Goin’ Backstory

With the first Ivy League Tournament complete and the Tiger men set to start play in the NCAA Tournament tomorrow, we look back at two great Princeton teams: the 1966-67 Tigers, featured in a new PAW Online story, a team Gregg has argued (in two columns) may be the best in program history; and Pete Carril’s 1976-77 team, which beat Notre Dame at Jadwin Gym. Also discussed in this episode: revered Princetonian William K. Selden ’34, and the first Ivy women’s basketball tournament, featured on a recent episode of PAW Tracks.

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Brett Tomlinson: I’m Brett Tomlinson, the digital editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Gregg Lange: And I am Gregg Lange, the digital commentator of the Great Class of 1970, who really should know better.

BT: And this is Goin’ Backstory, our Princeton history podcast, and you know we don’t get too wedded to the format here. We’re happy to branch out. In this case the episode comes out March 15, the day before the Princeton men’s basketball team tips off play in the NCAA Tournament, so we thought it be a great time to talk a little basketball on the podcast. This will be the 25th NCAA appearance for the Tigers. They’ve won games in eight different years, most recently 1998, and Gregg, this is the fifth time that — sorry not the fifth time, the fifth different alum head coach who has led the tigers into the postseason. Can you name the other four? Obviously Mitch Henderson ’98 this year. Can you name—

GL: Well let’s see low-hanging fruit … Sydney Johnson ’97. 

BT: Right.

GL: John Thompson III ’88.

BT: Correct.

GL: Butch Van Breda Kolff ’45.

BT: Correct. I knew this would be the tough one.

GL: It’s got to be back…

BT: It’s kind of a trick — OK, so it was 1961, and he was the acting coach—

GL: Oh, Jake McCandless ’51.

BT: Correct.

GL: Wow. Oh I— very, very good. Yeah that’s an interesting asterisk, but he absolutely did coach the tournament right. Cappy Cappon was on his last legs in that case literally at that point. You know he died in the, he died in the shower. Of a massive heart attack at Dillon Gym the next summer and really left a bunch of people across the country just very ripped up. A great, great man who came to Princeton something out of happenstance in the ’30s, almost as an even-up trade with Michigan for Fritz Krisler and became one of the great men of Princeton athletic history and the father literally to all of the ensuing basketball program up to the present day. Everybody else who’s been involved has descended from him. Van Breda Kolff succeeded him. And Jake McCandless, who was later the Princeton head football coach, was the assistant basketball coach and sat in for Cappy in the ’61 tournament. Very good, that’s right. You win.

BT: Well, I had the advantage of an old media guide. That was, that was my crutch.

GL: Mine is so old it fell apart.

BT: On the website we also have a story about a team that is celebrating its 50th anniversary and actually they were honored at one of the late-season home games: the 1966-67 Princeton men’s team. In past columns you have made the argument that they may be the best team in Princeton history. In not one but two columns. I was wondering what you can tell me about that team and what made it so special.

GL: Well there are there are a few different levels of what was going on at the time. It turned out to be Butch Van Breda Kolff’s last year with Princeton — he went to the Lakers at the end of that season. And of course Princeton had been to the Final Four two years before in Bill Bradley’s senior year. At the end of the year in the interim the team sat around with almost all their players back, except Bradley — they had a very young team in ’65. And they kept waiting for Bradley to turn up and save them, and he never did. So they were 9-5 in the Ivy League and lost to four different teams in ’66, and were very ashamed of themselves. And Van Breda Kolff was absolutely livid. So it was a comeback from that.

Meanwhile they had some younger people coming in, and they had a legitimate All-American candidate sophomore center joining the team. There were still no freshman on teams at that point, so Chris Thomforde joined the team. Of course they had a good center, Robbie Brown, which was sort of odd, but it anyway Chris started. The long and the short of it is that they really played 10 deep all season, and the second team which was headed by a Larry Lucchino who [later ran] the Red Sox, took it upon themselves to make life miserable for the first team. Although seven or eight people played very consistently, the starting five of Gary Walters, Joe Hieser, Ed Hummer, John Haarlow, and Thomforde really had to work much harder during the week than in games.

