Editor's Note: On April 9, 2012, Georgia State was officially invited to join the Sun Belt Conference and compete for 14 league titles starting July 1, 2013. This is the first of a seven-part series looking at the Panthers' move into the Sun Belt, including an historical look back, a peek around the conference as a whole, as well as sport-specific information about GSU's upcoming league opponents.
On Aug. 4, 1976, six universities sporting NCAA independent men’s basketball programs bonded to form a new league called the Sun Belt Conference. Those six programs to form the original Sun Belt lineup were from five states with major regional centers and began competition in four men’s sports to start league play: soccer, basketball, golf and tennis.
Basketball’s Quick Start
In its first season as a league, North Carolina-Charlotte won the Sun Belt regular-season and tournament titles, then advanced to the NCAA Final Four. Along the way, it toppled powers like Michigan and Syracuse with a future NBA player named Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, an eventual first-round pick of the Boston Celtics.
|ORIGINAL 1976 SUN BELT MEMBERS
||New Orleans, La.
There was no Charlotte dynasty starting as in Year 2, as New Orleans won the tournament before Jacksonville and coach Tates Locke swept through the Sun Belt tournament to get the NCAA bid in Year 3.
Following that season, two more schools joined the Sun Belt: UAB and VCU for the 1979-80 season. VCU surprised all by earning the tournament title in its first year, earning the 1980 bid with a final 18-12 mark, making it four years as a league and four teams as the NCAA bid recipient.
In 1978, New Orleans beat South Alabama in a “slowdown” title game, wining the conference championship by a 22-20 margin. As a result, the Sun Belt got approval from the NCAA to use a 45-second shot clock in regular-season games, making the conference a leader in the future of NCAA basketball.
The innovative Sun Belt created one of the first in-house regional television networks to show a conference game of the week starting in January of 1978. In 1979, the Sun Belt became another leader when it was the first conference to sign a long-term agreement with the then-new ESPN cable network that launched in September of 1979. That year also saw the Sun Belt become one of the 16 conferences to get a first-round NCAA tournament bye.
The Sun Belt also encouraged its inaugural members to play in the largest basketball facility in its city, so Georgia State played most of its home games in the Omni, the 16,500-seat home of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. The first Sun Belt Tournament was in the Charlotte Coliseum.
As in most leagues, teams started coming and going. New Orleans left after 1980 and Georgia State left in 1981. Western Kentucky and Old Dominion were the next to join in 1981. By 1991, North Carolina-Charlotte and USF both left.
GSU was tied for fourth in 1976-77 and was last in three of the next four years except for a sixth-place finish in 1979-80.
Georgia State was a small, struggling athletics program and its record reflected that. In 1976-77, GSU was 10-18 overall, 2-4 in its inaugural Sun Belt games. GSU followed with 5-21 (2-8), 7-20 (0-10), 6-21 (4-10) and 4-23 (1-11) men’s basketball records in its five-year Sun Belt era.
Sun Belt at Georgia State in 1976
After a five-hour meeting that ended at 4:40 p.m. on a hot August day, GSU became a Sun Belt member. Each of the six schools was to pay $10,000 to join the new league. The Sun Belt did not have a commissioner, so Tom Turner of UNC Charlotte was the president of the executive committee and Georgia State’s David Ewert was the committee vice-president. GSU’s school president was Noah Langdale and the A.D. was Francis J. Bridges as they forged into a new league.
The Sun Belt group planted its first seed in March of 1976 in Philadelphia in a meeting between the semifinals and final of the NCAA Championship. The bylaws and constitution were put together in summer meetings in Miami and Tampa, as well as the new league’s name.
The criteria they decided upon for members was “major, urban, state-supported, non-football” universities.
On Oct. 11, the Sun Belt picked Vic Bubas as its first commissioner. The new 49-year old commissioner was a big name for the fledgling league, as he was the first person to ever play in and coach in a Final Four. Bubas took Duke from a regional school to a national name, coaching there from 1959-60 through 1968-69 with a 231-67 record (.761). In 10 years, he won four ACC Championships, reached three Final Fours and was a three-time ACC Coach of the Year in an era when only one team went to the NCAA tournament from each league. Duke achieved its goal in moving national under Bubas as it finished in the top 10 seven times, and the other three seasons the Blue Devils had been in the rankings during the year. Duke had to beat the usual tough ACC teams that included Dean Smith’s UNC group, as well as the other basketball national powers.
Bubas helped get Charlotte as the host city for the first Sun Belt basketball championship and pushed to get every game on cable TV in 1976-77. Bubas visited GSU twice during that inaugural year. He served 14 years as the commissioner and is now retired at age 86 and in multiple halls of fame.
GSU Gets Rolling in Sun Belt Play
In the first week of January, 1977, GSU hosted the Jacksonville University Dolphins at “The Panther Pit” (what is currently the GSU Sports Arena). It was a record-setting night as GSU won 85-62 while 6-foot-2 senior George “Popgun” Pendleton set a school record with 42 points by hitting 18-of-27 field goal attempts. There was no 3-point shot yet he broke the old school mark by one point.
Alas, the GSU campus and city wasn’t afire with Panther spirit as only about 300 people turned out. Students could attend for free and tickets were priced at $2.
|SUN BELT SERIES
|Original Sun Belt Members
|Today's Sun Belt Members
|GSU's Youth Movement Heads to the SBC
|Introducing SBC Football
|Introducing SBC Men's and Women's Basketball
|Introducing SBC Baseball and Softball
|Introducing SBC Olympic Sports
As Bubas said of the league: “The road ahead is long and rocky…It won’t happen overnight.”
In men’s soccer, GSU had some opportunities to succeed early as the Panther soccer program was established and winning.
In its five years in the Sun Belt, GSU played in the conference tournament championship game three times, bowing to USF twice (1976 and 1980) and Jacksonville once (1978). The Panthers were third in 1977.
GSU had 10 players earn All-Sun Belt team honors during those five years.
Records are not complete, but GSU did not win a conference championship in either men's tennis or golf in its first turn in the Sun Belt. The men’s tennis teams had its ups and downs with 16-8 and 15-9 seasons to go with records of 2-13 and 3-17. There are no golf records of those seasons in GSU files to determine our success.
The men’s tennis champions in that period were USF four times and South Alabama once. The men’s golf championship in that span was taken by Jacksonville twice and then USF three straight years.
While not a part of the inaugural 1976-77 year, the men’s cross country team did compete in the league as coach Bruce LaBudde won 1979 Sun Belt Coach of the Year honors in the year that Georgia State played host for the conference championship. The team had a second-place finish and two third-place finishes in its Sun Belt tenure.
Women’s sports were not a formal part of the Sun Belt in 1976-77, but the league schools had women’s basketball teams that did compete against one another.
In 1978-79, Charlotte hosted the three-day Sun Belt Invitational from Feb. 8-10. GSU beat New Orleans and South Florida, but lost to UNC Charlotte. In 1979-80, the teams played the Sun Belt Invitational in Atlanta and GSU beat both UNC Charlotte and UAB.
Georgia State was a founding member 37 years ago and now it will be a part of the new era of the Sun Belt that has become a football conference at the FBS level, along with a major conference in all NCAA sports. It happened before and is doing so again; as the league's new mantra says "Together we rise".