MEN'S BASKETBALL: Bemidji State has authored a rich history in 100 years of play

One hundred years ago today, Bemidji State Teachers College explored a new venture for the very first time: fielding a basketball team.

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The Bemidji State men's basketball program celebrates its 100th anniversary today, Dec. 15, 2021. This undated photo captures an opening tipoff between BSU and Moorhead State. (BSU photo)

One hundred years ago today, Bemidji State Teachers College explored a new venture for the very first time: fielding a basketball team.

“Under the tutelage of Coach F. P. Wirth, the team has been whipped into first-class condition,” the Bemidji Daily Pioneer heralded. In another edition, the newspaper declared that Wirth “has developed a formidable squad and indications are that the school will stand its own against any school in this section of the state.”

Bemidji already had a high school basketball team and two city clubs (the Naval Militia unit and Company K of the Minnesota National Guard), but there was a particular air of excitement at the prospect of a college squad.

The original roster featured 10 trailblazers: captain Wilbur Horns, Richard Romens, “Tommy” Simons, William Elliott, Percy Riggs, Adolph Bergland, Eugene Paul, Theodore Hermes, Stanley Wilcox and a player identified only by his last name, Greenfield.


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The Bemidji State men's basketball program first began on Dec. 15, 1921, then as Bemidji State Teachers College. A century ago, this 1920s squad helped the program to some of its earliest wins. (BSU photo)

The BSTC quint took it to Kelliher High School by a 51-11 score in its inaugural game on Dec. 15, 1921 -- one officiated by the Kelliher coach, no less. The startup season ended with a 6-12 record, but that team undoubtedly couldn’t see what was coming: another 99 seasons, more than 1,000 wins and a record book stocked full of legends.

“Considering that this past season was the first in which the Bemidji State Teachers college had a basket ball team in the field, the squad made a very creditable showing,” the Pioneer analyzed. “… There is every indication that a first-class outfit can be developed.”

A vintage venture

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Teams run on the fast break in front of a packed house during an undated game at Bemidji State. (BSU photo)

Bemidji Normal School was founded in 1919. Two years later, a new sport called “Basket Ball” arrived on campus.

“Basketball has changed drastically,” current BSU head coach Mike Boschee said. “Going from a peach basket to the hoops we use now, it’s unbelievable how much the game has changed over the years.”

And as the sport evolved, the team’s history books grew.


The team moved its home games from the downtown armory to present-day Memorial Hall in 1940, then to the current BSU Gymnasium in 1960.

The schedule has featured some interesting quirks over the years, including an all-time 16-17 record against high school teams and a shortened 1943-44 season due to World War II. The school didn’t field a varsity team in 1922-23, but it was back for a 6-3 campaign in 1923-24.

The Beavers even almost played the Globetrotters in 1935, but Harlem’s bus crashed on the way to town and ultimately canceled the highly anticipated showdown.

The longest game in program history came in 2009, when Minnesota Duluth prevailed 126-124 in four overtimes (which also set a conference record with 250 combined points). Yet some may argue that an 8-5 loss to Bear Cats College in 1926 -- the lowest-scoring game in program history -- was much, much longer.

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The Bemidji State men's basketball team takes a photo aboard the Bemidji Belle, a tour boat that used to cruise Lake Bemidji. (BSU photo)

As a charter member of what has evolved into the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, Bemidji State won six titles in the Northern Intercollegiate Conference (1940, 1941, 1942, 1951, 1952, 1957 and 1967) and another two championships in the NSIC (2004 and 2012). The latest two crowns also came with trips to the Division II NCAA Tournament.

All-American Arnie Johnson dominated between 1938-42, leading Bemidji Teachers to three straight conference titles before becoming the only Beaver to reach the NBA.


Irv St. John was the school’s first 1,000-point scorer in 1953-54, founding a club that now includes 19 members.

More legends came through over the years, like all-time leading scorer David Lee (1984-88) and D-II national player of the year James Ellisor (2010-12). Karl Salscheider guided the program for 13 seasons between 1981 and 1995 and is Bemidji State’s winningest coach with 147 victories.

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Bemidji State head coach Karl Salscheider talks to his players during a timeout. Salscheider left BSU in 1995 as the program's winningest coach with 147 victories. (BSU photo)

The 3-point line and shot clock arrived in the 1980s, and BSU transitioned from NAIA to Division II a decade later.

The Beavers earned their 1,000th win in January 2018, and last winter, Derek Thompson set a single-game scoring record with 45 points in the season finale of the program’s 99th year.

In all, 62 members of the Bemidji State Athletics Hall of Fame hail from the men’s basketball program.

“There have been a lot of people before us -- coaches and players -- who have set that foundation,” Boschee said. “Obviously this current team here wants to build off that and make our alumni proud.”


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Bemidji State's Derek Thompson shoots to score his 45th point of a game on Feb. 20, 2021, at the BSU Gymnasium. Thompson broke BSU’s single-game scoring record on the shot. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Bemidji State men’s basketball history

Inaugural season: 1921-22

Total seasons: 100

Overall record: 1,040-1,187 (.467)

Conference championships: 9


Postseason appearances: 9

Record crowd: 2,279 (Feb. 29, 2012)

Leading scorer: David Lee (2,034 points)

Micah Friez is the former sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he worked at the Pioneer from 2015-23 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing.
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