By Jim Joanos
One of the finest athletes in Florida State sports history is Bernie McCann. McCann was a three time first team All American in men's volleyball. Yes, men's volleyball! In the late 40's and early 50's, FSU had a varsity men's volleyball team, a very good one at that.
|Bernie McCann spikes another one for FSU.|
Following World War II, thousands of former GI's, mostly men, returned home. The colleges and universities of America had to make room for them. In Tallahassee, the Florida State College for Women, changed its name, and became The Florida State University, a coeducational institution, once again. In its very early existence the institution had been coeducational.
The early program
Immediately after becoming coeducational again, a men's varsity sports program was begun at Florida State. In its very first school year, 1947-48, FSU fielded six men's varsity teams. They were in the sports of football, basketball, baseball, tennis, golf, and volleyball. For a total of ten years FSU competed at the varsity level in men's volleyball. It was a very successful team throughout its short history as it never had a losing season and in 1955 and 1957 won national collegiate championships.
It was very unusual at the time for a southern college or university to field a men's varsity volleyball team, almost as unusual as it would be today. Most of the college teams were located in the east and the west. Consequently, many of FSU's matches were against YMCA, military installation, and athletic club teams. There were lots of those scattered around the south. In fact, most of the very strong men's volleyball teams in the south were fielded by YMCA and other independent teams unaffiliated with colleges or universities. When the FSU team traveled long distances and when they competed in national tournaments, they did get a chance to match up with some of the nation's best college teams. They did well throughout against colleges as well as the other teams they competed against.
Most of the credit for FSU fielding a men's volleyball team should go to the athletic director at the time, Dr. Howard Danford. Danford apparently had no special preferences regarding sports. They say that with him volleyball was as important as football, basketball, or baseball. Maybe more so, as he was especially knowledgeable about volleyball and, in fact, served as head coach of FSU's first two teams in 1947-48 and in 1949-50.
|1947-48 Volleyball Team|
Al Bassett, of nearby Quincy, was the team captain of the first team. Bassett has said that "Danford was a good spiker, an excellent volleyball player that would get out there and play with us" during practices. Bassett goes on to say that "volleyball was a much tougher game than people think it is". Bassett, a freshman on that first FSU team, had played volleyball throughout high school in physical education classes at Gadsden High School, and so when "the call came" for those who wanted to try out for volleyball, he reported. He credits his high school as having a very good physical education program that prepared him. At FSU, he was also a pitcher on the baseball team that year. The home volleyball matches were played at the old gymnasium left over from Dale Mabry Army Air Field which was in the area where men students were housed in the early days following the war. Bassett said that during that first year the team went to away matches "by yellow schoolbus" although the sites were as far away as Miami. The school yearbook lists the following as letter winners on the very first varsity team along with Bassett: Newton Sayers, William Leonard, Walter Wells, Emerson Kramer, Leon Bowman, Leon Parsey, Robert Greene, Orri Blackburn, R.L. Massey, and team manager, Harvey Barber.
McCann is "recruited"
After six seasons, the men's volleyball team was pretty well established, when Bernie McCann entered FSU in the fall of 1953. Bill Odeneal had replaced Dr. Danford as head coach after the first two years. The team was playing a rather long and comprehensive schedule and was regarded as one of the better teams in the south even when compared to the veteran YMCA teams.
McCann had grown up in West Palm Beach. Among his childhood memories is the recollection of playing sandlot baseball with Dick Howser. At St. Ann's High School in West Palm Beach, McCann had played varsity basketball as well as baseball. As a high school student, he became interested in FSU mainly because he had some cousins attending there. In his senior year of high school he attended something called "government day" whereby high school students came to Tallahassee to observe government in action. They were housed in FSU dorms. That cinched the deal. He was so impressed that he entered FSU the next September.
At that time, FSU male students were required to take two semesters of physical education during their college years, one semester regarding a team sport, and one regarding an individual sport. Incidentally, the women students, subjected to a different standard that went back to FSCW days, were required to take four semesters of physical education. Many students took physical education courses early in their attendance in order to get them out of the way. McCann decided to take "volleyball" his first semester. The course was taught by the team volleyball coach, Bill Odeneal. McCann must have done very well in the course for Coach Odeneal invited him to come out for the varsity team.
