On the eve of the 1955 NCAA tournament title game in Kansas City, we had just finished our pregame meal when coach Phil Woolpert began to go over the scouting report.
The word on the street was La Salle was going to beat us by 900 points, that the University of San Francisco had a better chance of being struck by lightning on a sunny day. La Salle had won the title the previous two seasons and, with three-time All-American Tom Gola leading the way, they were going to slaughter us, so everyone said.
But coach Woolpert, as always, had done his homework. He knew what made La Salle tick, inside and out. And with that in mind, he turned to me and said, “You’re going to guard Gola.”
It was a bit of a surprise since Gola was 6’7″ and I was 6’1″, but the coach didn’t want our center, Bill Russell, to guard Gola because Gola would take Russell away from the basket. So, I got the call.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Gola was a great offensive threat. He led the Explorers with 23 points in their semifinal win over Iowa. But I knew I would have a lot of help stopping him. We were a swarming defensive team. We couldn’t shoot for a lick most nights, but we shut down teams with defense.
Our other starting guard, Hal Perry, was a great defensive player. Our two starting forwards, Jerry Mullen and Stan Buchanan, were great defensive players. And everyone knows Russell was always back there if anyone got near the basket.
In the NBA today, one team scores, everyone runs back downcourt, and they don’t turn around until they get to the top of the key. When we scored, we turned around and played defense right there and applied pressure right there. We were all the way upcourt and the opponents often had trouble getting the ball over the midcourt line before getting a 10-second violation.
It all stemmed from coach Woolpert’s philosophy that defense wins games; that the other team can’t score if they can’t shoot. Since we didn’t have a home court on campus, we would practice at St. Ignatius High School or the nearby Kezar Pavilion. But wherever practice was, Woolpert would be putting us through our defensive drills. It was great playing for him because not only did he know the game, but he treated his players as if they were part of his own family.
It wasn’t always easy for coach. When he took over at San Francisco, the team he inherited didn’t look anything like the one that had won the NIT title in 1949. In fact, he suffered three straight losing seasons. But then things started to fall into place for the Dons. Woolpert took a chance and offered scholarships to Russell and Perry, a couple of local kids. We were poised for a good season in 1953-54, but I suffered a ruptured appendix one game into the campaign and we finished just 14-7.
By the next winter, I was healthy and the team was ready to roll. We started off with wins over Chico State and Loyola of Los Angeles. But the real turning point was losing to tough UCLA by seven points. We were ranked 900th or 3,000th or something like that in the nation at the time.
UCLA should have beaten us by 25 points, but it turned out to be a close game. That we could play with UCLA gave us confidence and got us going. In fact, a week later we hosted UCLA, which was then ranked in the Top 10, and beat them.
We didn’t lose another game en route to our showdown with Gola’s La Salle. We won the All-College Tournament by beating Wichita, George Washington, and host Oklahoma City University. Then we swept through the California Basketball Association, finishing 12-0 in league play.
We had moved up to No. 2 in the country by time the NCAA tournament started. We stomped West Texas State, moving up to No. 1 in the polls.
Then we beat Utah, with Russell missing some of the game with a nasty cold. Then we beat Oregon State in a bizarre game where I had to take a jump ball, in the final seconds against 7’3″ Swede Holbrook. I didn’t have a chance to win the jump, so I allowed him to win it, and tried for the steal. It worked. I tipped it over to Perry and we held on for a one-point win.
When we toppled Colorado in the semis, we were on our way to K.C. to meet La Salle.
Entering the game, my plan was simple. I wanted to keep Gola outside and not allow him to have penetration. How was I going to do that? I had to make my ego match his. I knew as much about defense as he did about offense and he was a very good offensive player. I figured it would be a wash right there. If your ego doesn’t match that offensive player’s ego, you have a problem because that’s when fear comes in.
But I had no fear when we took the court for the game I’ll never forget. In fact, we jumped to the early lead. I found that I could keep Gola from driving around me because I was quicker and I would harass him when he put the ball on the floor. That meant he would have to shoot from long range or try to drive and pass the ball off.
If everyone who was expecting a Gola-Russell matchup had been surprised, they were probably shocked that Gola scored just nine points in the first half. But this was a typical game for us, as we held them scoreless from the field for the final nine and a half minutes of the first half while building a 12-point lead. Meanwhile, Russell had 18 points at halftime.
We were so happy with the game plan that we saw no reason to change it. My strategy took Gola out of his game. I made him more of a disher than a scorer. He left the court with about a minute to play in the game with just 16 points and no hopes of a third straight title.
Our 77-63 victory was big news in the Bay Area. We were all from around that area, not like today where teams recruit kids from all over the country. So they had a big parade for us local heroes a couple days later.
We went on to win the NCAA title again the next year and eventually we won 60 straight games.
And we did it all with defense.