A Decade of Dominance and Half a Century of Success
Men’s basketball at Beloit rocketed to a national stage in the 1940s and ’50s, followed by another four decades of sustained success. But in between, Beloit’s outsized triumphs in the sport were touched by a scandal.
Athletic programs across the country, in every division, have enjoyed notable eras of success, but Beloit’s story is unique. Few programs have risen to dominance as quickly or maintained their success as long as the men’s basketball program at Beloit, even as it endured what became known as the “ouster scandal.”
Beloit’s rise to national prominence began in 1945, when Dolph Stanley became head men’s basketball coach. A distinguished high school coach from Taylorville, Ill., Stanley ushered in a new era with an innovative style of play as Beloit and the Midwest Collegiate Athletic Conference returned to action after World War II.
Stanley’s high-scoring, fast-break style quickly caught the attention of basketball fans across the country and took the conference by storm. His team won the conference championship in 1945-46, Beloit’s first since 1924, and the first in a string of six consecutive championships. Beloit was playing basketball powerhouses like Marquette, Bowling Green, Valparaiso, DePaul, and Loyola. After going unbeaten in three straight conference seasons, Stanley put together a fourth unbeaten team in 1950-51 that was the highest scoring in the nation.
That season was pivotal. Led by the “Bucket Brigade,” a group of five players that included eventual gold medalist and Olympic team captain Ron Bontemps’51, Beloit registered signature wins. A 94-60 victory over DePaul set the Chicago Stadium’s scoring record, and a 141-53 triumph over Cornell College set a new national record.
It was the 74-58 win over Lawrence in the conference title game that ushered in controversy: Stanley and the Buccaneers were highly criticized for stalling in the contest’s last six minutes to protect their lead. (This was before the shot clock existed.) Beloit went on to earn a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, falling to Seton Hall in the first round in a game played at Madison Square Garden.
The high scores, big stages, premier opponents, and ever-increasing publicity rankled conference coaches and administrators. Their animosity came to a head at a conference meeting in May 1951, when six of nine schools voted to oust Beloit from the league. Beloit was cited for athletic policies that “seem to be contrary to the spirit and traditional principles and to the best interests of the [MCAC].”
The perception was that Beloit was operating like Division I teams do today, with a few sports generating revenue to fund entire athletic departments. Meanwhile, the conference philosophy was more in line with today’s Division III mindset, where academics are the priority and athletics are funded through general educational budgets.
The decision clearly targeted Beloit’s successful basketball program, but it hurt the entire department. Immediately following the meeting, league members decided that no conference schools could schedule Beloit in any sport the next season, forcing all Beloit teams, especially fall sports, to scramble to fill their schedules.
Whether fair or not, the league’s decision to expel Beloit from the conference was by far the most severe disciplinary measure in its history. Beloit was finally readmitted for the 1958-59 season after much had changed. The college now had a different president in Miller Upton—with a different philosophy on athletics—and Beloit had made sweeping changes to its athletic code and reorganized the athletic department.
Stanley resigned in 1957 to become Drake University’s athletic director. In 12 seasons, he led the Buccaneers to an overall record of 238-57. After his departure, President Upton hired Bill Knapton, a rising star in the collegiate coaching ranks, to take over the program.
Knapton, also a successful high school coach, had spent three years as an assistant at Marquette, the fifth-ranked team in the nation, before coming to Beloit.
His philosophy, “Always do what’s best for the game,” generated respect and admiration from players, fans, colleagues, and administrators alike.
Following a brief rebuilding period, Knapton constructed his own successful legacy, spanning 40 years.
By the time he retired in 1997, Knapton had accumulated 557 wins, still ranked among the top 30 for coaching wins in Division III, and 345 victories in conference play, the most in league history. Knapton captured 10 league titles, including three consecutive championships from 1980-1983, and made 11 trips to the NCAA Division III Tournament.
Possibly even more impressive, Knapton tallied 31 winning seasons out of his last 34 leading the Buccaneers. His 1981 squad was the number one team in the nation for five weeks en route to a 24-2 record.
Knapton embodied the Division III philosophy, proving he was the perfect choice to step in after the team’s ouster. Duke University Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who worked with Knapton on the board of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, was quoted in a Sports Illustrated article describing Knapton: “[Bill] felt what he was doing was big, and it was. In the process, he became highly respected by his peers, and his peers are Division I coaches, too. He is a big success.”
His connections created incredible opportunities for Beloit. His friendship with Stan Albeck, the Chicago Bulls’ head coach, opened the door for Michael Jordan and the 1985 Bulls to train at the college’s Field House.
Knapton went on to become president of the NABC for two years, only the third Division III coach to hold that position. Many may not know that he is also referred to as the “father of the three-point shot.” Serving on the NCAA basketball rules committee before the 1986-87 season, Knapton switched his vote from no to yes, effectively bringing the three-point shot to college basketball.
Two legendary coaches with two differing styles. The quickest rise to dominance to the longest tenure of success in the league. The sole blemish, now part of history, still does not tarnish the legacy built and maintained by two of the best coaches to have called Beloit home, Dolph Stanley and Bill Knapton.
Angela Kelm is the Sports Information Director for Beloit College.