Teaching the volleyball courses was a major recruiting tool for Coach Odeneal as he frequently recruited players from among the students that he taught. Others were recruited from some of the teams that FSU played as many of them were military teams and Odeneal would recruit them to come to FSU after their military tours ended. Also some of the YMCA teams had some outstanding high school athletes among their squads who were looking for colleges that had volleyball teams. Odeneal was pretty good at recruiting and at this point in the school's history had accumulated a very good team.
The decision to go out for the team turned out to be a great decision for McCann as he immediately became one of the mainstays of the team and would be so for his entire four year stay at FSU. In addition to the numerous honors he won on the court as a volleyball player, he earned a partial scholarship that paid for much of his tuition costs at FSU.
The 1953-54 Season
In McCann's first year, 1953-54, the team won 33, lost 8, and tied 4. Among the college teams that they beat were North Carolina, Appalachian State, South Carolina, Davidson, Jacksonville State and Louisiana State. Again, most of the matches were against YMCA and military base teams. For an example, one of the best men's volleyball teams in the country at the time was the Houston (Texas) YMCA team. Despite having an excellent team that year, FSU lost both of its matches against the Houston "Y".
1955 National Intercollegiate Champions
In 1954-55, the team won 35, lost 11, and tied 1, and were the Florida AAU champions which included open competition. But most importantly, that team won the National Collegiate Tournament at Norman, Oklahoma, and as such became national college champions. In tournament closing ceremonies, FSU players Phil Slaton, Wally Cox and McCann were all proclaimed first team All Americans. Lyle Lazear, Ray Johnson, and Eugene Lewis made the second team. Other members of that team included: Jack Mergens, John Fitch, Mickey Kinsburner, Matthew Sullivan, John Pickett, Joe Moore, and Claude Jewell. Collegiate victories during the year came over Abraham Baldwin, South Georgia College, Louisiana State, Oklahoma, Central Oklahoma, George Williams College, and Medical Evangelical College. The presentation of the national collegiate championship trophy to FSU was performed by the legendary football coach, Bud Wilkinson, who was coaching at Oklahoma at the time.
Incidentally, the FSU team came very close to missing that tournament. McCann describes the incident this way: "On the way to Oklahoma, we stopped in Tennessee to play a match with Memphis Navy, who was also headed to the tournament to play in the Armed Forces Division. We left the next day for Oklahoma and somewhere in the middle of Arkansas, Coach Odeneal's car engine caught fire. We pulled off the road, popped the hood, and started throwing dirt on the car engine. We got the fire out and fortunately a trucker came by and worked on the carburetor for about an hour. He got the car started for us and we continued on our way, with no further problems." Consequently, FSU is indebted to an unknown good Samaritan trucker for that first men's volleyball national championship.
Mike Sheridan, now a retired Marine Corps general living in Tallahassee, roomed with McCann during the 1954-55 school year. He said that McCann "is the only person I have ever seen who could jump as high as he could from a standing still position". It was "amazing". Sheridan also reports that during that year the United States Naval Academy offered McCann an athletic scholarship to attend that academy but he turned it down, preferring to stay at FSU, play volleyball and obtain a degree in business. Sheridan also states that McCann was a very good student and "did well in academics".
The 1955-56 season---third place
In McCann's third year, 1955-56, the team won 33 and lost 8. However, at the National Collegiate Tournament despite victories over Washington (twice), and Seattle Pacific College, the team had to settle for third place following losses to Stanford and UCLA. UCLA won the national collegiate championship that year. Despite the third place finish, the Seminoles placed two team members on the first team All American squad: McCann and Fehmi Zeko. Other members of that team were Jack Mergens, Gene Lewis, Ray Johnson, John Miller, Roger Clingerman, Lyle Lazear, Phil Slaton, Joe Rogers, Elmer Johnson, Matt Sullivan, Ed Threadgill, David Hultz, and Dick Brugge.
National Champions, Again!
In 1956-57, the FSU team again won the National Collegiate Tournament, making them national champions for the second time in the university's history. For the year the team won 40, lost 7, and tied 2. In the championship tournament, FSU defeated Washington, Earlham College, Kansas, and George Williams College. Again, FSU placed two spikers on the first team All American squad: McCann and Fehmi Zeko. Second team All Americans from FSU included John Miller, Duane Eby and Jim McFatter.
