The University of Denver (DU) Men’s Basketball Program is the school’s third oldest athletics program, behind only baseball and football. However, since football and baseball were dropped as varsity sports basketball is now the longest continuing program.
Pioneer basketball began over 100 years ago when the men’s team played its first game against the Denver Athletic Club in 1904. The Pioneers competed with local amateur and club teams instead of collegiate teams in their early years. However, when the Pioneers joined the Rocky Mountain Faculty Conference in 1913, DU entered regular competition with other schools in the region. The conference had two Divisions, and the Pioneers played in the one dubbed the “Colorado-Wyoming Collegiate League” by the local press. The Division was also referred to as the Eastern Division and the Pioneers won that Division in 1915 and 1916. From 1925 through 1937, the two divisional winners played each other for the conference championship. In 1937, the Pioneers defeated the University of Colorado to win the Eastern Division again, but could not beat Montana State University for the overall title. Montana State played in the Western Division at the time. That same year DU joined six other universities to form the Mountain States Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which was later referred to as the Skyline Conference.
AchievementsOne of the greatest periods in DU men’s basketball history came after World War II, between 1947 and 1950. During that stretch, the Pioneers finished second twice in the Skyline Conference with a 54-39 record. Coach Ellison Ketchum started the success. But Coach Hoyt Brawner built on it when he took over in 1948. Not only did DU finish another strong season, but the Pioneers’ solidified the support of DU fans. About 7,236 people came to watch a dramatic win over the University of Wyoming in the DU arena that year and set an attendance record that still stands today.
The next great Men’s Basketball Team came along in the 1958-1959 season. After a disappointing start, the Pioneers had a 5-6 record. They finished with a real flare, winning 10 out of 13 games. The Pioneers finished second again in the Skyline Conference that year and the Team received its first bid to the National Invitational Tournament. In 1963, DU started competing with an independent status and had no conference affiliation. In 1979, the program switched from Division I to Division II status. That year, Matt Teahan set a school record when he scored an incredible 61 points against Nebraska Wesleyan University. The team played well in Division II averaging a 22.4 wins in the first five years.
In 1980, Floyd Theard became the team’s head coach and led DU to a 107-38 record in five years. Theard had a .738 career winning percentage. He set a record in the history of DU men’s basketball at the time. Theard and his team had 79 straight home victories over a period of five seasons. The stretch started from February 1980 to January 1985. In 1984, the Men’s Basketball Team finished with a 28-4 record to advance to its corresponding national tournament. After the tragic loss of Coach Theard in 1985, Dick Peth, the assistant coach became the team’s new head coach. In 1992, the Pioneers advanced to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II Tournament. In 1994, Coach Peth became the coach with the most wins in university history when the Pioneers achieved their 164th victory under his tutelage. In 1996, the team made its third tournament appearance within five years.The Men’s Basketball Team returned to NCAA Division I during the 1998-1999 season. Although several years proved difficult, the team finally broke through in 2005 when it captured a share of the Sun Belt Conference (SBC) regular season title. The Pioneers finished with their best season ever in Division I competition with a record of 20-11, earning DU its first bid in the National Invitation Tournament since 1959. Unfortunately, the team has not matched that success over the past few years, but the contributions of DU basketball stars like Vince Boryla, Bryon Beck, James Babcock, Gene Steinke, David Bustion, Alonzo Weatherly and Harry Hollines have been significant.
Bill Scharton, “Basketball,” A Tribute to Champions, Ed. Erik Prenzler (Denver: Mile High Alumni Boosters), 5-6.
The Official Website of Pioneer Athletics. www.denverpioneers.com (accessed November 19, 2009).