On Thursday, December 20, 2018, BYU Basketball lost a tremendous piece of its legacy when Mel Hutchins passed away at the age of 90.
In the March 17, 1951 edition of the Deseret News, the great sports editor for that publication — Hack Miller — wrote an article about the Collegiate Basketball National Championship game that was to be played at Madison Square Garden that evening. The headline of the article was “Cougars Should Win NIT.”
Think about that for a moment. Brigham Young University. BYU. The same school that you rise and shout for not only was playing in a National Championship basketball game — they were favored. The oddsmakers had the Y by 5 points over Dayton.
The key to the game for BYU was for Mel Hutchins to handle Dayton’s star center Don “Monk” Meineke. Some projecting the contest were concerned about Hutchins ability to handle the Meineke task. Meineke had a 2 inch height advantage on Hutchins. Plus, Meineke was averaging 28.7 points per game, 15.7 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. Perhaps the great Mel Hutchins would be overmatched.
Hack Miller was unfazed by the dreary speculation. He wrote:
If Hutch can stay in the game he’ll trounce Meineke. Some have said that Meineke is the best single man in the tourney. That will have to be proved to us Saturday. I can’t see it at all.
Turned out that Hutchins — “The Big Cat” — was made for the big city. He was able to stay in the game — Hutchins fouled out 10 times in his BYU career which is 2nd all time — and he controlled Monk Meineke. Meineke had 7 points that night — 21 points below his average. That defensive performance by Hutchins on the Dayton star buried any hope of their taking home the NIT crown that night. The Cougars cruised to glory defeating Dayton, 62-43.
In addition to winning the National Championship, Hutchins would be invited to the college All-Star game, where he would be named the MVP.
The BYU athletic program has always had as top priority to represent its sponsoring religion is the most positive light. It was Hutchins, along with his teammates, that perhaps gave the basketball program its brightest day in the sport of college basketball.
Just 2 months to the day before the national championship victory, college basketball faced a crisis. Henry Poppe and Jack Byrnes — a pair of basketball players at Manhattan — were convicted along with 3 bookmakers on bribery and conspiracy charges. The players were found to be complicit in fixing games and point shaving. Poppe and Byrnes were the tip of the iceberg. 1 month before BYU’s win over Dayton, 3 players from City College of New York — the defending champions of both the NIT and NCAA tournament having won in 1950 — were arrested on charges of bribery. During the next month, 32 players from 7 colleges, most of the schools located in New York City, were found guilty for fixing 86 games between 1947-50.
Deep in the minds of college basketball fans in March 1951 was the devastating scandal that was threatening the integrity of the sport.
The perfect foil for that time was that group of outstanding basketball players with high character from Brigham Young University. They were a crowd favorite. The style of play was thrilling, but more importantly the sold out Madison Square Garden crowds lavished the Cougar Cagers with admiration. The attendees felt with certainty that the team of Latter-day Saints from Utah were not bribed. A feeling they could not associate for any of their local teams.
Hutchins was at the heart of it. He was big and strong. He was gallant and handsome. In fact, Hutchins turned heads outside his skill at basketball as he was cast to be on the ABC program “Blind Date” staring Arlene Francis as a result of his and BYU’s popularity during the National Invitation Tournament.
So much was made of the Cougars lack of muck that Hack Miller wrote:
BYU coaches and the palyers have captivated New York... The clean manner in which the Cougars have played, the healthy look of the lads and their inherent sportsman like manners have brought comment from all sides.
In short, the 1950-51 squad did BYU extremely proud on and off the floor. With Mel Hutchins as the star player, he drew the most eyeballs. In all reports integrity and goodness exuded at a time when it felt difficult to find that quality in the sport of college basketball.
An example of this can be found as Hutchins teammate Roland Minson describes his appreciation for Hutch at the 1:33 mark in the video below:
Mel Hutchins in this picture — look at how is looking at me! Happy that I got that MVP. I mean he’s just glowing for me!
— Roland Minson
“The Big Cat” had 1,141 points in his career — averaging 11.8 points per contest. Hutchins had 900 rebounds. Rebounds were only tracked as a statistic for his junior and senior seasons. So, he is certainly, unofficially, in the 1000 rebounds club with Kyle Collinsworth. Hutchins holds the single season rebound record with an incredible 471 boards — 119 more than BYU’s 2nd most productive season in history.
Hutchins would be selected 2nd overall in the NBA Draft. He would win Rookie of the Year while leading the league in rebounding. He would finish 4th in MVP voting in 1956.
The 1949-50 BYU basketball media guide wrote this in their description of Hutch, “Mel is a great rebound man and a good shot from under the basket or far out. His uncanny ability at backward shots and otherwise unorthodox handling of the ball make this 6’5” junior a hit with the fans and the envy of opponents. He may look lazy, but watch him unwind when he wants to get someplace in a hurry!”
The first national championship in BYU sports history was won by Mel Hutchins and his teammates. As such, Hutchins #14 jersey was retired in 2013. His legacy of what it means to be an outstanding BYU athlete and ambassador has been critical for the growth and development of the entire BYU athletic program.