Feb. 6, 2005
Retirement had landed Phil Woolpert in the obscurity of Sequim, Wash., when in January 1973 a college basketball team close to his heart sought to end UCLA's mounting win streak.
Unable to access the telecast at his home 10 miles outside of town, he checked his family into a nearby hotel, where they watched UCLA extend its streak to 58 wins. Soon after, the Bruins broke the collegiate record of 60 consecutive victories previously set by the University of San Francisco while Woolpert was coach from 1951-59.
Woolpert already had seen his feat of winning consecutive national championships surpassed. Now, while living the quiet life of a school bus driver, one of the great streaks in sports history had been taken.
But Woolpert and the Dons did produce one lasting bit of history, which they wrote with a groundbreaking season that unfolded 50 years ago. He was in the spotlight for a time as the first coach to win a national title while starting three African-American players, a controversial move in the 1950s but recognized upon his posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame in 1992.
Woolpert's induction came after that of Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, players who drove USF's unexpected success one year after the Supreme Court's milestone decision in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education.
City College of New York in 1950 was the first team to win a national title with black players on the roster. And discussions of the color barrier in college basketball usually stop and start with Texas Western, which used an all-black starting lineup to beat an all-white Kentucky team for the national championship in 1966. But the 1954-55 Dons were the forerunners for that team.
Former USF player Hal Perry, a native of Madison, Ill., said the Dons were "frontiersmen," largely because of Woolpert.
"He deserved as much interest and respect as any coach, but even more than that - as much as any person in any phase of the civil rights movement," said Perry, one of four black players on the team. "He went through hell. Very few people knew it. As far as they knew, he was a coach and that was it."
Perry said Woolpert confided that there were people who wanted him fired, but his success made that unthinkable. Perry said officials at Catholic high schools in San Francisco were upset that black players were taking scholarships the Catholic college could have awarded to their white players.
Woolpert received hate mail and was chided by opposing coaches, some of whom called him Sapperstein, in reference to Abe Sapperstein, who coached the Harlem Globetrotters.
But the former prison counselor never relented, according to his son, Paul, who coaches a CBA team in Yakima, Wash. He eventually played five black players simultaneously the following season when the Dons won their second consecutive title without a loss.
"He knew he was bucking the trend but he never even considered the color of the guys," Paul Woolpert said. "He said, 'These are the best players and we're going to play them.' He definitely did everything he believed in."
"Player of the century"
Few African-Americans occupied spots on college rosters before USF's breakthrough season. And if not for good timing, some of the four - Russell, Jones, Perry and Warren Baxter - might not have ended up with the Dons.
Russell was a gangly second-stringer on the McClymonds High basketball team in Oakland, Calif., and garnered little interest from college programs. Jones was a more prominent player at Commerce High across the bay in San Francisco but wasn't highly recruited, so he was quick to accept the one scholarship he was offered.
"I had never heard of Russell, and I was only a year ahead of him," Jones said. "He came over to talk with the coach, and that was the first time I had ever seen him. He was 6-9 and skinny and weighed about 215 pounds. . . . But his tenacity was off the charts and the intelligence was Oxford."
Russell was the epitome of a late bloomer. He became the 1956 national player of the year and then made history by winning five NBA MVP awards and 11 championships with the Boston Celtics.
The common belief is that Russell was discovered by Hal DeJulio, a local businessman who often directed players to USF. Dick Lawless, who played on the 1954-55 team, claims the story is not exactly accurate. Lawless said he was playing in a pickup game one day when he started having his shots swatted by Russell.
"I went to Phil Woolpert and said, 'You'd better keep your eyes open,' " Lawless said. "When Russell's school played my old school, I went and asked if he wanted to play in college and he said yes. I went back and told Woolpert, and that's when he sent Hal DeJulio. Russell still thinks he was recruited by DeJulio."
Ross Guidice, an assistant coach on the team, said the only things that stood out about Russell when he arrived at USF were his height and his jumping ability. Guidice has received credit for developing Russell's skills, but he deflected the recognition.
"Russell is a real story in how he developed himself," Guidice said. "He was determined he wanted to be the best player. To this day, I think he's the player of the century."
Jones was the perfect fit for a team that built its reputation on defense. Yet, he might not have played at USF if not for the urging of a high school teacher, who lobbied for him to get a scholarship.
Perry also came close to never playing for the 1954-55 team. He was called to the athletic director's office one day in the spring of 1954 and told that if he didn't show improvement, his scholarship would be taken.
"I immediately decided this man was a racist," Perry said. "I thought, 'He wants to get me out to get another white kid to take my spot.' I got up and did what a gentleman would do. I shook his hand and said, 'I will do it.' "
"Teammates, white and black"
San Francisco was progressive at a time when racial tensions were brewing elsewhere. But although the players experienced less hostility than African-Americans in other parts of the country, they weren't unexposed.
