When Fred Shabel took the University of Connecticut men’s basketball head coaching job in 1963, his charge was to push the program from regional to national prominence.
He did that.
His 1963-64 team went to the third round of the NCAA tournament, a first for a UConn team and one that would not be replicated for more than two decades. His 1964-65 team was ranked 15th in the country.
But Shabel, whose winning percentage puts him among the top UConn coaches, has never been honored for his achievement. He has never been recognized as a Husky of Honor, the school’s hall of fame.
Now a growing number of his former players say it is time — long past time — to give Shabel the hall of fame recognition.
“If any UConn coach deserves to be a Husky of Honor, it’s Fred Shabel,” said Tom Penders, 77, who played for Shabel from 1964-67 and became a prominent coach in his own right, coaching at seven universities in a nearly 40-year career.
“He [Shabel] brought a big-time basketball atmosphere to the school,” Penders said.
Now 90 and living in Philadelphia, Shabel was an assistant coach at Duke when he was picked for the UConn job following the untimely death of revered coach Hugh Greer.
“I always believed we could compete on a national level,” says Shabel, with a boyish laugh. “I just had to get UConn to believe it.”
Shabel’s run in the 1964 NCAA tourney was highlighted by a second-round win over Princeton and its star forward Bill Bradley, a victory many believe put UConn on the national map.
“At the time, that was UConn’s biggest victory ever,” said Dom Perno, 81, who with seconds left stole the ball from Bradley to preserve the 52-50 win. “All the credit goes to Fred,” said Perno, who coached the Huskies from 1977 to 1986.
Although UConn lost its third round game to Duke, more than 1,000 cheering fans greeted the team on its return to Bradley Airport.
“That was quite a sight,” said former UConn player Al Ritter, 80.
UConn basketball was entering the modern era.
“Coach Greer was representative of the old ways and Coach Shabel represented what basketball was becoming,” said Bill DellaSala, 80, a 6-4 senior forward on Shabel’s 1963-64 team.
DellaSalla played for Greer the previous season. “Coach Greer taught mostly fundamentals. By the 1960s, with Coach Shabel, it had became a more thoughtful and intricate game.“
Shabel’s teams won four Yankee Conference regular season titles and made three trips to the NCAA tournament. His 72-29 career record and a 72% win percentage ranks him with Jim Calhoun and Greer.
Calhoun, who led the Huskies to three national titles, has nothing but praise for his once-removed predecessor.
“He [Shabel] was a terrific coach – Everyone will tell you he was the guy, who was, just you know, was waiting somewhere to win some national championships. He was that good of a coach,” said Calhoun, who amassed a 629-245 record for a 72% win percentage during his 26-year UConn coaching career.
Shabel “was one of the greatest UConn coaches ever,” said Bill Holowaty, 77, who played for Shabel from 1964 to 1967. Holowaty, the longtime and highly successful baseball coach at Eastern Connecticut State University, said Shabel “should have been in the school’s hall of fame years ago.”
The Huskies of Honor is a recognition program, equivalent to a hall of fame. Placards honoring the Huskies of Honor hang inside the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion, UConn’s on-campus home court. The hall of fame includes three former men’s basketball coaches: Greer, Calhoun and Dee Rowe, who coached from 1969 to 1977.
No one tried harder to make Shabel the fourth coach so honored than his first recruit, Wes Bialosuknia, the “Poughkeepsie Popper,” who died of cancer in 2013.
“Oh my goodness. Wes petitioned and petitioned to get Fred on the wall,” said Maureen Bialosuknia, Wes Bialosuknia’s wife. “He talked to practically everyone in the state.” Maureen Bialosuknia said her husband thought Shabel was a coaching genius for his game strategy and for his ability to motivate players.
Through the years the coach and his first UConn recruit often called each other.
He husband regularly attended UConn basketball games, and often complained to sports and university officials that Shabel deserved to be inducted, Maureen Bialosuknia said. Each time UConn administrators responded saying that Shabel only coached for four years, not a long enough time to evaluate his coaching body of work. Her husband reminded school officials that many of the Huskies of Honor men’s basketball players had shortened their college careers to play professional basketball. Yet, they qualified for the hall of fame honor.
“He was so upset,” Maureen Bialosuknia said. “He couldn’t understand why Fred wasn’t honored.”
UConn officials declined several requests for comment.
Shabel left UConn in 1967 to become the athletic director and later a vice president at the University of Pennsylvania. He left Penn in 1980 for an executive’s job at Comcast-Spectator, the sports management and cable TV company in Philadelphia. He worked there for nearly 40 years, retiring about two years ago at age 88.
Shabel said that he’s never spoken with UConn officials about the reasons for his hall-of-fame exclusion, and that he never intended to do so.
“At 90, I’m not as concerned about it as I once was when younger,” said Shabel in a sit-down interview at his home in October. “UConn has its reasons, which I never really understood.”
Asked if Shabel’s coaching achievements warranted him being a Husky of Honor, Calhoun said, “Certainly he was one of the best coaches that ever coached at our place, that much I do know.” But he said the hall of fame is not his call.
UConn’s reluctance to consider Shabel as a hall of fame inductee – or even comment – mystifies and frustrates many of Shabel’s supporters, including this once 12-year-old Wes Bialosuknia wanna-be.
How could anyone appreciate the success of a bygone era without having survived the adrenaline rush from a 30-foot Bialosuknia swish? Or the big-time dreams delivered from a Toby-Kimball-led, record-breaking 23-2 season? The true magnitude of expectations delivered from a seconds- remaining Dom Perno steal is best evaluated court side on a crammed wooden bleacher more than from a yellowed statistic book or black-and-white highlight film 60 years later.
Coach Shabel deserves his place as a Husky of Honor, not only for his winning spirit, but for ingraining the belief that greatness was around the corner.
John Mason Jr. lives in South Windsor.