Pete Newell: Basketball coach and teacher
The San Francisco
(11-17) 14:14 PST -- Famed basketball coach and teaching legend Pete Newell, whose long journey in the sport included stops at USF and Cal, where he led the Bears to a national championship in 1959, died Monday at age 93.
Mr. Newell died in Rancho Santa Fe (San Diego County) at the home of Earl Shultz, one of the players on the 1958-59 Cal team. Shultz helped care for Mr. Newell over the years, though one of his sons, Roger, had become his father's primary caretaker the past four years.
In 2005, Mr. Newell had surgery to remove a malignant lung tumor. Shultz said Mr. Newell didn't have a recurrence of the cancer, but he grew progressively weaker over the past year.
According to Roger Newell, his father planned to meet Monday with former NBA star Jerry West, a longtime friend, and the co-author of West's forthcoming autobiography. Mr. Newell arrived at Shultz's house for the meeting, but he died shortly after 10:00 a.m., about five minutes before West and the author arrived.
"He was so mentally tough, he really wanted to do that last interview for Jerry - and he almost made it," Roger Newell said. Added Shultz: "Pete was having a tough time. He went with great dignity."
Mr. Newell, ever self-effacing, perpetually deflected the praise that came his way from players and peers over many decades. But others, such as coaching disciple and longtime friend Bob Knight, frequently noted Mr. Newell's lasting place in basketball history.
"Three coaches had the most influence on college basketball in terms of tactics, both offensively and defensively: Clair Bee, Hank Iba and Pete," Knight once said. "And I think Pete had the greatest total grasp. He really studied it and kept abreast of it, both professional and collegiate. He was truly remarkable."
Mr. Newell left an enduring legacy on Bay Area college basketball - Cal plays on Pete Newell Court (at Haas Pavilion), and for several years the Newell Challenge brought some of the country's top teams to the area. Coincidentally, the two local schools Newell led to national acclaim, USF and Cal, play each other tonight in Berkeley. A Cal spokesman said Newell would be honored before the game.
Darrall Imhoff, the center on Cal's NCAA championship team in '59, considered Mr. Newell "a second dad."
"Pete was a very, very special man," Imhoff said Monday. "I was struggling to make the team as a sophomore; I was still pretty clumsy and he watched me trip from line to line. He walked over, put his arm around me and said, 'Son, I've never met a person who didn't learn from a mistake - and you're going to learn a lot. Just don't make the same mistake twice.' "
Joe Kapp, widely known for playing quarterback on Cal's last Rose Bowl team and later leading the Minnesota Vikings to the Super Bowl, also played basketball for Newell at Cal, and spoke of his former coach with reverence.
"It's a sad day," Kapp said. "All coach Newell did was teach you how to play the game - whether it was business, sports, life. He was the master. He just happened to choose basketball as his medium."
Mr. Newell was born Aug. 3, 1915, in Vancouver, British Columbia. He grew up in Los Angeles, where through his mother's persistence he became a child actor before he reached kindergarten age, appearing in several "Our Gang" movie comedies and being strongly considered for a plum part opposite Charlie Chaplin in "The Kid" in 1920.
But Jackie Coogan got the role, which didn't bother Mr. Newell at all. "I hated acting," he said. "All I wanted to do was to be home playing ball."
Mr. Newell graduated from St. Agnes High School in Los Angeles in 1933 and went on to what is now Loyola Marymount University, where he played basketball for three seasons. He then coached at a military academy and played one season of minor-league baseball in the Brooklyn Dodgers' organization before serving in the U.S. Navy from 1942-46.
His college coaching career began in '46 at USF, where his Dons teams went 70-37 through 1950 and won the NIT - then the country's most prestigious tournament - in 1949. It was at USF where the tall, slim, mild-mannered Newell began putting a lasting mark on the game, with an innovative zone-pressing defense that would become a hallmark of his teams and a model for other teams.
After USF, Mr. Newell coached four up-and-down seasons at Michigan State and then took over at Cal in 1954.
From the start, he was a formidable force in Berkeley, even against the likes of UCLA's renowned John Wooden. The last eight games their Bears and Bruins teams played against each other, Mr. Newell beat the not-yet Wizard of Westwood every time.
Mr. Newell led Cal to four consecutive Pacific 8 titles from 1957-60, and in 1959 he coached the Bears to their only NCAA championship, beating Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati in the semifinals and Jerry West and West Virginia in the final.
The following season, Mr. Newell's Bears again beat Robertson and Cincinnati in the NCAA semifinals at the Cow Palace, but they lost to Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Ohio State in the final when Buckeyes coach Fred Taylor used a defense Mr. Newell had willingly taught him a year earlier.
Those two Cal teams, which included players like Imhoff, Denny Fitzpatrick, Bill McClintock, Bob Dalton and Al Buch, clearly didn't have the individual talent of their Final Four opponents.
"But they were very, very bright," Mr. Newell once said. "And they had a great ability to play with each other and pick each other up."
Knight, who was a member of the Ohio State squad that beat the Bears for the national title in 1960, was a keen observer of those Cal teams.
"When I saw them," Knight said, "I thought, 'Here's a team that really knows how to play basketball.' "
The players also revered Mr. Newell.
"Playing for him created a bond," Stan Morrison, who would become a coach himself, said in a 1999 Los Angeles Times interview. "We had a bunch of guys who would stay in that foxhole until the very end, but you never had to worry. That was the brotherhood that was nurtured by Pete."
But Mr. Newell, the National Coach of the Year in 1960, ended his college coaching days that season, at the age of just 44, finishing with a cumulative record of 234-123.
"It was my health," he said decades later. "I was carrying it all inside. I was smoking too many cigarettes, drinking too much coffee, and wasn't able to eat. I wouldn't eat anything from Thursday to Saturday."
Mr. Newell had one more coaching stop. He led the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team, which included West, Robertson and Lucas, to a gold medal in 1960. That completed a "Triple Crown" only two other coaches have achieved - NIT, NCAA and Olympic titles.
Mr. Newell then went from coaching basketball to something he loved even more: teaching it.
He became an administrator, as athletic director during an often-turbulent period at Cal (1960-68), general manager of the NBA San Diego Rockets (1968-72) and GM of the Lakers (1972-76), engineering the trade that brought Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Los Angeles. Mr. Newell then worked as a consultant and director of player personnel for the Warriors and started a long scouting stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But Mr. Newell, who was elected to the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979, was busy teaching all the while, too, setting up a film program for the Peace Corps, volunteering to help develop the Japanese national basketball program and writing instructional books.
Well into his octogenarian days, Mr. Newell would help players at the major college and NBA levels at his annual Big Man's camps in Los Angeles, Hawaii and later Las Vegas, where he taught millionaire pros how to play better in the post - and didn't charge them a dime for the instruction. Along the way he elicited glowing comments like this one from Shaquille O'Neal: "He's the best teacher there is."
In later years, Mr. Newell added yearly Tall Women's camps, held in Monterey, to his teaching schedule, commuting from his home in the Del Mar area, where the racetrack became one of his favorite recreational stops.
His view of basketball remained keen, and, if he thought appropriate, sharply critical.
"Players today have increased physical skills, but basketball skills have diminished," he said a few years ago. "I resent the fact that many of them take the game for granted. It starts at the top, though. It's an overpriced, corporate-dominated business run by lawyers who have a bad product, and don't know how to fix it."
Newell's wife, Florence, died in 1984. He is survived by sons Pete Jr., who retired in 2005 after an acclaimed coaching career at Santa Cruz High School; Tom, Roger and Greg. Funeral services are pending.