Forty years ago today, the U.S. space program's Eagle landed on the moon and U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon - an incredible accomplishment, that will be remembered forever.
This anniversary dominates today's news coverage. As it certainly should.
Which led me to this idea:
Since we're looking back to July 20, 1969 - what was the state of Villanova basketball, 40 years ago today? (I do not remember it, firsthand, and so all of the following was learned from research.)
In the summer of 1969, a Villanova student who watched the moon landing, had every right to feel excited and optimistic, about the state of the Villanova Wildcats basketball program. Of course, he would have had no way to know that two seasons later, Villanova would reach the NCAA championship game, and give the UCLA dynasty of John Wooden a considerable challenge.
The college basketball landscape differed considerably from today.
Home games were not played at the Pavilion, as there would be no Pavilion, until nearly two decades later. The Wildcats split their time between what we now know as Jake Nevin Fieldhouse, and the Palestra at the University of Pennsylvania. It was a situation roughly parallel with the Pavilion and the Wachovia Center nowadays. A majority of the games were on-campus, with unique games - and of course, all four of Villanova's Big Five games - at the Palestra. (All ten of the City Series games were played there.)
In South Philadelphia, the "old Spectrum", which is now defunct, was at the time state-of-the-art, having just opened in the fall of 1967. It was simply "the Spectrum", and not named after any banks. But Villanova did not play games there. The first game at the Spectrum was years in the future.
(Correction: Please see the comment below by Seamus, who provides more accurate information, as to when the first Villanova game took place at the old Spectrum.)
Of course, there was no cable television, and no ESPN (Dick Vitale was still coaching then, in fact.) Although the rise of cable TV would alter the fortunes of college athletics significantly, the concept of an entire network based entirely on sports, would have been foreseen by very few people at the time. There were only three broadcast networks and a slew of UHF stations.
Villanova's coaching position has always been a long-term situation, and since July 20, 1969, there have only been four coaches. Jack Kraft was the coach when the Eagle landed, and he would be succeeded by Rollie Massimino, Steve Lappas, and Jay Wright. (Wright was seven, at the time of the moon landing.)
There was no Big East Conference - that wasn't created until 1979. And Villanova was an independent, slating its own schedule.
The NCAA tournament was a much smaller event then, in terms of size, revenue, and popular interest. Although declining, the NIT was still a competitor for March attention. Only 25 teams were invited to the NCAA tournament, and no conference was permitted more than one bid.
The Wildcats were one of the 25 teams invited to the tournament, yet to be nicknamed March Madness. The starters for the 1968-69 Wildcats were Frank Gillon, Johnny Johns, Fran O'Hanlon, Sammy Sims, and Howard Porter.
Rounding out the roster were John Fox, Frank McCall, Jim McIntosh, Bob Melchionni, John Schroeder, Clarence Smith, Joe Walter, Harold Watson, and Leon Wojnowski. Porter is honored with a Pavilion banner today. Future NBA player and coach Chris Ford was a freshman, but freshmen were ineligible back then.
Officially, the Wildcats opened the 1968-69 season at the Palestra, defeating DePaul, but since they also have a mid-season victory over DePaul at the Palestra, it would appear that somehow the game was double-listed.
At the Fieldhouse, they bested Princeton and Philadelphia Textile (now Philadelphia University). They returned to the Palestra to defeat Catholic University easily. (As you can see, some opponents have changed, others have not.)
The Wildcats then headed north to Manhattan for the "Holiday Festival" tournament, where they fell to #2 North Carolina, but defeated Holy Cross and Michigan. Making a road trip to upstate New York, they edged St. Bonaventure by a point, and Niagara (where Bilal Benn would transfer, four decades later) by five.
Villanova opened City Series play by walloping St. Joseph's, 87-62, one of the most lopsided margins in the history of the series. Then one of the most bizarre games in Big Five history took place, between Villanova and Penn, on January 15, 1969.
The Wildcats were 8-1 and ranked 10th nationally, with their only loss to #2 North Carolina. Penn coach Dick Harter, a resourceful strategist, instructed the underdog Quakers to play stallball. And Penn eked out a 32-30 victory over the Wildcats. Of course, there was no shot clock then, and no three-point shot. The UPI article about the game, headlined Stall Pays Off As Penn. Tops Villanova, 32-30, states that:
Dick Harter... devised a simple game plan in setting up the stall Wednesday night against 10th-ranked Villanova.Interestingly enough, the final NCAA game without a shot clock took place just over 16 years later, on April 1, 1985. Massimino's Wildcats shocked Georgetown, 66-64, in Lexington, Kentucky, to capture the program's first national championship.
"We told the players to shoot only when they were sure it was going in." That's just what his five players, who went all the way, did as they stunned Villanova...
"Regardless of whether it works, Harter defends the use of the stall. Although some coaches claim the stall should be abolished, Harter says their howls do not bother him.
'We're playing to win and we'd do it in the NCAA finals if we thought it was the way to win.'
The Wildcats shook off the stunning loss to Penn well enough, winning their next six games:
@ Virginia Tech, Detroit at the Palestra, DePaul at the Palestra, @ Toledo, @ Fairfield, and a thrilling overtime victory over St. John's.
The Wildcats dropped their third game of the season to La Salle at the Palestra, but they rebounded to blow out Canisius there. Their fourth loss was @ Duquesne. They returned to campus to defeat Providence, and completed City Series play at 2-2 after topping Temple at the Palestra.
Villanova then ended its regular season, with victories over Xavier and @ Seton Hall. (There was no conference tournament then, of course, being an independent.) Villanova was 21-4, and although they were not automatically invited to the NCAA tournament, they likely felt reasonably optimistic about their chances.
It had been a while since Villanova had gone to the NCAA tournament. Kraft had become head coach in 1961-62, succeeding the founding father of Villanova basketball, Alexander Severance.
This was Kraft's ninth season at the helm, and his Wildcats had gone to the postseason every year. In 1962 and 1964, Villanova had been to the NCAA tournament. The previous four seasons had been NIT years, but it must be remembered that at the time, going to the NIT was considerably more prestigious than it is today. After all, the entire NCAA field was only 25 teams.
And so the Wildcats were one of the seven teams assigned to the East region. This was sufficiently far in the past, that teams were actually assigned to their genuine geographical region. All seven East teams were actually from the East. And there was no official seeding.
The Wildcats were slotted to take on Davidson in the first round, in Raleigh, NC. It would be Wildcats against Wildcats.
This was not a good break, as Davidson - located in North Carolina - had a significant home-court advantage. They also had a fine coach, in Lefty Driesell (pre-Maryland). And the Villanova Wildcats could not overcome it.
Jack Kraft's Villanova squad fell to the Davidson Wildcats, 75-61. Davidson had a good run, defeating St. John's as well, before falling to cross-state rival North Carolina in the Regional Final - the Elite Eight.
UCLA - as usual - ended up winning the tournament, with Lew Alcindor being named Most Outstanding Player. As previously mentioned, two years later, Villanova would take them on in the title game. It would be Villanova's second appearance in the Final Four, and its first since appearing in the inaugural Final Four in 1939.
So, after this look at the past, there will be more on Dante Cunningham, in subsequent posts.
I'll be completing the Senior Farewell series, in which I'll be looking back at the Villanova tenure of Cunningham, this final departing Wildcat. The Dwayne Anderson, Frank Tchuisi, and Shane Clark series are now completed...
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