Dickson City man’s collection reflects 43 years of fun at NCAA tournament

April 4, 2015

When this year's NCAA Division I men's basketball championship game tips off Monday night, millions of people around the world will tune in to the action at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium.

Dennis Mishko will watch the game from his usual spot — somewhere between the foul line and midcourt. Lower level, of course.

Mr. Mishko, a well-known former basketball and soccer coach, is attending his 42nd consecutive NCAA Tournament Final Four. Along with countless great memories, the Dickson City resident has accumulated hundreds of pieces of Final Four memorabilia.

His collection includes boxes upon boxes of T-shirts, mugs, ties, baseball caps, pins, beer steins, seat cushions and credentials. They serve as sentimental reminders of wonderful experiences, many of which were in the company of his children, Samantha, Jillian and Dennis.

Recently, he and Jillian rummaged through the collection and pulled out some items. Some bags "hadn't been opened in 35 years," Mr. Mishko said.

"There's a shirt from every Final Four. A mug, a hat," said Mr. Mishko, 66, a longtime professor in Keystone College's math and science department. "I have so many things."

Hoop Historians

Mr. Mishko has attended the Final Four since his early 20s, not long after he started coaching the men's basketball team at Keystone Junior College in 1972. He went as a member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, which every year holds a multi-day convention at the Final Four.

"A lot of people think it's just the games," Mr. Mishko said. "For us, the coaches, it's about the clinics and conferences and all the networking you get to do. ... You get to deal with all the big names in basketball. And they're just regular guys like us."

Mr. Mishko hasn't missed a Final Four since that first year. He's given speeches at the convention about a half dozen times and is part of a group of "basketball junkies" who attend every Final Four and go to all the events. They call themselves the "Hoop Historians."

Among the most famous Hoop Historians is the popular and bombastic basketball commentator Dick Vitale, who hosts a party for the group every year.

Besides Mr. Vitale, Mr. Mishko has met a number of college basketball's finest coaches through the years, including Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Jim Boheim, Bo Ryan and the late Dean Smith.

Mr. Mishko also got to know the late John Wooden, who won a record 10 national titles at UCLA. Perhaps his most treasured possession in his Final Four collection is a photograph of him; Mr. Wooden; Mr. Wooden's wife, Nell; and Mr. Mishko's then-assistant coach at Keystone, Al Sack, that was taken at the 1982 Final Four in New Orleans.

"It's humbling to be in their presence and just be able to talk sports. .... You just make so many good friendships," said Mr. Mishko, who coached Keystone to two National Junior College Athletic Association Final Fours in 1986 and 1989. Both times, the team finished as the runner-up.

Mr. Mishko's collection also includes miniature wooden blocks that are replicas of that year's court, and the programs and tickets from every game. "Now everything is done online, so you don't get a paper ticket anymore," he said.

Mr. Mishko has seen the Final Four evolve significantly through the course of his many trips. Back in the '70s, "we had to pull people in to watch the games," he said. Today, its popularity and profitability ranks up there with the Super Bowl.

"It's amazing how big it's gotten," he said.

His favorite Final Four locales include San Diego, New Orleans, Seattle and the Meadowlands. He's witnessed more memorable moments than he could possibly count, from Larry Bird and Magic Johnson going head to head for the first time in the 1979 title game to Michael Jordan's jump shot to beat Georgetown in 1982. In 1976, he managed to move from his original seat to a prime spot behind the Indiana bench, which allowed him to hear Bob Knight have an interesting chat with the referees just before tip-off.

"He said, ‘You (expletive) guys blow this game tonight, you'll never work again,'" Mr. Mishko said with a laugh. "He had them scared (stiff)."

Of course, for all the famous people Mr. Mishko has met, all the great games he has seen and all the memorabilia he has collected, the best part about going to all these Final Fours is how he could experience them with his children.

"I've taken all three of my kids to the Final Four, which is great," he said. "All three of them are basketball junkies. They eat, sleep and drink hoops."

Just like their old man, who has the mementos to prove it.

Contact the writer:

jmcauliffe@timesshamrock.com, @jmcauliffeTT on Twitter