Monday, November 17, 2008

Pete Newell: Basketball coach and teacher dies

By Dwight Chapin, Special to The San Fransisco Chronicle
Monday, November 17, 2008

Pete Newell waves to the crowd at halftime of the Pete Newel Challenge in Oakland in 2005. (Michael Macor / SFC)

(11-17) 14:14 PST -- Famed basketball coach and teaching legend Pete Newell, whose long journey in the sport included stops at USF and Cal, where he led the Bears to a national championship in 1959, died Monday at the age of 93.

Mr. Newell died at the Del Mar, San Diego County home of Earl Shultz, one of the players from his 1959 team. Shultz had served as Newell's caretaker for the past few years. Mr. Newell had surgery in 2005 for the removal of a malignant tumor from a lung.

The self-effacing coach always deflected the praise that came his way from his players and peers over many decades.

But others, such as coaching disciple and longtime friend Bob Knight frequently noted, with admiration, Mr. Newell's lasting place in basketball history.

"Three coaches had the most influence on college basketball in terms of tactics, both offensively and defensively," Knight said. "Clair Bee, Hank Iba and Pete. And I think Pete had the greatest total grasp. He really studied it and kept abreast of it, both professional and collegiate. He was truly remarkable."

Mr. Newell was born Aug. 3, 1915 in Vancouver, British Columbia. He grew up in Los Angeles, where through his mother's persistence he became a child actor before he was of kindergarten age, appearing in several "Our Gang" movie comedies and being strongly considered for a plum part opposite Charlie Chaplin in "The Kid" in the early 1920s.

But Jackie Coogan got the role, which didn't bother Mr. Newell at all.

"I hated acting," he said. "All I wanted to do was to be home playing ball."

Mr. Newell graduated from St. Agnes High School in Los Angeles in 1933 and went on to what is now Loyola Marymount University, where he played basketball for three seasons. He then coached at a military academy and played one season of minor league baseball in the Brooklyn Dodgers' organization before serving in the U.S. Navy from 1942-46.

His college coaching career began in '46 at USF, where his Dons' teams went 70-37 through 1950 and won the NIT - then the country's most prestigious tournament - in 1949.

It was at USF where the tall, slim, mild-mannered Newell began putting a lasting mark on the game, with an innovative zone-pressing defense that would become a hallmark of his teams and a model for other teams.

After USF, Mr. Newell coached four up-and-down seasons at Michigan State, then took over at Cal in 1954.

From the start, he was a formidable force in Berkeley, even against the likes of UCLA's renowned John Wooden. The last eight games their Bear and Bruin teams played against each other, Mr. Newell beat the not-yet Wizard of Westwood every time.

A smiling coach Pete Newell is hoisted to the shoulders of members of the California Bears basketball team March 21, 1959 after they won a close, 71-70 decision over West Virginia in Louisville to became NCAA champs. (CHARLIE KNOBLOCK / Associated Press)

Mr. Newell led Cal to four consecutive Pacific 8 titles from 1957-60, and in 1959 coached the Bears to their only NCAA championship, beating Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati in the semifinals and Jerry West and West Virginia in the final.

The following season, Mr. Newell's Bears again beat Robertson and Cincinnati in the NCAA semifinals, but lost to Jerry Lucas and Ohio State in the final, where Buckeye coach Fred Taylor used a defense Mr. Newell had willingly taught him a year earlier.

Those two Cal teams, which included players like Darrall Imhoff, Denny Fitzpatrick, Bill McClintock, Bob Dalton and Al Buch, clearly didn't have the individual talent of their Final Four opponents.

"But they were very, very bright," Mr. Newell once said. "And they had a great ability to play with each other and pick each other up."

And to listen to and learn from Mr. Newell.

A keen observer of those teams was Knight, who was on the Ohio State squad that bested the Bears for the national title in 1960.

"When I saw them, I thought, 'Here's a team that really knows how to play basketball,' " Knight said.

The players also revered Mr. Newell.

"Playing for him created a bond," Stan Morrison, who would become a coach himself, said in a 1999 Los Angeles Times interview. "We had a bunch of guys who would stay in that foxhole until the very end, but you never had to worry. That was the brotherhood that was nurtured by Pete."

And Rene Herrerias, Mr. Newell's Cal assistant and successor with the Bears, said, "You just don't see guys like Pete, then or now. Not the whole package. There was only one."

But Mr. Newell, the National Coach of the Year in 1960, ended his college coaching days that season, at the age of just 44, finishing with a cumulative record of 234-123.

"It was my health," he said, decades later. "I was carrying it all inside. I was smoking too many cigarettes, drinking too much coffee, and wasn't able to eat. I wouldn't eat anything from Thursday to Saturday."

