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The Dandy Dons

Bill Russell, K. C. Jones, Phil Woolpert, and One of College Basketball's Greatest and Most Innovative Teams

James W. Johnson

Publication Year: 2009

In the mid-1950s three unrecruited black basketball players, coached by a white former prison guard who had never before coached a college team, led a small Jesuit university in San Francisco to two national titles. The Dandy Dons describes for the first time how the unprecedented accomplishment of the Dons, led by coach Phil Woolpert and future hall-of-famers Bill Russell and K. C. Jones, paved the way for black talent in major college basketball and transformed the sport.

James W. Johnson traces the backgrounds of the coach and players, chronicles the heart-stopping games on the road to the championships, and details the Dons’ novel techniques: a more vertical game, more central defense, and intimidation as part of game strategy. He also gives a textured picture of life on an integrated basketball team amid a culture of racism and Jim Crow in mid-twentieth-century America.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

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pp. ix-xvii

One of the first things that new University of San Francisco (USF) coach Phil Woolpert did when he walked into his office in 1950 was open a filing cabinet that predecessor Pete Newell had left for him. "My God," he muttered, as he looked at folder after folder—each at least an inch thick—on high school prospects...

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pp. xix-xx

First and foremost, thanks go to the players, coaches, and others who gave up their valuable time to answer my questions, especially Carl Boldt and Mike Farmer. Carl gave me telephone numbers and e-mails of many of the players, even informing them ahead of time that I would be calling. Mike helped me gain...

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pp. xxi-xxiv

I was twelve years old when my father took me to see my first college basketball game—the University of San Francisco against whom I can't remember. But I do remember that it was during the 1949–50 season, the year after the Dons won the NIT, then the biggest college tournament in the country. Don Lofgran...

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1. Russell's Coming of Age

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pp. 1-8

During the summer of 1953, Phil Woolpert, thirty-eight-year-old basketball coach at the University of San Francisco, traveled to Lawrence, Kansas, to learn about the pressure defense the Kansas Jayhawks had used to win the national championship in 1952. Kansas played a man-to-man defense that cut off the passing...

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2. A Road Trip to Discovery

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pp. 9-14

Things seemed to be going Russell's way. He was asked to join a group of California All-Stars—also "splitters"—on a tour of the Pacific Northwest, playing local teams. Some of the top basketball players in California graduated midyear, but most of the good players didn't graduate until June. McClymonds had the best team...

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3. On Catholic Schools and Race

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pp. 15-21

In the mid-1950s the University of San Francisco was a small Jesuit school with about three thousand students—98 percent of them men—that sat just north of the Golden Gate Park panhandle. The fifty-one–acre campus on the southern slope of Lone Mountain—which gave the school its nickname...

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4. Another Surprise Recruit

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pp. 23-27

His coach at Commerce High School in San Francisco laughed at his defense. The coach was just trying to be funny. But the shy black player didn't take it that way. He decided to show his coach that defense was his game. He concentrated on playing man-to-man defense and learning all he could about defending...

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5. A School He'd Never Heard Of

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pp. 29-33

It is not surprising that a young African American who was raised in the flatlands of Oakland and who attended a predominately black school might not have heard of USF. Russell said that before he came to USF he felt like he was a captive of his ghetto life in Oakland. "You know, it was only twelve miles from my home to...

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6. Roommates and Friends Forever

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pp. 35-44

K. C. Jones was sitting in his dormitory room on the USF campus when Russell walked in to announce that he was Jones's new roommate. They quickly discovered similarities in their lives. "He was black, and his family had left the South for the Bay Area," Jones said. (Russell was born in Monroe, Louisiana, and Jones...

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7. Time to Produce

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pp. 45-59

Woolpert looked forward to the 1953–54 season because of the talented freshmen moving up to the varsity. Guidice had groomed them well. The freshmen had put together a 19 and 4 season. Russell scored 461 points or just over 20 points a game—a freshman record. The freshmen had a better team than the varsity...

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8. A Disappointing Season

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pp. 61-69

At the start of the 1953–54 season the Dons expected to unseat Santa Clara as champions of the CBA. The Broncos had made it to the final four in 1952 as well as to the Western Regional finals in 1953, and several players returned from that team in the fall, including powerhouse forward Kenny Sears...

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9. An Unlikely Coach

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pp. 71-81

Phil Woolpert may have been the luckiest and yet the most reluctant coach ever to head a major college basketball team. When he graduated in 1940 from Loyola University—now Loyola Marymount—he planned to become a social worker. Instead, he went to work in a prison. Then, while in the army during World...

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10. A Surprising Move

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pp. 83-102

Russell and Woolpert continued to battle in practice and during games over how he should play. It bothered Woolpert that Russell would leave his feet while guarding an opposing player. "And here I was, airborne most of the time," Russell said. Woolpert told Russell he was "fundamentally unsound," and that "you...

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11. The Trail to the Title

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pp. 103-120

Until 1950 the NIT dominated college basketball. Many of the top teams at that time were not members of the NCAA. If a school wanted national exposure for its program, the best place to get it was at the NIT in Madison Square Garden in New York City. The best teams—many of them independent schools—played in the...

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12. Russell Brings about Rule Changes

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pp. 121-127

If the Dons were weary from two games in two days it didn't show. The team and two-hundred backers partied until well after midnight at their Kansas City hotel. The highlight of the night was Hal Perry, the accomplished musician, who pounded away on the drums to jazz music while Warren Baxter jitterbugged...

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13. The Machine Rolls On

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pp. 129-135

The Dons returned for the 1955–56 season with high expectations of repeating as national champions. Bill Russell, K. C. Jones and Hal Perry were back, and USF was drawing national attention. Several teams wanted to schedule games against them, and the team would be playing at home to full houses...

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14. Into the Deep South

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pp. 137-143

Loyola University of the South in New Orleans, a Jesuit school, was different. It was one of the first schools in the South to accept black students when it allowed religious women of color to enroll in 1952, followed by black laymen and women. Desegregation came almost without protest, with only a handful of students...

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15. Holiday Travel and the Stall

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pp. 145-160

The tail end of the toughest road trip the team faced came at the Holiday Festival Tournament in Madison Square Garden in New York City. In none of Russell's books did he mention his experiences in Louisiana. But the visit to New York rated mention in his autobiography Go Up for Glory...

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16. Two in a Row

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pp. 161-174

USF was confident entering the NCAA tournament, which, for the first time, would have a representative from four regions—the Far West, the West, Midwest, and East. The Dons wanted to become the first undefeated team in NCAA tournament history. "Going into our second national championship, we just didn't...

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17. A New Sport for Russell

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pp. 175-179

He had to get permission from his track teammates to skip workouts because he was too tired from the grind of the basketball season. He also needed time to rest to catch up on his class work, and he had just returned from the Olympic tryouts. A high jumper who also played on the USF freshman team, Ed Griffin...

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18. The Aftermath

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pp. 181-191

Phil Woolpert had hoped the Dons as a team would represent the United States in the 1956 Olympic games, but it was not to be. Olympic rules had been changed to prohibit the NCAA championship team from competing in the qualifying tournament. Rather, fourteen seniors were to be picked from various colleges...

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19. Epilogue

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pp. 193-204

It has been said that you can determine how successful a coach has been by looking at what his former players have accomplished five or ten years later. By any stretch of the imagination, Woolpert was an overwhelming success. Here's a rundown of what happened to his assistant coach, aides, and former players...


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pp. 205-235


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pp. 237-243

E-ISBN-13: 9780803224445
E-ISBN-10: 0803224443

Publication Year: 2009


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