North Park centerpiece enters Hall of Fame

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North Park College President Bill Hausman presents a jersey to Michael Harper on the night his jersey was retired in 1981.
North Park University Historical Photograph Collection

By Gordon Mann, D3hoops

Try this question the next time you want to impress someone with your sports trivia knowledge:

Name the only two schools that have won three consecutive NCAA men’s basketball championships.

There’s a very good chance the person you quiz can name UCLA, which won seven straight titles under John Wooden from 1967 to 1973.

There’s also a very good chance that person will not be able to name the other school, unless he or she went to college in Northwest Chicago in the late 1970s. That’s where you’ll find North Park University, formerly known as North Park College and still known as the home of the greatest dynasty in NCAA Division III men’s basketball.

North Park won three national championships from 1978 through 1980 and had four players selected in the NBA draft over two seasons. Michael Harper was the centerpiece of that run and the first of those draft selections, going to Portland in the second round. This fall he will enter the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame.

Bosko Djurickovic, who was North Park’s assistant coach for three national championships and the head coach for two more, describes Harper’s place in Division III basketball history.

“You can make the argument – I can make the argument – that he was the best Division III player ever. Jack Sikma had a better professional career, but Harper was the better college player.”

From potential priest to low-post powerhouse

Like Sikma, Michael Harper describes himself as a late bloomer.

Michael Harper grew up on East 69th Street and Prairie Avenue in Chicago and went to high school at the south campus of Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary where he was on course to become a Catholic priest.

“Playing basketball in the Catholic league in the State of Illinois was a pretty big deal,” Harper recalls. “But I wasn’t that great. There were always some phenomenal players in the City of Chicago that were just tearing up the charts and I wasn’t a guy in today’s world that Division I colleges or even [Division] II would be looking at giving or extending a scholarship offer.”

Those schools overlooked Harper as a 6-foot-5 forward, but Division III schools identified him as a good prospect. Benedictine, a Catholic college in Chicago’s western suburbs, was scouting Harper. So was Rock Island-based Augustana which had reached the NCAA Division III national semifinals in Harper’s junior and senior years of high school.

And so was the North Park College and Theological Seminary, an evangelical protestant school founded by Swedish immigrants in 1891.

North Park was led by head coach Dan McCarrell and his assistant Djruickovic. McCarrell graduated from North Park in 1961 and became the Vikings’ head coach six years later. Djurickovic joined McCarrell’s staff after playing for him and graduating from North Park in 1973. They had their eyes on Harper.

“I knew I wanted to continue to play basketball,” says Harper. “I knew I wanted to continue my spiritual quest in regards to living life the way God had set for me, but I didn’t know where I was going to go.”

Michael Harper’s brother Walter found North Park and they included the school in their tour of small colleges.

“When I went on campus, they were the nicest people and it was one of the first times I went to school with girls and they were really pretty, so I was like, ‘I guess this is the place to be,’” Harper recalls. “It was just nice to be selected, to go to school and know that the administration, especially the people from the president on down, wanted me to be on campus.”

Harper’s decision to forgo the priesthood and enroll at North Park evidently didn’t put him at odds with God, because Harper was blessed with a string of growth spurts. He gained two inches from his senior year in high school to the end of his freshman year of college, taking him to 6-foot-7. And then he gained another inch and then two more until he stood 6-foot-10.                                                                                                                   

That rapid growth transformed Harper’s game with some growing pains along the way.

As a freshman Harper mostly played for North Park’s junior varsity team. While warming up for a game, Harper started to feel woozy and everything started to fade to black. A teammate suggested Harper go to the bench and put his head between legs. Harper did more than that – he passed out and collapsed on the floor.

Harper had a hard time eating enough to fuel his body as it shot toward 7-feet and he remained lanky throughout his playing career. His NBA profile lists him at 195 pounds. During his college career Swedish Covenant Hospital helped Harper manage his metabolism and North Park eventually gave him a job in the cafeteria washing dishes so he could “eat anytime I wanted to.”

North Park went 18-8 in Harper’s freshman season and he appeared in a handful of games. Another freshman, Modzel “Bud” Greer, finished second on the team in scoring. The Vikings won their last five games and returned most of their roster the following season.

Harper entered his sophomore season nearly half a foot taller than he was two years earlier, giving him a larger wingspan to go with his speed and athleticism. His productivity also grew by leaps and bounds. Harper improved from 12 points total in a handful of varsity games as a freshman to averaging 18 points and 14 rebounds per game as a sophomore.

“Michael’s play was so dramatically better than in his freshman year,” Djurickovic remembers. “His timing and ability to run the floor was very unusual.”

The rest of the North Park roster got dramatically better, too.  Greer pushed his scoring average to 16 points per game as a sophomore. Freshman guard Michael Thomas averaged double figures. Guys like Al May and Tom Florentine, who had been juniors on a pretty good team, became seniors on an excellent one.

North Park lost just twice during the regular season, once to conference rival Illinois Wesleyan and once to Division II San Francisco State. The Vikings entered the NCAA Tournament with a 24-2 record, but no championship pedigree so they were road warriors the rest of the way.

After victories over Ripon and Minnesota-Morris in the opening rounds of the Tournament, North Park went to northern California to play Humboldt State. The Vikings survived a potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation and then got a layup from Thomas and three free throws from Harper to seal a 79-77 overtime victory.

North Park returned from the West Coast and made a much shorter trip to Rock Island where rival Augustana hosted the final four teams in the Tournament. After beating Albion in the national semifinals, North Park jumped on Widener early and Harper scored 11 of his 17 points in the second half of the Viking’s 69-57 title-clinching win.

“We had a Division I team my sophomore year that, when we went around, we could’ve beaten [anyone],” Harper recalls. “The most incredible thing is we had this swagger that they couldn’t take away from us.”

