigton. Fortunately, he returned four significant contributors—center Eddie Slomcenski, forward Toby Kimball, and guards Al Ritter and Dom Perno. This battle-tested bunch formed the core of his 1963-1964 team.
Beyond the core four, the Huskies were young and not particularly deep but the veterans knew how to win basketball games.
Perno and Kimball were the clear leaders of the 1963-1964 team. Junior forward Kimball was more the vocal one while senior point guard Perno offered a quieter leadership that emanated from his performance on the floor.
A soft-spoken southpaw from New Haven, Perno brought a discreet confidence and focus to his game. This sensibility served him well in his coaching career, which culminated in his long and largely successful tenure as UConn’s head coach.
“He was the real backcourt guy. He had all the skills. He was quick, he was a great passer, he was a great defensive player, and he could score,” his backcourt partner Ritter said.
A statuesque 6-foot-7 force from Framingham, Mass., Kimball was a charismatic jokester who took the edge off intense moments.
“Toby was a man among boys,” Whitney said of his teammate, who dominated the low post during his tenure in Storrs. “Toby was always asked to take the inside percentage shot when we needed a basket.”
As a senior, he averaged nearly 20 points and 21 rebounds per game, making him one of the most accomplished big men of his era. In both his junior and senior years, he led the nation in rebounding. He went on to a 10-year career in the NBA which included stops in Boston, San Diego, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.
“Toby was tough as nails and he had great speed for a large man,” Libertoff said. “He was a rugged player and he wasn’t necessarily a leaper. He had a great hook shot and was a tremendous offensive and defensive rebounder. He utilized the skills that he had very well.”
Shabel tempered Kimball’s desire to take shots further away from the basket. Libertoff remembers several instances where Kimball considered taking a long-range shot but thought better of it after looking over to the bench.
“Everybody loved Toby. Never met a person who didn’t love him,” Ritter said.
A cluster of North Jersey kids formed UConn’s supporting cast that season—Al Ritter, Billy Della Salla, and Danny Hesford.
The 6-foot-3 Ritter was the veteran of the bunch. He had played substantial minutes as a sophomore and a junior. He was a solid defender and an excellent shooter who rarely left the floor during his senior campaign.
Della Salla, his fellow Cranford High alum, was a 6-foot-4 small forward who made strong contributions on both ends of the floor.
“I knew Bill since he was four years old because he and I went to the same high school,” Ritter said, citing his high school and college teammates’ prowess as a shooter and defender.
“He [Della Salla] fit in really well with the other two big kids. Billy had a little bit more range. With Eddie and Toby taking up the middle, Billy really complemented them,” Whitney said.
Sophomore Danny Hesford, a 6-foot-2 forward/guard from North Arlington, New Jersey, made a significant impression on defense. Nicknamed “Spider” for his long arms, Hesford made opponents miserable all season. His biggest moments came in the Tournament.
“Danny was an unusual athlete. He wasn’t really big enough to be a forward but he was long and had a wide arm span and he was very quick. He played a lot of defense on the other team’s best player in the backcourt,” Whitney recalled.
“He was a great fundamental player, great defender and passer, and he took good shots,” Ritter said.
Rounding out the regulars was Toby Kimball’s partner in the low post, Eddie Slomcenski, a streaky 6-foot-11 big man from Naugatuck, Connecticut.
“The G-Raff we called him. He used to drive around campus in his Volkswagen with his sunroof open,” Whitney said of Slomcenski. “All you’d see was his head sticking out of the sunroof. Eddie was a pretty good jump shooter considering how tall he was.”
As a junior in 1962-1963, Slomcenski averaged a double-double per game. Injuries slowed his production during the 1963-1964 campaign.
Considering Connecticut’s small rotation in 1963-1964, a strong support staff was essential to the team’s success that winter. Whitney cites head trainer Tom Pike for both his tangible and intangible contributions to the Huskies.
“Tom had a great personality and was able to keep things very positive on long trips and in the athletic taping room. He did a ton of things for me and for other kids too. I learned all of my athletic prevention and care from Tom Pike,” Whitney said, employing that knowledge during his coaching career at his alma mater, Bridgton Academy.
UConn’s path to the NCAA Tournament was a bumpy one in 1963-1964. The team started the season with consecutive losses to Yale and UMass. The Huskies never got on a significant winning or losing streak, never winning more than three in a row, or losing more than two in a row. Road trips to eastern basketball powers Canisius and Holy Cross ended in defeats.
The team’s saving grace was its success in the Yankee Conference. They posted an 8-2 mark in the league to earn a tie with Rhode Island.
The then-six-team Yankee Conference was built around the natural rivalries among New England’s flagship state universities. What it had in simplicity and a shared sense of institutional missions, it lacked in consistent competitiveness.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, UConn was clearly the conference’s best program. UMass and URI were the scrappy second tier. The three northern New England schools (Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) were the perennial punching bags, though they often kept games close against their more talented southern New England rivals.
