The Road to Perfection

The 1969-70 season was one of the greatest ones in Penn basketball history. But the way it ended—with a surprising 79-69 loss to Calvin Murphy and Niagara in the first round of the NCAA tournament—left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. Beyond that, Phelps left following the season to accept the head-coach position at Fordham (where he stayed for one year before coaching for more than two decades at Notre Dame).

Nevertheless, with every significant player returning, the pieces were in place to turn the 1970-71 campaign into a special one. And Harter knew anything short of a trip to the national finals at the Astrodome would be a disappointment. “From the very first day of practice, Coach Harter said, ‘We’re going to Houston,’” says Cotler. “We never lost sight of the fact that we were there to win a national championship.”

Those lofty goals fit the persona of Harter, who was a perfectionist in every way. He stressed team defense, built a machine-like offense, and ran brutally tough practices. “His practices were tough but fair,” says Wolf. “He required an awful lot. Sometimes we thought he was a Marine drill sergeant out there.”

No one bought into that hard-working mentality as much as Wohl, who was so serious that his teammates would sometimes try to make him laugh. But he was always the player who finished first when the team ran up and down the Franklin Field steps. “Dave was the serious guy who would get on other guys to make sure they were working hard,” says Cotler.

Wohl’s partner in the backcourt was more light-hearted and, says Cotler, the one who saw life “through the lens of humor.” But Bilsky was just as dedicated to his craft. Wolf remembers a game during their sophomore year when La Salle’s Roland Taylor stripped the ball from Bilsky with an incredible amount of force. “Steve, after that, was just going to control the basketball,” Wolf says. “No one took it from him. He controlled the offense.”

While Wohl was more of a scorer, averaging 15.3 points per game, the 5-foot-11 Bilsky was the engine that made the Quakers purr. And both were just about automatic from the free-throw line, where they each shot 84 percent. The combination was deadly, and the main reason it was impossible during that 1970-71 season for teams to come back on the Quakers. “I would not call us a flashy team at all,” says Wolf, who wasn’t a big scorer himself but a valuable interior defender. “With 10 minutes left in the game, if we had a 10-point lead, Stevie and Dave would just control the ball, dribble, and make free throws … We were very famous, from my understanding, because the bettors hated us. A lot of times when we were 15-point favorites, we would win by 14.”

Well, sometimes the Quakers blew the doors off teams. During one Palestra weekend when Harvard and Dartmouth came to town, Penn scored over 100 points in back-to-back games. And in routs like those, the Quakers were able to show off their deep bench, a unit dubbed the “Earthquakers” because of their ability to come into the game and shake things up. In fact, some say the five guys who made up that group—Koller, Cotler, Billingslea, and sophomores Phil Hankinson W’73 and Craig Littlepage W’73—could have made a very good Division I team on their own. “We were very competitive,” Cotler says. “We had a little competition between the first five and the second five in practices. After that, we were all one team.”

And they were one team that just kept on winning, no matter who they played, no matter where the game was held, no matter which player led the team in scoring and which one had to sit on the bench because of foul trouble. “Any time, any place, any conditions” was Harter’s motto, and the loaded Quakers took that to heart, cruising to an astounding 26-0 record in the regular season while ascending to a No. 3 national ranking, its highest in program history. With two games still left on its schedule, Penn won the Ivy League championship outright with a 93-63 romp over Yale on February 27, booking its ticket to the NCAA tournament.

Not every win was easy, though. Sometimes they needed a clutch shot—and when they did, it was Calhoun who usually came to the rescue. Calhoun, who came to Penn at 6-foot-4 before sprouting to 6-7, was the team’s most versatile player. The future first-round NBA draft pick could have scored more if the team needed him to but instead averaged a modest 10.1 points per game, while leading the team in rebounds with 8.6 boards per contest. But on January 28, 1971, he delivered maybe the biggest shot of the year when his 22-foot jumper against Princeton capped a furious Penn comeback and sent the game into overtime, where the Quakers eventually won, 66-62. Earlier in the season, the swingman hit a shot that gave Penn a 65-64 lead over Ohio State with 1:27 to go. The Quakers beat the Buckeyes, 71-64, in Columbus, Ohio that night.

The reason Penn did not need too many other last-minute shots to secure victory was in large part due to Morse, who was able to make baskets at any point in the game, from anywhere on the floor. “We used to call Bobby Morse’s 30-foot shots layups,” says Ed Spiegel, Penn’s student-manager from 1968-1971. “If you didn’t put a hand in his face, he would kill you.” Morse led the team in scoring that season with 15.4 points per game and shot a blistering 47.2 percent from the field. And while he had many huge offensive nights, he saved his best for last. In their first game of the NCAA tournament, the Quakers drew a Duquesne squad that featured identical 6-foot-10 twins Garry and Barry Nelson. Instead of trying to battle them inside, the 6-foot-8 Morse stepped back and began to drill long jump shots, scoring 20 of his 24 points in the first half to lead Penn to a gutsy 70-65 win. In the very next round, Morse dropped in 28 as Penn beat South Carolina, 85-75, for its 28th straight victory.

If their No. 3 national ranking wasn’t enough, those two victories proved to everyone that the Quakers could play with any team in the country. “I cannot remember a more hostile environment than when we played Duquesne in West Virginia with all of Duquesne’s fans roaring,” Cotler says. “It was really courageous that our guys were able to withstand all of that adversity to beat an unbelievably good team. After that, we passed the test that we weren’t just some Ivy League fluke. That, I thought, was something pretty remarkable.”

And just like that, it all came crashing down.


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FEATURE: Almost Perfect By Dave Zeitlin
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

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Calhoun, shown here against Villanova, saved the winning streak with clutch shots against Princeton and Ohio State.

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Last modified 02/24/11