At the height of "Stagmania" in the early 1970s, John Ryan and Ray Kelly were two of the major reasons for the frenzy.
With the ebullient Ryan directing the Fairfield University fast break and Kelly contributing scoring and defensive play, the Stags earned successive bids to the then-prestigious National Invitation Tournament in 1973 and '74. In fact, they came within a heartbeat and a single point of defeating the ultimate champion, Virginia Tech, in the 1973 quarterfinals.
Saturday, the university will recognize the accomplishments of these two notable squads during halftime ceremonies of the Stags-Manhattan game at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. Tipoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.
"Most of the players from those teams and probably about 50 (former Fairfield) players from all eras will be there. It should be a lot of fun," Ryan said in a recent interview.
Kelly, soon to be 60, and Ryan, 60, settled in Fairfield after graduation and raised their children here. (Ray and Maureen Kelly have a son, Colin. John and Joanne Ryan are the parents of twins, Sarah and Will.)
Each has done well professionally. The Law Office of Raymond Kelly has been a Black Rock Turnpike staple for more than two decades. Ryan spent many years on the business side of local radio and now operates J.S.R. Advertisingin Trumbull.
Most long-time Stag followers believe that Coach Fred Barakat's 1972-73 squad of Ryan, Kelly, George Groom, Phil Rogers, Ralph Rehn, Tom Duffy, Dave Bradley, Craig Moorer, et al, ranks among the university's finest. "They probably belong in the top three," Kelly insists.
Facing a challenging schedule that included road games against the likes of nationally ranked Providence and South Carolina, as well as St. Joseph's, St. Bonaventure and Holy Cross, Fairfield compiled a 17-8 record during the season. Then the Stags upset Marshall, 80-76, in the opening round of the NIT -- the school's first post-season tournament at the Division-I Ievel -- at Madison Square Garden.
The excitement in that March of 40 years ago was palpable in town and on campus. A chartered train transported some 1,400 Stag fans non-stop from Fairfield to New York City. Three Fairfield students, attired in Fairfield warm-up togs, dribbled basketballs from campus to the Garden -- a distance of some 65 miles. They completed their trek by depositing layups in the Garden's baskets.
Groom, a long-range shooter who averaged 19.8 points per game across three varsity seasons and the senior captain in 1972-73, scored a game-high 23 points in the come-from-behind victory over Marshall.
Many observers were stunned. Jim Bouton, the pitched-turned-iconoclastic author, was doing sports for WABC-TV in New York during this period. "The winners in today's opening-round NIT games," he intoned that evening, "were Virginia Tech and Fairfield." Pause followed by quizzical look. "Fairfield?"
When did these Stags realize they were capable of big things? Some point to the six-game winning streak in mid-season, which jump-started a team with a so-so 7-5 record into one with a13-5 mark that merited consideration for a post-season tournament bid.
The streak began with back-to-back wins over Boston College and Fordham, both coming in the "Pit," as the Fairfield U. gym was labeled. It didn't yet bear the name Alumni Hall.
Then came the double-overtime 67-63 verdict over Detroit in Madison Square Garden.
St. Peter's was overwhelmed, 106-70, in the "Pit," and then it was on to Olean, N.Y., where Groom (26 points), Ryan (16 assists) and Bradley (16 points) sparked the Stags past St. Bonaventure, 72-60.
A few nights later, there was the trip to Worcester, Mass., where Fairfield took the measure of a strong Holy Cross squad, 85-82. Groom netted 24 points on that frigid evening.
Kelly concedes the importance of that winning streak, but he points to a loss -- in the Jan. 6 game at South Carolina -- as a barometer of the Stags' prowess.
"They were nationally ranked, and they had four future NBA or ABA players on their roster, but we played them tough," he says. "I think we lost by 10 (well, 69-58)."
Kelly makes a valid point. Kevin Joyce --a teammate of the Stags' Bob Bogad at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, N.Y. -- scored 22 points for South Carolina in that game; he went on to play five seasons in the ABA. Alex English became an eight-time NBA all-star and was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997, while two other 1972-73 Gamecocks, Brian Winters and Mike Dunleavy, were first-rate NBA players.
Says Ryan, grinning: "It'll be great to get together again and lie about how good we were."
Don Harrison, a long-time Fairfield resident, is the author of "Hoops in Connecticut" and "25 Years Plus One: Recounting the Meteoric Rise of Fairfield Basketball."