By: Daniel B. Markind
Frozen in time, immortalized in a picture in the vestibule in the Palestra, Steve Bilsky rose up for a shot with three seconds remaining against Villanova. The date was January 15, 1969. Then as now, Villanova was a national basketball power, ranked ninth in the nation. Penn was anything but, sporting a 5-6 record after having gone 9-17 the year before. But to counteract Villanova’s overwhelming talent advantage, third-year Quakers coach Dick Harter had put the ball in the hands of his sophomore guards, Bilsky and Dave Wohl, and told them to stall and only take the very best shots.
There was no shot clock in 1969, so teams could slow the game down to a crawl if they wished. When Penn gained possession with 3:35 remaining, the score was only 30-30. In 1969, there also was no three point shot, no dunking allowed, one shot on non-shooting fouls before the bonus each half, and no eligibility for freshmen. That meant that for Bilsky and Wohl, along with center Jim Wolf and fellow sophomores John Kollar and Jim Haney, both backups, it was only their 12th college game.
Despite Penn’s inexperience, the Quakers managed to dribble out all of the remaining time. With three seconds left, the ball ended up in the 5-foot-10 Bilsky’s hands 25 feet from the basket on the left side. Nobody realized it at the time, but when Bilsky’s shot swished through the net, giving the Quakers the staggering upset, it launched the greatest era in Penn basketball history. For the next decade, from that day in 1969 through late March in 1979, Penn would make the NCAA Tournament eight times in 11 years, reach three Elite Eights and a Final Four, become the only Big 5 team ever to go undefeated throughout a regular season, get ranked as high as second, and be a perennial national power. Those great student-athletes that Coach K has brought to Duke since the mid-1980’s and with whom he won five NCAA championships might well have come to Penn. We were that good.
As the country watches March Madness after last year’s enforced Covid cancellation, and on the 50th anniversary of the 1970-71 Quakers and their perfect regular season, it’s time to remember the greatest decade in Penn basketball history. Thanks to the uniqueness of the Big 5, it was the greatest era not only in Penn history but also in college basketball for any city. Credit is also due to WPHL Channel 17, which televised nearly all of the Palestra games. It was the beginning of television’s enormous influence on college basketball, showing how the medium could generate interest and revenue for the sport. And thanks to the players, coaches, and administrators of the Big 5, who fostered incredible competition while maintaining a realization that basketball was only a game, it created a collegial atmosphere that has never been duplicated any place at any time for any sport.
Possessing none of the time, desire or discipline to do complete research, what follows is a personal story of Penn basketball’s incredible era and the atmosphere around it. During those 11 years the Quakers would suffer their most crushing defeat, and then their greatest triumph, in the same building in North Carolina. They would produce five NBA players, three of whom won NBA championships (one as a coach), as well as perhaps the greatest player in Italian basketball history, and be led by one of the most famous coaches ever. The run that began with Bilsky’s magical shot in 1969 ended with a convincing NCAA semifinal loss to Michigan State and Ervin “Magic” Johnson in 1979. Thus it truly can be said that the decade that began with magic ended with Magic. It was quite a ride.
1968-69 EXPANDING THE HORIZONS
Dick Harter became Penn’s Men’s Basketball coach in the spring of 1966 following the resignation of Jack McCloskey. Like McCloskey, Harter was a Penn graduate with a deep sense of commitment to the University. That commitment didn’t stop McCloskey, however, from becoming so disgusted with Penn’s administration and that of the Ivy League that he resigned shortly after learning that despite winning the school’s first Ivy League basketball title, the Quakers would not be allowed to participate in the 1966 NCAA Tournament.
Until this year, 1966 was only time the Ivy League was not represented in the tournament, and it was because of a dispute over something called the “1.6 Rule.” That rule specified that each player had to maintain a GPA of at least 1.6 to be eligible. The Ivy League had much tougher standards and would have easily qualified, but refused to accept this as it didn’t want another body setting its academic standards. While a face-saving compromise could have been worked out, the Ivy League held its ground, leaving McCloskey and the Quakers out in the cold. McCloskey was so disgusted that he quit without having another job lined up.
Harter’s first two years as Penn coach weren’t good as the Quakers posted records of 11-14 and 8-17. Entering the 1968-69 season, there was little to suggest a dynasty was in the making. That the dynasty was born was largely because of a young coach from Pittsburgh whom Harter hired as an assistant and gave the job as chief recruiter, Richard “Digger” Phelps.
Defying all odds, Phelps expanded his sights beyond the Philly-NYC corridor that traditionally had been Penn’s main drawing ground. It must have been a difficult sell. How do you convince blue chip recruits to come to a school without much of a basketball tradition in a league with the toughest academic standards that had just boycotted the NCAA Tournament?
Phelps found a way. The key was Wolf, a stud 6-8 center from Parma Heights, Ohio. While Wolf never developed into a college star — he became mostly a defensive stopper — by committing to Penn, he opened the door for other top recruits. Actually though it would be two not highly recruited players who helped Wolf make Penn history. Bilsky was a lightly recruited point guard from Long Island and Wohl was a 6-2 quarterback from East Brunswick, N.J. who had been recruited to play football. When Wohl got to Penn, however, he enjoyed the basketball players more, and told the football coach he was going to play hoops. That was not well received at Franklin Field but would do wonders at the Palestra.