As it turned out in that season, they ended up honestly being legitimately one of the top three teams in the country. They were scheduled into a holiday festival in Louisville playing the University of Louisville, which was one of the other teams that was as good as they were, and they lost to Wes Unseld and Butch Beard, by nine points. They lost that game, and they lost to Cornell at Ithaca — and Cornell was a top 20 team that had beaten the Kentucky in Lexington. And then beat Cornell badly back at Dillon afterwards to win the Ivy League and went into the postseason legitimately one of the top four or five teams in the country; I believe they were ranked fifth or sixth at that point. They beat Dean Smith at North Carolina and that game during the regular season was the basis for them losing in overtime to North Carolina during the NCAA Tournament, when Haarlow was hurt. And when Dean Smith decided in an NCAA game to stall in overtime. Once his team got the lead you have to recall there were not only no three pointers in that era but there was no shot clock. And that fact alone sort of doomed to Princeton in that particular circumstance. It was the third time during the year that teams had had stalled on them.

A magnificent team to watch. An astonishing team once they got going. They still hold a very interesting Ivy League record which is both the number of points in one game, 116, and the margin in a 116-42 win over Dartmouth in the old Alumni Gym in a game that I happen to have seen, and it was hard to believe even while you were watching. A very, very unusual team: They played 10 people deep they were absolutely inseparable, totally devoted to one another, great people up and down as the current article talks about, and just a just an astonishing group of folks that was a pleasure to watch — probably as well coordinated over the long haulm game after game, as any team I’ve ever seen certainly at Princeton. And that’s with all deference to that wonderful team in ’98, the iron five. And the Bill Bradley team, which to this day probably played have played the best 40-minute game ever seen in the NCAA Tournaments when they beat Providence 109-69. So you’ve got all these wonderful candidates, and this team is probably going to be talked about, in part because of Mitch being the coach, in the same breath with those others. I think the ’67 team probably the best, and they were ranked marginally higher than the ’98 team. And quite a bit higher than the Bradley team, which of course only caught fire very much at the end of the season. But I’ll stick with them as my marginal pick for number one and it’s certainly nice over the decades that we’ve got so many great teams to choose from.

BT: And of course this year’s Princeton team was 16-0 in the Ivy League, a completely unprecedented record because of the new Ivy Tournament, and they will play Notre Dame on Thursday. That brings up another little bit of history: In 1977 Notre Dame, under coach Digger Phelps, came out to Jadwin Gym and actually set the attendance record for Jadwin Gym, a reported 8,000 people at that game. Notre Dame was a very strong program at that time and we have a we have a nice piece from the PAW Archives online, written by Dan White ’65 — it’s always a pleasure when I page back in the archives and I see that that byline because I know it’s going to be a well-written piece and just really wonderful color from that game and the kind of contrast betwee Phelps and Carril, the coach of the Tigers at that point. The ’77 team went on to be 13-1 in Ivy play and ended the year with a tournament loss to Kentucky. But on that one day in January, they took down a top-10 team at home. And they did it convincingly, and not in a slow-down deliberate style, necessarily — they scored over 70 points in the game. Gregg, do you remember anything from that season or that game?

GL: The thing to recall is that Carril never particularly intended to play slow-down basketball; he was trying to control the pace of the game and when he had the players, in that case Frank Sowinski and a couple other guys were shooting the lights out all through the season, when he had the players to run, get the open shot, take it, and pull back. Despite the fact that he emphasized defense, which slowed the game down quite a bit because this was still before the shot clock, he was perfectly willing to push the ball up the floor if he had the horses to do it. There were eras when he did, this being one of them. You ended up getting some different results depending on what kind of talent he really had access to so in this case they were shooting the lights out. And playing excellent defense against the Notre Dame team that wasn’t really used to seeing it that early in the season, and Digger came in got wiped out. Now he had been a freshman coach at Penn before this, which was interesting to remember because he knew Carril much better than he ever wanted to, and this game alone convinced him that he would never play Princeton again voluntarily. And he never did, joining the long line of major coaches around the country who refused to play here. They started by refusing to play at Princeton. And then extended it everywhere else. There were always rumors going around of teams that said yes we’ll play in your holiday tournament midseason in Hawaii or in the Caribbean or in Madison Square Garden — but if you end up inviting Pricneton, then I’m not coming.

