Thursday, September 11, 2008

30 Years Ago: Penn, Magic, & the Final Four

A quick note: I figured I'd share this story I found while organizing my office. It's something I wrote for Sports Illustrated as part of the hiring dance to be a reporter back in 1992. The writing's raw, but I was 25...and didn't get the job. But I liked working on the story and there are a few good quotes about a vastly different basketball era. I haven't followed up with any of these guys—anyone who wants to send along info, feel free.

Bob Weinhauer can look back at his own naivete and laugh now, but at the time, he was serious about where he thought his 1978-79 Penn basketball team could finish its season. He even put it in writing.

Weinhauer, who had replaced NBA-bound Chuck Daly as the Quakers coach, wrote a letter to each Quaker before the season and outlined five goals he wanted the team to reach. The fifth, and most unlikely, was to reach the Final Four, a dreamer’s hope so remote that no team in school history had achieved it. In fact, Bill Bradley’s Princeton Tigers in 1965 were the only Ivy League team in the national semifinals since 1944.

“I was young, enthusiastic, and it was my second year as a college head coach,” Weinhauer said. “I tried to be the eternal optimist to the players, but in my own head I was the worst pessimist. But I told the team that when you get to the NCAA playoffs, anybody can win the thing.”

The Quakers reached Weinhauer’s goal and advanced further than even most starry-eyed optimists could have envisioned. Penn lost in the Final Four to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team, which went on to defeat Indiana State and Larry Bird in the most eagerly awaited national championship game in years. Penn’s stunning run through the NCAA Tournament was capped by a Final Four appearance most believe won’t be repeated by an Ivy League team.

Amazingly, Penn, with nearly a decade of 20-win seasons, almost snuck into the Final Four a year ahead of schedule at the expense of the Atlantic Coast Conference, then the East’s only powerhouse conference. The Quakers led eventual NCAA runner-up Duke by eight points with eight minutes left in their 1978 second-round match-up. If not for the 84-80 loss to the Blue Devils, Penn would have needed just a victory over Villanova to advance to that season’s Final Four.

“That game [against Duke] kind of opened our eyes and showed us we were that close,” said Tony Price, Penn’s top scorer and rebounder in 1979. “We never really talked about how far we could go. We just felt we didn’t get a whole lot of respect because we were from the Ivy League.”

His team’s success in the ’78 tourney convinced Weinhauer to go to the Final Four weekend that year—his first-ever trip to basketball’s Disney World. So motivated, Weinhauer made up his checklist of goals—a few of which were easily within reach of the talented team. They were:
1. to win the Cabrillo Classic in December;
2. to beat Wake Forest and Virginia—the only two ACC teams on Penn’s schedule;
3. to win the Philadelphia Big 5 title;
4. to repeat as Ivy League champions
5. to make it to the Final Four.

If nothing else, Weinhauer’s wish list challenged a determined group of players. The school’s academic rigors aside, Penn’s seniors had endured four years of putdowns about basketball in the Ivy League. As freshmen ineligible by league rules to play varsity, Tony Price, Tim Smith, Matt White, Bobby Willis, and Ed Kuhl led a freshman team that went 17-1. So by 1979, with several key additions to that nucleus, Penn’s senior-laden team felt ready to break out from the Ivy stigma.

After losing in triple overtime in its Cabrillo Classic opener to Lute Olson’s Iowa team, one that would reach the Final Four in 1980, Penn suffered a humbling 110-86 consolation game loss to San Diego State. The defeats in the tournament turned out to be the only one of Weinhauer’s goals the Quakers didn’t reach.

Things clicked for Penn, which lost just three more games before the Big Dance, as several players slid more comfortably into their roles, particularly point guard James “Booney” Salters, who could shift from up-tempo to slow-down on the fly, and subs Ken Hall, a sophomore banger, and Vincent Ross and Angelo Reynolds, freshmen now eligible to play.

“They had everything—rebounding, scoring, team playmaking, defense, and they were very well-coached,” said Princeton coach Pete Carril, whose Tigers lost to Penn by one point twice in overtime during the season.

By March, the only thing Penn lacked was respect from the voters in the national polls, and the NCAA tournament selection committee. At 21-5 and unranked before the tourney, Penn drew a ninth seed in the 10-team East Regional bracket, meaning the Quakers were one of 16 teams to play a first-round game, while 24 others drew byes in the 40-team tournament.