Coming into the Villanova game on Jan. 15, Penn was having another mediocre season in 1968-69. Following Bilsky’s bomb, the Quakers won eight straight games to finish with a 15-10 record. Phelps had worked overtime with the Class of 1972, convincing Dave “Corky” Calhoun, a 6-7 forward from Waukegan, Ill. and 6-8 Bob Morse from Kennett Square, Pa. to sign on, producing an undefeated freshman team. Without much basketball tradition Phelps fell back on the academics, the Big 5 and the Palestra. Thanks to Philly’s unique college setup and the marvelous echo chamber bandbox on 33rd Street, the stage was now set.
THE CATHEDRAL OF BASKETBALL
Opened in 1927 after just one year of construction and named after an ancient Greek meeting place for training and sport, the Palestra remains an unsurpassed place to watch a basketball game. As with many gyms, the 8,725 seats (9,208 during its glory days) are right on top of the action and the sound reverberates throughout the building.
Prior to 1954, Temple, St. Joseph’s, and LaSalle played their games at Convention Hall, which was bulldozed in 2005 and now is part of the Penn Hospital System and the reason Civic Center Boulevard has that name. Penn and Villanova played at the Palestra. The five schools rarely played each other. In 1954 however, Philadelphia sportswriter Herb Good helpedconvince all the schools to move their games to the Palestra, play each other every year in a round robin format, and play doubleheaders. Thanks to the school administrators, the “Big 5” took on a life of its own, with intense competition amidst collegiality and friendliness not found in other places. Often coaches would try to destroy each other’s teams then meet afterwards for dinner and drinks.
All Big 5 games were held at the Palestra, and tickets were split between the teams. This produced a cacophony of sound first coming from one side and then the other. The Palestra seemed to vibrate and sway to and fro as the game went on. Sometimes, the fans on each side simply stood up and yelled at each other.
Big 5 games were audience participatory. Each side’s fans would rollout signs before the game about the other school, often of questionable taste. After the first basket of the game by each team, its fans would litter the court with streamers. The game would stop as the streamers were picked up and the scoring team’s fight song was played. It disrupted the flow of the first two minutes of the game, but nobody minded (except the NCAA).
Streamer throws were an art form. Done well, the streamer unraveled and fell to the court in a slow, graceful motion, like the downward arc of a rainbow. Frequently though, the streamer didn’t unwind at all. It fell to the ground rolled up with a thud. Most games featured a combination of both. In my memory, for sheer streamer volume, nothing beat the 1979 Penn-Georgetown game. Sitting in the front row, we were surrounded all game by an immense amount of ordinance.
I’ll always be partial however, to the 1978 St. Bonaventure NCAA Tournament game held in the Palestra. Usually we at University Television (UTV) broadcast from the crow’s nest booth situated above the Penn student section on the south side. For this game, however, we were put in a special press row located behind the Penn bench on the north side. As such, we had a perfect view of the Penn student section. When Penn scored its first basket, a huge amount of Red and Blue streamers rained down, each one thrown almost perfectly. It was an awesome sight. The streamers all floated down like red and blue Mexican cliff divers simultaneously doing their graceful swan dives off the cliffs of Acapulco.
Even the mascots got into the act during Big 5 games. The St. Josephs Hawk had to flap its wings the entire game. At a timeout during one Temple-St. Josephs game in the 1970’s, the Hawk was flying around the court when he slammed into the Owl. The mascots then had a fistfight at midcourt. Only at the Palestra.
ESPN BEFORE ESPN
What made the Big 5 and Palestra basketball such an institution in Philadelphia were the beginning of UHF television and the creation of WPHL, Channel 17. While it’s impossible for anyone under 60 to imagine, in the 1960’s there were only three channels, ABC, NBC, and CBS. When the federal government finally opened up the visual spectrum to “Ultra High Frequency” television, the sale of TV sets with only the VHF spectrum (Channels 2-13) was banned in order to induce the public to watch the newly available channels.
In Philadelphia one of those new channels, Channel 17, decided to make its mark with sports as it searched for programming. Channel 17’s executives hit on the idea of televising most of the Palestra games. This was heresy at the time. Home baseball games would only be televised on Sundays, all NFL home games were blacked out, and the NCAA only allowed one or two college football games to be televised each week. But college basketball was open and Philly had the best basketball in the country.
From December through February, three times a week much of Philadelphia settled in to watch “Big Al” Meltzer and Charley Swift televise games from the Palestra. Channel 17 had only two cameras, both up high, and no audio except from the booth high up in the Palestra so the pulsating energy didn’t really transmit through, but the action and the drama spoke for itself.
The uniqueness of the setup also allowed for Philly sports fans to know all the players on all the teams. Penn fans would watch LaSalle, Villanova, Temple, and St. Joe’s games a dozen times a year. That sort of familiarity led to a camaraderie not replicated before or since. On Saturday nights when the 76ers were playing away games, WPHL would televise the first game from the Palestra, then switch to the Sixers’ game in progress, and finally show the second Palestra game on tape delay. It was cool to come home and watch the end of the Palestra game you’d just seen in person.
