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Crumpacker: Recalling the Most Dominant Team in WCC History

Jan. 30, 2015

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By John Crumpacker, WCC Columnist | @CrumpackerOnWCC  |  COMPLETE CRUMPACKER ARCHIVES

As kids growing up in the Bay Area with an interest in basketball, there was no better place and no better time than San Francisco in the mid-1950s for Jim Brovelli and Dan Belluomini.

"When you grow up in the city, USF was basketball,'' Brovelli said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything.''

"It was a magical time,'' Belluomini said.

That Brovelli and Belluomini both attended to St. Ignatius High School and went on to play for the University of San Francisco and later became head basketball coaches at their alma mater ties a pretty bow on the package in 2015.

That's because this is the 60th anniversary of USF's first of back-to-back NCAA championships in 1954-55, when the little school on the Hilltop had two of the biggest names in college basketball in Bill Russell and K.C. Jones.

"What a team,'' said Brovelli, 72, who was 12 at the time. "It was the best. I never missed a radio broadcast. I told my folks I was going in my room to do my homework. Wrong. I'd go in there with a radio to listen to the games.''

Last Saturday the university hosted a private luncheon for members of those '54-55 and '55-56 teams. A dozen players, some wearing letter sweaters six decades old, showed up to share memories. Later that evening they were honored in a halftime ceremony of USF's game with Loyola Marymount at Memorial Gym, which was three years away from becoming a reality when the Dons won their first NCAA title.

Current USF athletic director Scott Sidwell is trying to build a bridge, one spanning several generations, between those historic teams coached by Pete Newell and then Phil Woolpert (they were a combined 224-116 on the Hilltop) and the current Dons trying to make a mark under coach Rex Walters by introducing the team as "three-time national champions."

Under Newell, USF won the 1949 NIT championship when the tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York was a much bigger deal than the NCAA version. The Dons of Russell and Jones won 60 straight games over nearly two calendar years, from Dec. 17, 1954 to Dec. 14, 1956.

"In those years there wasn't any real recruiting. It was all local,'' Brovelli said. "There's a university that had two NCAA championships and an NIT championship. There was nowhere else to go for me. I loved the city. I wasn't going anywhere else.''

Both Brovelli and Belluomini are still involved in the game. Brovelli, USF's coach from 1985-95, does color on the school's radio broadcasts while Belluomini, 73, who had a two-year stint as Dons coach in 1978-80, is an analyst on local TV broadcasts.

Six decades ago, they sneaked over to the gym at St. Ignatius to watch USF practice, wide-eyed but at the same time well aware of the quality of the team and its players. Who's to say if they would have become coaches if not for that experience in their formative years?

"I watched them practice because I went to SI,'' Brovelli said. "You're in awe. When you grow up in the Bay Area, you had the great college teams at Cal and USF, Newell at Cal, Woolpert at USF. K.C. Jones (played) my position. K.C. was a guy I'd look at. Hal Perry and Gene Brown also. Gene Brown was probably the best sixth man. He could have started anywhere. He'd come in and never miss a shot. He was a fantastic player off the bench.''

All these years later, Belluomini has much the same memory of those USF teams and of Brown in particular.

"They had the best third guard in the country in Eugene Brown,'' Belluomini said. "Gene Brown was a hell of a player, and he wasn't good enough to start.''

In separate interviews, the two former coaches both recalled the particulars of a game played on Jan. 28, 1956 at Berkeley's Harmon Gym between Woolpert's Dons and Newell's Golden Bears. Decades before the shot clock and 3-point shot, Newell tried to draw the USF defense out by holding the ball just over the half court line. Woolpert would have none of it.

"They brought their center out to (try) to bring Russell out of the key,'' Brovelli said. "There was no shot clock then. Russell wouldn't do it. Newell tried to pull Russell out and Woolpert said to stay inside. USF got after them in the second half and won the game.''

The stall-ball tactics by Newell and Cal led to USF's lowest-scoring game of the 1955-56 season. It hardly mattered. The Dons won 32-24 in the middle of a 29-0 season that culminated with an 83-71 victory over Iowa in the NCAA championship game on March 23.

"I remember the game at Cal when Pete Newell had so much respect for USF that he had one of his players go out to half court and hold the ball,'' Belluomini said. "Cal stalled. It was a really low-scoring game. Woolpert did not pull his guys out. Eventually Cal started to play and USF pulled away.''

The college basketball landscape is vastly different in 2015 than it was in 1955 when the Dons were dominant. While paying homage to its heroes of the past, USF is trying to reclaim a competitive stake in the WCC, a conference in its infancy when Russell ruled the game.

It's been a struggle. USF went 21-10 a year ago and finished tied for second in the WCC but this time around, its 3-7 conference record is ahead of only Pacific and Loyola Marymount, both 2-8. After a four-point loss at BYU, the Dons are at 4-6 San Diego on Saturday.

John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.