On February 29, 1964, UConn lost by one on the road to URI in their conference regular-season finale. The teams had split their regular season meetings and each held an 8-2 league record. Three nights later, UConn trekked back to Keaney Gymnasium in Kingston and beat the Rams by one to secure the title and a tournament bid.
Post-season hopes were not high for the Shabel-coached Huskies. Greer’s fantastic teams had generally fared poorly in March. This year’s 14-10 Connecticut club had three fewer wins than any of the Greer-era teams that reached the Tournament. Moreover, the Huskies had the second-fewest wins of any team in the 25-team field.
In the first round, UConn faced Temple on March 9th in a veritable home game for the Owls, held at the famed Palestra, home of the city’s annual “Big Five” round-robin basketball tournament games.
In a strikingly ugly game, the Huskies found a way to win. Both teams shot in the 30 percent range from the field. UConn won the battle on the boards, 47-41. A strong performance by Billy Della Salla, who posted a team-high 14 points on 7 for 13 shooting while snagging 8 boards, proved the difference in a 53-48 win.
“We ground it out, which was not unusual. We didn’t score a ton of points. We ran tempo during the game and Coach Shabel was very good at slowing the game down and stealing some minutes here and there,” Whitney said.
On the other side of the bracket, Ivy League champion Princeton turned heads at the Palestra, earning its 20th win of the season by taking the Virginia Military Institute to the woodshed, 86-60.
On March 13th, UConn would face this Princeton club in Raleigh, North Carolina in the Eastern Regional Semifinals.
“I don’t think anyone gave us any real chance of beating Princeton,” Libertoff said.
Princeton was the premier program in the Ivy League. The Tigers’ top scorer was also the country’s leading scorer, junior guard Bill Bradley, who would earn his second of three All-American nods that season.
Bradley averaged better than 32 points per game and was probably the country’s best-known amateur athlete. He went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, a two-time world champion with the New York Knicks, and, later, a U.S. Senator. In 1965, he became the first player named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament whose team did not win the tournament.
The blue-collar UConn club didn’t garner much respect from the bluebloods at Princeton. Tigers head coach Butch van Breda Kolff, who later led the Los Angeles Lakers to a pair of Western Conference titles, thought so little of UConn that he didn’t even bother to watch their first-round game.
Princeton’s players weren’t able to adopt their coach’s studied aloofness. The Tigers and the Huskies spent a surprising amount of time together before the game. They took the same commercial flight out of New York down to Raleigh. During the Duke-Villanova game that preceded their matchup, players from the two teams sat together and chatted.
“Kenny [Libertoff] and I end up sitting on either side of Bill Bradley,” Whitney said. “I can remember leaning over and his face was drawn and he was real tired looking. He said that he’d been reading a lot.”
Whitney asked how he was able to maintain his intense academic and athletic commitments. Bradley confided that he spent much of his time after games simply catching up on his reading.
“During warmups, he made a ridiculous number of shots in a row,” Whitney recalled. “[Bradley] started in close and made the easy shots. Then he would take right-handed hook shots inside and then he’d take left-handed hook shots inside. And then he’d move out to the foul line and do the same thing. Then he’d work his way out to the other shooting spots. He ended up at the top of the key, continuing to make every single shot.”
Fred Shabel set out to do what few other coaches had been able to in the previous two seasons—slow down Bill Bradley enough to give his team a fighting chance. Shabel’s approach consisted of a methodical pillorying of the All-American guard. He had just the guys to do it too—Dom Perno and Danny “Spider” Hesford.
“During the season, we were in man-to-man 98 percent of the time,” said Ritter. “When we beat Princeton, we ran a box-and-1. We’d never done that before. Dom Perno was on Bradley. He stopped Bradley from doing what he normally did on offense. The rest of us played a 2-2 box zone. It was the only time we ever played a zone.”
“Wherever Bradley went, there was a lot of attention given. The strategy was just to keep him covered and as bottled up as possible,” Libertoff said.
Perno and Spider worked Bradley over all evening, holding him to 22 points—still impressive but far off his typical pace.
“Perno was on Bill Bradley’s body, hugging his body, so that Bradley couldn’t get as many opportunities,” recalls Ritter, who went an efficient 5 for 9 shooting for 10 points that evening.
Princeton played nine men while UConn went with just six—Kimball, Perno, Slomcenski, Ritter, Hesford, and Della Salla. Three iron Huskies—Perno, Kimball, and Slomcenski—played all 40 minutes.
Princeton held a 28-27 lead at the half and the game was never more than a couple of baskets apart. Neither team shot particularly well. Both clubs hovered around 40 percent. Playing in the pre-shot clock era, both teams held the ball for minutes at a time.
“It was not the most beautifully played game for either team,” Libertoff said.
The Huskies held Bradley to 6 for 15 from the field. He went 10 for 11 from the foul line. Toby Kimball led the way for Connecticut, muscling his way to 16 points and 13 boards.