In a very real sense Channel 17 was ESPN before ESPN. The foresight of the Big 5 permitted the games to be televised, regardless of concerns about effect on live attendance and the success of the broadcasts showed it was possible to build a brand for a station around sports programming. When ESPN started in 1978, its growth diminished the uniqueness of the Philadelphia basketball market. Now many local products could see North Carolina or Kentucky on a weekly basis. What television gave the Big 5, television also helped take away. It sure was fun while it lasted though.
CAN ANYBODY BEAT UCLA?
The glory years of the Big 5, and of the Penn program, partly coincided with the most dominant dynasty in college basketball history. From 1963-64 through 1974-75, UCLA won 10 national championships in 12 years. Had freshman been allowed to play in 1965-66 (future three-time All-American center Lew Alcindor had to play freshman ball that season) and had the Bruins made more foul shots in double overtime against North Carolina State in the 1974 NCAA semifinals, UCLA would have won 12 in a row.
Throughout this period, Philadelphia basketball fans wondered how their teams would have fared against the perennial national champions. Only one time during that 12-year period did UCLA play a Big 5 team, and that was Villanova in the 1971 national championship game. UCLA won 68-62, but the Bruins had to hold the ball to force the Wildcats out of coach Jack Kraft’s famous “Ball Zone” defense.
In 1968-69, LaSalle went 23-1 and was ranked second in the nation but couldn’t play in the postseason because of violations relating to Jim Harding, its previous coach. To this day, Big 5 fans of that era wonder whether those Explorers could have beaten the last UCLA team led by Alcindor (who soon changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and became the NBA’s career scoring leader.).
UCLA was coached then by the legendary John Wooden, who never raised his voice. From Gail Goodrich, a star guard on the Bruins’ first champions, to Alcindor/Abdul-Jabbar and on to Bill Walton, the centerpiece from 1972-74, graduates of UCLA’s program revered their coach. One of Wooden’s greatest players, John Vallely, reminisced about how instrumental Wooden’s teachings were in fighting cancer much later in life.
During this period, UCLA ran one of the most corrupt programs imaginable. Some years later evidence was published revealing that UCLA paid players and had a booster named Sam Gilbert who provided abortions for their girlfriends as part of attending to all of their needs. This during the same era that the NCAA put Yale on probation for allowing two Jewish players to play in the Maccabi Games in Israel without official approval, and forced Villanova to “vacate” its second place finish in 1971 because Wildcats star Howard Porter had signed with an agent before his college eligibility had expired. Wooden either knew or willfully avoided knowing what was going on around him. The NCAA didn’t and wouldn’t touch him because he was John Wooden, the face of integrity and college basketball.
To the best of anyone’s knowledge, nothing like the UCLA corruption was happening in Philly. It was great basketball played by great student-athletes led by great coaches. And for a glorious decade, Penn was in its forefront.
1969-70 GREATNESS BEGINS
Morse and Calhoun joined Bilsky, Wohl, and Wolf in the starting lineup for Penn’s opener on December 1, 1969. The Quakers crushed Muhlenberg 115-79. Muhlenberg was not a Division I school and it’s hard even now to get any information on that game, but the new starting five showed right away that it could play. Penn’s biggest December game was the rematch with Villanova, which was smarting for revenge after the 32-30 upset the previous seasons. It didn’t happen. Coming back from a 23-20 halftime deficit, the Quakers won again, 59-55. They kept winning. Except for a loss on Dec. 29 in Madison Square Garden to defending national runner-up Purdue, the Quakers won every game, finishing a remarkable 25-1. Following the Villanova game, Penn was ranked in the Top 20. By season’s end Penn was number seven.
The Quakers’ first round NCAA game was nearby at Jadwin Gymnasium in Princeton against unranked Niagara. Penn raced out to a quick nine-point lead, but after that it was the Calvin Murphy show. Just 5-9, Murphy would play 13 years in the NBA and be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame. He scored 35 points as the Purple Eagles surprised the Quakers, 79-69.
The loss stung throughout the offseason. Harter used it as an incentive when he welcomed back all five of his starters in the fall of 1970. It’s intriguing however to speculate about how a Quakers’ victory might have changed history. Their next opponent would have been Villanova, which would have been out for revenge again. Had Villanova won, it might have taken away some of the frustration the Wildcats used to end Penn’s upcoming 1971 season. Had Penn won again, it might have shaken Villanova even more about being unable to beat the Quakers.
We’ll never know. Villanova beat Niagara, then lost to eventual Eastern Regional Champion St. Bonaventure. Digger Phelps, having the year before brought it two more great recruits, Phil Hankinson from New York City and Craig Littlepage from Cheltenham, Pa., left for the head coaching job at Fordham. One he missed however, was considered by many the best player in the country, 6-11 Tom McMillen from Mansfield, Pa. McMillen went south to Maryland.
At the time losing McMillen meant little. For Penn, all the pieces were in place. Fifty years later, 1970-71 remains the gold standard for any Big 5 team. Yet, it produced the most devastating defeat any Big 5 team ever suffered.
