Clarksville, Ark.-It didn?t take Scotty Pierce long to realize that the 1983-84 University of the Ozarks? men?s basketball team was going to be something special.
Pierce was a senior guard for what was then The College of the Ozarks Mountaineers, and he had been a part of three losing seasons prior to the 1983-84 season. But that season the Mountaineers shocked the state by posting a 27-6 record, winning the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, achieving a national ranking and ending 34 consecutive years of non-winning seasons.
“You could tell early on in practice that the talent level had increased unbelievably from the previous few years,” said Pierce. “Practices were incredibly intense and competitive because there was so much talent. We knew then that if we played as a team, we could accomplish something really special.”
The 1983-84 men’s basketball team will be inducted into the Ozarks Sports Hall of Fame during a special ceremony on Jan. 12. The team, which still holds the single-season record for victories, will have the distinction of being the first team inducted into the university’s athletic hall of fame, which was established in 1990.
Ozarks entered the 1983-84 season in the midst of a three-decade-long drought. As one sports columnist put it at the time: “Perhaps no college basketball program in the country has a bleaker history than that of the small, privately-funded Clarksville school.”
Ozarks not only had not had a winning season in 34 years, the Mountaineers went a dismal 108-368 in conference games from 1956-1983 and finished dead last in the league a total of 13 times during that span.
But all that changed in 1983-84 when the Mountaineers, who were picked to finish fourth in the conference that year, won the competitive AIC by an impressive four games with a 15-3 league record. It was the program’s first AIC title since the 1948-49 season.
“I remember that we met as a team before that season and we decided that we wanted to end the losing ways at Ozarks,” said Reggie Martin, who was a 6-4 senior forward on the team. “We knew the only way we could do that was if we played together as a team and stuck together. I think the key to that season was that we played as a team and we put winning above individual goals.”
Led by 33-year-old, second-year coach Bruce Terry, the senior-laden Mountaineers entered the 1983-84 season with high hopes. They returned all five starters from a team that finished 12-18 the year before, but that had shocked top-seeded Arkansas College 68-48 in the NAIA District 17 Tournament at the end of the year.
“We had everyone coming back and we knew it was our year,” said Martin. “We had lost a lot of close games the year before, so we knew we were better than our record showed.”
The Mountaineers gained early momentum in 1983-84 by jumping out to an 11-2 record in non-conference games.
“Coach Terry hated to lose and he instilled that same kind of passion in us,” said Pierce, a backup guard on the team who is now a junior high principal in Booneville, Ark. “Coach Terry came into the program and installed a whole new offense and defense, as well as a winning attitude. We started that season well against a pretty tough schedule and we just built more and more confidence as the season went on.”
The team’s forte was Terry’s suffocating 1-3-1 defense, which was spearheaded by senior point guard Tony Joyner and senior forward Fred Frye, both of whom earned Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference first-team all-conference honors that year.
The 6-foot-4 Joyner, who had transferred to Ozarks from Garland County Community College the year before, had 119 steals during the 1983-84 season, a mark that still stands as the school’s single-season record.
“We were a very defensive-minded team,” said Joyner, who also averaged a team-high 18.2 points per game. “We took a lot of pride in playing tough, hard-nosed defense. I don’t think teams liked playing against us.”
Ozarks’ defense also contributed to several thousand University of Tulsa fans going home hungry that year. In an early-season loss to the high-scoring, Nolan Richardson-coached Hurricane, the Mountaineers played their higher-division opponent close before losing 98-74. But fans were not able to take advantage of a special promotion by McDonalds for free hamburgers if the home team scored 100 points.
Along with Joyner, Frye, Martin and Pierce, the balanced Mountaineers also relied on Keith “Chief” Johnson, a high-flying 6-7 senior center from Orlando, Fla.; John Lewis, a 6-4 sophomore forward, and Terrance Rhodes, a slashing 6-2 sophomore guard who had led tiny Wilmar in South Arkansas to the Class B state championship in the early 1980s.
“We had so much talent throughout the team,” said Joyner, who was named an NAIA All-American that year. “You never knew who might lead us in scoring from game to game, and everyone had a role on the team and they played that role well.”
The Mountaineers took special pride in playing at home in Mabee Gymnasium, where they sported a perfect 14-0 record that year.
Among the highlights of the season were an early-season 88-74 victory over conference-favorite Hendrix College in front of a large partisan Mabee Gymnasium crowd, a game-winning 18-foot shot by Frye at the buzzer that led to the first victory at Henderson State University in almost two decades and a 67-61 victory in Conway over the Scottie Pippen-led University of Central Arkansas Bears. The Mountaineers, who were ranked as high as 14th nationally at one point in the season, also dominated arch-rival Arkansas Tech University twice that year, 80-67 and 74-57.
“We knew at the time that we were part of rebuilding a program and we went out there every day with something to prove,” said Charles Ingram, who was a backup sophomore guard on the team. “I think a lot of our opponents doubted us until we started beating teams. It was just one of those years where everything clicked.”
The season ended on a sour note, though, as the top-seeded Mountaineers were upset by Arkansas College 45-41 in the semifinals of the NAIA District 17 Tournament in Little Rock. The loss knocked Ozarks out of a bid for the national tournament.
“It didn’t end the way we had hoped it would, but it was still a great season,” said Pierce. “I look back on that year and to be able to be a part of something that hadn’t been done in 35 years was truly special. To realize where the program was and to leave there with a championship is something I’ll always be proud of. It was a magical season.”
Team members included: Kevin Winn, Terrance Rhodes, James Wilks, Donnie Siebenmorgen, Scott Pierce, Ron Culver, Charles Ingram, Tony Joyner, Bill Cox, Troy Johnson, Keith Johnson, Pete Van Dyke, Carlos York, Fred Frye, Reggie Martin, John Lewis, David Hund and John Hinsley. Coaches included Bruce Terry, Roscoe Gordon and Frosty Reid.
By Larry Isch, Director of University and Public Relations