Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pete Newell, R.I.P.

Pete Newell, one of the nation’s greatest basketball coaches, passed away on Monday in Rancho Santa Fe at 93.

Pete Newell, one of the most respected coaches in basketball, but among the least known to the public – not an icon like John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewsli, Adolph Rupp, or Dean Smith.

Pete Newell only coached for 14 years, but what a record. In 1949 he took the unknown University of San Francisco to the NIT Title in Madison Square Garden, and Cal Berkeley to the NCAA Title in 1959, third place in 1960 to Ohio State, and then the U.S. to the Olympics Title in 1960. One of the scrubs on the Ohio State team was Bobby Knight, for whom Newell served as a mentor. The Olympics team consisted of Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, and Jerry West.

The NIT was more prestigious than the NCAA at the time.

Only three coaches have won the basketball trifecta of the NIT, NCAA, and the Olympics: Pete Newell, Dean Smith, and Bob Knight.

Newell left USF to build the nascent program at Michigan State for the munificent salary of $12,500, and then went to Cal.

Newell retired after the Olympics at the age of 44. The combination of pre-game stress, chain smoking, copious consumption of caffeine, and pre-game fasting, and the adulation of winning was too much for him. He never stopped coaching for the remaining 49 years of his life.

He served from 1960-1968 as Athletic Director of Cal, and then from 1972-1976 as General Manager of the Lakers. His legacy with the Lakers was the acquisition of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the start of the modern Lakers Dynasty.

The word “coach” is really a misnomer. Like John Wooden, his early contemporary at UCLA, Newell was a teacher of basketball – a teacher of basketball fundamentals.

The Cal championship is an example of his teaching. He took a team of skinny, undersized kids, and got them to play team ball and defense. Cal defeated Cincinnati and its star Oscar Robertson, and West Virginia led by Jerry West to win the title. Robertson was hogtied by Cal, shooting 5 of 16. Oscar had averaged 33ppg that season, leading the nation in scoring. Team defense, fundamentals, conditioning and discipline were his forte – still the key to success today.

He innovated the use of the “over-the-top” pass, resurrected the crosscourt pass, utilized the predecessor of the four-corners offense, and routinely played the all game, full court press before its great success at UCLA.

Newell’s greatest contribution to basketball over the past 3 ½ decades was the creation of the Pete Newell Big Man School – a summer camp for tall basketball players. The alums include Shaquille O’Neal, Bill Walton, Bernard King, Kermit Washington, Hakeem Olajuwon, James Worthy, Scottie Pippen, Sam Perkins, Jermaine O’Neal, and Andrew Bynum. He taught these skilled players the fundamentals of footwork, spacing, and offensive moves.

Newell’s legacy to USF did not end in 1949. While in LA, he recruited a student at Compton Junior College to transfer to USF and become the student Sports Information Director and Assistant Athletic Director from 1948-1950. The student’s PR abilities led to USF receiving the NIT bid. The student’s name: Pete Rozelle.

The glory of the Dons continued. Newell named his assistant, Phil Woolpert, as his successor. Both were graduates of Loyola Marymount in LA.

Woolpert was a true student of Newell. He recruited a tall bench warmer from McClymonds High in Oakland, joined him with a wiry guard, and all of a sudden Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and the Dons won two national titles in 1955 and 1956, and 60 straight games. After losing Russell and Jones to graduation, USF still came in third in the 1957 NCAA. That is coaching! The little Jesuit University on the Hilltop became the biggest mountain in college basketball.

Totally unbiased, Woolpert was the first major coach to start three African American basketball players, Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, and Hal Perry, and then later added a fourth, Gene Brown.

Woolpert later dropped out of basketball coaching, moved to Sequim, Washington, and drove a school bus.

Newell never left coaching.

Ironically, Newell’s death in Rancho Santa Fe followed that of Pete Rozelle’s widow last year in Rancho Santa Fe.

No comments: