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Sixty Years Ago Cal's Team Surprised Everyone but Themselves

January 31, 2019
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For Cal followers the story ages but never gets old.

The 1959 basketball team that won the NCAA championship, in what to everybody except those players was one of sport’s biggest upsets, lives in the memories of those old enough to have to seen it and is studied eagerly by the younger fans. Six decades after they stunned the sports world by knocking off on consecutive nights two favored teams, each one led by one of the greatest players of all time, the champs were recognized last weekend at the Bears home game on the arena floor named for their legendary coach.

Pete Newell, who taught a system based on discipline, selflessness, toughness and intelligence, was in his fifth season as the Bears head coach when they traveled cross country to Louisville to join three teams based less than an hour’s flight away in what is now called the Final Four. The Bears were heavy underdogs when they took on first Cincinnati (Ied by Oscar Robertson) and then West Virginia (led by Jerry West). The fourth team was host Louisville, so Cal was certainly on enemy turf.

“Nobody back there knew anything about us,” Bill McClintock, a starting forward on that team said last weekend. “Most of them thought Cincinnati had a bye in the first round.”

The Bears, inspired by one of the more brazen psych jobs in sports history,  beat Cincinnati and West Virginia to bring home the title that still resonates in Berkeley today.

And as justifiably proud as the players still are, they know they owe their success to their head coach and his philosophy.

“We won for two reasons,” said Denny Fitzpatrick, a starting guard on the title team. . “Pete Newell and Pete Newell.”

The NCAA championship was the high point of an unprecedented and unmatched run of Cal basketball success. The Bears won four consecutive conference titles, made two trips to the “Final Four” and were oooh so close to two more..

“We could have won the NCAA three years in a row,” said Fitzpatrick. “Probably should have.”

A brilliant basketball strategist, Newell was a great psychologist and motivator. His players weren’t always the best, but his teams usually were. Virtually all of his Cal players had successful careers after basketball and to a man they credit Newell, how hard he worked them and taught them to believe in themselves.

Newell was no stranger to success in the Bay Area. He coached a University of San Francisco team to the National Invitation Tournament championship in 1949, when the NIT was a far more prestigious tournament than the NCAA. Newell left USF a year later for Michigan State, where he had 45-42 record in four seasons, respectable for that school at that time but not earth-shattering.  

At Cal, Newell succeeded Clarence (Nibs) Price who had been the basketball coach for 30 years. Price had a 449-294 record and an NCAA appearance. It was a pretty good record but better days for the school were ahead.

Newell’s first year in Berkeley was tough, the Bears were 9-16, including just one conference victory. A year later in 1955-56 they were 17-8. Then came the run of Pacific Coast Conference titles  and national glory.

The teams he assembled were made up of strong personalities who were willing to sacrifice personal goals for the sake of the team. Some of them were recruited, in other cases fortune smiled on the coach.

How he landed Darrall Imhoff, the All-American center on the 1959-60 teams, is an interesting story. Newell and his assistant Rene Herrerias, were in Newell’s office ready to head out for a round of golf when Newell’s phone rang. A woman was on the other end.

“My grandson is coming to Cal in the fall and I am trying to find a bed for him,” the woman said.

“You have the wrong number,” Newell said. “This is the basketball office, you want the housing office.”

“I tried the housing office, but they couldn’t find a bed long enough for my grandson. I thought the basketball people might be able to help.”

“Just how tall is your grandson.”

“Six-feet-ten.”

That got Newell’s attention. He agreed to help, took down the details and began his research. Although intrigued, Newell initially was a little skeptical.

“Pete looked at me after he hung up and said, ‘He’s probably a thug,’ “ Herrerias said last week.

Imhoff had played some basketball in high school in Southern California. But had been injured much of his career and his prep coach Bob Boyd, a former USC star who would later coach the Trojans, thought so little of him he did not recommend him to his alma mater.

Newell soon saw the potential. “He didn’t have much in the way of skills,” Fitzpatrick said. “He had a lot of raw talent, he could run and he could jump. Bob McKeen (the center in 1954-55) worked with him day after day for months.

“That is what Pete wound up doing, teaching big guys how to play. And it was basically footwork. He and McKeen worked with Darrall, taught him how to get into the post, how to set up, how to receive the ball, how to protect it, how to wheel to the basket. From his sophomore year on he was taught to be a real fine center.”

