Moby’s 50th: Rams made history on opening night

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Boyd Grant was just 33 years old – too young, in his mind, to be coaching a major college basketball team, and WAY too young to be given the privilege of coaching the first official game in the sparkling new arena at Colorado State University.

The date was Jan. 24, 1966. It was raining hard in Fort Collins that night as Grant and his wife, Glenna, pulled into the all-dirt parking lot now occupied by Westfall and Durward halls, the 12-story residence halls that tower over the northwest corner of campus.

Boyd Grant

“We had to wear our rain boots because of the mud,” Grant recalled of the historic night. “Once we got settled, Glenna and I walked into the arena and I turned to her and said, ‘My gosh, I’ve never seen anything so magnificent in my entire life.’ ”

Fifty years ago, Moby Gym – its official name was Auditorium-Gymnasium, but was dubbed “Moby” after students noticed the building’s unique design resembled a whale – opened its doors for the first time. Excitement in the community was palpable as more than 7,100 fans – more than four times the capacity of the ancient South College Fieldhouse that been home to CSU basketball for decades – eagerly awaited the facility’s debut.

50th celebration

CSU will celebrate Moby Arena’s 50th anniversary Feb. 6 when the Rams host Nevada in a 2 p.m. game. Commemorative programs will be available, and the first 400 students will receive commemorative towels. There will be pregame and halftime ceremonies marking the occasion.

“I remember that students were lined up outside, waiting to get in. Everyone wanted to be there,” Grant said. “It was just a tremendous night for me.”

Memorable night

Grant wasn’t supposed to be coaching the Rams that night against New Mexico State. His boss, legendary CSU coach Jim Williams, had eye surgery earlier that season and had to quietly recover, away from the pressures of coaching. He asked Grant, a former Ram who was on Williams’ first team in 1954-55, to coach during his recovery, which lasted more than two months.

“I was just 33 years old – I had no business coaching the team that night,” said the 82-year-old Grant, who retired more than 20 years ago to Pocatello, Idaho. “I took it very seriously – I meant a lot to me to not let coach Williams down because he meant so much to me. I didn’t want to let him or CSU down.”

He did not. Not even close.

Dale Schlueter, an original member of the Portland Trail Blazers, made the first basket at Moby
Dale Schlueter, an original member of the Portland Trail Blazers, made the first basket at Moby.

The Rams led from the opening tip that night, with forward Dale Schlueter scoring the first basket in Moby history with a hook shot from the lane. The talented Rams – the roster included future NBA standouts like Schlueter and center Bob Rule, along with guard Lonnie Wright, who became the first athlete to play professional football (Denver Broncos) and basketball (Denver Rockets) in the same year – simply overwhelmed New Mexico State and rolled to a 109-70 win before 7,100 fans.

CSU’s record scoring total that night stands as the fourth-largest point total in program history.

Popcorn anyone?

Irv Brown, the legendary basketball official who worked six Final Fours during his long career, officiated the game that night. He said he loved Moby, and has a peculiar memory of the first game.

“New Mexico State’s coach (Jim McGregor) came out on the floor to protest a call, and he was holding a box of popcorn.” He recalled, laughing. “I had never seen anything like it and I never saw anything like it the rest of my career. I think they fired him after that season.”

New Mexico State did fire McGregor after that disastrous 4-22 campaign – his one and only year as head coach. The Aggies’ record that season remains the worst in school history.

Grant confirmed the popcorn story.

“I looked over at their bench and (McGregor) was sitting there eating popcorn,” Grant said. “I thought, ‘Now, why is he doing that?’ But I didn’t give it much thought because I was so nervous about coaching my own team.”

Lonnie Wright played for both the Denver Broncos and Denver rockets following graduates. he's a member of the CSU and state sports halls of fame.
Lonnie Wright played for both the Denver Broncos and Denver rockets following graduates. he’s a member of the CSU and state sports halls of fame.

The ‘Fabulous Frosh’

Tom Robinson, a sophomore guard from Denver who came to CSU on a football scholarship, made the CSU roster as a walk-on and was a valuable backup. He doesn’t remember much about the first game but does recall how excited his fellow students were about the team and the new arena.

“If you wanted a seat you had to get there early,” said Robinson, deputy commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association. “If the game started at 7:30 you had better be there by 6 if you wanted a seat. We had a great team, and most people came early to watch the freshman team, too.”

Ah, yes, the freshman team – otherwise known as the “Fabulous Frosh.” Williams had used the promise of a new arena to recruit the best group of freshman in school history, even taking the players to see the massive hole in the ground off Plum Street to impress the young prospects.

That group – identical twins Floyd and Lloyd Kerr, guard Cliff Shegogg, forward Marty Hess and center Mike Davis – actually played the first game in Moby, beating an AAU team from Denver in a preliminary to the CSU-NMSU varsity game. Those same players – freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition until 1972 – would become the most-accomplished team in CSU’s history, suffering a heartbreaking 84-77 loss to Drake in the 1969 Elite Eight, one game sort of the Final Four.

Floyd Kerr and his identical twin brother Lloyd were members of the Fabulous Frosh, who helped form CSU's most successful team.
Floyd Kerr and his identical twin brother Lloyd were members of the Fabulous Frosh, who helped form CSU’s most successful team.

A spot in the Big Dance

As for the 1965-66 varsity Rams, they had a pretty good run themselves. Their most memorable Moby game was against the Texas Western team made famous in the movie “Glory Road.” Bobby Joe Hill threw in a desperation 30-footer at the buzzer to give the Miners, who were unbeaten and ranked sixth in the nation, a 68-66 win. The Miners went on to beat Kentucky in the national championship game, becoming the first team with five black starters to win the title.

The Rams were 14-7 that year and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in school history. They lost in the first round to Houston, led by hall of famer Elvin Hayes.

Moby not only helped Williams recruit great players, it served a much bigger purpose by helping CSU earn an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference after Hughes Stadium opened two years later. CSU had been struggling since the breakup of the old Mountain States Conference in 1962 as an independent, and gaining membership in the WAC likely saved the school’s athletic fortunes.

Not bad for a building named for a whale.

“I still get chills when I think back to that first night in Moby,” said Grant, who would return to coach his alma mater from 1988-91, leading the Rams to three postseason appearances. “I’ve been a lot of places but I honestly thought Moby was one of the nicest places in the country – better than Pauley Pavilion at UCLA.

“Moby really changed athletics at CSU. Having a facility like that on campus meant everything, and it helped get us back in a conference, which was huge. It will always be a special place for me.”