For the second year in a row, the FSU student newspaper, The Florida Flambeau, named McCann the most outstanding Seminole volleyball player of the year. It was a very good year for outstanding Seminole athletes as the most outstanding in the other sports included some names now very familiar to FSU fans: football - Lee Corso; basketball - Hugh Durham; gymnastics - Chick Cicio; swimming - jointly, Jim Julian and Mike Tschirret; baseball - jointly, Dick Howser and Jerry Boxer; track and field - Mike Conley; golf - John "Bunk" Berry; and tennis - Lex Hester.
Graduation in 1957 ended McCann's career at FSU. He relishes the volleyball experience, as providing him "some notoriety and the opportunity, along with my teammates, to represent Florida State University in many dual meets and tournaments." He points out that "except for flying commercially to the national tournament in Seattle in 1956, we always traveled in two cars with a total of 9 players and Coach Odeneal. Because of the small group, we developed a 'brother like' closeness and camaraderie that exists to this day". He goes on to state that "FSU's team was recognized as one of the top collegiate volleyball teams in the country. Our players were respected by their fellow competitors for their skills, enthusiasm, competitiveness and fair play. We were good ambassadors for Florida State. Everyone looked forward to playing FSU, and trying to beat us---sometimes they did". And I would add, "not very often".
Soon after the season ended, Athletic Director Howard Danford left Florida State. The leadership that followed determined that FSU could no longer afford a men's volleyball team and so this legendary program at Florida State officially ended.
A third FSU championship?
But there is more to the story as far as FSU men's volleyball is concerned. At the time, rules pertaining to the National Volleyball Championships did not require that the colleges and universities had to officially sponsor teams. What mainly was required was that participants be members of the United States Volleyball Association and/or the American Athletic Union. Consequently, when national tournament time came around in the Spring of 1958, some of the members of the former FSU team decided that they wanted to defend FSU's national championship in the annual USVBA tournament. At their own expense, seven of them made the trip to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to defend the honor. They even had a cheering squad as former coach Bill Odeneal and FSU Athletic Business Manager Eddie Cubbon made the trip to lend support. McCann, by this time, was in the Navy and could not get leave to attend.
The "FSU" team entered both the collegiate division and the open division. In both divisions they lost in early rounds of the double elimination contests. However, in both, they fought back. In the collegiate division they came back and won the tournament, thus giving FSU an "unofficial claim" to a third Collegiate National Championship in Men's Volleyball. In the Open Division, which was much tougher at the time as it included YMCA, town, and military institution teams, as well as some college teams, the "FSU team" came in a tie for fourth place, which was the highest finish ever by a college team. In all, the "FSU team" ended up playing a total of 58 games over the three days of the tournaments, an all time USVB Association Tournament record. Two of the "FSU" players were named to the first team collegiate All American squad, Fehmi Zeko, for the second year in a row, and Marvin McLean.
A successful career
Following graduation in 1957, McCann entered the Navy's Officers Candidate School. He earned a commission and served for three years as a supply corps officer. Following his discharge from the Navy, he went back home to Palm Beach and spent the next twenty-four years working with a savings and loan. Sometime around 1963 he and Carolyn were married. At some point, the Savings and Loan was bought by a bigger entity, and McCann spent a number of years as a financial adviser before he retired about four years ago. He and Carolyn have three children and three grandchildren.
An active Seminole Booster
McCann continues to be an active Seminole supporter as a Booster. His automobile bears the license plate identification "FSU-57". He reports that he and wife Carolyn make at least "one trip a year to Tallahassee for a football game". They also "try to get to Miami when FSU plays the 'Canes in baseball and football. He also attends class and fraternity reunions occasionally in Tallahassee. He is very proud of his participation when "along with Harry Massey (football), Fred Kenney (baseball), Bob Stuke (diving), Phil O'Connell, Jr., Art Bogue, and others, we organized the Palm Beach County Seminole Booster Club back in the early sixties (the lean years)". That organization continues to this day as a very strong Seminole Club.