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1953-56 NCAA Championship Seasons: The Bill Russell Years

by Bernie Schneider, USF '59

1953-1954: The Prelude

The city of San Francisco has seen three spectacular sports debuts by eventual Hall of Fame athletes in three different sports. Most recently, in 1980, on a fall day at Candlestick Park, Joe Montana brought the 49ers back from a 35-7 deficit against the New Orleans Saints. In 1959, on a July afternoon at Seals Stadium, Willie McCovey of the Giants went 4 for 4 against Robin Roberts of the Philadelphia Phillies. Not to be forgotten, over fifty years ago at Kezar Pavilion, on an early December night in 1953, Bill Russell ushered in a remarkable era in basketball history by scoring 23 points and blocking 13 shots to lead the unranked USF Dons to victory over the tenth-ranked California Bears.

For that game Cal had a formidable returning lineup. It included 6'7" all-conference, all-coast, and second team All-American center Bob McKeen, along with a sensational playmaker, Bob Matheny, a graduate of San Francisco's Lowell High School who had been chosen Northern California's "Player of the Year" in 1952. That season the Bears had finished second in the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC), the forerunner of the Pac 10, and this season they were basking in their high pre-season national ranking. USF, on the other hand, after having won the 1949 National Invitational Tournament (NIT) at Madison Square Garden under now-legendary coach Pete Newell, had struggled under new coach Phil Woolpert for three seasons. But rumors were circulating about The City that USF, besides returning rugged, high-scoring forwards Frank Evangelho and Jerry Mullen, had been developing on its freshman team a virtually unknown, once-clumsy, still skinny, 6'10" Oakland kid named Russell into an intimidating center under the tutelage of freshman coach Ross Giudice. In addition, USF could match Matheny with its own veteran playmaker, K.C. Jones, a graduate of the now-closed Commerce High School of San Francisco. Consequently, a fling-the-side-doors-open, standing-room-only crowd showed up at Kezar for the season opener for both teams.

As that game began, K.C. Jones hounded Matheny relentlessly, and when Matheny passed to McKeen or drove to the basket, the lithe and athletic Bill Russell was every bit the intimidating center Phil Woolpert knew he could be. USF doubled Cal's score at 22-11 midway through the second quarter, only to see Cal recover and stay close at the half, 23-19. In the second half, when USF again doubled Cal's score, the advantage stuck, and USF stunned the basketball world with a one-sided 51-33 victory.

After this game the Dons elevated their expectations, now believing that they could unseat the Santa Clara Broncos as champions of the California Basketball Association (CBA), the forerunner of the West Coast Conference (WCC). Santa Clara returned a number of players from a team that had defeated both UCLA and Wyoming in the 1952 NCAA Western Regional before losing in the Final Four to eventual champion Kansas, and in 1953 the Broncos again defeated Wyoming in the Western Regional prior to losing to the Washington Huskies in the championship game. It certainly wouldn't be an easy task for the Dons to win the CBA, but hopes were soaring on the Hilltop.

Then disaster struck the Dons. In the locker room before the second game of the season at Fresno State, K.C. Jones's appendix burst. The resulting complications forced K.C. to forego basketball for the rest of the season.

USF still won that game at Fresno State and quite a few other games that year, finishing with 14 wins and only 7 losses, and Bill Russell continued to improve. In one stretch, Russell had games of 25, 32, and 31 points, and USF did challenge the Ken Sears-led Broncos for the CBA title, eventually defeating them 60-47 the third time they played. But the Broncos, with a 9-3 record to USF's 8-4, retained their title and advanced to the Western Regional, losing in the championship game to USC.

USF and Bill Russell had shown some potential, but no one could have predicted what would transpire during the following three seasons. The Dons would win two consecutive NCAA championships with Bill Russell at center, and then play admirably, after Russell's departure, in a third straight Final Four.

