(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on St. Bonaventure men’s basketball. Today, even top-level independents didn’t want to visit the Reilly Center.)
ST. BONAVENTURE — Jim Satalin vividly remembers the arena that was home to some of the best college basketball teams Western New York has seen.
He coached the St. Bonaventure men's basketball team from 1973-82 after playing for the Bonnies (1966-69).
By the early ‘70s, SBU had established itself as one of the premie programs in the Northeast.
It had been built up by the likes of coaches Eddie Donovan, Larry Weise and Satalin, along with players of the ‘60s such as Tom and Sam Stith, Freddie Crawford,Bill Butler and, of course, Bob Lanier.
The Bonnies had already enjoyed a trip to the NCAA Final Four in 1970, and their home arena, the Reilly Center, was not a place opposing teams wanted to play.
"OUR GUYS thought they would never lose at home, no matter who they played against," Satalin said. "There were a number of times where teams would come in there and then walk away not understanding how they lost. I don't think anyone was particularly happy to come in and face the students."
The Bonnies were 91-16 at the RC from the 1969-70 season through 1979-80.
As one of the dozens of independents in the Northeast, many of SBU's annual foes were other premier private schools in the region.
It played a schedule that would wow modern-day fans, and in the current climate of college basketball, it's hard to imagine a school like St. Bonaventure competing at the level it did.
In 1977-78 alone, Satalin's team took on Georgetown, coached by John Thompson, Syracuse (Jim Boeheim), Villanova (Rollie Massimino), Providence (Dave Gavitt), Iona (Jim Valvano), Notre Dame (Digger Phelps), Detroit (Dick Vitale) and more.
Many, though not all, of the matchups were home-and-homes, meaning the schools would alternate traveling to each other every year.
"IT WAS AN intimidating place," Vitale said of the Reilly Center. "The students really cared about basketball and they were right on top of you on the court."
Vitale recalled having anxiety before taking his Detroit teams to the RC.
"We really had to get our players to focus and understand that the baskets were still 10 feet high," he said. "Satalin did a great job coaching and he had some great athletes there. I remember one game, we beat them at the buzzer and it was so dramatic. We ran into that locker room and we were out of there."
Vitale was speaking of Detroit's 64-61 win over the Bonnies at the RC in February 1974. It was his only win at the venue in two tries.
Bona's success didn't stop in the RC, however. In nine seasons, Satalin's teams went 155-92. Before him, Weise was 202-90 in 12 seasons (1961-73).
The Bonnies made NCAA tournament appearances in 1960, '68, '70 and '78, a time when the tournament featured only 32 teams.
They reached the "Sweet 16" in '60 and '68 before making their heralded Final Four run in 1970 behind Lanier, their All-America center.
And fans who were around then won't let you forget that if Lanier hadn't gotten hurt in the regional final against Villanova, the Bonnies would have won the whole thing.
They also won the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in 1977, when only 16 teams were included. The Bonnies took down Rutgers, Oregon and Villanova on the way to defeating Guy Lewis' Houston Cougars in the championship game.
Those schools are all household names. And in the '70s, St. Bonaventure basketball was as recognizable a name as the rest.
Chris LaPlaca, Bona class of 1979, remembers watching SBU's Final Four team on television nearly every Saturday from his childhood home in Whitehall, New York, north of Albany.
He recalled seeing the spirit of players such as Lanier and Billy Kalbaugh, and the passion that Bonnies fans had for the sport.
"In high school when I wanted to major in journalism, my guidance counselor told me St. Bonaventure had a good program," LaPlaca said. "And I said, 'Hey, I know those guys.' So I accepted."
That's a testament to the brand that Satalin and his predecessors had created. And they did it in a town 75 miles away from the nearest major city.
It wasn't just coaching that made Bona great, it had as much talent as any other program in the Northeast.
Essie Hollis, Greg Sanders and Earl Belcher were among the heroes of the '70s Bonnies. All three players amassed over 1,700 career points and Sanders is still the school's all-time leading scorer (2,238).
Those are just a few of the names which carried the program through what many consider to be its golden age. Satalin said coming to the Reilly Center meant seeing top-notch basketball from not just the Bona players, but also from the players who would come in to challenge them.
"THERE WERE a lot of great All-Americans who came in and played, teams like Villanova and Providence always had those top players," Satalin said. "It was before leagues, so all of the top independents, mostly Catholic schools, would play each other."
Nowadays, Bona is forced to travel if it wants a good non-conference game, playing Syracuse only at the Carrier Dome, for example.
But in the '70s, as reluctant as teams were to play at the RC, they continually scheduled the Bonnies because they were a high-quality opponent.
Vitale said his teams enjoyed the "rivalry" that developed between the schools. They always looked forward to playing the Bonnies because they knew it would be good competition.
"They were a very attractive team," he said. "They had great success dating back to the '60s and great name recognition. They were an elite program and it was special and unique to play them."
"POWERHOUSE" describes SBU basketball at the time. And at a school of roughly 2,000 students in a city of just under 20,000.
Even now, SBU came within seven minutes of the 2019 Atlantic 10 championship and its first ever back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament before falling to Saint Louis in the conference tournament final two Sundays ago.
But to have seven opposing Hall of Fame coaches on the schedule in one season (yes, that happened in '77) these days would be absurd.
It's no secret the program dropped off in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s. The Bonnies had 11 losing seasons in those decades, whereas their last losing season before that was 1956.
So, what happened?
How did a program that had been a regional, and arguably national juggernaut for decades fall from grace so quickly?
"Everything changed when the Big East came in," said Satalin.
And for Bona, it changed for the worse.
(TOMORROW: How the evolution of conferences affected St. Bonaventure’s basketball program.)