The Beginnings of Greatness

The season before Harter took over at Penn, the Quakers won 19 games and an Ivy League championship. But when longtime coach Jack McCloskey Ed’48 GEd’52 left following the successful 1965-66 campaign, so too did many of that team’s veteran players. The cupboard was bare, and Harter was essentially starting from scratch.

Harter’s first two seasons in charge were rough ones as the Quakers sputtered to an 11-14 record in 1966-67 and a 9-17 mark in 1967-68. But it didn’t take long for things to get better. And in a subtle twist, one of the people to thank for the quick transformation was an old baseball coach at Rider College named Tom Petroff.

Between stints as an assistant coach and the head coach at Penn, Harter spent one season running the Rider basketball program—the same place where Phelps played his college ball from 1960-63. Phelps had already graduated by the time Harter came to Rider, but Petroff knew both men very well. So when Harter got the job at Penn, Petroff all but demanded that he take Phelps with him. “He wouldn’t let me leave town unless I hired Digger,” says Harter.

Petroff saw what Harter and future Penn players would soon come to realize: Phelps was a go-getter and a rising coaching star. Immediately, Phelps asked Harter if he could recruit nationally, and with his head coach’s blessing—not to mention the budgetary support of then-athletic director Jerry Ford C’32 G’42—the young assistant coach began putting serious miles on his Mustang. He sold the Palestra, Big 5 doubleheaders, and a Wharton education, while pointing to the academic success of former basketball stars and Rhodes Scholars John Edgar Wideman C’63 Hon’86 and Princeton’s Bill Bradley. And he did it all with determination and gusto. “You just got a different feeling from Harter and Phelps as to what they wanted to do and what they wanted to accomplish,” says Wolf. “You felt that they were really going to do this.”

Wolf, who could have played basketball at just about any college in the country, was the first big score. “Him coming to Penn,” Harter says, “opened the door to get other players.” Some of those other players included high-school stars Jimmy Haney ChE’71 and sharpshooter John Koller C’71. But Haney dislocated his kneecap during his senior year of high school and was never the same, joining Koller in a reserve role for the duration of his time at Penn. Interestingly, it was a little-known recruit out of Long Island (Bilsky) and a football quarterback from New Jersey (Wohl) who made up the backbone of that 1971 class. “Steve and Dave were two guys that were not recruited nationally, but through sheer willpower, competitiveness, and hard work became the starting backcourt for the third-ranked team in the country,” says Alan Cotler W’72, a lawyer in Philadelphia and a junior reserve on the 1970-71 squad.

Indeed, when he got to Penn in the fall of 1967, Wohl was all set to begin his football career for the Quakers. But according to Bob Lyons, a Philadelphia sportswriter and the author of Palestra Pandemonium: A History of the Big 5, the Palestra, as it’s been known to do, butted in and changed the course of a life. “Shortly after arriving on campus, he took a walk down 33rd street, looking for a place to play [basketball],” Lyons says of Wohl. “He walked into the Palestra. He had never seen it before. No one was there. He looked around, and he fell in love with the place. Soon he started going every day and playing with the guys who were recruited like Bilsky. He decided these are the guys that he wanted to hang around with, and he told the football coaches he wanted to concentrate on basketball. One of them said to him, ‘You’re probably making the biggest mistake of your life.’ Then he goes on to be in basketball for four decades. I just love that story.”

When Bilsky, Wohl, and Wolf were sophomores in 1968-69 and playing on the varsity for the first time (freshmen were not eligible back then), the Quakers showed serious signs of improvement. They went 15-10 overall, 10-4 in the Ivy League. They were 1-3 in the Big 5, but their only win over a city rival was one of the most memorable in school history, as Penn stunned ninth-ranked Villanova, 32-30, in a slow-down game. In that win, Bilsky, now Penn’s director of athletics, hit the game-winning shot after the Quakers held the ball and ran the clock out for the final three-and-a-half minutes. “I set the screen and was open for the dump-off,” Wolf says, laughing. “But I was glad he took the shot.”

“More than anything else,” says Bilsky, reminiscing recently in his Weightman Hall office, “that kind of began the era in the 1970s when Penn became one of the best teams in the country. [Villanova] was nationally ranked. We were a non-entity. It became one of those famous Big 5 memories, and we didn’t lose a whole lot of games over the next three years.”