BT: Just rumors, we don’t have confirmation—

GL: That’s rumors. On the other hand there were years when you could look that up, when Princeton was playing excellent basketball and when they were playing what you might consider to be fairly minor midseason tournaments or none at all. Trying to find games with people. First trying to find games with people who’d play them home and home and when that failed even then doing two and one match ups and things like this. It was very difficult for decades for Carril to get a competitive game outside the conference because no one wanted to play against them. they considered it an evening wasted. And that was one of the was one of the interesting sidelights, going into the 1989 NCAA Tournament when Princeton started winning again late in the ’80s and so few major national teams were used to playing against them. They came in and created a lot of chaos in the NCAA Tournament. And as a result of dumb luck the NCAA ended up not only saving the slots for the Cinderellas but ending up with a billion dollar contract for their basketball tournament, which has transformed college sports completely. So it all, believe it or not ties, together and goes back to Digger Phelps’ pocket square in 1977.

BT: And one small thing. Online from the last issue we did a podcast, speaking of basketball in the ’70s, about the early days of the Princeton women’s team. It was a great experience for me just to meet some of the women who started the team and talk with them. You get a real appreciation for how difficult it was to basically get a program going from scratch and find teams to play in and build up what has become a really good basketball league the Ivy League. The first league tournament was held in December of ’74 at Jadwin. The women were playing round robin over the course of two days, five games in two days, and they were thrilled to do it because they didn’t have the money to travel and have a normal league schedule so this was their chance to be Ivy champions. And Princeton was the Ivy champion for four straight years in the in the ’70s. So if you have a chance to check that out on the PAW website, that’s part of our PAW Tracks series.

Another thing from the first March issue: We had a That Was Then piece on an event during the Great Depression, The Daily Princetonian taking a creative approach to kind of serving as the interim bank during a federal bank holiday. And it’s an interesting little slice of history but it’s also interesting because of one of the folks involved in that was Bill Selden ’34, who was the business manager for the Prince at that time and then later on became an administrator at the University and other colleges. Gregg you knew him later on when he was writing histories of Princeton. He had an enormous range of knowledge of a lot of things related to Princeton. I spoke with him one time, he was a wonderful person to speak with. I know he made almost weekly trips to the archives here and wrote wonderful little history books about different Princeton institutions. Gregs, tell me what you remember of Bill Selden. I know that you have written a column about him. What was he like?

GL: Very very self-effacing guy. And extremely kindly and open to ideas. I mean he spent 50 years, starting under Christian Gauss at Princeton, and then extending through all kinds of colleges and think tanks and after 50 years was really the living preeminent authority on the structure and operation of higher education in the United States. You would have never known it to speak with him until you just simply asked him a question about what colleges run this aspect of their academic departments or such — he could just sit there and speak in complete paragraphs for half an hour, 45 minutes, and answer your question thoroughly and make you realize the depth of intellect. And an understanding of both research and teaching … Just an utterly brilliant man. So well adjusted. And so well focused that you would never have suspected it. And his writing, it’s reflected in his writing style with all of his descriptive stuff on Princeton, every one of which or some of the longer works is a treasure. I always have loved his summary of Reunions, which is, “Princeton P-rades, which may extend for three hours, might impress the uninitiated as being incongruous with the functions of a University.” Probably the great the great understatement of the 20th century, not that mention a couple centuries on either side. Just a magnificent man. Totally treasured by everyone who knew him. He was a councilman in Princeton after he came back with a think tank there and started to do writing on Princeton. He worked for every local charity there was in the community and just absolutely as beloved a human being as there ever was in the town. He lived to be 97 and died just eight years ago and was treasured every day of his life.

BT: I think that’s a great way to end this episode. If you have ideas for future episodes, topics you’d like us to explore, please send us an email at paw@princeton.edu.

And one final thought on basketball from Princeton coach Mitch Henderson ’98, a podcaster in his own right. This is from his Monday press conference, speaking about former head coach Pete Carril.

Mitch Henderson: Oh yeah, I talked to him last night. He’s supportive. He doesn’t give out much advice. He said, you know— I think we talked about shot selection, actually. But his voice is in my head a lot, you know. I remember when we were playing UCLA [in 1996]. He said, “I’m preparing you to win.” And I think as the ball got thrown up in the air we all ran back on defense. So you know, we’re not going to run back on defense on the tip. But the guys know that this is how we approach every game: We’re going to give them everything we’ve got.