1970-71 PERFECTION – ALMOST
In the literary history of Penn Basketball, the 1970-71 team is a Greek tragedy. It’s the phoenix that rose from the ashes to fly too close to the sun. The greatest team in Penn history, the 1970-71 Quakers remain the only Big 5 team ever to complete a regular season undefeated. Fortunately, a tape has been located that shows how marvelous this team was. The second half of the Penn-Villanova regular season game, won by the Quakers 78-70, can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kPzTmmzBw0&t=1960s.
1970-71 was the best year in Big 5 history. Penn went undefeated. Three Big 5 teams — Penn, Villanova and LaSalle — were ranked in the Top 20 all season. The NCAA Eastern Regional Final was an all-Big 5 affair, Penn vs. Villanova. The winner played UCLA in the national championship game.
1970-71 also saw the apex of the greatest individual rivalry in Big 5 history, Villanova’s Howard Porter and LaSalle’s Ken Durrett, as well as the most emotional game in Big 5 history, Villanova-LaSalle after Durrett went down with an ACL tear that in effect destroyed his career.
To be a Big 5 fan in 1970-71 was to see college basketball at its very best, and Penn was the best of the best. The starting five all returned, and the depth was remarkable. Bilsky and Wohl were backed up by Alan Cotler, who had been the highest-rated player on Long Island (which is even more impressive considering the second-highest rated was future pro superstar Julius Erving). Backing up Calhoun and Morse was Hankinson, who made Honorable Mention All-Ivy League as a reserve. Littlepage spelled Wolf at center. Behind them were a group of players who could have started on most collegiate teams and were known as the “Earthquakers.”
The closest Penn came to losing that year was to its old nemesis Princeton at the Palestra. Brian Taylor, who would go on to star in the ABA, led the Tigers to a seven point lead with just over two minutes to go. The Quakers cut it to one before Princeton’s Ted Manakas was fouled with about 10 seconds left. With no three-point shot, had Manakas made both he would have iced the game. Manakas made the first, but rimmed the second. The Quakers rebounded and called time. As the clock ran down Calhoun rose up from the top of the key and lofted a jumper. It swished through the net as time ran out, almost landing in my lap as I sat in the second row right behind the basket. Penn went on to win in overtime, 66-62.
At 26-0, Penn was ranked fourth going into the NCAA Tournament. There was no seeding in those days and teams stayed in their geographic region. In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine a more difficult road to the Final Four than Penn had. First the Quakers had to play No. 11 Duquesne in Morgantown, West Va., essentially a road game against a Pittsburgh school, then go to Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh to play No. 6 South Carolina in what was again like another road game. Penn won both, creating the rematch with Villanova in Raleigh for the Eastern Regional championship and a spot in the Final Four.
Villanova’s seniors, including Porter and Clarence Smith, had never beaten Penn, and they took it to the undefeated Quakers from the opening tip. By halftime the lifeless Penn team was down 43-20. Things then disintegrated completely. Villanova scored the first 16 points of the second half. The final score remains infamous to Penn fans 50 years later: 90-47. An undefeated Penn team, predicted by Sports Illustrated to play UCLA in the finals, lost to a team it had beaten three straight years by a combined 43 points.
Even today, this remains one of the most inexplicable games in college basketball history. Other teams have beaten opponents before getting totally destroyed in an NCAA rematch. It happened to Houston just three years earlier in 1968 against UCLA. But in that famous first game in the Astrodome Alcindor was suffering from an eye injury. He was at full strength for the rematch. Except for Bilsky’s nagging leg injury, there was no difference in the teams that played at the Palestra in January and in Reynolds Coliseum in March. The Wildcats were so angered that they’d lost to the Quakers three straight times, they were ready while Penn certainly wasn’t. The Penn Athletic Department had already made reservations for the Final Four in Houston. Villanova enjoyed using them.
Harter never got over that defeat. Within a few weeks he left Penn for Oregon, taking Wolf and backup guard Jim Haney with him as assistants. Harter later coached Penn State. Whenever he faced Villanova or anyone connected with that 1971 team, he would try to run up the score. Harter went on to a long and distinguished career as an assistant coach in the NBA. However, when he died in 2012, the obituaries all featured the 1971 disaster. Harter took that game to his grave.
1971-72 NEW COACH, SAME RESULT
Needing a coach, Penn hired a promising young name from Boston College, Chuck Daly. The players took to Daly and he quickly showed the creativity that would land him in the Hall of Fame.
Daly moved Calhoun to the backcourt, giving him a front line of Morse, Littlepage, and Hankinson. Cotler and Calhoun started at guard. The team had great talent and size (no starter under 6-5) but lacked speed. To handle the full court press, Daly would have the players throw the ball high when facing a zone trap. Against man-to-man defenses, Littlepage often brought up the ball, becoming possibly the first “Point Center” in college basketball history.
While this team is not nearly as well remembered as its predecessor, the 1971-72 team actually became the highest-ranked Penn team ever. In UPI’s final regular season poll, UCLA was ranked No. 1 and Penn No. 2. The Quakers stumbled only twice during the regular season, against Temple and against Princeton at Jadwin. The NCAA still only allowed one team per conference in the Tournament, so before the rematch with Princeton at the Palestra, the Penn fans rolled out signs that said “Good luck Princeton…in the NIT.” The team backed up the fans, and rolled over the 17th ranked Tigers, 82-59.
