Hawkeye Family Loses Special Player, Person in Ben McGilmer
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa basketball staff brought Glenn Vidnovic to campus for a recruiting visit in the spring of 1966.
While he was there, the coaches showed the standout forward from McKeesport, Pa., a highlight film of the Hawkeyes’ 1965-66 season.
“They beat Michigan that year,” Vidnovic said. “Most of the highlights were of Cazzie Russell and Oliver Darden of Michigan. But a lot of it was Benny, too.”
Benny was Ben McGilmer, Iowa’s 6-foot-7 sophomore forward, who had a game for the ages that night in Iowa Fieldhouse.
McGilmer scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half as the Hawkeyes upset No. 10 Michigan, 91-82, despite Russell’s 31 points. The Wolverines, a national runner-up to UCLA the year before, would go on to win their third straight Big Ten title.
But they had no answer for McGilmer, a Michigan native, that night. His dunk, after a long pass from Denny Pauling, was the knockout blow in the upset victory
Ken Grabinski, who would later be McGilmer’s Hawkeye teammate, watched that performance.
“I was starstruck ever since watching (McGilmer’s) performance against a Top 10 team, Grabinski told Hawkeyesports.com. “The entire state watched that game. He was one of my childhood idols and we eventually became really good friends.”
McGilmer, whose Iowa career was interrupted for two years while he served in the Army, was also a key piece of the Hawkeyes’ undefeated Big Ten championship team in 1969-70.
The University of Iowa announced Wednesday that McGilmer had passed away at 74 years of age. He died June 6 at the Atlanta Veterans Administration Medical Center in Decatur, Ga.
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“The last time I talked to him was about five or six months ago,” Vidnovic said. “He was in good spirits. Everybody’s getting up there (in age). Anything can happen now. But it’s tough to lose a teammate. No matter how old they are.”
Grabinski, McGilmer’s teammate in 1968-69 and 1969-70, mourned the loss of a close friend.
“Ben cared about people and had a great sense of humor,” he said. “His smile was only surpassed by his laughter. My day was always better when Ben was in it.”
McGilmer averaged 10.8 points a game as a sophomore in 1965-66, before being drafted into the U.S. Army. He received his draft notice in August of 1966, but wasn’t able to take his physical until October of that year. He reported to the service in December.
The Big Ten granted McGilmer four semesters of eligibility when he returned for the 1968-69 season. He averaged 13.5 points off the bench as a junior despite playing on a sore knee. Selected in the sixth round of the 1969 NBA Draft by Seattle, the 74th player overall, McGilmer elected to return to Iowa for one more season.
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And 1969-70 was a remarkable season. The Hawkeyes caught fire after a slow start and raced through the Big Ten schedule without a defeat. That included an amazing 108-107 victory at Purdue on March 1. The Boilermakers’ Rick Mount scored 61 points in the loss.
“He got 61 points,” McGilmer said afterwards. “But who won?”
That Iowa team was nicknamed the “Six Pack,” because Coach Ralph Miller used a six-man rotation for most of the season. McGilmer was the sixth man on that team, though he started several games in place of Dick Jensen.
“They played about equal time, unless somebody got in foul trouble,” Vidnovic said. “Ben was another scorer and a great free-throw shooter.”
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That amazing Iowa team averaged 102.9 points a game in Big Ten play, still a record, and 98.7 points overall. Iowa reached the century mark 14 times that season.
Five players averaged double figures, led by John Johnson’s 27.9 points a game. Chad Calabria was next at 19.1, followed by Fred Brown (17.9), Vidnovic (17.3) and McGilmer (10.3).
McGilmer also shot 82.9 percent from the free-throw line, second to Vidnovic (87.5).
McGilmer set a school record by making 33 consecutive free throws over an eight-game stretch in 1969, a record that was eventually broken by Chris Street when he made his 34th straight in a Jan. 16, 1993 game at Duke. That record was intact when Street died in an automobile accident outside Iowa City three days later.
McGilmer played professionally for several teams in Europe after his college career ended. He became fluent in French, Turkish and Spanish After retiring as a player, he coached the Turkish Junior National team. He later lived in Spain before returning to the United States in 2007.
McGilmer studied Computer Network Systems at ITT Technical Institute in Atlanta and received his degree in Computer Programming in 2011. He worked as a substitute teacher in the DeKalb County School System in Decatur, Ga., teaching French and Spanish.
There will be an online streaming service for Ben McGilmer on July 12 at noon (Iowa time). The live stream link will be posted at levettfuneralhome.com in the days leading up to the service.