1954-1955:NCAA CHAMPIONS

K.C. Jones returned for the '54-'55 season, and the Dons roared past Chico State in their opener, 84-55, with Bill Russell setting a school individual-scoring mark with 39 points. The following week, however, on a road trip to Los Angeles, the Dons were surprisingly lackluster as they defeated Loyola, 54-45, and then they scored only 40 points in a 47-40 loss to John Wooden's UCLA Bruins led by Willie Naulls. Puzzled by his team's disappointing play, Coach Phil Woolpert made a decision after the UCLA game that would be momentous.

Some intercollegiate basketball teams had been integrated since the late '30s. Jackie Robinson, for example, had played for UCLA in the early '40s, six years before he broke the baseball color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Integration came much more haltingly elsewhere. Some teams, mostly in the South, weren't integrated at all until the late '60s or early '70s. So, in 1954, when Phil Woolpert decided to insert Hal Perry into the starting lineup along with Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, he broke a significant color barrier. For the first time ever, three of the five starters on a major college basketball team that would go on to win a national title were African-American.

In 1954, the year of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision, the pressure was on coach and players alike, but what happened in the next two years was unparalleled in the history of intercollegiate basketball: USF won 55 straight games, and not just one, but two consecutive NCAA titles. In fact, these USF teams were the first integrated teams on any four-year collegiate level or professional level to win a national championship with a majority of black starters.

Who was the coach of this history-making team?

Phil Woolpert had played basketball at Loyola of Los Angeles in the late 1930s under another legendary coach, Jimmy Needles, the coach of the first U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1936. One of Woolpert's teammates was Pete Newell. When Newell left USF in 1950 for Michigan State, Woolpert (at the time coaching at St. Ignatius High School) was named Newell's successor. What he brought with him was a liberal mentality hewn in an integrated neighborhood of Los Angeles (where he was raised during the Great Depression) and sharpened as a social worker at the notorious Stockade at the Schofield Barracks in Honolulu, made famous in James Jones's 1951 novel From Here To Eternity and its 1953 film version. He was determined to do something to help others improve their way in the world. Little did he know how historic his efforts would become.

Interestingly, the week after losing to UCLA in Los Angeles, USF hosted UCLA--then ranked sixth in the country--at the Cow Palace, and, with Hal Perry teaming with Jones in the backcourt, with Russell in the middle, and with veterans Jerry Mullen and Stan Buchanan at the forward positions, the Dons thumped the Bruins 56-44. Darrell Wilson of the SF Chronicle asserted, "It might easily have been a rout. . . . Don center Bill Russell (28 points and 21 rebounds) and his four mates completely dominated play."

The following week the Dons hit the road for the All-College Tournament in Oklahoma City. Arriving at the tournament site, USF learned that the black players were going to be denied access to hotel rooms, so the entire team elected to camp out in a college dorm closed for the holidays. The result is what we might refer to today as a "bonding" experience. From that time on, this was a team that knew it could handle adversity and rise to the demands of any situation.

The Dons captured the All-College Tournament, thrashing three formidable opponents, previously unbeaten Wichita 94-75 (behind Jerry Mullen's 29 points), host Oklahoma City University 75-51, and George Washington 73-57. USF would use the experience gained and the life lessons learned in Oklahoma City to dominate in the California Basketball Association, in the region, and in the country.

USF breezed through the first round of the triple round-robin CBA and then had two featured non-conference games at the Cow Palace against Stanford and Cal. During these two games a characteristic of the USF teams of this era began to be recognized and anticipated. At some point in the game USF would blitz the other team, scoring on runs of 10 to 20 points while holding the opponent to a few points or even scoreless. The Stanford game, played before a Bay Area record attendance of 13,824, had been billed in the Chronicle as "the game of the year." The now-number-two-ranked Dons had the best defense in the country, and the Stanford "Indians" (as they were then called), with a 12-3 mark, had the best offense in the Pacific Coast Conference. But USF raced out to a 31-12 lead before the half, eventually winning 76-60. The next night against Cal, now coached by Woolpert's predecessor Pete Newell, USF ran off the first twenty points of the game. Although their fans were chanting "We want a shutout," they settled for an 84-62 victory.

