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The Golden Age of Colorado Basketball

The Buffs were incredible in the late 1930s and ‘40s.

University of Colorado Basketball Teammates Posing with the Ball

If you asked an average CU fan to name the golden age of Colorado men’s basketball, the most common answer would likely be “since Tad Boyle was hired.”

On the surface, it would be hard to argue with them. Whenever Tad’s accomplishments as CU head coach are rattled off by a broadcaster, sportswriter, or twitter user, the impression we get is that Boulder was a basketball wasteland before he arrived. After all, he owns twice as many 20-win seasons (eight) in 11 years as head coach as all his predecessors combined. He’s now led the Buffs to five NCAA tournaments (and it would be six if last year’s edition had taken place) when the program had participated in just two in the four decades before his arrival.

To the casual observer, the history of Colorado Buffaloes men’s basketball looks like decades of nothing, two years of Chauncey Billups, another decade of nothing, and then the arrival of the savior. Those familiar with names like Burdette Haldorson, Cliff Meely, Jay Humphries and David Harrison know differently, but any accomplishments that surpass those of the Boyle era happened so long ago that most people have no idea they happened at all.

But just because something happened a long time ago doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be celebrated. With the Buffs dancing once more, I’m here to celebrate the largely forgotten CU squads who were the first ones to party in March — and who took home some hardware for good measure. As it turns out, if you want to find the true golden age of CU men’s basketball, you have to go back before any of the names mentioned in the previous paragraph — to a time before rock and roll, color television, and the second World War.

College basketball in the mid-1930s was not, in fact, played with peach baskets and a rugby ball. The game did, however, differ from the modern game in some major ways. There was no shot clock and there were no jump shots. The basketball still had its vestigial laces, and there was a jump ball at center court after every made basket. In 1937 the latter two of these things changed. The laces were gone and teams now inbounded the ball from under their own basket after they were scored upon. These changes were so dramatic in improving the quality of the game that ESPN’s College Basketball Encyclopedia declared the 1937-38 season “the birth of modern college basketball”.

Another new (and equally important) addition for that season was the first ever National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City. For the first time, top teams from around the country would meet to determine who was the best. And you know who got one of the six invitations? Your Colorado Buffaloes, that’s who. CU was led by third year head coach Forrest B. “Frosty” Cox, and they went 10-2 in Mountain States Athletic Conference play for the second year in a row — good enough to earn an invite from the New York sportswriters who organized the tournament. Frosty didn’t need to worry much about his player rotations, because the Buffs only used five total players for the entire game — highly unusual even for the time. Among them was CU’s greatest alumnus, Byron White, who had led the football team to an undefeated regular season and a Cotton Bowl bid a few months earlier. 1937-38 was a heck of a time to be a CU fan.

Once they arrived in the Big Apple, the Buffs defeated hometown power NYU (and a frenzied hometown crowd), 48-47, on a Don Hendricks game winner in the final ten seconds to advance to the first ever NIT championship game against Temple. Unfortunately, the Owls were far too much for the Buffs that day, taking the championship by a score of 60-36 in front of 14,487 at the Garden. Check out these highlights from YouTube. Yes, the shooting motions are different, and no, they aren’t as accurate from the outside as players today, but this isn’t a rock fight. You can tell the game is being played at a high level by very skilled athletes. It resembles modern basketball more than the football of the 1930s resembles today’s football.

The Buffs went 10-2 in conference yet again the following year and won another MSAC championship, but neither the New York writers, nor the coaches who had just formed their own tournament (which we now call the Big Dance) came calling for postseason play. That said, the Premo-Porretta Power Poll, a ranking devised by two basketball historians to give a final top 25 for the seasons before the 1948 introduction of the AP college basketball poll, ranks the 1938-39 Buffs as the #11 team in the country that season - compared to #25 the previous year. If that was an AP ranking it would be the third best finish in school history. But both of these outstanding campaigns would serve as mere preludes to the glory that was to come.

