Brett Kavanaugh and the ’85-’86 Yale Bulldogs

Following the recent nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the Yale Daily News noted that the Eli alum (’83-’87 Undergrad; ’87-’90 Law) was once a writer at the paper’s sports department. While journalists and commentators across the nation scour and highlight his voluminous legal output, we here at IHO have looked at his writings to take a (lengthy) look back at his work with the 1985-1986 Yale men’s basketball team.

The Bulldogs finished the 1984-1985 season with a 14-12 overall record and a 7-7 mark in the Ivy League.  They were tied for fourth with Harvard and Princeton, three games off the pace of league champ Penn, two games behind Columbia and one game back of Cornell.  Yale won five of its last seven, including a home sweep of the Empire State Ivies and a 77-75 victory over the Quakers at the Palestra.  Sophomore center Chris Dudley, who averaged 12.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game, was named to the All-Ivy first team.

Penn, led by first team All-Ivy junior guard Perry Bromwell and junior center Bruce Lefkowitz, was the preseason favorite to win the conference.  In his November 21, 1985 season preview, Kavanaugh wrote, “Penn finished 10-4 in the Ivies last season, and their four losses were by a total of only 11 points.  If they are disciplined and play as a team under new coach Tom Schneider, the Quakers should repeat as champions.”  According to the coaches preseason poll, Yale was picked second, followed by Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth and Brown.  Kavanaugh predicted a similar top five with Dartmouth, Brown, and Harvard in the bottom three spots.

The Elis welcomed all five starters back and had visions of becoming the first Yale team to win the conference since 1962, and the first non-Penn or Princeton team to take it all since Columbia won the 1968 title.  Joining Dudley in the starting lineup were four sophomores, Brian Fitzpatrick, Brian Kasbar, Pete White and Matt Whitehead, who started a combined 87 percent of all possible games in their first year.

In describing the 6′ 7″ Fitzpatrick, the future judge wrote, “He has a deadly outside shot but must stay consistent to combat the sagging defenses opponents will often deploy.”  He described Kaspar as a 6′ 8″ bruiser who can both score and rebound.  White played the point and led the Ivy League with 5.3 assists per game.  Whitehead averaged 8.6 points a game and earned his starts in the second half of the season.  Said Kavanaugh, “He is superb on the fast break and possesses a good shot and leaping ability.”

In addition, the young reported noted the importance of junior wing and team captain Kenny Wheeler, as well as sophomore Ricky Ewing.  Wheeler was fourth-year coach Tom Brennan’s “sixth starter” and the team’s best defensive player.  Ewing was a 6′ 11″ center who averaged four rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 20.7 minutes a game in his first year, but missed the entire ’84-’85 season to injury.

Heading into the ’85-’86 season, the first ever with a 45-second shot clock and the last without a three-point shot,  Brennan felt he would be “‘disappointed if we are not competitive this year, although our year should be next year when all the sophomores and Chris Dudley and Kenny Wheeler will be back.”  The more optimistic Kavanaugh stated, “Yale has all the ingredients of a championship team: height, speed, rebounders, shooters, passers and defense.  However, the Elis will have to overcome three nemeses of the past to take the crown: poor defense, inconsistent foul shooting, and an inability to win on the road.  If Yale can do these three things, the two games against Penn will likely decide the Ivy title.”

The season started on November 23rd, two weeks later than today’s schedule, with a convincing 97-71 home win over Case Western.  The team went 4-6 before league play, with additional wins over Fairfield, Holy Cross and Vermont.  Included in the six loses was a 21-point loss at Stanford during the Apple Invitational Tournament.  The Cardinals’ 70 first half and 129 total points still stand as all-time highs by Yale opponents.  While the team also lost to Connecticut, St. Mary’s (CA) and New Hampshire, it was the two home defeats to Division III programs  Clark and Trinity that were the most surprising.  The future jurist described the loss to Clark “one of its worst showing in years” and “embarrassing” with the team’s play “lethargic.”

Despite heading into Providence for the January 13th league opener on a two-game losing streak, Yale would be facing a Brown team picked at, or near, the bottom of the conference. Kavanaugh felt the Bruins had a strong backcourt, led by senior Mike Waitkus, but a depleted frontcourt that had lost first team All-Ivy Todd Mulder to graduation.  In a game that was close throughout, the Bears took a one-point lead with 45 seconds to go.  A missed tip by Dudley with three seconds allowed Brown to hold on for the 68-65 win.