At the end of Harper’s sophomore season, he was an All-American, the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament and a national champion. And he wasn’t done growing or winning.

Story continues below the photo

Left to right: North Park head coach Dan McCarrell, forward Jim Clausen, Michael Harper, guard Modzel Greer, guard Michael Thomas, guard Gregg Gierke and assistant coach Bosko Djurickovic
North Park University Historical Photograph Collection

When Steve Wulf went to North Park to write Sports Illustrated’s small college basketball season preview, he noticed the championship banner celebrating the Vikings’ 1978 title.

“The makers of the banner would not have been overly presumptuous had they added 1979 and 1980, because the Vikings are, in a word, loaded,” Wulf wrote in November 1978.

North Park returned Harper, Greer and Thomas and brought in transfers Keith French from Edgewood College and Grant Gastorf from CCIW rival North Central. McCarrell scheduled ambitiously and the Vikings split a pair of games against Division I teams South Alabama and Jacksonville, both of which made the NCAA Tournament at that level. Harper scored 54 points combined in those two games.

The Vikings won the CCIW title again, clinching the title in the season finale by throttling North Central, 106-72. North Park dropped its final regular season game against eventual Division II Tournament finalist UW-Green Bay and then survived a scare in the first round of the Division III Tournament. Beloit had a potential game-winning shot rim out and the Vikings hung on for a 63-62 victory. The Vikings then rolled to the 1979 national title game where they beat Potsdam State, 66-62.

Harper followed up his sensational sophomore season with an even better junior campaign. He upped his scoring average to 22.6 points per game and collected another Tournament Most Outstanding Player Award after averaging a double-double in the playoffs. Harper could’ve put up even better numbers, but he deferred at times to Greer and Thomas whose scoring averages also increased. Harper has three national championship rings, and the one from 1979 is his favorite.

“It was that season that I was able to perform at the best the entire year,” Harper says. “What I find is that with true teams that can compel themselves to win year after year is there’s going to be one person on that team that gives up a little bit of himself to allow the next person to step up.”

The Vikings entered Harper’s senior season as the favorites to win a third national championship. Harper had reached his peak height and the peak of his powers. Thinking about that season, Djruickovic called Harper the polished product and the North Park’s fans called him Dr. Dunkenstein for his rim-rocking abilities.

“It was extremely fun. Now I’m 6-foot-10-inches tall,” Harper says of that season. “People were going, ‘Is this the same dude that was here last year?’”

Add in Greer, Thomas and French, and the Vikings were a crowd-pleasing, rim-wrecking juggernaut whose toughest opponent was often the one it faced in practice.

“Every practice, all fourteen to sixteen guys on that North Park team, we battled…It was almost like a championship game every practice,” remembers Harper.

In Harper's senior season, North Park picked up another CCIW championship with a 14-2 record. The Vikings went 43-5 against CCIW foes over Harper’s last three seasons and 40-5 against everyone else, including opponents from higher divisions. In Harper’s final season, North Park split its regular season series with Augustana, with each winning at home. North Park won the rubber match when Harper notched a double-double in a 72-60 victory over Augustana in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. North Park went on to beat Upsala 83-76 for its third national title.

Harper finished his college career as a three-time All-American and an NBA draft prospect. Portland selected Harper in the second round with the 56th overall pick and North Park teammates Greer and French were taken in later rounds by Chicago and Phoenix respectively.

Almost forty years have passed since Harper took off his North Park jersey and the Vikings’ run of three straight national titles ended. It may be another 40 years before Division III has another three-peat national champion.

Djurickovic, who is now the head coach at North Park rival Carthage, points to the balance across Division III. “It’s hard to win one in a row, let alone three in a row, because you have to be good and you have to be good on the right nights.” Even North Park, as dominant as it was, needed missed shots by Humboldt State and Beloit in the 1978 and 1979 Tournaments to survive and advance.

Since then three teams have won two consecutive Division III men’s basketball titles: UW-Platteville in 1998 and 1999; UW-Stevens Point in 2004 and 2005; and Washington U. in 2008 and 2009. None reached the NCAA Tournament the season after their second title.

The Division III basketball landscape has changed significantly since Harper’s playing days. When Wulf wrote his 1979 season preview, the piece was called “Dream game that cannot come true.” Wulf was fantasy booking North Park against Hamilton, which played in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). At that time the NESCAC did not allow its teams to participate in the NCAA tournament. Now those teams do participate and they are routinely national title contenders.

So are the teams that sit north of the CCIW in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Two seasons after Harper finished his career, UW-Whitewater made its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament and reached the national semifinals. WIAC teams have won the NCAA Tournament 13 times since then.

Even schools on the West Coast now produce national title contenders. When Harper was drafted by Portland, his only frame of reference for that part of the country was a road trip to Division II Puget Sound. The Loggers are now part of Division III and the NWC. So is Lewis and Clark, where Harper is an assistant coach.

“In our league, we have two teams, Whitman and Whitworth, that every year they go back to the [Division III] Tournament,” Harper explains. “They are really, really good. But to find that diamond in the rough is extremely hard.”

Recruiting is now a national endeavor, including at the Division III level. Contrast that with the regional recruiting days of 1976 when McCarrell heard about this 6-foot-5 forward playing at a nearby high school that prepares young men to be Catholic priests. Nowadays Harper might’ve been spotted by a Division II or Division I program outside Chicago that would’ve offered him a scholarship.

Their loss was North Park’s gain when McCarrell found Harper and Harper found his way to North Park. And what Division III basketball gained over that four year-period is its greatest dynasty led by one of its greatest players, Michael Harper. Division III basketball’s trailblazer into the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame.