Monday, July 20, 2009

July 20, 1969 - On 40th Anniversary of the Moon Landing, Where Was Villanova Basketball?

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

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.

"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.'
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.

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

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.

Go Wildcats!

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...

There are two ways you can contact Villanova Viewpoint. One is by commenting on this blog. Comments are encouraged, and will always be answered. Also, you can e-mail (Important note: This is a different e-mail address than before. Please use this new one.)


Anonymous said...

Villanova played at the Spectrum in 1967, as I recall, in what I think was the Holiday Classic. I was there -- and I'm pretty sure Duquesne knocked us out in the first or second round. I think it was 1967, but it might have been 1968, it was certainly not years later.

This is off-topic, but I need to say something about it somewhere. Many of the Villanova blogs heaped scorn on the administration at Villanova for denying Jay what he was entitled to early in his tenure by insisting that the financing for the basketball practice facility be in place before construction began.

The August 2009 edition of "Vanity Fair" (latest edition) has an incredible story on the "financial train wreck" at Harvard that bears on this issue. Harvard's liquid endowment (the part that's usable) may be down as much as 50%; multi-billion building projects are on hold, nothing but giant holes in the ground; Harvard needed to borrow $1 billion (BILLION) earlier this year (a third of its operating budget)just to stay afloat. The place can't cut costs fast enough to match reverses so "Harvard is f#cked" in the pithy phrase of one well-placed observer. Amazing story -- and quite convincing in its detail.

One of the factors leading this great institution to this bleak place was the arrogance that led it to spend $3.6 billion on capital additions (buildings) between 1980 and 2000. So far so good. But then it planned on nearly doubling that between 2000 and 2010, often relying on debt financing, in the believe that Harvard, after all, could sell naming rights once the buildings were finished.

It turns out that's not the way it works. It is apparently easier to sell naming rights before a shovel has been turned than after the building is complete. So, a lot of the $1 billion Harvard had to borrow this year went to cover interest costs on the debt it had taken on in order to expand -- a loan that will eat into Harvard's budgets for the next generation.

The point is that the Augustinians may be conservative. And the Board may be hard-nosed in insisting that 75-80% of the money be committed before construction starts, but this Harvard story is a genuine cautionary tale. It seems that the men in collars on the Main Line were better financiers than the men and women in Cambridge with MBAs.


Villanova Viewpoint Publisher said...

Hello, Seamus-

Thanks for the correction, and for such a substantive comment below. It's not off-topic, as the subject is Villanova in all its aspects...

After I read your comment, I had to try to puzzle the question out of the media guide, as to when the first Villanova game at the Spectrum...

Your memory is usually spot-on. (In particular, your recollection of the NCAA tournament loss to Duke back in 1964, and the name of the player who had done it...)

I generally rely on the media guide for historical research. (Like any publication, including this blog, the media guide is not always perfect, of course, but it's my only frame of reference...)

Going through season-by-season after the Spectrum opened on September 30, 1967:

The first games officially listed as having taken place at the Spectrum, was in the 1969-70 season. Whether by accident, or design, Villanova played a trio of alliterative opponents:

December 27, 1969 - Connecticut - 89-71 victory (pre-Big East, of course)

December 29, 1969 - Columbia - 76-64 loss

December 30, 1969 - Cornell - 63-58 loss

(Footnote - we played four of the eight Ivy League schools that year, which is probably the most ever. We won at Princeton, 60-46, and lost to Penn at the Palestra, 59-55.)

In the appendix, these three games are identified as "Quaker City Tournament, Palestra". But in the 1969-70 season results, they're listed as "Spectrum".

I speculate that this December 1969tournament is probably the one you describe. You mentioned Duquesne, though.

We played Duquesne every year back in the 1960s, and there's a record of a loss to them at the Palestra at Christmas time, 1967 (78-59, on December 27).

That's the only time we played them around the holidays, in that range of years, according to the guide. (Perhaps Duquesne was in the holiday tournament field in December 1969, but we didn't play them.)

I'll be curious to see if this information helps.

On the subject of buildings-

I wasn't aware of the difficulties that Harvard's been having with its endowment, and it was interesting reading. I can't really offer much of an intelligent opinion on the issue you raise, though.

Keep commenting - very cool stuff to read-

Go Wildcats!

Anonymous said...

Just came across this, five years after. Interesting essay, one small correction and one interesting sidelight.
1. The first game that season was actually against DePauw, a small Div. 2 school, not DePaul, who as you noted they played later that season. I believe even the Villanova media guide has this wrong, but I saw that game on Ch. 17 and it was DePauw.
2. On the subject of NCAA appearances, Villanova actually turned down a NCAA bid in 1965 to go to the NIT (how times have changed), so in a way 1968-69 it was three years without an NCAA bid, not four. They would have been placed in the Mideast regional (first time I am aware that a team was placed out of home region). As I recall, the bid was turned down because it would have involved missing an entire week of school due to travel and they weren't willing to do that.
At any rate, interesting article and hope my belated post is passed on.