Pete Newell, 49ers Paradise, Big Game Memories
Newell’s death this week brought back a lot of memories, all of them good. We met for the first time in the fall of 1956, when I had come to Cal as a junior and joined the Daily Cal sports staff. In the years to come, we talked often, in person or on the telephone, up to our last contact, in December, 2005, at the Pete Newell Challenge in Oakland.
College basketball was a big thing in the Bay Area then because there was no NBA; the Warriors weren’t transplanted from Philadelphia until the 1962-63 season. And, college basketball was very good. USF won back-to-back NCAA championships and a then-record 60 consecutive games. Cal went on to win the NCAA title in 1959 and finish runnerup to Ohio State the next year.
But those were very different teams. USF had Bill Russell, who went on to a great NBA career, K.C. Jones, Mike Farmer. Cal had only one players who went on to the NBA, Darrall Imhoff, who was mostly a reserve in a 12-year pro career, though he was a starter for the West in the 1967 All-Star game.
Newell’s teams beat teams that were much more talented physically. The John Wooden-coached UCLA Bruins were the most obvious example; Newell won the last eight games he coached against Wooden.
How did he do it? He had very smart players, many of whom went on to lucrative careers in fields far removed from sports. They were in superb condition; before even starting practice in the fall, Newell had his players running long distances through the hills in Strawberry Canyon. He insisted that players always have their hands up on defense in practice and would stop practice if he ever saw a player drop his hands. In games, they never did.
Offensively, Newell ran a relatively simple system which relied on perfect execution. His teams seldom used the fast break, but I remember one game when the Bears caught USC coming off a tough schedule. Newell had the Bears running and they won with a score in the 80s, about 30 points over their average.
But it was defense that was the key to Cal’s success under Newell. Watching games in a packed Harmon Gym, we waited for the moment when Newell would call for a zone press – and the game would turn around. Very quickly, the Bears would pick up a couple of easy baskets after steals and take command of the game.
Eventually, that made a much better coach out of Wooden, though he would never admit it. As a player and coach, Wooden had come out of the midwestern run-and-gun systems; his early Bruins teams were high-powered offensive teams which played little defense. But as Wooden’s UCLA teams absorbed beating after beating from Newell’s teams, he started to realize the importance of defense.
Soon after Newell’s retirement in 1960, Wooden installed the zone press, and by the mid-‘60s, sportswriters with short memories were referring to the UCLA zone press as if Wooden had invented it. In fact, USF under Phil Woolpert had also used it, and Newell always said he learned it from his college coach, Jimmy Needles.
Newell’s willingness to give credit to Needles was a reflection of his personality. He didn’t like to call attention to himself, and he was gracious to everybody, a trait I noticed immediately. Coaches sometimes brush off college writers but Newell treated us on the Daily Cal with as much respect as he showed to writers from the area’s newspapers, which were far more numerous then.
There was another measure of the man: the great affection has former players had for him. That is very rare for the great coaches, who are usually such driven men that they don’t have much consideration for others. Typically, when you talk to former players, they won’t talk about the coach as a person but will say they learned so much from him. Newell’s players said that, too, but then they’d talk about their love for him, which was even more important to them.
Each August, his former players would gather in southern California to celebrate Pete’s birthday with him; I’d get a report from Earl Robinson when we’d see each other at the Lucky in Oakland’s Montclair shopping village. For years, a former player, Earl Schultz, was his doctor, and the last few years, his caretaker; Pete died at his home.
He was an ambassador for basketball, sometimes to his own detriment. He noted wryly to me that Ohio State coach Fred Taylor had taken copious notes at a clinic Newell had after his 1959 NCAA win – and Taylor’s team had beaten the Bears in the 1960 Finals. “He used my own plays against me,” Pete lamented.
Pete could operate on several levels with his basketball knowledge, a higher level with coaches, a lower one with those of us with less knowledge. Before one of the Newell Challenges, we had lunch and I said I had a question about how Phil Jackson’s motion offense worked. Pete borrowed a notebook from another man at the table and diagrammed it for me.
He never rested, active up to the end with his basketball clinics, still giving something back to the game he loved. He left the coaching he loved when he was less than halfway through his life because it was literally killing him; he couldn’t eat on game weekends and was a chain smoker. But he found other ways to contribute, and I’m sure he had no regrets.
When Bill Walsh died, I thought, we’ll never see another like him. I feel the same way about Pete Newell.
WEBSITES AND BLOGS: One of my favorite websites, 49ers Paradise, was the subject of a story in Game Day magazine last Sunday, and the recognition was well deserved.
There’s an interesting story behind it. Bryan Hersh, who runs the website, became a 49er fan as a youngster when the 1981 team won the first 49er Super Bowl title. But, he lives in Toronto, so news of the team was sparse – until the Internet arrived. Hersh started surfing the ‘Net for 49er news and eventually formed his own website, gathering news on his favorite team from everywhere. I go to his site often, and he posts my columns, both Examiner and website, when I write about the Niners.
There is an amazing amount of information on the web, if you know where to look. During the Presidential campaign, I went to FiveThirtyEight.com at least twice a day. It’s run by Nate Silver, who is one of the editors for Baseball Prospectus, which is a must-read for me every year. Silver applies his technique to analyzing the polls and trends, and he came amazingly close to the final results. Check it out, if you haven’t already: He still has the projections posted that he made before the election.
I draw a distinction, though, between websites and blogs. Newspapers now often require their writers to also add blogs, but their best stuff is in the regular stories.
Still, even their worst of those blogs come from experienced journalists, who are actually talking to the people they write about and researching their subjects. Not so with those bloggers, sports and political, who merely give you their opinions off the top of their heads. They’re worthless, and I avoid them like the plague.
BIG GAME MEMORIES: One of my most vivid is a very unusual one, when my sympathies were mixed.
When Bill Walsh came back to Stanford for his second tour, he also brought in some assistants I knew well, especially Guy Benjamin. Guy and his then-wife, Jill, were very close friends; my wife, Nancy, and I (and our son, Scott) had had dinner at their house, and they had visited ours, for one of my pasta specialties.
So, for the 1991 game at Stanford, Nancy and I were tailgating before the game with the wives of the Stanford assistant coaches!
Once the game began, though, there was no ambiguity for me.
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