Back in the CBA the blitzes continued. No team came closer than ten points as the Dons completed a perfect 12-0 season. In the process, Bill Russell became a first-team All-American, and Phil Woolpert was named "Coach of the Year" by the United Press, outdistancing Kentucky's Adolph Rupp in the voting 140 to 28.

Honors aside, it was time for the NCAA Tournament. USF was scheduled to play West Texas State in a preliminary round at the Cow Palace with the winner advancing to the Western Regional in Corvallis, Oregon against the champions of the seeded conferences, represented by Oregon State and Utah. Interestingly, Utah Coach Jack Gardner complained that the NCAA had given USF an unfair edge over West Texas State by selecting the Cow Palace as this sectional site.

In the case of USF, the question of "home court advantage" was ironic, for USF had no gymnasium on campus and no home court at all in the ordinary sense of the phrase. The Dons played most home games at Kezar Pavilion a few blocks away from the school and some games each season across town at the Cow Palace, but they usually practiced at neighboring St. Ignatius High School or at Kezar when it was free between San Francisco high school games. Occasionally, when neither of these sites was available, the Dons would find themselves cramped into the San Francisco Boys Club's Page Street Gym. To many Bay Area observers, the squabble over the regional site seemed a diversionary tactic on the part of Utah's clever coach, who had looked down the playoff road and had foreseen a Utah-USF meeting in the Western Regional with the winner most likely advancing to the Final Four.

It is doubtful the sectional site influenced the result, for USF destroyed a roughhouse West Texas State team. Early in that game, however, USF followers had some anxious moments. Twice, Russell crashed to the floor after being submarined by a West Texas player. With an angry Bill Russell scoring 29 points, the aroused Dons won easily, 89-66, to earn the right to play Utah in Corvallis. Seattle, by defeating Idaho State 80-63, advanced to play the host, Oregon State.

The drama surrounding this Western Regional cannot be overstated. First of all, the field was exceptional. USF was ranked number one nationally, the first time such an honor had been accorded a team from the Pacific Coast. Utah was number four, and Oregon State had moved up to the number eight spot, having soundly defeated UCLA in the first two games of the PCC North-South best of three playoff series, 82-75 and 83-64. Only Seattle was unranked. Bob Brachman wrote in the Examiner: "There isn't a setup close to it in any of the other three regionals."

The air of suspicion surrounding Jack Gardner's complaint about USF's supposed home-court advantage, the fact that Oregon State was playing the tournament on its home court, and Gardner's reputation as a master at scouting and preparing a team for a big game heightened the drama and excitement as the college town of Corvallis anticipated the first round matchups of Utah-USF and Seattle-Oregon State.

Despite Gardner's efforts, USF dominated Utah 41-20 during the first half of the nightcap on March 11, 1955. But then Russell, who had been fighting a heavy cold all week and who had been given penicillin the day before the game, at halftime began feeling worse. The Oregon State doctor on duty for the game examined Russell and ruled him unfit to play during the second half.

With Russell sitting out, Utah closed to within eight points. Meanwhile, the USF coaching staff was seeking a second opinion. Attending the game was Dr. Ed Duggan, a USF alum, who said Russell could play, providing he subjected himself to a thorough examination the following day. With Russell back in action, USF opened up a fifteen-point lead and eventually won 78-59. But would Russell be physically able to play the next night against Oregon State's 7'3" mammoth center, Swede Halbrook, whose team had eliminated Seattle in the opening game of the tournament, 83-71?

