The Not-so-Grand Finale

The only way to explain Penn’s final game of the 1970-71 season is to say that it can’t be explained.

Oh sure, the players and coaches have tried to figure out what happened, how a perfect season could end so imperfectly. They’ve tried to dissect the Eastern Regional final against a Villanova team they had beaten by eight points earlier in the season. But the more they try to figure things out, the more cloudy things become. And in the end, all they are left with are the bitter memories of an astonishingly lopsided 90-47 defeat to the rival Wildcats, a result that dashed their title dreams.

“Anyone can lose a game,” says Bilsky. “Anyone can have a bad game and get killed. But to play a team you had beaten three straight years and to lose so badly makes you start wondering what happened.”

Essentially what happened was that Villanova, a very strong team in its own right, played a flawless first half and took the Quakers out of the game from the start. And the steep uphill climb was just too much for a Penn squad that was not used to coming back. From there, things just snowballed. “We were very, very consistent and that maybe worked against us in the last game against Villanova,” says Harter, who left Penn after the season to take the head-coaching job at the University of Oregon. “We very rarely trailed.”

Spiegel, the manager, remembers waking up at the crack of dawn in the Raleigh, North Carolina hotel the team was staying at and thinking something was off. “We were playing at 11 a.m. and we got up really early to eat breakfast,” he says. “And I said to Ron [Billingslea], ‘We seem really flat.’ Going into the game, we were just off-kilter.”

But even if there were a few ominous warning signs, Penn had all the confidence that a 28-0 team should have. In fact, the Quakers were so sure they’d be advancing that they booked a flight from Raleigh to Houston, instead of back to Philadelphia. When they had to get a new flight to Philly, they found themselves on the same plane as the ’Nova players, walking past them as they boarded. “They were very gracious, but it seemed like there were thousands of Villanova fans waiting for them at the airport,” says Bilsky. “We got some taunts there. It was kind of like a nightmare that got worse as the day progressed.”

Sure enough, things got even worse from there. Just like their season, the team bus unexpectedly broke down on the trip back to campus from the airport. And as the Quakers waited a couple more hours for a new bus to retrieve them, visions of the 90-47 loss dominated their thoughts. “That game,” says Wolf, “is a thorn in the side of every one of us. And it will always be a thorn.”

These days, the ex-Quakers are reminded of it whenever something truly unpredictable happens. Cotler, a New York Giants fan, said he started talking to friends about the Giants blowing a three-touchdown lead in the final seven-and-a-half minutes and losing to the Eagles this past season. And he told them this: “What I learned back on that day in 1971 is that sometimes in life you can’t explain things,” he says. “Sometimes things just happen for reasons nobody can figure out completely. Ask the New York Giants what happened to them against the Eagles and no one can pinpoint it. For us, we were one game away from finally going to Houston. It was everything we were talking about since Day One. And just about every single thing that could go wrong went wrong. And for Villanova, everything that could go right went right.”

For Harter, it was another football game that brought back memories of the loss to Villanova as he watched his coaching friend Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots lose a playoff game to a New York Jets team they had beaten by 42 points the previous month. But in reality, the old coach’s 80-year-old brain doesn’t need to be prodded very much when it comes to the final game he coached at Penn.

“I’m sure there’s never a day,” Harter says, “where I don’t think about it.”

The Lasting Legacy

It’s been 40 years since Penn’s brush with perfection, and as time passes by the story only gets more improbable. At its core, Penn was still an Ivy League team. The players studied hard. They played word games on the bus. They didn’t have the amenities and resources of bigger, more athletics-oriented schools. Once, on a road trip to Cornell, the team bus got stuck in a snow bank about 45 minutes from Ithaca, and as the players braved the freezing temperatures to push the 15-ton vehicle back onto the road, Spiegel remembers Bilsky commenting, “I wonder if UCLA travels this way.”

The Quakers didn’t have the same kind of fame or mass appeal of John Wooden’s legendary UCLA Bruins, but they did have a loyal fan base in Philadelphia. They sold out the Palestra just about every time they played, and there was at least one time when students took a break from a Vietnam war protest at College Hall to watch a couple of hours of hoops. “It was a campus unifier, it really was,” Spiegel says.