After all, they were playing in the same city where the beloved Willie Mays was denied the purchase of a home in an exclusive neighborhood in 1957 because he was black.
"It may have been subtle but there was some (racism) there in San Francisco," Jones said. "But we put that aside. If someone approached us with any type of race issue, then there would have been a problem. We saw a little but it didn't matter and they didn't become vocal."
But the Dons stood out, even in that part of the country, as teams at California, Stanford and Santa Clara competed without any black players on their rosters that same season.
USF was breaking racial barriers in the wake of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. In that ruling in May 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote "segregated schools are not equal and cannot be made equal . . . "
But while things were relatively calm in the Bay Area, the Dons did encounter problems when they played in other areas of the country. The most noteworthy incident was at a tournament in Oklahoma City, where USF's white players were assigned to a hotel and its black players to the dormitories at Oklahoma City University. The entire team moved to the dorms.
The Dons played three games at the tournament and while practicing one day, spectators tossed coins at the players. Russell picked them up, handed them to Woolpert and asked that he hold them for him.
USF won their three games and while some outsiders fumed, the players continued to insulate themselves from any hatred.
"There was nothing to do after we won but to go back to the dorm," recalled Stan Buchanan. "Some enterprising person found some beer, and we sat around and had a real bonding experience."
By all accounts, racism did not exist within the team and race was not an issue unless the players were faced with obstacles from the outside. Thus, many players - white and black - did not consider the ramifications of their success at the time and how history might view the team.
"Our thoughts didn't get that far," Jones said. "I didn't consider it any big deal. We were teammates, white and black."
There was little reason to expect a breakthrough by USF. The Dons were 14-7 the previous season and weren't ranked when Russell and Jones were preparing for their junior seasons.
Woolpert's first four seasons at the school had been unspectacular, resulting in a 44-47 record. And nobody was aware of Russell's impending dominance that led to a 28-1 season.
"The team wasn't expected to do anything, so to come up and do what we did was the most rewarding thing," Lawless said. "It was a team effort even though we had one real dominant player. What we did is what is really surprising."
The Dons won their first two games but expected a thrashing when they traveled to UCLA. The Bruins had just defeated Santa Clara, one of USF's chief rivals, by 39 points.
"We felt they would beat us by 30 or 40 points," Jones said. "We started shaking in our boots when we saw the Santa Clara score."
UCLA won by seven, and when the teams met again in coming weeks in San Francisco, the Dons used confidence gained from the first meeting to beat the Bruins. The game was significant because it marked the first game that Perry started. He started every game the rest of his career, and USF never lost.
Perry was the only player from outside the Bay Area. He lived in Madison through the seventh grade before moving with his family to Ukiah in northern California, where he was the only black student in his school.
The team was built around its defense and Russell's inside presence and continued to plow through opponents.
After beating UCLA and winning the Oklahoma City tournament, the Dons beat an array of West Coast opponents. They entered a pair of games against Bay Area foes Stanford and California at midseason ranked No. 2 in the country. USF raced to a 31-12 lead to beat Stanford and scored the first 20 points against Cal the next night as fans chanted for a shutout.
When the postseason arrived, the Dons had a choice between playing in the NIT or the NCAA Tournament and opted for the latter.
"We felt that was the college championship," Lawless said. "It was more prestigious as far as we were concerned and meant we were the champions of the whole country."
The closest call in the Tournament came against Oregon State, which trailed USF by three in the closing seconds. Jones was called for a technical because he bumped into an Oregon State player returning to the court from a timeout. Two free throws gave Oregon State a chance to win, but a final shot fell short.
Before the championship game against LaSalle in Kansas City, Woolpert made a decision, which at first seemed stunning. He decided to have Jones, a 6-1 guard, defend Tom Gola, who was 6-7. Jones limited Gola to 16 points, held him scoreless for 21 minutes, and registered 24 points himself in a 77-63 win.
"They were observing us"
It is generally accepted that USF was better the following season when Russell and Jones were seniors. The team extended its win streak to 55 games - a run that ended against Illinois the next season - and won another championship.
"When they mention the great teams, the '54-55 team doesn't get mentioned," said Carl Boldt, who joined USF the next season. "I say they take it on the ear because they never got the credit they deserve."
But the team is remembered for more than its success on the court. Woolpert was around for five more years and bowed out at USF after two poor seasons. He went on to coach at the University of San Diego, where his teams were mediocre.
But he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992, and his role in fielding a team with three African-American starters was recognized as Perry thought it should.
The players who formed the 1954-55 team went on to find considerable success. Russell, Jones and Jerry Mullen played in the NBA, and the roster also produced four attorneys, including Perry.
"We were, in effect, being spokesmen for black people in this country," Perry said. "And we knew that. Whatever we were doing we knew the government was watching. They were observing us because we were winning."