Xavier University alumni from the early 1970s often affectionately refer to that period as “The Hop Years.”
That’s when the school’s basketball team, coached by Bob Hopkins, captivated the campus with its winning.
“It was a magical time,” Xavier President Dr. Norman Francis, who hired Hopkins, said Wednesday.
Hopkins died Friday in Bellevue, Wash., of heart and kidney failure. He was 80. His funeral is Thursday at St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Mercer Island, Wash.
Hopkins, a former Grambling standout who played four years with the NBA’s Syracuse Nationals, coached the Gold Rush from 1969-74, compiling an 82-45 record. Xavier went 22-5 in the 1971-72 season and 21-6 in ‘72-73 with a team anchored by forward Bruce Seals and point guard Donald “Slick” Watts as well as several of the city’s top high school players. Xavier won the NAIA District 30 championship both years.
“He was one of the top coaches in the country,” said Bernard Griffith, who played on Hopkins’ first teams then was an assistant coach under him at Xavier and again in the early 1980s at Southern. “He was always reading books about basketball. Coach Hopkins had his team doing things NBA teams at the time were doing.”
Xavier, once a powerhouse in black intercollegiate athletics, discontinued sports for seven years before they were brought back in 1967. The basketball team went 0-12 and 5-11 under James Wadley before Francis hired Hopkins, who had gone 71-12 in three seasons at Alcorn State.
“He was a top coach who brought great things to Xavier,” said Francis, “but more than that, he helped educate some great scholar athletes. Bob had a great supporting coaching system where he expected his players to play well on the court but also do well in school.”
Watts said Hopkins was an imposing figure at about 6-foot-8, 230 pounds and an example of self-discipline and education.
On the court, the Gold Rush championed defense, specifically its 1-2-2 full-court zone press, which forced opponents to play faster and turn the ball over, fueling Xavier’s uptempo style.
Xavier’s most impressive win came in a second-round game in the 1973 NAIA national tournament, when it knocked off No. 1-seeded Sam Houston State 67-60.
“We used to practice really hard,” Watts said. “Coach Hopkins had us believing we could beat any team, even if it was UCLA.
“We were all black kids who were passed over by the big, white colleges at the time, and he made us feel proud to be black men playing where we were.”
During Hopkins’ time, New Orleans’ college basketball teams began playing a City Series in which the four-year schools met. Xavier twice beat Tulane.
The Gold Rush also had a 10-5 record against Southern and had a 40-point home victory against highly-ranked Grambling.
After the ‘73-74 season, Hopkins left to join the staff of the Seattle SuperSonics after his cousin, Hall of Famer Bill Russell, was hired as head coach. Hopkins became interim head coach at the start of the 1977 season before he was let go after 22 games.
Born in Jonesboro on Nov. 3, 1934, Hopkins played from 1952-56 at Grambling, where he was an All-American. He scored 3,759 points (29.8 per game).
At Xavier, he was the maestro of something special.
“He insisted that the players conduct themselves like gentlemen,” Griffith said. “The students liked the players, so they came to the games. We won, so, they kept coming back.
“The Barn was always packed, so they added another whole level of seating.”
Hopkins was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1978 and the College Baskeball Hall of Fame in 2013.