In the NCAA Tournament, Penn brushed aside Providence and faced a rematch with Villanova. Almost nobody remembers this game, but the Penn seniors got some measure of revenge by ending the Wildcats’ season, 78-67. Once again, Penn was just one step from the Final Four. This time, however, Penn was the underdog against North Carolina and standout forward Bob McAdoo. There was no repeat of the debacle of the year before, but Penn had no answers for McAdoo. Then again, neither did many pro teams over his long career. Trailing almost the entire game, Penn tied the score at 40-40 only to see the Tar Heels pull away. The final was 73-59. As was the case in 1971, Penn’s season ended one victory from the Final Four. The rest of the decade would be played with that as a backdrop.
1972-73 SLIGHT SLIPPAGE
By any rational standard, Penn’s 1972-73 season was an overwhelming success. Measured against the accomplishments of the prior three years however, it didn’t seem that way. The 1972-73 Quakers were ranked most of the year, finishing 18th. To the core led by Hankinson and Littlepage, Penn welcomed its greatest center ever, Ron Haigler out of Brooklyn, as well as forward Bob Bigelow from Boston, who would play in the NBA. The team won the Ivy League again, finished 21-7 and made the Sweet 16. Unfortunately for Penn, the year in Eastern Basketball belonged to Providence, with its two stars Marvin “Bad News” Barnes and Ernie DiGregorio (whose no-look behind-the-back half court pass to teammate Kevin Stacom in the NCAA semifinal against Memphis State remains the greatest pass ever thrown in basketball at any level). Providence easily dispatched Penn 87-65 in the Eastern Regional semifinals.
Providence was coached that year by Dave Gavitt. Later that decade, Gavitt helped midwife an idea for an eastern basketball conference of independents in all of the biggest cities. When the Big East was born in 1979, Gavitt became its commissioner, a post he held until 1990. The Big East revolutionized college basketball. The schools that joined, including Syracuse, Georgetown, and St. Johns, found the perfect vehicle to exhibit their programs. The schools that didn’t, Temple and Rutgers, still suffer the consequences to this day. Their replacements, Villanova and Seton Hall, forever thank them.
As a member of the Ivy League, Penn, of course, was never under consideration for the Big East. During the 1980’s as cable television exploded and Big East games were televised nationally every week, the ability of Ivy League schools to compete for talent with the Big East schools diminished. Only for a brief period in the mid-1990’s did Penn field a team that truly could compete on the national level. That shift would take time, however, and the remainder of the 1970’s still was filled with great Penn basketball.
In 1972-73 the NCAA changed its rules and declared freshmen eligible to play in varsity teams. The Ivy League, of course, refused to change. It wasn’t until 1978-79 that freshmen became eligible in the Ivy League.
1973-74 ANOTHER IVY TITLE, BUT LITTLE ELSE
The 1973-74 team started the season nationally ranked, but did little to earn that distinction. By the new year, Penn fell out of the polls. Still, this Quaker team went 13-1 in the Ivies and made the NCAA tournament yet again. For the first time since 1969-70, however, Penn went “one and done.” For the third straight year Penn faced Providence in the tournament, this time in the first round. As with the year before, it was no contest. Providence won easily, 84-69. Penn was good in 1973-74, but unlike the 1971 and 1972 teams, nowhere near as good as the nation’s best.
Four years after forsaking Penn for Maryland, McMillen led the Terrapins to the finals of the ACC Tournament against top-ranked North Carolina State. This was the last year the NCAA Tournament only took conference champions, so one of the top teams in the country would stay home. In perhaps the greatest college basketball game ever played (Duke-Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Eastern Regional Final being the other contender), N.C. State knocked off Maryland 103-100 in overtime. Two weeks later, in another fantastic game, the Wolfpack ended UCLA’s seven-year championship streak by beating the Bruins 80-77 in double overtime in the national semifinals.
1974-75 WAS THIS PENN’S BEST TEAM?
In its preseason college basketball edition in 1974, Sports Illustrated rated the Quakers eighth. Describing what Chuck Daly had to work with, SI noted the players that recently had graduated but said, “don’t shed a tear for Chuck Daly, the Quakers are loaded again.” They were. While this team is little remembered, it may have been the most talented team Penn ever put on the floor.
To the core of Haigler and Bigelow, Daly and assistant Bob Weinhauer had added Henry Johnson, a 6-11 center from Oklahoma, John Engles, a dynamic 6-8 forward from Staten Island, and guard Ed “The Shot” Stefanski, whose shot never really came but whose son does a great job coaching the Cleveland Browns, as well as guards John Beecroft and Mark Lonetto. This team didn’t play as well as the 70-71 team, but it had talent.
The game of the year was against LaSalle, led by center Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, who went on to a fine pro career with the 76ers and then overseas. Of course, Bryant’s son Kobe was much better. Sensing that the City Series had lost something the last few years, the Big 5 that year experimented with a 30-second shot clock. Curiously, the clocks malfunctioned during the Penn-LaSalle game and the Explorers were able to hold the ball the last few minutes of a tie game, then win on a lob to Bryant. The loss stung, but what hurt the Quakers more was a knee injury to Engles that ended his season and limited his career. Even so, Penn posted a 23-4 record and entered the NCAA Tournament ranked 11th.