To this day, the team still brings people together. In his current job as Penn’s athletic director, Bilsky often sees a glimpse of his old self, in photos and trophy cases. But when he’s not on campus, the 1970-71 team still comes up in plenty of conversations. Even Spiegel, who never suited up, feels a deep connection to those Quakers. At a Union League dinner not long ago, a diehard Penn fan came up to him and asked, “Weren’t you the manager of the 1971 basketball team?” Surprised that he was recognized four decades later, Spiegel, who today is a pediatrician, told Governor Ed Rendell C’65 Hon’00 that, why yes, he was indeed.

It’s also a testament to just how good that team was that many of the players achieved more athletic success upon graduating. Wohl was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers in the third round of the 1971 NBA draft, played seven years in the NBA and has remained in professional basketball in coaching and management [“Alumni Profiles,” Mar|Apr 2007]. Calhoun was the fourth overall pick in the 1972 draft and played in the NBA throughout the 1970s. Morse became one of the all-time great European league ballplayers. Hankinson, who averaged 9.2 points per game off the bench in 1970-71 before evolving into an all-time Quaker great, played two seasons for the Boston Celtics before a knee injury cut short his playing career (and, tragically, triggered the depression that his father said may have caused his suicide in 1996). Wolf and Haney followed Harter to the University of Oregon as assistant coaches, and Haney, who later became the Ducks head coach, is now the executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. And Bilsky and Littlepage, a former Penn coach and the current AD at the University of Virginia, both went on to successful careers in athletic administration.

But even as all of those players moved on in their lives, the Quakers remained a force for the rest of the decade. Chuck Daly replaced Harter as coach in 1971-72, inheriting a team that boasted Morse and Calhoun and taking them back to the regional finals. The future Pistons coach ended up winning 125 games through six seasons at Penn before ceding to Bob Weinhauer, who accomplished what his predecessors could not in guiding the Quakers to the 1979 Final Four. And while some people think the 1978-79 team overshadows the 1970-71 squad, there’s no denying that it was the accomplishments of the earlier group that began Penn on its road to success. “That was the very best team in the Ivy League,” Harter says of his last group at Penn. “Flat-out, no doubt about it.”

Even though the Quakers were still dominant for years after he moved on to Oregon, Harter left because he could see the writing on the wall. When he was told his team might have to stay in dormitories rather than hotels in the future, he realized that it would become harder for Ivy League schools to attract big-time players. And as his extensive and illustrious coaching career [“Alumni Profiles,” May|June 2009] took him from Oregon to NBA cities around the country—and the Quakers slowly fell from national prominence—he wistfully mourned the days when Penn was a powerhouse and fans packed the Palestra for Big 5 doubleheaders. “I wish Penn still played big-time sports,” Harter, who only last year retired after 57 years of coaching, says today.

To be fair, Penn’s basketball program still has a strong following, and, in its best years, has the potential to win a game or two in the NCAA tournament. But just about every player from the 1970-71 team—Bilsky being the lone exception—considers it virtually impossible for the Quakers to ever repeat the success they had. Too much has changed. “Do I think it can be done again? It would be quite difficult,” admits Penn’s current head basketball coach Jerome Allen W’09, who wasn’t even alive in 1971. “It’s a different era. But every team in every conference strives for excellence. Those guys who had an undefeated mark in the regular season—it says a lot about their approach to the game, their concentration and their commitment to one another. That’s why it hasn’t been done in so long. It’s hard to duplicate.”

So through this decade and the next, players and coaches in all sports, in all countries, will start a season hoping to win every game they play. Sports can be unpredictable and fickle, so they can dream. But aiming for perfection and achieving perfection are two very different things. Forty years ago, a group of Ivy League kids nearly accomplished the latter.

They were almost perfect.

“We shouldn’t have lost,” says Wolf, the kid who came from Ohio because he believed. “We were that good.”

Dave Zeitlin C’03 writes frequently for the Gazette and oversees the magazine’s sports blog.


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FEATURE: Almost Perfect By Dave Zeitlin
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