 

The Final Pieces of the Puzzle

It didn’t take long for the little-known forward from a Quaker family in rural Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, to bond with the highly touted guard from a working-class family outside Chicago. Both Morse (the Quaker) and Calhoun (the Chicago kid), after all, were soft-spoken guys who came to Penn for two reasons: to study and play basketball. And both turned out to be dynamos for the Quakers. “The pillars,” says Cotler, one of their classmates. “The two corners. I can’t think of two people better suited to represent a university on and off the court.”

That the two ballplayers were different only added to their appeal for Phelps, who vividly remembers driving out to Kennett Square with future college and NBA coach Jim Lynam, then an assistant at Saint Joseph’s University, to recruit Morse. “We watched him play one night and [Lynam] didn’t like him because he was a big man shooting jump shots,” says Phelps. “And I just said, ‘Wow, I like him because he’s a scorer and can shoot from the perimeter.’”

Morse wasn’t a very visible recruit, and he wanted to remain close to home, so for him Penn was an easy choice. With Calhoun, Phelps remembers really needing to sell Wharton to his father, who had to work a few jobs just to make ends meet. “That was a big catch for us,” Phelps says.

Both Morse and Calhoun would each go on to lengthy basketball careers after graduating from Penn, but when they arrived on campus in the fall of 1968 they really needed to lean on each other. “Corky came in as a high school All-American from suburban Chicago,” Morse says. “I played Class B high school basketball on a losing team down in Kennett Square. Although I scored a lot of points, I was not very well publicized. When I got to the Palestra, it was quite a rude awakening. It took a few months for me to come up to speed. Corky and I roomed together. At the time, neither one of us were highly verbal. We got along really well.”

While Morse and Calhoun were the linchpins of the class that followed Bilsky, Wohl, and Wolf’s group, Cotler was another big-time recruit that year. Like Wolf, he was wooed in all different ways. Cotler, who is Jewish, got letters from Jewish lawyers in Atlanta urging him go to the University of Georgia. The coaches at George Washington University set up a date for him (which, he says, was a bomb). Jim Valvano went to Long Island with instructions to pick from one of two players, and the legendary coach chose to recruit Cotler over a guy by the name of Julius Erving. (Valvano joked about that “mess-up” on the David Letterman show, which you can find on YouTube.)

But in the end, Cotler appreciated that Harter or Phelps didn’t do anything over the top in the recruiting process. When visiting Penn, the Long Island recruit was simply told to take the train to 30th Street Station, ask for directions and look for Bilsky, who would give him a tour. “What I liked about Penn is they treated me like a regular guy,” Cotler says. And when Duke offered him a scholarship, Cotler got a call from Phelps the very next day to lasso him in. “You couldn’t say no to Digger,” he says.

For Cotler and the other members of the Class of 1972, Phelps was almost larger than life. On the very first day of practice in 1968, Phelps, who also coached the freshmen team, gathered the Quaker newcomers—Morse, Calhoun, Cotler, and Philly guards Ron Billingslea C’72 and Billy Walters W’72—at the center of the Palestra floor. What he said next left an indelible mark on the youngsters. “He pointed an index finger at each of our chests,” Cotler recalls, “and said, ‘I just want you guys to know one thing. You’re at Penn for one reason, and that’s to beat the Tigers.’”

Penn did a lot more than just beat hated Princeton. That 1968-69 freshman team went undefeated, and when they joined forces with Bilsky, Wohl, and Wolf on the varsity the following season, the Quakers really took off, rolling to a 25-2 record and a 14-0 mark in Ivy League play. Perhaps most impressive was the team’s perfect 4-0 Big 5 record in 1969-70, because for so long the Quakers had been viewed as the lightweights of the city.

“I remember my first or second year, we were playing a Big 5 game against Villanova and there was a sign up that said, ‘Big 4 and Penn,’” says Phelps. “I never forgot that sign. When those guys had the year they had and when we won the Big 5, I turned to [Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter] Frank Dolson [W’54], and I said, ‘Do you remember that sign from a few years ago? Yeah, they were right. It is the Big 4—and Penn.’”

In other words: The Quakers were in a class of their own.



 


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FEATURE: Almost Perfect By Dave Zeitlin
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Bilsky dribbles.

Wohl shoots.


 
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