Texas Tech head coach Bob Knight, right, hugs former coach Pete Newell before the start of a game between Knight's team and Stanford during the Pete Newell basketball tournament in San Jose, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 3, 2006. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Mr. Newell had one more coaching stop, however. He led the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team, which included West, Robertson and Lucas, to a 1960 gold medal.

That completed a "Triple Crown" only two other coaches have achieved - NIT, NCAA and Olympic titles.

Mr. Newell then went from coaching basketball to something he loved even more: teaching it.

After he left coaching, Mr. Newell became an administrator, serving as athletic director during at often-turbulent period at Cal from 1960-68, then as general manager of the NBA San Diego Rockets from 1968-72 and the Lakers from 1972-76, engineering a trade that brought Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Los Angeles. He then worked as a consultant and director of player personnel for the Warriors and started a long scouting stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But Nr. Newell, who was elected to the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979, was busy teaching all the while, too, setting up a film program for the Peace Corps, volunteering to help develop the Japanese national basketball program, writing instructional books.

"Coaching can be about ego, money, terms of contracts, desire to move to the next level," Newell told the San Jose Mercury News in 2002. "Teaching is faceless. I get a thrill from helping a kid get a scholarship when he otherwise wouldn't have the chance to go to college or helping a kid with two left feet making the high school varsity."

Well into his octogenarian days, Mr. Newell would help players at the major college and NBA levels at his annual Big Man's camps in Los Angeles, Hawaii and later Las Vegas, where he taught millionaire pros how to play better in the post - and didn't charge them a dime for the instruction.

Along the way he elicited glowing comments like this from Shaquille O'Neal: "He's the best teacher there is."

In later years, Mr. Newell added yearly Tall Women's camps, held in Monterey, to his teaching schedule, commuting from his home in the Del Mar area, where the racetrack became one of his favorite recreational stops.
Mr. Newell was honored in the Bay Area in 1997, with the inception of an annual tournament called the Pete Newell Challenge.

His view of basketball remained keen, and, if he thought appropriate, sharply critical.

"Players today have increased physical skills, but basketball skills have diminished," he said a few years ago. "I resent the fact that many of them take the game for granted. It starts at the top, though. It's an overpriced, corporate-dominated business run by lawyers who have a bad product, and don't know how to fix it."

Mr. Newell spent a lifetime fixing what was wrong with the sport, building it, and, more than anything, teaching it.

Newell's wife, Florence, died in 1984.He is survived by sons Pete Jr., who retired in 2005 after an acclaimed coaching career at Santa Cruz High School; Tom, Roger and Greg.

Dwight Chapin is a former Chronicle Staff Writer.

Great coach, Great man

By Bruce Jenkins, San Fransisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008

Press conference for the ninth annual Pete Newell Challenge college basketball tournament in the Courtside Club of the Arena in Oakland in 2005. Newell died Monday at the age of 93. (Chris Stewart / SFC)

(11-17) 14:33 PST -- I sat across from John Wooden at his San Fernando Valley apartment in the summer of 1990, delivering questions about the man he could not beat. An eternity had passed, more than 30 years, but the legendary Wooden was squirming just a little. Such was the impact of Pete Newell on his legacy and his psyche.

There hasn't been another coach like Newell, who died at the age of 93 on Monday, and few could match him as a man. He probably saved his own life when he quit coaching, way back in 1960, but for those whose memories don't stretch much farther than Al McGuire, his absence clouded the truth about his place in history.

There are those who feel Newell was the greatest basketball coach of all time, and to them, the issue isn't even debatable. He built empires out of sawdust, all the while molding impressionable youngsters into the men they would become.

This wasn't about a firm hand or gentle guidance; Newell literally changed lives with advice having nothing to do with sports. I heard highly successful businessmen, one after another, giving Newell 100 percent credit for their careers. He coached teams (at Michigan State) that fell considerably short of glory, yet gather annually for reunions celebrating his influence.

As long as I pursue the business of sportswriting, I'll never have a more satisfying project than assembling Newell's biography in the 1990s. An autobiography was the quick and easy way out, but it wouldn't have been worth a damn; Newell wasn't terribly fond of noting his own accomplishments. Through the words of others, the complete Newell came forth: the style, the substance, the quirks.

Bill Russell, seldom inclined to accommodate the media, stopped in his tracks at the mention of Newell's name. Jerry West and Oscar Robertson revealed their frustration, to this day, over losing to Newell's pack of Cal plowhorses. His former players talked reverentially for hours, wishing it could have been days.

And Wooden? He'd just as soon change the subject. He wouldn't admit to me that Newell had his number, even though the evidence was plain for all to see.