UConn led the back-and-forth game 52-50 after a pair of Perno free throws with barely a half minute remaining. With 18 seconds remaining, Perno pinched the ball from Bradley and the Huskies whisked the ball around until time expired. Connecticut had done the unthinkable, advancing further than any of the great Huskies teams that came before them and doing it at the expense of the country’s best player.
Right after the game, Ritter saw Bradley and asked him how he became so great.
“He said something like ‘In his early life, he was just always holding a basketball. He dribbled a lot, shot a lot, and had another guy feed him with his passes. It just became his entire non-school life, playing basketball. I just admired him even more then, he did all of those fundamental things so well,” Ritter said, despite Bradley being far from the quickest or most athletically gifted player on the floor.
The next night in Raleigh went quite differently. UConn played the third-ranked Duke Blue Devils for a trip to the Final Four. Reynolds Coliseum stood just 20 miles from the Duke campus, making this ostensibly a Blue Devils home game. Duke was coached by Shabel’s mentor, Vic Bubas.
Played just 22 hours after the Princeton game, the outcome of the Duke-UConn Eastern Regional Final was only briefly in doubt. Duke’s roster included three future NBA players. The Blue Devils would go on to reach the national title game, losing to UCLA in what proved to be the first of John Wooden’s ten national titles with the Bruins.
“The game got out of hand pretty quickly,” said Libertoff, who played significant minutes off the bench in the second half. “If we played 10 times, they would probably win each time. They were that good of a team.”
“We were emotionally drained. Our guys had played their hearts out,” Whitney, who spent much of the second half on the floor, said. Duke led by 35 at the half and won 101-54.
The next night, thousands of fans greeted the Huskies’ return flight at Hartford’s Bradley Airport. The cheerleaders and pep band had trekked back ahead of them by bus to further energize the appreciative fans. An impromptu motorcade commenced from Bradley to the UConn campus, where thousands more students waited outside for an even larger rally.
“The student body met us outside the front doors of the Field House and we weren’t ready for that. It was a surprise. Coach Shabel spoke a little bit but then he had each kid address the crowd. He was very good at letting the ball players step up and say how they felt in the moment,” Whitney said.
“My fraternity brothers bring it up, saying it was one of the highlights of their life, being there that night. So many players I’ve spoken with over the years said it was a highlight too. It meant more to me over the years as people reminded me of that night,” Ritter said.
Shabel coached at UConn for just four seasons. He led the Huskies to the NCAA Tournament on three occasions but never won another Tournament game. He left Storrs abruptly after the 1966-1967 season, citing the stress of the job. Press reports at the time also cited apparent disagreements between Shabel and university administrators on the level of investment that the institution was making in the program.
Former Husky legends Tom Penders and Wes Bialosuknia were among those advocating for Shabel to be included in UConn’s Huskies of Honor at Gampel Pavilion. Even Jim Calhoun has said that Shabel deserves it. UConn’s line reportedly was that he did not spend enough time at the school to warrant consideration.
“He talked to practically everyone in the state,” Maureen Bialosuknia said in the CT Mirror, of her husband’s effort to get Shabel honored. She added that Wes thought Shabel was a coaching genius. “He was so upset,” she added. “He couldn’t understand why Fred wasn’t honored.”
Despite his short tenure at UConn, Shabel continued to play a significant role in the lives of his players. He recommended Ken Whitney for his first coaching and teaching job, fulfilling a promise to attend an end-of-season banquet for Whitney’s basketball team and address Whitney’s players. Whitney went on to coach at his alma mater, Bridgton Academy, as well as Lake Region High School in Maine. He credits Shabel not only with helping him get his start but also for imparting the organizational skills and tactical know-how necessary for leading a team.
Al Ritter and his younger brother Ron, who played for Shabel for three seasons at UConn (1964-1967), became good friends with Shabel, meeting up with him at least once each year until Shabel’s death in February 2023.
“Coaching just dominated his life during those four years that he was at UConn. He thought that it took away from other activities in his life,” Ritter said. Shabel was deeply devoted to his family and had many outside interests. “He was the most well-rounded coach I’ve ever met.”
Shabel went on to fascinating second and third acts in his professional life. He served as athletic director at the University of Pennsylvania and a vice president at the Ivy League school. He later served as an executive for Spectacor, the company that owned the Philadelphia Flyers, and Philadelphia 76ers, and managed the Spectrum.
Despite his brief run in Storrs, Fred Shabel and the teams he coached, particularly his first one, are essential to any telling of the history of UConn basketball. Their story represents a remarkable breakthrough in the program’s illustrious history.
“Programs and dynasties are built on the shoulders of those who came earlier. I’d like to think that of our ’64 team, the first UConn team to make it to the Elite Eight,” Libertoff said. “The banner is still up at Gampel. It doesn’t look quite as sparkly as the national championship banners, but there is a pride that we were the first UConn team to make it far into the NCAA Tournament.”