Ivy Hoops Online announces the next entry in Ivy 60 for 60, our series running through 60 of the greatest players in Ivy League men’s basketball history after a hiatus to continue celebrating six decades of modern Ivy League basketball. An Ivy 60 for 60 for Ivy women’s basketball will follow.
In May of 1967, a cryptic but prescient one-paragraph article was to be found hidden away in the the nether regions of the Philadelphia Inquirer sports section. It stated that Steve Bilsky, Dave Wohl and Jim Wolf were about to become the core components of the 1967-68 Digger Phelps-recruited Penn freshman squad which could possibly be the “best freshman team in the country.”
In 1967, this meant a great deal.
Freshmen were not allowed to play varsity basketball in the NCAA until 1972, and in 1965, the best college team in the country was UCLA’s freshman squad led by Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In this pre-one-and-done era, the UCLA freshmen routinely crushed the nationally-ranked UCLA varsity by 30 points.
Sophisticated Big 5 fans absorbed this obscure Inquirer post with a combination of curiosity, confusion and anticipation. First, did this mean that Penn would soon be recognized as a national power on the level of UCLA, the greatest college dynasty ever? Second, would Ivy/Big 5 teams soon be competing with UCLA for the national championship?
The answer was yes and yes. By 1971, both Penn, led by Bilsky and Wohl, and Villanova, led by Howard Porter, were battling to play UCLA in the Final Four.
A third question for somewhat provincial Philadelphia fans (and I write this as a Philadelphian) was, “Where are Long Island, northern New Jersey and Ohio?” Big 5 stars were supposed to come from the local Philly high school network, and Bilsky, Wohl and Wolf came from those other respective areas.
The Inquirer article was also quite prescient in that it heralded the incipient stage of Penn’s Ivy League dominance which lasted through the 1979 Final Four (some Penn fans might argue through the end of the century).
Bilsky and Wohl comprise arguably the best backcourt tandem in Ivy League history and were the foundation of the Ivy League’s greatest era (another backcourt to consider is Princeton’s Brian Taylor and Ted Manakas, an NBA All- Star and NBA roster player respectively). At 5-foot-11, Steve Bilsky was the court general for the Ivy League’s greatest team: the 1970-71 Quakers. Penn had a combined 53-3 record in Bilsky’s and Wohl’s junior and senior seasons, losing only lost one regular season game. Unfortunately, one of Penn’s three losses was to Villanova in the 1971 Elite Eight, after Penn had defeated ‘Nova earlier in the season.
Bilsky averaged 13.9 points per game for his career, and his assist-to-turnover ratio was approximately a quadrillion to zero. Dave Wohl was a 6-foot-2 combo guard, all-state high school quarterback and outstanding athlete. After averaging 15.1 points per game during his time at Penn, Wohl went on to have a seven-year NBA career during which he became a quality point guard.
In addition to their legendary college playing careers, they also achieved significant careers in coaching and administration. Bilsky served as Penn’s athletic director for two decades, while Wohl became a multi-decade NBA institution, becoming head coach of the New Jersey Nets and serving as a general manager and later special advisor for the Los Angeles Clippers, in addition to assistant coaching for nine different NBA franchises over the course of more than three decades.
Bilsky and Wohl are Ivy League legends (think Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig or Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire) whose lifetime achievements speak for themselves.
Paul Hutter is author of The Golden Age of Ivy Basketball: From Bill Bradley to Penn’s Final Four 1964-1979, which can be found on Amazon here.