1976 NCCAA Division II National Championship Basketball
Fort Wayne’s first national championship came as a surprise to many, but it vindicated a Falcon program that had suddenly emerged as a small college men’s basketball powerhouse seven years earlier. The inaugural National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) II Men’s Basketball Tournament champions confirmed on the court what a few observers had suspected for a number of seasons: namely, that the Fort Wayne Bible College Falcons were the best Bible college team in the country.
Earlier teams paved the way while competing outside the Bible college arena. The 1970-71 squad was the only Bible college to play its way into the NCCAA National Tournament in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they lost a heartbreaking game to perennial champion Azusa Pacific, then known as “the UCLA of Christian colleges.” The 1971-72 squad led the entire National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA, with 700 members at the time) in both team defense and team rebounding for the year and were on a 26-3 run (reaching back to the previous season), before losing their starting point guard down the stretch and eventually missing another trip to NCCAA nationals in a tough two-point regional championship loss at Trinity Christian. If the deep and talented 1972-73 squad never quite lived up to its full potential, it still went a sterling 23-6, capturing two in-season tournaments, an NCCAC co-championship, and the NCCAC Tournament before falling to Grace in the NCCAA District 3 championship game.
Despite the newly narrowed range of competition, the road to a national title was far from easy. It began with a typically grueling pre-season and continued with endless exhortations from the coaches.
The Falcons has a rough pre-conference schedule with tough losses against IUPUFW (77-78), Huntington (79-88), Saint Francis (78-94), and Bethel (58-61), though there were also three solid victories against Concordia Sr. Col.(71-52), IUNW (90-64), and traditional rival Lincoln Christian (91-61).
Once the North Central Christian Athletic Conference (NCCAC) games got underway, the season took a better turn, as Fort Wayne’s only conference losses were to Grand Rapids Baptist (78-69) and John Wesley (86-66 and 72-60), leading to a respectable runner-up finish. Todd Habegger would be named NCCAC MVP.
Along the way, players built all sorts of memories. The Falcons rode in two small vans to games, a somewhat cramped fit for all the big bodies. As part of the team’s outreach, players sometimes shared their testimonies in church services, either Coach Steve Morley or Assistant Coach Kent Fishel would bring a short sermon, and the multi-talented Larry Lewis would try to lead the squad in special music—quite a challenge since basketball players are not necessarily polished vocalists.
One more non-conference opponent, Indiana Tech, overpowered the Falcons (96-72) just before the NCCAC Tournament.
In the opening round of the conference tournament, the Falcons lost a close contest to Grand Rapids Baptist (60-58). The next day they came back from a 15 point deficit to Concordia Lutheran in the last ten minutes to cement a third place tournament finish (101-93). This final run against Concordia seemed to build the momentum they needed to meet the challenges that lay ahead.
The Falcons were now 15-9, but their record against other Bible colleges in the NCCAA II District 3 was a perfect 7-0, so they drew an automatic bid to enter the NCCAA II Region 2 championship game. Their opponent was Moody Bible Institute, which for some reason was better rated, so they met in the Chicago area at Judson College in Elgin, Illinois. Although Fort Wayne had an enthusiastic following, bus loads of Moody fans packed the gymnasium. A solid 72-57 victory quieted the MBI crowd, qualifying the Falcons for the four-team national finals in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, home of the highly favored Baptist Bible College Defenders.
The Falcons first faced Western Baptist Bible from Salem, Oregon. A close, hard fought game ended with a Falcon win (62-57). Still, Fort Wayne lacked the respect they deserved. The Toccoa Falls Bible coach, who had expected to be in the championship game, instead watched his team get destroyed by Baptist Bible in the other bracket. He let Falcons know they were overmatched, and the consensus seemed to be that Fort Wayne were decided underdogs to the host team.
Led by their inimitable senior, Todd Habegger, who had starred spectacularly for Fort Wayne from the very outset of his freshman year, the Falcons played well; though a frustrated Larry Lewis, the other outstanding four-year starter, would foul out for the very first time in this final game of his career. Five minutes into the second half the Falcons had built a comfortable fifteen point cushion. The hometown Defenders then mounted a furious comeback, regaining a one point lead with eleven seconds to go.
In their final possession, Falcons tried to feed their superstar, Todd, but had to settle for a shot from the deep right corner baseline by Gordon Nickel. It went a bit awry, and a Baptist Bible big man came down with the rebound. Hopes sank! Then, in an all-but-miraculous split-second turn of events, Steve Cochran managed to dislodge the ball from behind, squirting it into the air. Scott Dell charged the lane from the top of the key, catching the ball in midair and releasing a high arching floater. His soft touch allowed the ball to bounce on the rim three times before it finally dropped through. There were still three seconds to go, but the bucket had secured the 81-80 victory. The “Seven Golden Years” of Fort Wayne Bible College men’s basketball closed out in triumph.
There were plenty of individual honors. Among them, Todd was the consensus NCCAA II National Tournament MVP, while both Todd and Larry were named NCCAA II All-Americans. Teammates predictably voted Todd the Falcons MVP as well; but today players remember the total team effort, the camaraderie, and the enduring friendships more than anything else. Several former Falcons singled out trainer Ray Cross and manager Glenn Tamagawa, for their hardworking, selfless roles, while Rod Mosiman had stuck with the team through every practice, even though a broken wrist in a hard cast kept him from playing that year.
Nearly four decades later, the fruit of their time on the Fort Wayne campus can be seen in the long, strong, steady patterns of Christian service and professional achievement that have characterized the lives of team members. To God be the glory!
Special thanks goes to the cheerleaders who followed and enthusiastically supported the team throughout the season. They practiced and prepared for the games, and they are to be cheered for their efforts.