In 1939-40, the Buffs became one of the first teams, along with Duquesne, to compete in both the NIT and the NCAA tournament in the same year. They earned these invitations on the strength of a 15-2 record (11-1 in conference). One of those two losses was a 47-45 overtime defeat to that same Duquesne team in December. First up was the NIT. CU easily dispatched DePaul 52-37 in the semifinals and advanced to play, as fate would have it, Duquesne in the final. Before a crowd of 15,201, in a game the New York Times breathlessly described as a “spectacular show” and a “gorgeous display,” the Buffs won the NIT championship by the score of 51-40, avenging their regular season loss in the process. Don Hendricks and second team All-American Jack Harvey had the honor of playing in their second NIT final in three years, but the star of the tournament was sophomore Bob Doll, who led all scorers with 15 points in the final.

A week later, the Buffs headed to Kansas City to play in the NCAA Tournament. It was not, at this juncture, as prestigious as the NIT (the New York Times was very careful to note this), and maybe the Buffs weren’t as amped up as they should have been. They lost to USC in the regional final (which was also the opening round) and then fell to Rice in overtime in the regional third place game. Despite failing to win a double title, CU had a valid claim on the 1940 national championship, due to the prestige of the NIT at the time. The Premo-Porretta Power Poll ranks the Buffs as the 3rd best team in the country for 1939-40 — behind NCAA champion Indiana and Rice.

After the exaltation of 1940, the following season was a bit of a letdown. For the first time since 1935-36, CU failed to win their conference; finishing third in 1940-41 with a mediocre 7-5 record. By the time the 1941-42 season tipped off in late December, basketball suddenly seemed almost insignificant. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and the nation was at war. As the earliest battles in the Pacific were fought, the college basketball season went ahead, and CU forged what might be their greatest campaign ever.

Led by Bob Doll, who was now a senior and a second-team All-American, the Buffs won an incredible fourteen consecutive games to start the season before falling, by a single point, at Wyoming. The New York Times called them “one of the best teams in the country”. They defeated Colorado A&M (that’s CSU for all you kids out there) by scores of 63-27 and 79-28.

When the dust settled, the Buffs easily won their fifth conference title in six seasons with an 11-1 record in MSAC play, and they were invited to Kansas City to participate in the NCAA tournament for the second time. Waiting for them was the legendary Phog Allen, one of the founders of the tournament, and his Kansas Jayhawks. In a result that might surprise anyone familiar with either program, the Buffs won a 46-44 nail-biter to advance to their first Final Four. CU’s title dreams were dashed in their next game by eventual national champions Stanford by a 46-35 margin. It would be the last basketball game the program would play for almost three years.

In the Premo-Porretta Power Poll for 1941-42, the Buffs are ranked 2nd, behind only NCAA champion Stanford. That season capped an incredible run where the Buffs won five conference titles in six years and made four postseason tournaments at a time when the NIT consisted of just six teams and the NCAA Tournament only eight. Their conference record over this stretch was an astounding 59-13. That’s roughly the same as going 15-3 in Pac-12 play four years in a row.

We will never know what would have come next for Frosty Cox and his Buffaloes had the war not overtaken every aspect of American life. There were college basketball seasons in 1943 and 1944, but the Buffs didn’t take part in them. When the program resumed play in 1945, the Buffs were still very good, but not as elite as they had been. CU earned an at-large bid to the first postwar NCAA Tournament in 1946, but Frosty Cox would never win another conference title at CU. There were some great CU teams after his 1950 departure, including a final four run in 1955 and back-to-back top 10 finishes in 1962 and 1963, but never the kind of sustained dominance of 1937-1942.

At a time when college basketball was coming into its own and first achieving national prominence, Colorado had one of the best programs in the country. Not only were the Buffs great, they were fun. One thing that jumped out at me in the New York Times articles I read was how effusively their wide open, attacking style of play was praised. The Madison Square Garden crowd loved them. The 51-40 final score of the 1940 NIT championship doesn’t sound like much until you find out that the final score of the third place game was 23-22. If you went to see Frosty Cox and CU, you got your money’s worth.

The point of this article is not to denigrate the achievements of Tad Boyle in his time as CU head coach. While he may not have won a regular season conference title or finished a season ranked in the top 25, there’s no doubt that this is the best era of CU basketball in just about anyone’s memory. If there’s a message I do want you to take away from this story of Frosty Cox and the prewar Buffs, it’s to enjoy the good times while they’re here, because you never know how long they will last. Here’s hoping the best is still to come.