We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. We covered Penn now because Steve Donahue knows what’s up:
— Steve Donahue (@Coach_Donahue) July 5, 2015
For those who did not experience it, the 1979 Penn Final Four season is almost indescribable. It was a once in a lifetime moment that happened to last two weeks. As students, our time in Philly was indelibly shaped by the completely unexpected rise of the Red and Blue to national prominence. School spirit was at an all-time high, and people who otherwise knew and cared little about college basketball were swept up in the mania that those few weeks in March brought. USA Today ranks it as the greatest Final Four ever and it is still, 36 years later, one of the highest-rated in terms of television viewership. This is because it not only changed our lives, but it changed the panorama of college basketball in America forever.
The ‘78-79 campaign started out like most for the Quakers in Bob Weinhauer’s second year as head coach. The team had finished 20-8 in his rookie season and was well on its way to repeating as Ivy League champions. The Quakers deftly handled their nonconference schedule, losing only to Iowa in two overtimes and getting blown out by San Diego State, 110-86. Then in late January came the Georgetown game at the Palestra. It was a nationally televised contest, a rarity for an Ivy League school, on a freezing Saturday afternoon. (Let’s face it, the networks certainly weren’t going to give it Brown or Cornell). The Cathedral was packed. Georgetown was ranked 10th in the nation and featured All-American guard Eric “Sleepy” Floyd and forward Craig “Big Sky” Shelton. (They just don’t make nicknames like that anymore. Tony “Big Float” Hicks? Nah.)
All I remember from that game was freshman Angelo Reynolds giving Penn a three-point lead at the half (32-29), and standing the entire second stanza until my feet hurt. The Quakers would eventually lose, 78-76, but following the game coach Bob Weinhauer was prophetic: “If they’re 10, then we’re 10A.” (In fact, it turns out the then 39-year old coach was even more prophetic. In a recent Delco Times interview, the coach said, “We knew we were going to be pretty good. In fact, during the summer leading up to the season, I wrote each of the players a letter and gave them as one of our goals not just to get the NCAA Playoffs but to get to the Final Four.”)
The team would go on to drop only one more game, inexplicably to Columbia, before its magical run through the NCAA Tournament.
Life was different then, however. At the time, college basketball was a fringe sport. There was no such thing as “March Madness.” It was more like “March.” The NCAA Tournament barely got media coverage and only 40 schools were selected. It was also the first time that teams were “seeded” based on their records. But because there were no early defections to the NBA, the players were more talented.
What’s more, the list of head coaches participating in the 1979 tourney reads like a Who’s Who of national champions and Hall of Famers: Denny Crum, Jud Heathcote, Dean Smith, Lute Olson, John Thompson, Jim Boeheim, Jim Valvano, Lou Carnesecca, (*former Penn assistant) Digger Phelps, Dale Brown, Billy Tubbs, Bobby Cremins, Eddie Sutton and Ray Meyer. The Quakers somehow made their way through this gauntlet of prodigious talent to reach, at that point, the most anticipated Final Four of all time. This was the tournament that truly put the “Madness” in March that we all now celebrate each year. Of course, all the real anticipation was for the Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird matchup, but No. 9-seeded Penn held a special place among the quartet — the Quakers were the original Cinderella Team, an unknown, low seeded, Ivy League squad from whom anything was possible.
On campus, we too felt anything was possible. The Quakers had beaten a bevy of high-profile teams, including North Carolina, Syracuse (scoring 50 in the first half) and St. John’s, to reach the Promised Land and no one could talk about anything else. Even the faculty was swept up by Final Four Mania. Howard Brody (now deceased) my physics professor, and the world’s authority on the physics of tennis, used basketballs to explain projectile motion. Alan MacDiarmid, my chemistry professor (also deceased), lectured us extensively on how one day plastics and would be able to conduct an electrical charge and therefore change the way arena video screens and scoreboards would be constructed. (This was in fact a sneak peak at the research that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 21 years later.) Naturally, the student body was even more alight with excitement. “Show No Pity in Salt Lake City” was the school-rallying cry. Signs from dormitory windows proclaiming, “The Secret is Out!” and “The Quakers Don’t Believe in Magic” were everywhere. There was an air of invincibility to this team. They had beaten enormous odds to reach the Final Four. Therefore there was no reason to think that they couldn’t continue this wild ride of destiny to win the National Championship. In fact, our school was counting on it. Then, after a huge pep rally at Franklin Field where 10,000 people sent the team off to Utah, West Philly began to empty with Penn students heading west in packed cars and chartered planes.
In the pre-digital age, no one on the Quaker coaching staff had seen Michigan State play, not even on television. The Big Ten also refused to provide any game film. (Midwestern yahoos.) However, Penn received some help from an unlikely source. Always the Southern Gentleman, Dean Smith, whose Tar Heels had played, and beaten, the Spartans earlier in the season, gave Weinhauer a game tape which was their only glimpse of Magic Johnson and company. Of course, it didn’t help. The game against Michigan State was a depressing, demoralizing letdown. I cringed as Penn missed lay up after lay up in the first few minutes. The score was 50-17 at the half. To make things worse, Al McQuire the TV color commentator could not stop mocking our heros. (“I heard Matt White’s SAT scores are off the charts. Better than his shooting right now. I also heard he is a concert pianist. Maybe he should go back to the playing the piano.” These profligate comments were not appreciated.)Personally, I think the national spotlight with 40 million people watching was simply too much for a team that was more accustomed to playing in the backwater arenas of the Ivy League than on national television against a transcendent sports star. Even on our modest dorm room TV, I could see the terror in Booney Salters’ face as the game began. The Quakers would eventually regroup two days later, narrowly losing in overtime to Mark Aguirre’s DePaul Blue Demons in the consolation game.
Regardless, the 1979 Final Four squad is probably the most famous Penn sports team of all time, and it remains the greatest underdog run in NCAA history. For two wondrous weeks in March, that squad united a campus, a league, a city and, more importantly, was part of a watershed moment in American sports. For the rest of the basketball-watching country our Quakers were “the possibility,” but for those of us who were fortunate enough to have known them, they were simply unforgettable.
Stay Red & Blue my friends,