There was a landmark Cal-UCLA game, unencumbered by television interests, in which neither Wooden nor Newell had called a timeout. It was a source of pride for both men; forget the flash cards, the meetings or even an assistant coach. Their players knew what to do - any time, any situation - and they were in shape. Timeouts were a blatant sign of weakness.

With about four minutes left, Wooden had no choice; one of his players was noticeably dragging. He called time, and Cal went on to win. That was the spring of 1957, and the streak was born. "Do you know that they never beat us again?" said Newell, who retired three years later with eight straight wins against Wooden. "And they never played timeouts again with us. Psychologically, that had so much to do with our confidence every time we played them. Our guys just figured, 'We never called timeout. They did.' "

A number of readers think I'm crazy in my unconditional admiration for Bobby Knight, but it stems from some unforgettable sessions I had with Knight, a Newell protégé, during the research process. "I think Wooden was a very good coach, but I don't think anything beyond that," Knight told me during an interview rife with insight and good cheer. "I don't say that to detract from Wooden, but come on, Pete Newell? He's simply the best there ever was."

Newell never took credit for it, but many feel he invented the modern-day press, long before Wooden popularized it with the Gail Goodrich-Walt Hazzard teams of the mid-'60s. He was an innovator in utilizing quick, undersized guards at a time (the 1940s) when big men occupied the backcourt. He single-handedly eliminated a strong East Coast bias against West Coast basketball when his USF team won the 1949 NIT tournament, then the most prestigious in the land, at Madison Square Garden. And his work at Cal - the 1959 NCAA title, then a 28-2 record in his farewell season - speaks for itself.

EDUARDO CONTRERAS / San Diego Union-Tribune
NBA coach Rick Carlisle called Pete Newell, "The greatest treasure we have in our sport. He is the godfather of modern basketball."

More than all this, though, I remember the man. People marveled at his instincts, his innate sense of the human spirit, his ability to accurately size up a person within moments. I learned that he was a coffee-swilling poker player by the age of 10; that he came from an ethnically diverse neighborhood in the heart of Los Angeles; that he was a child actor in Hollywood, routinely brawling with other kids over their jokes about his haircut; that he had seen Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila and Singapore by the age of 19 as a steamship deck cadet; that he witnessed the horrors of World War II as a Navy seaman.

On top of this priceless experience, Newell was the Pat Riley of his day, an exceptionally handsome man with a celebrity's natural ease - "the type of guy who could walk into the Crosby (golf) tournament and be as bright and witty as anyone there," said Cappy Lavin (father of Steve), one of his players at USF. And if he brought his wife along, all the better. Knight thought so much of Florence Newell that he often called her for advice - on anything, including basketball - and stayed on the phone with her for hours without ever mentioning Pete.

Newell came across as a kindly old sort during his many years running the Big Man's Camp, but he was a scrapper at heart. As a rugged forward for Loyola of Los Angeles in the 1930s, he usually accumulated more fouls than points. He wasn't above telling a player, "Go in there and give (so-and-so) a belt. See how he takes it. See what he looks like." One of his favorite guys off the Cal bench was Joe Kapp (the future NFL quarterback), who once approached the USC locker room at halftime and challenged the entire team to a fight. One memorable night in New York, Newell, Kapp and several other Cal players engaged in an all-out brawl with some local toughs over the rights to a taxicab.

All the while, Newell was a bit mysterious, routinely engaging in late-night excursions to piano bars and taverns in cities around the country, always alone, never offering much in the way of detail. ("There was a little mystique about him, kind of a silent-Satan side," said former Cal player Bob Dalton. "He was like a phantom.") He could be remarkably forgetful, too, once chiding Florence for not picking him up during a fierce Midwestern snowstorm, when in fact he had driven to the Michigan State campus himself. These were the humanizing elements, the things that endeared him to friends and former players for all time.

By 1960, with a national title in his wake and an undefeated Cal season in progress, Newell was immersed so deeply in a coffee-and-cigarettes diet, he was stressed out beyond all reason. He was fine during the games, brilliant as ever, but he never felt right about his preparation. Had he forgotten something? Would his players react to a certain defensive alignment? He couldn't eat without throwing up, so he stewed in his torment, unable to speak or even take the floor as the opening tipoff approached. He'd be lurking in a hallway somewhere, furiously puffing away, before making a last-second appearance on the court.

The Cal fans never worried. Newell was a living, breathing legend in their minds, imparting as much knowledge and life lessons as any professor on the Berkeley campus. At the sight of him they would chant his name ("Hello, Pete Newell!") and break into long standing ovations.

"God, I hated that," Newell once said. "I still cringe when I hear my name."

He hears it no more, but it rings through the pages of history.

E-mail Bruce Jenkins at

Bruce Jenkins' biography of Pete Newell, "A Good Man," is available from

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