After his examination on game day, Russell was cleared to play. But many experts, among them John Wooden, believed Russell would meet his match. "Russell's the greatest defensive man I've ever seen," Wooden said, "but I don't see how he can cope with Swede Halbrook. . . . I don't believe that Russell will be able to block Halbrook's shots or control him like he does smaller men." These remarks were made even before Russell's illness, although they didn't appear in print until the following Monday. (SF Chron 3/14/55 in Art Rosenbaum's "Overheard")

USF followers were anxious about other circumstances as well. Oregon State was playing on its own court and had a score to settle. In an earlier game, back in December, USF had started its win streak with an easy 60-34 victory over the Beavers when Swede Halbrook had been scholastically ineligible. The high-ranked, determined Pacific Coast Conference champion that USF was facing in March was a very different team from that earlier opponent.

Then, no sooner had the game begun than USF captain Jerry Mullen, who had spearheaded the scoring attack against Utah the night before with 24 points, sprained an ankle. Four minutes later, USF trainer Vince Briare had Mullen taped and back in the game. In the meantime, with Mullen out, Oregon State had sagged its defense around Bill Russell, not only with the 7'3" Swede Halbrook, but also with the 7'0" Phil Shadoin, virtually ignoring forward Stan Buchanan. In response to his teammates' urging to shoot from long range, Buchanan drilled consecutive twenty footers, forcing the Beavers to adjust their strategy and play all the USF players straight up.

What followed is one of the most incredible games in NCAA annals. Darrell Wilson of the Chronicle reported: "The game's big men--7'3" Swede Halbrook and 6'10" Bill Russell from USF--fought it out around the backboard in a leap-for-leap battle in a higher area than most basketball fans have ever witnessed."

USF, with a late surge, eked out a 30-27 lead at the half, and they did so without a single field goal from the injured Jerry Mullen.

In the second half, USF pulled ahead by as many as ten points and led by eight points with less than two minutes to play, but Oregon State battled back to close the game to 57-55 with thirteen seconds remaining. USF quickly called time-out. At the end of the time-out a bizarre incident resulted in a USF foul. K.C. Jones, running and looking back toward the bench while returning to the court, inadvertently crashed into an Oregon State player. Although time was out, he was called for a foul, and since time was out, the foul was considered a technical foul. Oregon State would get not only a free throw but also possession of the ball. The Oregon State player made the free throw, closing the gap to one point, and the Beavers would now inbound at halfcourt with a chance to win the game.

With the crowd of 11,200 on its feet, one of Oregon State's best shooters, Ron Robins, fired a shot from the corner that bounced off the front of the rim, but Swede Halbrook snared the rebound high over his head. From behind Halbrook, K.C. Jones stripped the ball from the giant's towering arms. But the theft, with seven seconds remaining, was ruled a jump ball. In the '50s, the two players involved in the held ball had to jump against each other--in this case the 6'1" Jones against the 7'3" Halbrook--in the free throw circle nearest the Oregon State basket. Such a mismatch and such a floor advantage are some of the reasons for the rule change many years later which eliminated most jump balls in favor of alternating possessions. But the rule change also eliminates the kind of David-and-Goliath battle which ensued in 1955. It was up to the much smaller Jones to do something to stop Halbrook from tipping the ball either directly toward the basket or to an open teammate. Accounts vary. Some say Jones outjumped Halbrook; some say he deflected the ball as Halbrook tipped it; some say he got away with tipping it on the way up. However it happened, the ball flew into the waiting hands of teammate Hal Perry, who doubled over and protected it until the game ended a few seconds later.

Dramatic enough? Bob Brachman of the Examiner, who was supposed to be a detached observer, wrote:

"Even we are shaking with the excitement of it all. Anyone who was in attendance and insisted that he sat calmly through this one, USF's twenty-fourth straight and its twenty-sixth win against a single loss, should be examined to see if he doesn't have ice in his veins."

