“We Were That Good”
The team that made it to the Final Four looks back.

 

By David Porter | Don’t be surprised if you pass Smokey Joe’s on 40th Street one night during Alumni Weekend in May and hear laughter coming from a group of middle-aged men gathered around a television set. The basketball game they are watching will look odd at first—there will be no hyperventilating announcers bleating “dishing the rock,” no three-point shot, and no baggy shorts on the players.

There are many threads spun during college years that last a lifetime: living in a fraternity or sorority, playing in a band, participating in any number of other extracurricular activities. Mostly these are personal, shared among small groups or individuals. But the thread spun by the men who played on Penn’s 1978-79 Final Four basketball team is shared by an entire community that watched them temporarily realign the college basketball universe 25 years ago.

They reunited on campus the last weekend of February to commemorate the occasion, and plans for a get-together are in the works for this month, according to Matt White C’79 WG’83, the center on the team who lives in Swarthmore and is a frequent spectator at the Palestra. Game tapes, the equivalent of this group’s home movies, will be shown.

For anyone who witnessed the giddy run through the NCAA tournament field to the Final Four in the spring of 1979, the memories are indelible: the Ivy championship that included two overtime wins against Princeton, each by one point; the conquests of Syracuse and Iona in the tournament’s early rounds, then the heart-stopping wins over heavily favored North Carolina and St. John’s; and, anti-climactically, the 101-67 debacle against Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Michigan State in Salt Lake City.

They did what no Ivy League team had done in 14 years, and certainly what none will do again, barring a drastic overhaul of intercollegiate athletics. They were a collection of tall and short, rough and smooth, preppies and city kids, and they came together at the right time, when college basketball was on the cusp of a new era but far from the bloated behemoth it is today. There was no Big East and no ESPN in the spring of 1979, though both were on the immediate horizon. The NCAA Tournament field consisted of 40 teams, without the wall-to-wall coverage that has become standard in the years since.

“When we beat North Carolina, which was number three in the country, the game was not shown nationally until about the last three or four minutes,” recalled Bob Weinhauer, the fiery coach who later coached at Arizona State and worked for seven NBA teams. “The recognition factor was quite different, but it was still an incredible experience, especially for an Ivy League team.”

For many students, even those who saw every minute of every game in the Palestra that season, a defining moment came on a sun-splashed March afternoon when the team appeared at a pep rally at Franklin Field before heading to Utah.

“The pep rally really almost stopped time,” said Bobby Willis W’79, the Quakers’ second-leading scorer behind Tony Price W’79 that year. “That’s the thing that sticks out for me. When you’re playing, it’s just like you’re working. If you’re not playing, you’re practicing; if you’re not practicing, you’re studying, or working. But at that moment, just to look up and see the faces ... when they’re not just people shouting out your name on the court, when you can’t turn your head to look at them. That was a moment when we could take it all in, and it demonstrated what we had accomplished.”

For White, the Final Four run was only one strand of the thread.

“Winning against North Carolina was a pretty big deal, but year in and year out, you just wanted to beat Princeton and win the Ivy League,” White said. “That’s what it really comes down to. I was in it for the fun. I remember things like leaving a big bunch of tickets for the fraternity guys and having them come out and make a lot of noise at the games and then go out for a couple of beers afterward.”

The passage of time may be reflected most vividly by the fact that Willis’s son, Bobby, played for Lehigh and Price’s son, A.J., is on his way to defending national champion Connecticut next season.

“It’s funny, the first couple of years you get past it, because you’re moving on with your life,” Willis said. “Then you get older and you start to reflect on it, and you tend to appreciate it more and more. I’ve just recently been watching tapes of games, and I’ve been saying to myself, ‘I knew we were good, but I honestly didn’t realize that we were that good“. We had a lot of talent on that team.”

2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 04/29/04

 



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