At 4-7 overall and 0-1 in league play, Kavanaugh analyzed that “the Elis went to sleep against patient offenses executed to perfection by smaller, slower opponents.”  Additionally, the three starting guards, White, Fitzpatrick and Whitehead, were struggling with their shots and Dudley, who led the team in free throw attempts, was having difficulty from the charity stripe.  Coach Brennan did not seem to be panicking, but he did choose to change three-fifths of his starting lineup.  He told the reporter, “Last year, no one expected anything from us and we did well.  This year everyone had expected a lot, and we’ve been pressing a little. The change is not a punishment, but will give (the benched players) a chance to relax a little and come in a little later.”

On the start of the always dreaded New York weekend, the Big Red pulled away late to take a 64-51 victory over a Yale team that shot 23 percent on the night.  The team’s fourth straight loss was also its 14 loss in its last 16 league contests. With a Saturday night game against a Columbia team picked No. 3 by Kavanaugh and the league coaches, the writer worried that the team was starting to resemble the 4-10 1983-1984 team.  Fortunately, the Elis bounced back with a 71-70 win over the Lions.

After a two point home win over Army, coach Brennan told Kavanaugh, “I’m tremendously proud of them.  Now we’re beginning to hang on at the end.  We still can’t hit our free throws, but the idea is we won a close game.” Two nights later, the Elis would face the Bears for their conference rematch. On the strength of a career night from sophomore forward Paul Maley (25 point, 12 rebounds), the Bulldogs beat Brown, 73-70, to even their Ivy League record at 2-2 and give the Bruins (3-1) their first conference loss.  Following the game, Brennan told Yale Daily News reporter Dan Levy, “We’re in a position now where we have the chance to play the undefeated teams (Princeton and Penn, both 2-0) twice this season.  We want to be in this thing [the Ivy race] all the way through and tonight we took a tough, big step in doing that.”

The Bulldogs traveled to Manhattan, getting back to .500 (8-8) and extending its season high win streak to 4 with a 27-point win over the 1-17 Jaspers in its last out-of-conference game of the year. Things looked promising heading into home games against Harvard (0-3) and Dartmouth (1-2).  Going 4-1 since changing the lineup, the coach said, “the guys who were benched were really good about it, putting the team first and not sulking.  In the games since, one or two or sometimes all three have really played a key role.”

Yale won its fifth straight game, defeating Harvard, 54-45, despite what was described as a “lackluster” Yale (3-2) performance against a young Crimson team (0-4).  The next night, second-year Dartmouth coach Paul Cormier had his team play overly aggressive defense in the second half and the flustered Bulldogs (3-3), who were up 13 at the half, lost 82-69 to the Big Green (2-3).  Following the difficult weekend, the coach told Kavanaugh, “Sometime we look like the Lakers, and sometimes we look like P.S. 26.”

Heading south for the next weekend, the young Bulldogs would face a challenge of styles with the slow placed Princeton of Pete Carril and the Quakers’ uptempo game.  The key for the coach would be to get out in front early, “Princeton is not a very good catch-up team. They’re like a wishbone team (in football).  To beat Penn, we must control Bromwell, although he’s been struggling, and also (Tyrone “Phil”) Pitts.  We have to jump on them early like we did last year (when the Elis upset Penn 77-75).”  On Friday, Yale (4-3) did jump out to an early lead on its way to a 52-47 win over the Tigers (2-4).  The victory, secured by Dudley’s 20 points and nine rebounds, was the first win at Princeton since 1963 and first at Jadwin (opened in 1969), while producing Carill’s first ever four game losing streak. Against Penn (4-3), the Bulldogs (4-4) could not get the early lead and came up just short, losing 71-67.  After the games, the coach informed the reporter, “I’m very proud of this team and very encouraged by the way we played this weekend.  It’s the best we’ve played in a while.”

At home against Columbia on Valentine’s Day, Dudley picked up his fourth foul against Columbia with 18:17 left in the second half. White and Maley picked up the slack, with the point guard scoring 20 and the forward putting up 20 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks, as the Elis (5-4) took a 70-66 come from behind victory over the 4-5 Lions.  The Bulldogs, which entered the night one game back of first place Cornell and Brown, could not contain John Bajusz as the Big Red (7-3) sharpshooter went for 29 points in the 79-73 over Yale (5-5).

