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Tigers Almost Came to 1939 NIT

March 20, 1999

CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson will make its second appearance in Madison Square Garden next week. The Tigers, led by sophomore center Tree Rollins, played in the 1975 event and that was Clemson’s first ever postseason tournament.

But if N.I.T. and Madison Square Garden impresario Ned Irish had gotten his way, the Tigers would have made their debut 60 years ago this March (March 1939).

Irish spent the first days of March 1939 in Raleigh, North Carolina, as guest of, and presenter of awards at, the Southern Conference Basketball Tournament. Also, he hoped to corral one of the event’s favorites, Wake Forest or Maryland, for the second annual N.I.T. Instead, underdog Clemson defeated both the Deacons and the Terrapins, along with North Carolina and Davidson, on four successive nights for the championship. That is still the only postseason tournament championship in Clemson history.

Irish was particularly impressed with Tiger center Banks McFadden, Southern Conference tourney MVP and unanimous all-tournament selection. He would sell tickets, thought Irish, who called McFadden “one of the best centers I’ve ever seen.” The NCAA Tournament organizers, in their first year, also wanted Clemson.

Tiger athletic director and head football coach Jess Neely had other ideas. He wanted McFadden and four others on the basketball team back at Clemson for the final two weeks of spring football practice. So Wake Forest was the Southern participant in the NCAA Tournament, losing to Ohio State in the first round. And little Roanoke was invited to represent the South in Madison Square Garden for the N.I.T., also losing in the first round.

Did Neely make the right decision? Probably and the football season even benefitted the basketball program. In the fall, his football team defeated unbeaten Boston College in the Cotton Bowl to finish 9-1 and record Clemson’s first ever top 20 ranking. The money used from the Cotton Bowl finished off construction on Fike Fieldhouse, which was the basketball team’s home facility until 1968. After the football season, Neely left Clemson for Rice and the Tigers hired Hall of Famer Frank Howard.

As for McFadden, though getting in only a few days of light practice after his basketball triumphs, he accomapnied the football team to Durham on March 18 for a spring game against Duke. Teams scrimmaged against each other in those days during the spring. Though expected to play at most only a few plays, McFadden shared headlines with Duke standout George McAfee as Clemson held its own before losing, 30-24, in the final seconds of play.

Unlike the basketball team, it didn’t take McFadden 60 years to reach the “Big Apple.” A consensus All-American in the fall of 1939 and named the nation’s most versatile athlete that year, he was the third player selected in the National Football League draft and starred for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the fall of 1940. He was third in the NFL in rushing with 411 yards and had a league-leading 6.3 yards per carry average.

McFadden had to miss one of his favorite events earlier this month, the ACC Tournamemt, and will be absent from the N.I.T. Instead, he’ll be making another trip to Durham in a few weeks– this time to the Duke Hospital for a delicate operation on a hip replacement gone bad.

Fans who might care to wish him the kind of success he enjoyed there 60 years ago can reach him at his daughter’s residence in Florida:

Banks McFadden c/o Mrs. Lillian Arrants John Anderson Drive Ormond Beach, FL 32176

By Brent Breedin