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A Righteous Man

September 16, 2009
by Martin Snapp
Pete Newell next to a statue of himself

Legendary basketball coach Pete Newell.

Pete Newell, the coaching legend who led Cal to its only NCAA basketball championship in 1959, died last November 17. His friends are still trying to figure out how he managed to cram so much living into only 93 years. 

He was one of only three coaches—along with Dean Smith and Bob Knight, who called him “one of the cornerstones of the game”—to win college basketball’s triple crown, taking the Bears to both NCAA and NIT titles and coaching the gold medal-winning 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball team. 

“With all respect to John Wooden, it’s no coincidence that he didn’t start winning all those championships at UCLA until Coach Pete retired,” says Joe Kapp ’60, who, in addition to his illustrious football career, played hoops for Newell at Cal. “The last eight times they played, Coach Pete won all eight games.” 

Newell also achieved great success in the NBA as a scout for the Golden State Warriors, and as general manager for the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers, which he turned into champions by trading for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

But first and foremost, he was a teacher. “I always looked forward to practice because I knew I was going to learn something new each time,” says Bob Dalton ’59, who played guard on that NCAA championship team. “It was like going to a lecture by a great professor like Raymond Sontag or Ernst Frankel, anticipating what he was going to say. We all listened in absolute silence, hanging on every word.” 

“Teaching was his life,” adds Ned Averbuck ’61, who played forward and center. “He considered the court to be an extension of the classroom. He would lead you to the threshold of the right answer without imposing it on you.” 

The day after Newell died, John Madden said on his radio show, “Pete Newell was one of the great coaches. There are some coaches I’ve always felt could coach anything—they were good coaches because they were good teachers and Pete Newell was one of them. Pete Newell could have been one of the all-time great coaches in any sport.” And Bill Walsh, who was an assistant football coach at Cal at the tail end of the Newell era, said shortly before his own death, “The person I admired the most and always wanted to be like is Pete Newell.” 

Peter Francis Newell was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, on August 31, 1915, and grew up in Los Angeles. His mother urged him to become a child actor, and as a toddler he appeared in several “Our Gang” movies. 

In 1921 he was up for the starring role opposite Charlie Chaplin in The Kid, but lost out to Jackie Coogan—to his great relief. “I started out when I was 3 years old, and I guess I was 7 or 8 before I was able to get out of the damn thing. All I wanted to do was go out and play baseball like the other kids,” he said in an interview with Bruce Jenkins, author of the biography A Good Man: The Pete Newell Story

Newell attended Loyola Marymount University, where he starred on both the baseball and basketball teams. “I think he knew even more about baseball than he did about basketball, but basketball was his true love,” says Rene Herrerias, Newell’s assistant coach and eventual successor as head coach at Cal. 

After college Newell spent a year in the Brooklyn Dodgers’s farm system before joining the Navy, where he served from 1942 until 1946. 

He began his coaching career in 1946 at USF. Three years later, he won the NIT—the most prestigious tournament in the country at that time—and perfected the zone press defense that became his teams’ hallmark. It became a model for other coaches, including John Wooden, who installed it at UCLA. And Newell’s innovative “reverse action” offense—the basis of many NBA offenses today, including the Lakers’s “triangle offense”—was simple but deadly, relying on perfect execution instead of gimmick plays. 

After a four-year stint at Michigan State he became head coach at Cal in 1954. Longtime San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Glenn Dickey ’58 was a Daily Californian reporter at the time. “Coaches sometimes brush off college writers, but Newell treated us on The Daily Cal with as much respect as he showed to writers from the area’s newspapers,” he wrote after Newell died. 

Like Pappy Waldorf, Newell never yelled at his players for a mistake. “He didn’t have to,” says Herrerias. “He just gave you The Look.” 

“He could look right through you,” concurs Herb Friedman ’59, a guard from 1955 to 1957. “But when the play was perfect, his eyes would light up and get bigger and bigger, and a big smile came across his face from seeing the purity of the action.” 

Newell was a master psychologist, with an unerring feel for which players performed best with a pat on the back and which performed best with a kick in the pants. But he had no patience for goof-offs. “You haven’t lived until you’ve been thrown out of the gym by Pete,” says forward Bert Mastrov ’57. 

None of his players ever made the All-Pacific Coast Conference first team, let alone All-American. Yet his 1959 squad beat a Cincinnati team starring Oscar Robertson in the NCAA semifinal and a West Virginia team starring Jerry West in the final. “The secret was that we were a team,” says Mastrov. “There were no stars with Pete. Everyone was equal.” 

“He was able to take a group of fairly mediocre players and make us believe in ourselves so much that we never had to look over to the bench for the play,” adds Dalton. “We were maybe the smartest team ever.” 

But at the peak of success, after winning the 1959 NCAA title and the 1960 Olympic gold medal, Newell quit. He was only 44. 

“He was such a perfectionist, and the stress was pretty rough on him,” says forward Dave Stafford ’61. “He smoked like a chimney, and he couldn’t eat on game weekends.” Wendell agrees, adding, “He was such a calm, cool character on the outside, but you could tell how the pressure was eating at him by the way he’d suck on towels during games.” 

Newell moved up to the Athletic Director’s job in 1960, serving until 1967 when he began his second career in the NBA. In 1976 he retired to take care of his ailing wife, Florence, who died in 1984. Asked if he ever considered remarrying, he replied, “Only when I’m alone and driving in the diamond lane.” A devout Catholic, he attended Mass every day until failing health forced him to cut back to once a week. His first prayer was always for Florence, said several members of the 1959 NCAA team. 

After his retirement he launched his third career: founder and director of the annual Pete Newell Big Man’s Camp, where more than 200 NBA stars learned the fundamentals of playing the post. Among them were Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaquille O’Neal, who said, “He’s the best teacher there is!” Newell didn’t want to accept money for his instruction, explaining, “I owe it all to the game. I can never repay what the game has given me.” In 2001 he added the yearly Tall Women’s Camp for WNBA players. 

Pete Newell was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979, and in 2000 the NCAA created the Pete Newell Big Man Award, bestowed on the top college frontcourt player in the country. In 1987 the playing surface at Harmon Gym (now called Haas Pavilion) was named the Pete Newell Court. 

That same year, the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito awarded him one of the country’s highest honors, the Order of the Sacred Treasures, for his contribution to teaching basketball in Japan. He’d traveled there in the 1960’s, setting up basketball camps and popularizing the sport. 

But all these honors pale compared to his place in the hearts of his players. “There’s an old Jewish prophecy that the earth has 36 righteous men; and as long as they’re here, the world will be just fine,” says Mastrov. “I think we just lost one.”

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