Before 1963, Philadelphia’s other college basketball teams had little to fear from Penn basketball.
Though the Quakers won the occasional Ivy League championship, critics refused to believe Penn could win the title that really mattered to local hoop-heads: The Big 5 championship.
Those doubts were certainly justified. The other Big 5 colleges—LaSalle, Saint Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova—were free of the recruiting restrictions that Penn, as an Ivy League school, had to deal with. Most significantly, unlike its city rivals, Penn couldn’t (and still can’t) offer athletic scholarships, making it more difficult to attract top athletes. Possibly as a result, Penn in the early years of city play consistently failed to win more than two Big 5 games in a season. They were, despite their prominence among the Ancient Eight, an also-ran in the race for Philly hoops supremacy.
That all changed in 1963, and John Wideman was a big reason why. The stellar senior guard from Pittsburgh was a force in the classroom—he was named a Rhodes Scholar that year, becoming one of only two African-Americans to earn the distinction since 1938—and on the basketball court, where he earned a reputation as one of Philly’s best. Though the Quakers lost the Ivy League title to a Princeton team led by Sen. Bill Bradley, it was Wideman who cemented his legend by guiding the Quakers to their first-ever Big 5 title—a title many thought impossible.
For more on this and other notable moments in Penn history, visit the University Archives web site at www.archives.upenn.edu .
Originally published on January 26, 2006