The Dons were on their way to the Final Four in Kansas City to play Colorado, a 93-81 victor over Bradley. Defending champion La Salle would meet Iowa in the other semi-final. Certainly the Dons had risen above adversity to get this far, but could they go all the way? On the one hand, adversity still haunted them; doctors and trainers gave Jerry Mullen just a 50-50 chance to play in the week ahead. On the other hand, there was talk about the Dons being a "team of destiny." Brachman reported:

"It was Coach Phil Woolpert himself who suggested that this might be a team of destiny; like Stanford's Vow Boys of football, one that could do the impossible when it had to. That's what happened during the two almost unbearable nights it took to conquer the best the Pacific Coast and Skyline Conferences had to offer--Oregon State and Utah."

On Wednesday, as the Dons boarded their plane, the word was that Mullen could definitely play by Saturday, but Friday's game was still a question mark. If he couldn't play, then Bob Wiebusch would start in his place, as he had done once during the league season when Mullen was out. Wiebusch was no slouch. Known as a deadly outside shooter, he had started occasionally and played frequently during his last three years at USF. Like Stan Buchanan, the other forward, he had played for Phil Woolpert in high school as well as in college, and Woolpert knew he could count on him to handle the pressure.

When the Dons arrived, they were surprised to find themselves favored to win the championship. Although USF was ranked number one in the country, La Salle had the second spot, and in NCAA games leading up to the final four the Explorers had routed West Virginia 95-61, Princeton 73-46, and Canisius 99-64. Herb Good, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, stated, "It is doubtful that La Salle ever looked better than it did in stowing away its third straight one-sided verdict." Besides, La Salle had the benefit of experience, returning four starters from the previous year's NCAA championship team. Lastly, La Salle had four-time All-American Tom Gola, who had been the MVP of the N.I.T. as a freshman and of the NCAA as a junior, and who was being acclaimed as "the greatest collegiate basketball player of all time." In an article in Colliers magazine, Bill Fay stated:

"In basketball, the great stars are the players who can do things--with or without the ball. And no college basketball player can do more things--with or without the ball--than Tom Gola."

In the same article, his coach, Ken Loeffler, claimed:

`He's the greatest player I've ever seen, and I've been in this business as a player and coach since the Original Celtics were going strong 30 years ago.'

Later this year (1955) Tom Gola would sign a professional contract for the highest amount ever paid an NBA rookie, the then-astronomical sum of $15,000.

But before USF and La Salle could meet, they both would have to attend to the business of defeating a lower-ranked foe. From all reports, USF's opponent, Colorado, was confident and knowledgeable. They were coached by H.B. "Bebe" Lee, who had played his college ball at Stanford with the legendary Hank Luisetti. His former teammates and friends from the Bay Area had kept him well informed about the Dons.

Colorado's careful preparation showed as the first half progressed. "Bebe's" team slowed the tempo, and the Dons, playing without Jerry Mullen, couldn't find a rhythm. In addition, K.C. Jones picked up his third foul with five minutes to go in the first half and Colorado ahead 16-15. USF reserve Warren Baxter came off the bench, however, and immediately scored. Woolpert also sensed the need for Mullen's presence, so he sent him into the game. Without Jones, USF, helped again by another Warren Baxter shot--this time from mid-court just before the buzzer--opened up a 25-19 lead at the half.

Woolpert went back to the usual starting five in the second half, and the Dons built a 44-26 lead before settling for a 62-50 victory. Significantly, Mullen played a total of thirteen minutes. He didn't score, but his ankle had survived the test.

In the other game, La Salle bested Iowa 76-73 behind Gola's 23 points and 13 rebounds. Bob Brachman reported in the Examiner, "He's a great one, all right, and will need some tremendous guarding if La Salle is to be checked in its bid for a second straight title."

The game was billed as "Gola the Great" against "Russell the Remarkable," but the outcome turned on the inspired play of another player, USF's K.C. Jones. Woolpert, following a noted former Loyola teammate's suggestion, informed Jones just a few minutes before the game that he was the one designated to guard the great one. Guard him he did. In the first half, the 6'1" Jones limited the 6'7" Gola to 9 points, as USF, holding the Explorers scoreless from the field during the last nine and a half minutes, opened up an imposing 36-24 lead. In the second half Jones held Gola to a mere 7 points. At the same time K.C. led the Dons with 24, one more than Russell, as USF won convincingly, 77-63. Jerry Mullen added 10 points, and the unheralded Stan Buchanan chipped in with 8.

