When Washburn Ruled

File Photograph / The Capital-Journal

Coach Chipman and Guard Bobby Sumler

Near Topeka, close to the I -470 and Burlingame exit, there is a sign pointing you towards Washburn University. On the sign, an inscription reads “home of the 1987 NAIA National Basketball Champions”. It doesn’t seem possible, but its been 30 years since Washburn ruled the small college basketball world.

The championship game ended with a dramatic 79-77 victory over West Virginia State. The title game was aired on ESPN in primetime with Dick Vitale announcing. Somewhere there is a tape of Vitale dancing on the court at the end of the game with Washburn point guard Bobby Sumler.

In his book, Washburn Excellence, author David Smale recounted the Ichabods had a 35-4 record that season, including a loss to Division I power Georgetown in Hawaii. They won the District 10 title 63-61 over Fort Hays State, advancing to the national tournament at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, MO.

To win the NAIA Tournament Championship, you must win 5 games in 6 days. Winning the tournament demanded that you took each game as a challenge.  In their road to the championship, the Ichabods defeated Cabrini College, Taylor University of Indiana, Auburn-Montgomery, Central Washington, and in the title game, West Virginia State.

The star of the team, Tom Meier, remembered that the team didn’t really look at the big picture. “I knew we were good but what we were doing never really sunk in.”  Meier, one of the greatest players ever in Topeka, finished his career as the #2 scorer and rebounder in Washburn history.  He recalled, “when we got to the national tournament it was like, ‘okay, we won a game’. Then we won another one.  We just kept winning and really took it game by game”

Head coach Bob Chipman spent his entire career at Washburn, winning over 800 games. Chipman remembers “that the team finished better than any team I ever coached. They won their last 22 games and you knew every day in practice they were getting better.  You could tell they were preparing to win a national championship.”

Meier averaged 18.2 points and 10.5 rebounds that season, but it was a balanced team. Calvin Sprew averaged 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds, Rich Hamilton 12.3 points and 5.9 rebounds and Sumler 10.7 points and 3.5 assists.

1987 National Champions Celebrate

Rob Reilly started every game at guard, and the team had quality depth off the bench with Greg Wilson, James Davenport, Keith Downing and Kevin Downing.

“We had so many great players who could have done more but sacrificed individual things to win a championship,” Chipman said. “We had all the ingredients a team needed to be good.” I agree with Chipman, the Ichabods were a great team. One of the best I have ever seen.  They won because they had great chemistry.

In 1997, the team was inducted into the Washburn Hall of Fame, and Meier is a member of the Shawnee County Sports Hall of Fame. If you want to know more about this great team, who deserve a respected place in Topeka history here are a couple of links to articles that remember the champions.