From 1965 to 1967, there were three people who were greatly influential for the success of the University of North Dakota basketball team. They later coached in the NBA, where, collectively, they won 2,214 regular season games, 286 playoff games and 12 national championships.
The head coach at UND during those seasons was Bill Fitch, and for 25 years in the NBA, he coached the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets, New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Clippers.
William Charles Fitch was born May 19, 1934, in Davenport, Iowa, to Dee O. "Doc" and Lucille Fitch. Doc, a former Marine drill instructor, was an automobile mechanic and occasional truck driver while Bill was growing up. In 1941, the Fitch family moved to a house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that was across the street from an elementary school. The school had an 80-yard gravel football field and a full basketball court, where Bill spent countless hours with his friends.
Fitch attended Wilson High School and was an outstanding player in basketball, baseball and football. During his senior year, he was an all-state guard in basketball and was recruited by the legendary Kansas University coach, Phog Allen. Fitch pondered his career choices between sports and the ministry. Shortly after he graduated in 1950, the U.S. was involved in Korea. Eager to follow in his father's footsteps, he enlisted in the Marines.
When Doc learned what his son had done, he worked to get him released because Bill was underage. Since it was too late to receive a scholarship from Kansas, Fitch enrolled at Coe College in his hometown and played all three sports as a freshman. He excelled in baseball and basketball and dropped football in his sophomore year. As a catcher on the baseball team, Fitch batted over .300 and was watched closely by major league scouts.
Fitch's basketball coach was Theoron "Tommy" Thomsen, who saw something special about the young athlete.
"He had the makings of a coach right from the start. He was a coach on the floor and he knew the game. He was smart and he was always trying to figure out a better way to do something," Thomsen said.
Following graduation in 1954, Fitch played for and managed an amateur baseball team to a conference championship before entering the Army in August. While in the military, he coordinated sports programs and played baseball and basketball for service teams. In November 1955, he was cited for his outstanding contributions to the sports programs in France.
After his discharge in 1956, Fitch was contacted by Thomsen to be his assistant basketball coach at Creighton University. At this private college in Omaha, Neb., Fitch also coached the freshman squad and managed the baseball team. In three seasons as the freshman basketball coach, his record was 29-1, and, as a baseball manager, his record was 26-7.
It was at Creighton where Fitch had his first outstanding player, future Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson. Following graduation, Gibson signed a baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals and also played one year of basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters.
While at Creighton, Fitch went to graduate school, earning his master's degree in 1958. He returned to Coe to coach the varsity basketball team and serve as assistant professor of physical education. During the summers, he played for and managed a semi-pro baseball team in northern Iowa. Later, Fitch was put under contract by the Milwaukee Braves to run one of its Silver Slugger Programs in which outstanding young baseball players could earn tryout opportunities with the Braves.
His assistant at Coe revealed that, as a coach, Fitch was a tough disciplinarian who demanded total commitment from his players. He also attempted to get inside his player's heads, believing that playing basketball was as much mental as physical. He wanted total concentration and would often turn out the lights before a game and talk to his players in the dark.
Once he lined up the starters at halftime and slapped each of them in the face. Another time, he entered the locker room at halftime, tore the lineup card and flushed it down the toilet.
"All right. There go the starters. Now give me the second five," he said.
After four years at Coe, Fitch compiled a 49-37 won-loss record. Meanwhile, the UND basketball team had just suffered through its seventh consecutive losing season, and the university was looking for a coach who could turn the program around. It was believed that Fitch was the best candidate vying for the job, and he was hired.
When he arrived to prepare for the 1962-63 basketball season, his biggest challenge was recruiting outstanding players. In his recruitment drive, he stressed to the parents that by attending UND, their sons would learn leadership and citizenship skills that would help them become productive individuals later in life.
Fitch also admitted that he tricked some recruits into coming to North Dakota.
"I'd go through the grades ... and if they had a low mark in geography, I'd go after them. I'd tell them that it was cold, but it was a dry cold."
Next week, we will continue to examine the remarkable coaching career of Bill Fitch.
(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at firstname.lastname@example.org.)