By Craig Pinley
As good as North Park’s 29-2 national championship squad from 1977-78 had been, coach Dan McCarrell had every reason to believe his next season could be even better.
North Park had three new faces to fill in for graduating seniors Al May, Tom Florentine and Ernie Flores for the 1978-79 campaign. May’s replacement turned out to be 6-7 forward Keith French, who transferred from Edgewood College in Madison, Wis. French wasn’t as bulky as May but his leaping abilities made up the difference as he starred as the team’s sixth man.
Florentine’s loss was lessened by the arrival of Grant Grastorf, who transferred from conference rival North Central. Grastorf started at forward with Jim Clausen, Michael Harper manned the center slot and Modzel Greer was moved to shooting guard alongside Mike Thomas. Scott Groot, a quarterback for the football team, also came to the squad and replaced Flores as North Park’s top guard off the bench.
Grastorf immediately saw a difference between North Park’s obsession with basketball and his former school, saying, “When I was at North Central, we were like the fifth most important sport and it gets old hoisting the ball up when you’re losing. At North Park, basketball was first – people couldn’t wait until the season started, it was so exciting. The gym was small, but it was always jam packed – standing room only. I have people who come up to me and they asked if I played at North Park and they still remember those games.”
The 1979 North Park team.
It took a while for the returning players to adjust to the newcomers, but once they did the team rolled on. The added athleticism of French was a key dimension for the next two title teams, said Thomas.
“Keith (French) was an outcast of sorts because he had our nucleus,” said Thomas. “But we didn’t realize what we had when he got here. He made our team better off the bench, but he was more than good enough to start. And Coach McCarrell was right to bring him off the bench. It didn’t seem right at first; it didn’t seem like he got to showcase his talent. I remember when Harper got hurt (during the 1979-80 season) French stepped in the starting lineup and had 37 points and about 20 rebounds. But it was a sacrifice that Keith made and it was important.”
An ambitious early season schedule helped North Park keep from being overconfident. After two straight wins to open the season, McCarrell’s team lost to small college power St. Xavier College 80-76 as they readied for a two-game set in December against Division I schools. North Park played at South Alabama and lost 75-68 as Harper tallied 25 points in a hard fought battle. The Vikings recovered against Jacksonville University, beating the Dolphins 78-68. Both South Alabama and Jacksonville eventually earned berths in the NCAA Division I tourney and the experience was well worth the bumps and bruises they suffered in the process – and they had them. A Chicago Tribune reporter wrote about the Jacksonville game and noted a large gash on Harper’s neck and a cut under Greer’s eye. The two North Park stars put their own hurt on the Dolphins though as Harper had 29 points and 14 rebounds and Greer added 14 points.
“Coach McCarrell used to try to get games (against Division I schools) but they wouldn’t play us,” Thomas said in recalling playing South Alabama and Jacksonville. “DePaul was getting all of the headlines at that time, and we thought it should’ve been us. I honestly thought we could play on that level. When we went in to play South Alabama I looked at them and said, ‘Damn, they’re big.’ That’s the difference between Division I and III – the size. I think we thought they were better than us and it took a while for us to compete. But by the end, we knew we could compete and we played them down the wire.
Thomas continued, “When we went to Jacksonville we won from start to finish. And they had the audacity in the local newspaper to say that it was a fluke because we were a Division III team. But we had no fear about playing them straight up. They were just like any other team we were trying to beat. We came out and played ball the way we wanted to play.”
“South Alabama was about the toughest team we played and we thought we could beat them,” said French. “We played in Jacksonville against James Ray, a 6-foot-9 All-America player, and we managed him well and we beat their socks off and played well. But I never felt anybody was better than us. My senior year, we played (Division I) UC-Irvine and UC-San Diego and beat them too. Division I teams didn’t know what to expect against us. And when you send a 6-foot-10 center, 6-foot-7 forwards, and Thomas at point guard and then Groot and myself on the bench, we were tough.”
Although Viking players stated that the South Alabama and Jacksonville contests were their toughest games, the 1978-79 North Park team had its share of tussles in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. After losing to perennial conference stalwarts Augustana College and Illinois Wesleyan University and edging Wheaton College by just two points in another contest, the Vikings managed to win another conference title by beating North Central College 106-72 in its final CCIW game. Then they tuned up for the playoffs at highly regarded University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, losing 55-54 to a team that eventually made the Division II tournament finals.
As the defending champs, the Vikings had earned the top seed in the Division III tourney, but they didn’t play like it against Beloit, squeaking by 63-62. North Park played considerably better in the regional finals, however, beating Central College of Pella, Iowa, 81-66, as Harper contributed 29 points. In the quarterfinals, McCarrell’s squad faced Chaminade University of Hawaii, which brought hula dancers and a regional television feed to Chicago. The Vikings were rude guests, however, blowing out the Silverswords 95-74 to reach the semifinals. Harper had 28 points and 15 rebounds while Thomas added 21 points and Greer netted 18 more.
In another playoff tussle, North Park got 21 points each from French and Thomas to handle Franklin and Marshall 83-73 in the tourney semifinals after Harper suffered from dizzy spells before the game. After French kept his team close with 14 first-half points, Harper recovered to score 14 of his 17 points and the Vikings got some key defensive plays from Scott Groot. Clausen’s 12 points and Thomas’ 11 of 13 foul shots in the game were also integral as Franklin and Marshall narrowed the North Park lead to 59-56 with three minutes left.
It didn’t get much easier in the finals as North Park (26-5) played without Grastorf (injured ankle), but Greer made 10 of 13 shots for 20 points to spark a 66-62 win over Potsdam State University of New York. The Vikings nearly blew a 15-point second-half lead but completed its second title as Harper (19 points, 10 rebounds) earned tourney MVP honors and Greer and Thomas (16 points, eight assists) made the All-Tourney squad.
For the season, North Park was often dominant, winning 17 of its games by 20 points or more and scoring 100 points or more on six occasions. But while it may have seemed easy, North Park’s repeat title was not lost on those who knew the effort it took to earn another title. Reserve guard Rus Bradburd, who later became a Division I coach and now coaches professionally in Ireland, said the 1978-79 season showcased the prowess of the North Park coaching staff was. A midseason change in offense and the switch of Greer from forward to guard were just two of the ways the Vikings staff adjusted their lineup to get the most of a talented squad.
“McCarrell was highly prepared and was great at matching the skills of the individual to his offensive scheme,” said Bradburd. “He understood the flow of offense and the importance of positioning on defense. He was a fighter by nature, but a gentleman as well. He was highly sensitive behind his tough veneer. I know now after 15 years of experience in Division I that McCarrell would have been a great Division I coach.
“(Assistant coach) Bosko Djurickovic was the perfect complement to McCarrell,” Bradburd continued. “Bosko relied on instinct and his own uncommon common sense. He was a jazz player to coach McCarrell’s classical background. He was looser, laughed easier, and he was shrewd.”
Craig Pinley, who served as Director of Sports Information at North Park from 1988-90, has written for the Chicago Sun-Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., among others.