It was time for tributes and accolades. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Herb Good said, "The Dons were convincingly superior all the way in the pay-off game as they more than upheld the No.1 rating given them in the national polls."

The San Francisco Examiner's Bob Brachman wrote this about the team:

"With one of the mightiest championship game efforts in the seventeen years the NCAA basketball tournament has been in existence, this San Francisco "team of destiny" crushed LaSalle's defending champions, 77-63 to give the Pacific Coast its first title in thirteen years....

"Even now, it is hard to believe that this completely home grown gang of kids who started as virtually 'nothing' have come upon everything.

" But if you look back on their untiring labors, their sacrifices and, above all else, their determination to overcome all obstacles on the road to success, then it shouldn't be such a surprise.

"No greater team, as such, ever existed."

In regard to Bill Russell he stated: "Well, right here and now, it should be recorded for posterity that if Gola is the `greatest player of all time,' then `Bill Russell the remarkable' is greater than the greatest." The NCAA all-tournament committee agreed, naming Russell the tourney's MVP, the first time an African-American player was so honored. In addition, Russell's 118 points in five tournament games established a new record, eclipsing the 111 points Gola had scored the previous year.

Regarding the two All-Americans, the Inquirer's Good said, "Tom Gola, La Salle's three-time All-America, tallied 16 points and rang down the curtain on four seasons of magnificent basketball. But his work was futile and completely overshadowed by Russell."

Russell, himself, asserted that Jones was the hero of the game: "Jones played the greatest basketball game seen by anyone at any time." Coach Phil Woolpert, who at forty years of age had just become the youngest coach to the win the NCAA, added, with words usually reserved for Bill Russell: "Jones did things they have never seen in the middlewest. His blocks, his leaps to wrest the ball from Gola--you'd say they were impossible, but K.C. did them with the greatest game of his life."

Two days later the Dons returned home to a downtown parade in their honor. In these days before the Giants and Warriors moved west, when the fledgling 49ers were the only professional team in the area, an NCAA championship by a local university was heady stuff, and the City turned out en masse to welcome and honor these truly local heroes. K.C. Jones, Stan Buchanan, Bob Wiebusch, Bill Bush, Warren Baxter, and Rudy Zannini were all from San Francisco, Bill Russell and Dick Lawless were from Oakland, Jerry Mullen from Berkeley, Gordon Kirby from Hayward, Tom Nelson from San Mateo, and Jack King from Petaluma. Hal Perry had the distinction of coming the farthest, all the way from Ukiah, one hundred miles away.

As an offshoot of this remarkable season, the University of San Francisco and the people of San Francisco, spurred on by sportswriters Bill Leiser of the Chronicle and Prescott Sullivan of the Examiner, combined in a fundraising campaign to build an on-campus gymnasium at USF that would not only seat 8,000 fans in a main gym to be used for the intercollegiate games but also would have separate practice courts. The estimated cost was $700,000. It was hoped that USF's success during the championship run would mean that contributions would reach the point where the gym could be constructed before the following season. That didn't happen. The Dons would remain "homeless" until the 1958-59 season.

About the Author
Bernie Schneider, a 1959 graduate of the University of San Francisco, was a starting guard on the freshman team during the '55-'56 season and was involved in the basketball program his other three years. The '58-'59 team, of which he was a member, played the first games in Memorial Gymnasium.

After graduating from USF, Bernie coached basketball for 23 of the 35 years he taught English in Marin County. Twenty-nine of those years were at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley. He was inducted into the Marin Athletic Foundation Hall of Fame in November, 1994.

Copyright, Bernie Schneider, 2006

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