Pete Newell was not yet 45 years old when he retired from college basketball coaching in 1960. In fact, he turned 45 during the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he was head coach of the gold medal-winning USA powerhouse, thus going out in a blaze of glory. Of course, he knew quite a bit about glory before that, taking unrated U. San Francisco to the NIT title (when the NIT was more important than the NCAA Tournament) in 1949. A graduate of Loyola (California), where he played under 1936 US Olympic coach Jim Needles, he served four years, 1942-46, in the US Navy during World War II.
From there, he had a short, 14-year college coaching career: four years at USF, including that NIT title; four years at Michigan State; six years at California Berkeley, where he was 119-44, and won the NCAA title in 1959, then taking 2nd in 1960. He was thought to be the best coach of his generation. How good was he? Well, he won the last eight games he coached vs. UCLA’s John Wooden. With regard to that 1959 NCAA title, someone said, “There were 100 college teams with better talent that year but none with a better coach.” His defensive principles, conditioning work and Dovetail Offense were widely copied.
A quick personal story. I’d met Pete through Forddy Anderson, as I was Forddy’s freshman coach at Michigan State, 1963-65. In my first year as a head coach, at Delaware, 1966-67, in our third game, we were annihilated by Penn, in the Palestra, 106-75. Our defense was horrible. I called Pete and mentioned how soft we were on defense. He said, “Next practice, get mad at them, throw your whistle away and let them play ‘rugby,’ with no fouls called and no sidelines or end lines.” I did just that. Next game, we upset Navy, at home, 67-62, and went on to finish 15-9. So, I knew of his genius first-hand and was thankful I did.
I had followed the USA team through the 1960 Olympics as well as was possible … in 1960. Now, the USA had already won a gold medal in Europe, in Helsinki, in 1952. But that was at the ‘dawn’ of big-time European Basketball and not that long after the end of World War II, so the effect of that team was not fully felt on the Continent. The impact of the 1960 USA team, however, was overwhelming and is still talked about in European Basketball circles. Yes, much of that was due to the greatness of Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas. But it was also due to the undisputed brilliance of Pete Newell.