On Saturday March 15, 1975, the two Big 5 entries, Penn and LaSalle, got to play home games at the Palestra in the NCAA first round. LaSalle drew Syracuse while Penn played the Big 8 runner-up, Kansas State which no one thought would provide the Quakers much of a challenge. Were they ever wrong.
Behind future pro Mike Evans and a shooting guard named Chuckie Williams, the Wildcats blew the Quakers’ doors off early, at one time leading by 17. Down double digits most of the way, Penn closed to within 67-62, but a Bigelow basket was wiped out by a controversial charging foul. Stunningly, Penn fell at home, 69-62. Later that evening, LaSalle lost to Syracuse. It was Black Saturday at the Palestra. And in a way, it was the end of the Big 5’s golden era.
1975-76 END OF THE IVY DYNASTY
In 1975 Haigler was gone, Bigelow was gone, and it appeared the Quakers’ magic was gone. The 1975-76 team started out the season losing to Bucknell. After getting crushed by Princeton, Penn was 2-5. Though the Quakers rallied to end the season 17-9, they never really challenged for the Ivy title, which was won by Princeton.
Perhaps the only true constant in the Penn decade involved Princeton, and its perpetually disheveled coach Pete Carril, who was born crotchety. Penn fans delighted in yelling “Sit down Pete!” every time he got up looking agitated, which was often. The man sure could coach however.
Carril preached a slowdown, motion offense and turned each game into a war of attrition. Nearly every Princeton possession began with a pass to the center in the high post, followed by an intricately choreographed series of back cuts and off-the-ball screens. Princeton could go a full minute of pass and screen after pass and screen without trying a shot. It was an offense filled with motion and misdirection often leading nowhere. In this pre-shot clock era, when the set piece didn’t work the Tigers backed the ball out to midcourt and started all over again. Watching Princeton was part Macbeth, part Ground Hog Day.
Opponents couldn’t run on the Tigers because they took good care of the ball. After each Princeton shot went up, Carril immediately sent four players racing down court to defend, sending only one to the offensive glass. Any team that got outrebounded by the Tigers was in serious trouble.
Princeton’s system gave everybody fits. As a 16th seed, Princeton almost knocked off top-seeded Georgetown in the first round of the 1989 NCAA Tournament, a game that many credit for putting the Madness in March Madness. In 1976, Princeton faced undefeated Rutgers in the first round. Down by one as the clock was running out, Princeton captain Pete Molloy was fouled and had a one-and-one to win it. Molloy missed. Rutgers went all the way to the Final Four. Actually, despite all his regular season success Carril never won a NCAA Tournament game until his last year, 1996, when the Tigers beat defending national champion UCLA.
After leaving Princeton, Carril became an assistant with the Sacramento Kings of the NBA. He tweaked his system to fit the pro game, ran it up-tempo with talent like Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, and Peja Stojakovic and helped produce one of the most dynamic offenses of the last quarter century. In college though, Princeton games almost always were low scoring. You never really beat Princeton. You survived them.
Lost in the disappointment of the Penn season was the play of three sophomores who would combine to do so much for the program. Forward Keven McDonald was one of the best scorers Penn has ever had. Guard Tom Crowley was a terrific shooter and fellow guard Stan Greene was a terrific defensive player. In one unusual way Greene would be the most memorable of the three. The man had his own band cheer. It went:
Drumroll, Drumroll, Drumroll, Drumroll, Drumroll GO STAN GREENE!
Drumroll, Drumroll, Drumroll, Drumroll, Drumroll GO STAN GREENE!
Even after Greene graduated in 1978 the cheer continued. It would last for more than a decade. As the years went by, it became hysterical listening to people who’d never seen Stan play explain who he was to others who’d also never seen him play.
Another factor that caused this Penn team to struggle was the loss of Johnson to an appendectomy. He missed the entire season. When he returned the next year, his great skills had deteriorated. It’s a shame Penn never got to see how good “Hojo” might have become.
1976-77 THE MOST DISAPPOINTING SEASON
Hopes were high in West Philly heading into the 1976-77 season. Johnson was back, joining the core of McDonald, Crowley, Lonetto, and Greene. More importantly, a remarkable sophomore class now was eligible to join them. This group feature two New York City standouts, forward Tony Price and guard Bobby Willis, as well as Philadelphian Tim Smith, a small forward and 6-8 center Matt White, a prep school product. At least one publication had Penn nationally ranked before the season began. When the Quakers crushed Citadel 108-69 in the opener, it looked like that ranking must be justified.
Unfortunately the Citadel game proved the highlight of the season. Three days later against mediocre Navy, Penn lost 71-67. By early January the Quakers had crashed to 2-5. Thanks to the weakness of the Ivy League, Penn fought its way back and by February was 15-7 and tied with Princeton, but then a devastating 82-68 loss to lowly Cornell in Ithaca ended Penn’s Ivy hopes. A team that should have easily won the Ivy League, ended the season 18-8 and in second place.