Don McIntosh was the Bears center in 1957 and ‘58, but the next season Imhoff was ready and for two years he was one of the best big men in the country, a terrific defender and effective scorer.  He played 12 years in the NBA, twice named an All-Star,.

In both ‘57 and ’58, the Bears had made the NCAA tournament (winning the conference was the only way, there were no at-large bids at the time). They lost both times in the Western Region Final, to USF and Seattle, the latter of which was led by the incomparable Elgin Baylor. Both were four-point defeats that could have gone either way.  An errant inbounds pass figured in the first one and a horrendous call by an official whose conduct was suspect damaged the Bears in the second.

Cal entered the 1958-59 season as the preseason conference favorite, but without much of a national reputation. After a 3-0 start they lost by three points to highly-regarded Kansas State. The Bears might have won that one, but Newell was more interested in building a team than a reputation. “Pete was playing the second string at the end of the game,” McClintock said. “He believed in a strong bench. And it paid off in a long run.”

On Jan. 14 a loss to Stanford dropped Cal to 9-4. It would be almost a full year before they tasted defeat again. They beat the Indians (no Cardinal yet) the next night and ripped off 14 straight wins to take the PCC title and the Western Regional.

Next up was the trip to Louisville and Cincinnati, led by Robertson.

“When we went back there most of us knew we were going to win it all,” McClintock said. Bob Steiner, who would become the school’s Sports Information Director in the late 60s, asked Herrerias if Cal had a chance against Cincinnati and Robertson. “Unless Robertson has the greatest game of his life, they don’t have a chance,” Herrerias said.

A lot of the pressure was on Bob Dalton, a 6-3 senior forward, who had originally been a tennis player. He was assigned to guard Robertson. .”I wanted to throw him off his game,” Dalton said., “So as we were lining up for the tip off I stuck out my hand and said, ‘My name’s Dalton, what’s yours?”

Robertson, at the time one of the most celebrated athletes in the country, was aghast. “He  looked at me like I was crazy,” Dalton said. “His eyes got wide, his mouth fell open and he just stared at me.”

Newell once told me that the incident stuck with Robertson. Newell coached the 1960 Olympic team and Robertson was one of its stars. “We were sitting at a cafe in Rome,” Newell said. “And Oscar asked me, ‘That skinny white forward you had, he really didn’t know my name?’ “

The Bears did more than play with Robertson’s mind. Dalton hounded him, occasionally helped by McClintock and Imhoff. They made him work hard for everything he got.

“Oscar liked to back into you and then would take that deadly fallaway jumper,” Dalton said. “. The first two times he tried it, we stole the ball. The third time Imhoff blocked his shot. He was never comfortable after that.”

Robertson, who averaged 32.9 points per game that year, was held to 18 and had just one field goal in the second half as the Bears won, 64-58.

Next up was West Virginia and the brilliant Jerry West. The Mountaineers got off to a ten-point lead. Newell went to his bench, bringing in center Dick Doughty, forward Jack Grout and guard Bernie Simpson. They stabilized the defense and ignited the offense and Cal was ahead 39-33 at halftime.

West Virginia came out in a full-court, trapping press, and for one of the few times -- perhaps the only time -- in his coaching career Newell was unprepared. West Virginia would cut the Cal lead to three, but some typical Newell-style defense enabled the Bears to hold on over a frantic final three minutes.

West, who finished with 28 points, had the ball at the end but could not get a shot off as Cal prevailed, barely; 71-70.

West Virginia, its star and most its players believed they were the better team and should have won. But evidence indicates otherwise.

The Bears opened the next year with nine straight wins. The last of those  was the championship game of the inaugural LA Classic tournament against -- Ta Da -- West Virginia, which returned all the key players from the year before, including West.

But Newell was ready for them this time. Three starters from the year before had graduated but Imhoff and McClintock were back. Tandy Gillis, a seldom used reserve in 1959 was almost Dalton’s equal on defense and a deadly shooter. Gillis, scored 18 points, he and his mates held West to one field goal in the Bears 65-45 victory.

Given nine months to prepare Newell, who had begun planning for the Mountaineers on the plane fight back from Louisville, dissected the pressing defense that had bothered him in the NCAA title game.