“When the seedings came out, we laughed about it,” Price said. “I don’t think [the seeding committee] cared for us that much. There was talk about taking away the Ivy League’s invitation, but that kind of quieted down after that year.”

Penn opened against Iona, led by eventual Sixer Jeff Ruland and coached by a guy who’d make his own noise in the tournament four years later—Jim Valvano. Price had 27 points and 12 rebounds, but it was clutch foul shots by the youngsters off the bench that saved Penn down the stretch. In the final four minutes, Hall and freshman Tommy Leifsen, who had hit just seven of 16 foul shots all year, each drilled four straight free throws to preserve the 73-69 victory.

The triumph looked to be short-lived since Penn faced third-ranked ACC champion North Carolina in the second round. Even worse, the game was to be played in Raleigh, N.C., a state in which no ACC school from North Carolina had lost an NCAA tournament game in 18 years.

But Penn had one thing working in its favor. “We were stretching the day before the North Carolina game and I went around to the guys and we talked about how we had a secret,” said then-Penn assistant coach Bob Staak. “And I said, ‘Nobody knows it, but we’re going to beat North Carolina.’ And the players kind of picked up on, ‘We’ve got a secret,’ so that after we beat them, it kind of became our slogan.”

The Quakers’ speed and playmaking broke the Tar Heels’ trapping zone, leaving stars Mike O’Koren, Al Wood, and Dudley Bradley on the short end of a 72-71 loss to the no-namers from the Ivy League. Price’s 25 points led four Quakers in double figures, and suddenly the team that couldn’t buy publicity going into the tournament had stolen it.

Almost, anyway. Vendors at the tournament trying to cash in on Penn hawked buttons touting Penn State. Weinhauer calls the victory the “high point of my whole coaching career.”

In Greensboro, N.C., the next weekend, Penn defeated eighth-ranked Syracuse, 84-76, in a track meet, and St. John’s, 64-62, in a thriller decided by Salters’ two foul shots with 23 seconds left. Still, their secret was safe. The day after Penn had won to advance to the Final Four, the Greensboro Daily News ran a front-page boxscore reading, “Penn State 64, St. John’s 62.”

Perhaps subconsciously, no one could seem to accept the appearance of an Ivy League team in a high-profile Final Four with the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and DePaul’s Mark Aguirre.

Penn’s biggest difficulty going into its semifinal matchup may have been securing game tapes of Michigan State; in those days, videotaping was not common practice. So instead of being familiar with the aerial artistry of Magic and Greg Kelser, some of the Penn players were still skeptical about Johnson right up to game time.

“A 6-9 guard, that was something unheard of,” said Price, the East Regional MVP as a 6-7 forward. “In my mind, I’m saying this guy can’t be 6-9. He’s probably 6-7 or 6-6 and the media is making him out to be bigger. Then, right before the game, we’re shaking hands at halfcourt, and I thought, man, this guy really is 6-9.”

It didn’t get easier for the Quakers, who couldn’t shake a major case of the jitters. At four minutes, the score was tied 4-4; several missed layups and Penn turnovers later, Michigan State held a 32-6 lead with seven minutes left in the half. The final score, 101-67, belied what several observers felt might have been a closer game.

“That was a misreading of the situation,” Carril said. “They missed a bunch of layups in the beginning, and that lowered their confidence.”

Dan Baker, executive secretary of the Big 5 and part of Penn’s radio team that year, agrees. “Despite the lopsided loss, if things had broken right, Penn could have been competitive with Michigan State and Magic,” he said. “And that’s not to diminish the fact that Michigan State was a great team.”

Penn lost to DePaul in the consolation game, 96-93 in overtime, but the two defeats didn’t take away from the team’s accomplishments. “Yeah, we ended up in the Final Four,” said Hall, “but it was the road to the Final Four that was great. It was just the best couple of games a team could ever put together. There were a lot of hard, tough games to be played, and there was not an easy team along the way.”

The experience is a special one for Weinhauer, who remembers it when tournament time rolls around each year.

“You have to have some breaks, and you have to have people who—it’s a cliché but it’s true—rise to the occasion. We did things in the tourney, like the North Carolina win in North Carolina, that just show what makes college basketball such a great game.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for not mentioning beating Wake 88-66 that year.