In many ways the most exciting part of 1976-77 was waiting to see if Penn would be able to recruit Gene Banks of West Philadelphia High School, considered by many to be the nation’s top player. The West Philly “Speedboys” also were ranked number one and the best game of the year at the Palestra was the Public League Championship Game between West Philly and third-ranked Overbrook, featuring Lewis Lloyd, who would go on to star with the Houston Rockets. The beyond capacity crowd broke every city fire code and Banks didn’t even play. West Philly Coach Joe Goldenberg sat him because of a violation of team rules. The Speedboys still won. And then Banks broke Penn’s heart when he chose Duke, becoming the first real blue-chip player in 15 years to join the Blue Devils. The next year Banks was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption, “Duke Breaks Loose.” Banks never developed into a great pro, but when he went to Durham it started the rejuvenation of Duke basketball, which continues to this day.
1977-78 THE RESURRECTION
When the NBA and ABA merged in 1976, the 76ers startled the basketball world by trading for Julius Erving. Adding “Dr. J” was supposed to guarantee Philadelphia a championship, but the Sixers lost in the 1977 finals to Bill Walton’s Trail Blazers (also featuring Corky Calhoun) and again the next year in the conference finals to the weaker Washington Bullets. When Philadelphia got off to a slow start in 1977, management fired coach Gene Shue and replaced him with assistant Billy Cunningham.
Needing an assistant fast, Cunningham turned to Daly, who was coming off two disappointing years at Penn. When Daly jumped to the NBA, Penn had no choice but to elevate his top assistant, Bob Weinhauer, to head coach. Nobody knew it at the time, but the pieces were now in place for a Final Four run.
Again, Penn got off to a slow start at 2-3, but then picked things up and won 14 out of 15, including a 49-44 victory over Princeton at the Palestra that in effect settled the Ivy League race. By season’s end, Penn was 19-7 and ready for a first round NCAA game against St. Bonaventure. In almost a repeat of 1975, Penn would play in the Palestra in a doubleheader involving LaSalle, which played Big 5 rival Villanova in the first game on a Saturday afternoon. The LaSalle-Villanova game was racehorse, with Villanova prevailing 103-97. At about 3:15 on March 12, 1978, the Quakers took the floor as underdogs against the favored Bonnies.
St. Bonaventure led at halftime 42-37, but in the second half, McDonald took over. In his first NCAA Tournament game, the senior was unstoppable, scoring 37 points. As the Quakers took command in the second half, the Palestra took on an eerie glow. Few Palestra games are held at dusk, but as the sun fell and the sky turned color, Penn took control. The sight of the Penn section roaring in the twilight as we could see it from our broadcast location across the arena is one of my great memories of the decade.
For McDonald, Crowley and Greene it was a remarkably satisfying way to end their Palestra career. Each played marvelously. The 92-83 victory sent Penn to Providence to play in the Eastern Regional semifinal against, who else, Banks and seventh-ranked Duke. Few gave Penn a chance in that game, which was not televised anywhere besides Philadelphia and Durham. By now, however, this was an outstanding Penn team. Sophomore guard James “Booney” Salters joined Willis, Crowley, and Greene to make a terrific four-man guard rotation. McDonald, Price and Smith all were excellent up front. White was no star in the middle, but he kept improving.
The Duke game belonged to Willis, among the most talented players Penn ever produced. By the mid-second half, Penn led 54-46. Duke was completely befuddled. Awaiting the winner was Villanova. The Wildcats had beaten Penn earlier in the season, but this now was a different Penn team. Penn fans could smell the rematch in the Eastern Regional Final. Enter Duke Center Mike Gminski. All shoulders and arms, Gminski also had great anticipation, and he began blocking shot after shot. Just in the nick of time, the Blue Devils rallied, took control, and grabbed a 10-point lead. Penn made one last run, but fell just short, 84-80.
Afterward in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Crowley talked about how excellent Weinhauer’s game plan had been, how the players knew they could compete with Duke and how ready they were to pull the upset. That they just missed didn’t diminish the extent of their achievement. Duke went on to the NCAA championship game, losing to Kentucky 92-88.
It’s fashionable to look at Penn’s 1979 Final Four run as an aberration, but it absolutely wasn’t. By the end of 1978 this Penn team could play with, and beat, anyone in the country. It had more firepower and depth than the 1979 team, which would be sorely missed the next year against Michigan State. McDonald, Crowley, and Greene never got past the Sweet 16, but they always know they played on what became a truly excellent team.
1978-79 WE’RE GOING TO UTAH
Penn clearly was the class of the Ivy League in 1978-79. Princeton was down and the only real challenger was Columbia, which also had a great senior class but which was a cut below the Quakers. For Penn, the only important newcomer was sophomore Guard Kenny Hall. Freshman were finally allowed to play in the Ivy League in 1978-79, and Vincent Ross and Tom Leifsen added some depth, but mostly Penn relied on its starters and Hall. The star definitely was Price, who elevated his game to become the leader of the Quakers in scoring and rebounding.
Penn cruised through the Ivy League undefeated until a meaningless loss at the end of the season to Columbia. In its two games against nationally-ranked competition, Penn beat Temple and lost by two to Georgetown. Clearly the Quakers could compete at the highest level. About the only people not convinced were the members of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. For the first time, the 40 teams in the NCAA tournament in 1979 would be seeded, with the first six in each region given a bye. Despite a 21-5 record, Penn was seeded ninth out of 10 team in the East Regional.
