Historic gift: Buss preserves films of first Phoenix seasons

UW-Green Bay Men's Basketball team photo Year 1

Former University of Wisconsin-Green Bay head basketball coach Dave Buss doesn’t want the Phoenix program’s first seasons to fade into obscurity.

And thanks to his generosity, more than 100 long-forgotten game films from the earliest seasons of the men’s basketball program have been converted into digital format and will be available for public viewing through the University Archives at Cofrin Library.

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The collection includes the Phoenix’s very first game, a 99-70 defeat of Milton College on Dec. 3, 1969. For the record that very first season they were known as the Bay Badgers, and the first points scored were by guard Dave Haglund, who curled around a screen and took a pass from Ray Willis for a layup. Haglund was fouled on the shot and made a free throw. So the first Phoenix scoring featured an old-fashioned 3-point play.

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Dave Buss Coaching UWGB Men's Basketball c.1970Dave Buss Coaching UWGB Men's Basketball c.1970Dave Buss Coaching UWGB Men's Basketball c.1970Year 1 UWGB Men's Basketball

There are also scenes from the Phoenix upset of national powerhouse DePaul, and a victory over UW-Whitewater in Whitewater, which catapulted the Phoenix into the NAIA Championship Tournament.

“Back then we shot 16 mm films of the games and it was really expensive,” said Buss, now retired and living in Horseshoe Bay, Texas, a community about 50 miles west of Austin. “This was the only recorded evidence of their playing careers and it was deteriorating. I thought if we don’t save it now, it’s not going to be preserved. It’s evidence of their playing life. And they were very good players.”

Photo of UW-Green Bay Archivist, Deb Anderson with film canasters

Deb Anderson, UW-Green Bay Archivist

The story of the film rescue began last spring when Buss contacted Debra Anderson, who is coordinator of the University Archives. Buss wanted copies of film to send out as gifts to some of his former players. Anderson replied that the film could be transferred to DVD, but added there would be a cost. Buss quickly responded by sending a check that not only covered the cost, but made sure that UW-Green Bay has a full set for the historic record.

Anderson then turned to Mike Schmitt from UW-Green Bay Media Services to make a digital transfer of more than 100 games.

“It’s pretty technical, but it required a special projector that converted film to video,” Schmitt said. “It was a pretty labor intensive project. Fortunately, the old films had been stored well, so they don’t look much different than 40 years ago. We knew that it had historical value.”

“If we had come to this point even 10 years in the future, some of these memories could have been lost,” Anderson said. To identify the former Phoenix basketball players in action, she turned to Phoenix alumnus Tom Anderson (no relation to Debra Anderson).

And what has been the reaction among those former players who have received their DVDs?

“Unbelievable. They’re absolutely elated,” Buss said. “It’s something that was almost lost, but is now available.”

Buss, a Marshfield native, was named head coach in early 1968 and given the responsibility to recruit a basketball team that could play the next year when the four-year campus opened. That first season the Phoenix featured eight freshman, two sophomores and two junior college transfers. But they were winners from the start, posting a 16-8 record in that first season, and 23-5 in their second year.

By 1972-73 the Phoenix had become a small college powerhouse. That season included a 63-62 win at major-college contender DePaul and a trip to the NAIA tournament in Kansas City by defeating UW-Whitewater at Whitewater.

That early success was no fluke. During his tenure Buss’ teams had just one losing season. In 1977-78 the Phoenix finished 30-2, losing in the NCAA Division II Final Four championship to Cheyney State. That season the Phoenix lone regular season loss was a 55-49 heartbreaker at De Paul.

Buss, whose final season was 1981-82, still follows the Phoenix, and is impressed by how well the program has done in the ensuing years. He said the Horizon League is clearly among the elite mid-major conferences and the Phoenix is consistently near the top of the league.

Reviewing that vintage game footage has affirmed Buss’ belief that a number of his Phoenix players could play in the modern era. Sure, hairstyles have changed and thankfully so have the uniforms. Gone are the tight, silk shorts. But there’s no denying the talent that would bring the Phoenix to the upper reaches of Division II basketball. Buss adds that the success of those early teams and players set the stage for UW-Green Bay’s move into Division I basketball.

One of the early stars, Dennis Woelffer (1970-73), remains second only to Tony Bennett among the Phoenix all-time scorers, and is first in career rebounds. Ray Willis (1970-71) was a junior college transfer who averaged 26.8 points per game. Although he only played two seasons, Willis is ninth in all-time scoring. And Ron Ripley (76-79) is fourth in all-time scoring, and second in rebounds.

“When I look at the game tapes I’m struck by how good they were,” Buss said. “Now the bodies look different because we didn’t use the weight rooms like they do today. I mean Tod’s (Kowalczyk) players have great physiques. But basketball is basketball. And back then we were very good offensively and defensively.”

How can you order a copy of one or more of these historic games? Contact the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay special collections unit within the Cofrin Library at (920) 465-2539, or speccoll@uwgb.edu. Each disc is $7. View a list of games available on DVD.

R. Terry Anderson

I teach English Composition and handle media and marketing for the Institute for Learning Partnership.