Arnie Ferrin’s son and grandson tell the unlikely tale of the 1944 championship team.
The year was 1944, and the University of Utah’s Einar Nielsen Field House, which was to have been the home court for the men’s basketball team, had been requisitioned by the Army to serve as barracks for troops. All the team’s senior players had been drafted into the military. The only freshmen who were eligible for the team were premed, predental, or engineering students—who could all postpone military enlistment until after graduation—or those who couldn’t enlist because of health issues. Few colleges had teams, and wartime restrictions on gasoline and buses made it difficult to even schedule games.
Despite the stringencies, U Basketball Coach Vadal Peterson cobbled together an unlikely team with four freshmen as starters: Bob Lewis ex’47, Herb Wilkinson ex’46, Dick Smuin BS’50, and Arnie Ferrin BS’66 (who later returned to the U for his degree). A pre-med sophomore, Fred Sheffield BA’45, was the fifth starter. Wat Misaka BS’48, a talented player and a transfer student in engineering, was one of two Japanese Americans on the team, and he at first sat on the bench, although he later played a crucial role in the team’s success. The team’s tenacity and skill, combined with the unique circumstances of college athletics during World War II and a terrible accident for a top team in the nation, the University of Arkansas, led the Utes to the 1944 NCAA championship. The Utes beat Dartmouth, 42-40, in the first overtime game in NCAA Tournament history.
That story of March Madness in a different time has now been told by Ferrin’s son Tres Ferrin BS’71 and grandson Josh Ferrin BA’04 in a new book, Blitz Kids: The Cinderella Story of the 1944 University of Utah National Championship Basketball Team, published in February by Gibbs Smith. Arnie Ferrin went on to play professional basketball with the Minneapolis Lakers for three years, was general manager of the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association, and eventually became the U’s athletics director, until his retirement in 1989. Josh and Tres Ferrin say they grew up hearing his recollections of that memorable 1944 team and decided they should be the ones to tell the story in its entirety.
“Luckily for us, most of the players are still around,” says Josh Ferrin. “We did hours and hours of phone calls and lots of research through old newspapers and archives to try to piece together the best tale we could find.”
The resulting book tells the story in narrative form. “We wanted this to read like a movie,” Josh Ferrin says. Indeed, the two authors sold the movie rights to the book before they picked a publisher. The movie is in preproduction, with a screenplay written and co-producers and distributors in place.
As for Arnie Ferrin, he’s pleased his son and grandson are the ones to tell the tale. “He has really enjoyed seeing it come full circle,” Josh Ferrin says.
Read more about the 1944 championship game and player Wat Misaka, who broke the color barrier in pro basketball, in the Spring 2010 Continuum feature “That’s Just How It Was.”
This 30-minute video shows highlights of the 1944 NCAA Championship game. The video clip has no audio. (Video courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)