Willis put on a clinic in the first half of the first-round game against seventh-seeded Iona, but Penn barely managed to hold on for a 73-69 victory. Next up, was a second round matchup against top seeded North Carolina.
From start to finish, the performance against North Carolina, just seven miles from UNC’s campus, was masterful. I’ve described this game before in FINAL FOUR PLUS FORTY: Remembering the year an Ivy League school crashed NCAA basketball’s Big Dance. The 72-71 upset was Penn’s greatest win. It took place in Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, the same court on which Penn lost in 1971. After all these years, what sticks with me most is the sight of UNC coach Dean Smith talking to reporters outside the locker room, cigarette butt in his fingers, trying to explain what had just happened. His third-ranked team had played well, and he knew it. Penn was just better.
FINAL FOUR PLUS FORTY: Remembering the year an Ivy League school crashed…
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Penn’s Sweet 16 game was against eighth ranked Syracuse. The Quakers ran the Orange out during the first half which may be the best half any Penn team ever played. After the 84-76 upset, all that stood between Penn and its first Final Four, incredibly, was 10th-seeded St. Johns, which had gone on a similar run of its own, surprising Temple, Duke, and Rutgers.
Perhaps the St. John’s game, which Penn won 64-62, gives insight into 90-47. After two emotional and exhausting wins, Penn was spent. The magic of the North Carolina and Syracuse performances was missing entirely against St. John’s. Fortunately, St. Johns was just as tired. Imagine if instead of playing an exhausted St. John’s team Penn had faced that 1971 Villanova team, which was rested and knew this was its seniors’ last shot at beating the Quakers after three straight agonizing losses. Looked at in those terms, it’s not hard to see how the 1971 team could have come out flat against Villanova and gotten blown out. But 90-47? Really?
The was no devastation in Greensboro, N.C. after the St. John’s game, just exhaustion and elation. Penn had done it! The Quakers had made the Final Four! Maybe the teams from 1969 through 1972 were better, maybe the 1974-75 team had more talent, maybe the 1977-78 team had more depth, but the 1978-79 Quakers was the team that did it. That accomplishment can never be taken away.
The week of the Final Four was a special week to be on Penn’s campus. The excitement was something none of us who witnessed it ever forgot. I was one of the students who flew to Salt Lake City to watch Penn play Michigan State in the semifinals, hoping to pull one more upset and get a crack at Larry Bird and Indiana State in the championship game.
Some dude named Magic had other plans. Against Villanova in 1971, Penn was down 43-20 at halftime. Against Michigan State in 1979 the halftime score was 50-17. But the games had completely different feels. Villanova was a complete meltdown, Michigan State was a beat down. The Spartans clobbered everybody in the tournament that year. Losing to them by a large margin was no disgrace.
Two nights later, against DePaul in the consolation game, Penn came back from 23 points down to force overtime before losing 96-93. With it, the curtain came down on the Quaker Decade.
When Steve Bilsky hit his game-winning shot against Villanova, American troops were still in the midst of heavy fighting in Vietnam and Richard Nixon was in his first year as President. The day that Penn lost to DePaul, Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt signed the first Arab-Israeli Peace Treaty. A lot changed in 10 years, but Quaker basketball excellence was a given from beginning to end.
Jack McCloskey, whose frustration in 1966 set everything in motion, got the head coaching job at Wake Forest, then went to the NBA. By 1983 he was general manager of the Detroit Pistons and needed a new coach. Because of their Penn connection, McCloskey chose Daly, who’d bombed in his first head coaching attempt in the NBA. McCloskey built the “Bad Boys” and Daly coached them to the NBA championship in 1989 and 1990. Daly then coached the 1992 Dream Team, starring Magic and Bird, en route to the Hall of Fame.
Harter also found his way to the NBA. For many years he was one of the league’s most valued assistant coaches.
Like McCloskey, Weinhauer became an NBA general manager. And Like McCloskey, Weinhauer won two NBA championships, as the GM of the 1994 and 1995 Houston Rockets.
“Wohl, Calhoun, Hankinson, Bigelow, and Price each played in the NBA. Calhoun and Hankinson won NBA championships as players, Wohl as a coach. Morse went to Italy and is still considered perhaps the greatest player in that country’s history.
By 1979, the Big East and cable television had come into existence. Just six years later, three Big East teams made the NCAA Final Four. The center of gravity among eastern basketball completely shifted.
Until 2021, the only time the Ivy League did not participate in the NCAA Tournament was in 1966. In 2020-21, the Ivy League became the only conference not to play basketball (or indeed any sport) at all due to COVID. This decision has not gone over well with many influential Ivy League alums. It’s hard to imagine how it will not make recruiting immeasurably harder for the Ivy League in the near future.
The 1970’s won’t come again for Penn basketball, but the memories remain. To all Penn students who came afterwards, I can only say, “you had to be there.”
*Special thanks to David Elfin, Class of 1981 and former President of the Pro Football Writers of America, who edited this piece and shared so many of the memories the last two years. The UTV recording of the two of us singing the “Red and Blue” after losing to Duke 52-42 in the 1980 Round of 32 remains one of the lowest moments in the audio history of television.