The Bears stayed in L.A. and three days a later USC upset them. But two days after that the Bears won a rematch and were off and running. They won 19 straight games, the last another rematch, this one with Cincinnati in the NCAA national semifinal. The Final Four was in the Cow Palace in Daly City, which should have given the Bears an advantage but as it turned out worked against them.

Much has been made of the superiority of the Ohio State team that clobbered Cal, 75-55, in the NCAA title game. That Buckeyes team certainly  did not lack for talent, with Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Larry Siegfried, Joe Roberts and a scrappy reserve named Bobby Knight. On paper one of the best college teams ever.

Newell and the Bears dealt with the defeat graciously, and it was only years later that Newell mentioned a factor that might have figured in the defeat, or at least the size of it. “We were a step slow all night,” Newell told me years later in a conversation he wanted off the record at the time. I am telling it now because it was in Jenkins’ book.

Ohio State handily beat NYU in the first game of the Friday night double header.

Cal had a tougher assignment against Cincinnati and Robertson, finally prevailing, 77-69.

“They was a really tough game,” McClintock said. “They beat us up pretty good. I got knocked down and had a big knot on my head.”

The game ended around midnight and with a big traffic jam on HIghway 101, the Bears did not get back to their hotel in downtown San Francisco until after 1:30 a.m.. The Buckeyes were fast asleep as the Bears wandered Market Street searching for a food since there had been nothing to eat in the locker room. “We finally found some all-night dive cafeteria,” Newell told Jenkins. “Here we are after a big win with the title game coming up and we’re eating our post game meal in a beanery.”

Had the current format been in place, with a day between the semifinal and final game, it might not have mattered. However fatigue definitely played a role.

“I hate to use excuses,” Newell told Jenkins. “Years went by before I said any of this. ...Ohio State did exactly what we hoped they would do on offense, but we were just slow in rotating. A lot of their shots were layups and nobody shot layups against us.”

Newell retired from coaching after that game, primarily for health reasons; He lived on coffee and cigarettes during the season, and his doctors told him he was a heart attack waiting to happen.. He did coach that 1960 Olympic group -- the first dream team. He was Cal’s athletic director for eight tumultuous years and went on to a successful career as an executive and scout in the NBA.

UCLA and John Wooden soon became the dominant force in college basketball, surpassing Newell’s achievements multiple times. But as most long-time Cal fans point out, Newell whipped UCLA and Wooden the last eight times they met.

If Newell had continued coaching, would there have been a Wizard of Westwood?

The Cal players from the Newell have remained close for 60 years and counting. They have held regular reunions, and offer one another support in times of crisis. Those feelings of mutual affection and respect are not so much a product of the success as a reason for it, teamwork taken to the next level.

“The thing that stands out the chemistry and bonding,” said this years Newell Achievement Award winner John Ricksen, whose late twin brother Rupe was an assistant coach in 1959. I’ve never seen a team like that and to continue it for 60 years. It’s incredible. . ...We beat teams that had better players. Not that these (Ca;) weren’t good players, but still Oscar, West they beat those guys. I give full credit of that to the players and Newell and the feelings they have for each other.”

SOME OTHER NOTES

Newell died in 2008 and several of the players have also passed on including Imhoff, Al Buch (captain of the 1959 team) and Doughty.

Herrerias, who was a key player in the USF team that won the NIT, succeeded Newell as head coach and had a winning record but never made the postseason. Wooden had everything to do with that.

To a man the players credit Herrerias’ ability  as an advance scout being a major element in their success. “We knew the other teams’ plays better than they did,” said Schultz, who added that more than once a Cal player told an opponent he was not where he should be on a particular play.

Joe Kapp played basketball on the two seasons preceding the national title. He did not participate in basketball as a senior because he led the Bears to the Rose Bowl. Nevertheless when Newell introduced the team at a student body assembly he acknowledged Kapp.

Discussion from...

Sixty Years Ago Cal's Team Surprised Everyone but Themselves

SFCityBear
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Great article. Thanks.

One small correction: Duane Asplund was the starting center for Cal in 1957, McIntosh the starter in 1958.
joe amos yaks
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West Coast CBB fans got a lot of looks at greats Oscar Robertson and Jerry West during those seasons. UCinn (Robertson) and WVaU (West) and teams like BradleyU (Walker) dominated the national TV broadcast time in '58/'59. Fans could watch their games most SAT's (mid-day, Pacific time). Then, of course, came that great tOSu team.
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