In fourth place and welcoming sixth-place Penn and third-place Princeton with only four games left, Yale knew it had little time left to make its move.  Noting that “They (Penn) seem either to play great or very poorly.  Last time they started fast against us.  We’re going after them right away this time”, coach Brennan planned to use a pressuring man-to-man defense.  On that night, the Red & Blue (5-5) had one of its “great” games, shooting 59 percent from the field and ran away with a 89-72 win.  Against Princeton, Kavanaugh stated, “The Tigers play a sagging zone defense, while on offense, they usually waste most of the 45-second clock before shooting.  Yale has to bet ahead early to defeat the Tigers.”  The Bulldogs did just that, jumping out to an early 23-14 lead and extending it to 14 by game’s end.  After another weekend split, Yale was 6-6, but were officially eliminated from the league title.

With two games left in the regular season, Yale was playing for pride on the road against Dartmouth and Harvard while Cornell (9-3) had a one game lead over Brown (8-4) and the surging Quakers (7-5).  On Friday night, the Big Green (6-7) defeated the Elis (6-7), 82-71, despite Dudley’s 18 point-11 rebound double-double.  Meanwhile, in Philadephia, Penn defeated Cornell 77-71 and Brown beat Harvard to set up a huge Saturday night.

On the final night of the schedule, Dudley had another double-double (22 points, 11 rebounds) to pace the Bulldogs to a 82-70 win over the last place Crimson (2-12).  With the victory, Yale ended the year 13-13 overall and 7-7 (tied 4th) in the conference.  In games that would determine the championship, Penn (9-5) beat Columbia (6-8), 91-76, for its fifth straight win, Princeton (7-7) edged Cornell (9-5), 56-53, and Brown (10-4) clinched the title with a 82-51 blowout of Dartmouth.  For the Bruins, this would be the first (and, so far only) Ivy League championship and birth in the NCAA Tournament. The Big Red, which had come so close, would have to wait until 2008 to get its first title since 1954.

Mike Cingiser’s cinderella Brown team would get a No. 15 seed in the East Regional and have to face the reality of playing No. 2 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.  The Bruins tournament ride was short, as they lost 101-52 to the Orange on March 14th.

Chris Dudley, who averaged 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds a game, was selected to the All-Ivy first team for the second straight year.  He was joined by Bajusz from Cornell and Bromwell from Penn, two other members of last year’s first-team, as well as forwards Tom Gwydir of Columbia and Jim Turner of Brown.  Turner, the Player of the Year, only averaged 5.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 0.3 assists in his junior year, but upped his senior season totals to 19.2 points (24.0 in league play), 8.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Dudley would go on to be chosen by Cleveland in the fourth round of the 1986 NBA Draft and an Ivy league record 16 year career with the Cavaliers, Nets, Trail Blazers, Knicks, and Suns.

At the season’s end, coach Brennan left Yale for the University of Vermont.  In Kavanaugh’s final post for the Yale Daily News, he noted that the coach “left amidst a storm of controversy that included team disunity and doubts about his coaching ability.”  Brennan would rebound well, coaching the Catamounts from 1986-2005, winning two regular season America East titles, three America East Tournament championships and one NCAA Tournament game.

Kavanaugh also discussed Athletic Director Fran Ryan’s search for Brennan’s replacement.  Out of a reported list of 95 candidates, 44 were from Division I, II or III schools.  Ryan specifically mentioned Mike Mucci, one of Brennan’s assistants, and former New York Knick Butch Beard.  Eventually, the job went to Dick Kuchin, who would hold the position from 1986-1999 and leave with a 151-189 record.  Yale would replace Kuchin with present coach James Jones, who won the school’s first title since 1962 and a first round NCAA victory over Baylor in 2016.

The young reporter, however, would become the most successful person associated with the 1985-1986 Bulldogs, as he became a clerk for Judge Walter King Stapleton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, a fellow with the Solicitor General of the United States, a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a member of Ken Starr’s Office of the Independent Counsel, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, an associate of the White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, an Assistant to President George W. Bush, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and a nominee for an Associate Justice position of the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

 

 

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