Gardner-Webb’s first basketball title? It came in 1963 with lots of help from Gaston County
By Richard Walker
When you think of Gardner-Webb basketball in the 1960s, most people think of coach Eddie Holbrook’s championship-winning teams that included two of the school’s greatest players in Artis Gilmore and George Adams.
But the start of that decade of success – titles in each of the last five years of the decade and six years overall – began two years before Holbrook came to the school.
Picked to finish in the second division of the league in the preseason of the 1962-63 season, the Bulldogs finished strong and won the school’s first-ever basketball championship by winning winning three games in four days at nearby East Rutherford High School.
Under the direction of the legendary Norman Harris, the coach for whom the field at the school’s Spangler Stadium is currently named, Gardner-Webb won its title behind a pair of Gaston County products.
Co-captains Ronnie Robinson and Mike Pearson of Belmont and Gastonia, respectively, were the team’s all-conference performers. And each came up biggest when the Bulldogs needed them most in the 1963 Western Carolinas Junior College Conference tournament.
Pearson, a former Ashley High standout, scored 35 points in three games and was named tournament most valuable player while former Belmont High standout Robinson had a team-high 41 points and was the team’s leading scorer.
A two-time all-conference performer and 2012 Gardner-Webb Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Robinson averaged 20 points per game as a freshman in 1962 and 14.3 points per game in 1963.
Harris was more recognized as the school’s 10-time conference champion and all-time winningest football coach (101 wins from 1952 to 1969), the school’s seven-time conference champion and 161-win baseball coach or as a local American Legion baseball coach; His 1953 Cherryville team was the first in Post 100’s storied history to win a state title and make an American Legion World Series appearance.
But as the school’s athletic director, Harris also guided the basketball program for eight seasons over two stints (1952 to 1958 and 1962 to 1964).
In the 1962-63 season, he replaced Bob Blackburn and inherited Robinson from a 10-11 team that finished fourth in the 1962 WCJCC tournament.
The 1962 first round conference tournament victory was only the school’s seventh in 15 years. And the Bulldogs hadn’t advanced to the conference tournament championship game since 1948.
But the Bulldogs lived a charmed life late in the 1962-63 season and in the tournament.
After starting 3-6 in league play and playing against a daunting non-conference schedule that included two losses to a Davidson College freshman team that featured future NBA standout Dick Snyder, Gardner-Webb caught fire.
Five straight league wins moved the Bulldogs from near the bottom of the conference standings to second place of a crowded race.
League champion Brevard rolled to a 12-2 record against league opponents, while Gardner-Webb (8-6) edged past Wingate (7-7), North Greenville (7-7), Asheville-Biltmore (6-8), Anderson (5-9), Spartanburg (5-9) and Lees-McRae (5-9) for second place.
In the tournament, the Bulldogs rolled past Anderson 87-69 in the quarterfinals, then edged North Greenville 53-49 after Wingate had upset Brevard 74-71 in the semifinals
In the championship game against Wingate, Gardner-Webb led by 10 points in the first half and got two game-clinching free throws from Roger Dixon with five seconds left to wrap up 59-57 win for the title. Dixon, then a freshman from Clover, S.C., would eventually became a coach and athletic director at Ashbrook and North Gaston high schools.
Five days later – and after “an outbreak of influenze on the Gardner-Webb campus caused a two-day postponement” according to The Asheville Citizen-Times – Brevard ended the Bulldogs’ season in a 74-57 National Junior College Athletic Association Region X playoff game.
Brevard would eventually lose the Region X championship game to Wilmington College (now UNC-Wilmington). The Tornadoes featured guard Joe Forte, who would go on to greater fame as a NCAA and NBA basketball referee.