Our All-Americans of the Fifties
The fifties were certainly the glory years for intercollegiate basketball at the College of Steubenville: two players named All-American, three trips to the NAIA tournament, and 1958 selection as the Number 1 small college basketball team by the United Press board of Coaches. The memories still burn bright for All-American Paul Brownlee ’56 and Coach Hank Kuzma, who led the team from 1954-58. And among their recollections is highest regard for late teammate and All-American Jim Betsill ’58, who went by Jim Smith during his college years.
It seems that Paul Brownlee, one of the College’s greatest players, almost didn’t make it here at all.
“I was a second choice—they say the College had actually been trying to get another player who finally did not agree to come,” says Brownlee, who now makes his home in Tallmadge, Ohio. “I didn’t find out until the Saturday before the school year started, and there I was at Steubenville the following Monday morning.”
The Barons’ ranking improved dramatically during Paul’s first two seasons here, meriting the Pro Keds Award for most improved small college team in 1954. In 100 games, he scored 2,433 points, averaging 24.3 points per game, becoming the nation’s fifth leading scorer.
The team went to the national tournament in 1955. The trip to Kansas City was a big deal for Paul, who had rarely traveled beyond the Ohio Valley. The Barons made it as far as the quarter finals. That same year Paul was named All-American, first team. (He achieved this honor a second time in 1956.)
At this point, Paul’s teammate James Betsill ’58 was up and coming. “Big Jim” was a rebound expert, averaging 24.1 per game. His lifetime record of 2,419 rebounds in 113 games remains unsurpassed in all of college basketball. He was named All-American two years running, and in 1958 helped the Barons receive their only national first place title among small colleges. Coach Kuzma particularly savors one victory in a 1958 invitational tournament, when Betsill and the Barons beat powerhouse national champion Tennessee State, the 1957 NAIA champions who had won 38 straight games.
Described by Coach Kuzma as “six feet, four inches—a mountain of a man,” it seems that description applied both to Jim’s character as well as his physique. He was drafted by both the Boston Celtics and the U.S. Army in 1958. Unfortunately, knee injuries sustained during the two-year military stint ended Jim’s hopes for a pro career. But instead of mourning what might have been, Jim distinguished himself as a community leader and activist in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.
Thanks to his efforts, and often at great personal risk, the color barriers to labor union membership in Pittsburgh were broken. Jim’s calming influence in his Hazelwood neighborhood prevented the riots that broke out in much of Pittsburgh in 1969. For over 25 years, he worked for the Department of Education in Harrisburg, and he helped thousands of young black men reach higher levels of education and break into better career fields. Betsill’s career in public service lasted throughout his life. He died of leukemia in 2002 and is buried in Harrisburg.
“He was a gentle, soft-spoken fellow,” recalls Paul Brownlee. “I can’t say enough nice things about him. He was a real gentleman.”
After graduation, Paul was recruited by Goodyear to play basketball for their Industrial League team (which, Paul notes, the Barons had beaten earlier that season) and to work as a production supervisor. He says it was a “great opportunity” to work full-time and play basketball for a semi-pro league. In 1979, his alma mater inducted him into its Hall of Fame for his achievements on and off the court.
Paul met a man playing golf a few years back who mentioned that he used to coach basketball at Hiram College, against whose team Paul had once gained 55 points for his all-time high game.
“It was so ironic,” Paul says. “It turned out he was Hiram’s coach that year!”
Amazingly, Steubenville’s highwater mark in basketball came at a time when the College didn’t have a gymnasium to call its own. Home court was the Steubenville Big Red gym. But the Barons and their coach had the drive and dedication to make wonderful things happen. It was truly an amazing time.
Originally published in the Spring 2007 Baronette newsletter. Since then, Paul Brownlee has passed away. May he rest in peace.