Although the architecture and the setting create an impression of ancient severity, USD is really spanking new—and it has experienced some birth pains that border on trauma. Classes began in the women's college in 1952 and in the men's in 1954. At that time the USD athletic program was ambitiously designed to produce a football team that would bathe the school in overnight fame as an instant Notre Dame of the West.
"They had some kind of an idea about Horatio Alger success in football," said Woolpert, "and I'm afraid they went after it in a very naive and unfortunate way. There were a lot of local businessmen involved and, whether they were actually buying the football players, I don't know. But they were enrolling kids with microscopic grade averages and, eventually, the whole school nearly sank in the undertow. Once the bars are down in that kind of setup, everything seems to suffer. Enrollment dropped way off—to 250 or so—in the men's college, and the university came damned close to losing its accreditation." Football was canceled in 1962 after a new president of the men's college was brought in and the 3,000-seat stadium stands empty year-round except for high school games.
"This idea that money is the end-all power behind success, behind winning, is a major weakness in our values," Woolpert said. "It works in the courts, because wealthy men can afford the legal wizards that poor men cannot, and it has worked in the draft, because the money to attend college guarantees a deferment while the ghetto kid goes to war. I have never liked elitism—and certainly not when it is based on material possessions."
There are no Boosters Clubs or heavy commercial pressures on Phil Woolpert at USD; most of the alumni are still too young to have the affluence to afford much of a contribution to the old alma mater. There are no marathon winning streaks to protect, either. Woolpert is 65-65 since he arrived, 15-10 this year. When he was first hired by the university (the fifth coach in four years), the word went out among San Diego businessmen that he would be midwife to the birth of superbasketball at the school. "They were saying that I would make it the Kentucky of the West," said Woolpert. "Nothing was farther from my mind—or the school administration's either, after the football fiasco. I went on television as soon as I got here and threw cold water on that idea right away."
Kentucky it isn't, but Phil hasn't exactly taken up full-time sunset studies either—not when it comes to the basketball season, anyway. "Look, as a coach I can't try to lose. If I did, I'd be absurd," he said. He still is far from Buddha-cool in the dwindling hours before a game. Always a noticeably nervous man, he develops quick tics in his face as game time approaches and, occasionally, he jumps abruptly in his chair, as if someone had just fired a howitzer off the edge of the swimming pool outside his office window. "There's always this gnawing in the stomach," he said. "It's almost the same whether it's a national championship or the last game of a losing season. Somehow, I've got by all these years without getting an ulcer. If I did, I'd quit. But the pressure is always there. The pressure you put on yourself."
Still, he is a million miles, as the seagull flies, from the golden pressure cooker of those magnificent days of the mid-'50s. Why did he make the move? As Wordsworth wrote, "The Child is father to the Man," and Phil Woolpert's decisions were, to some extent, predestined in his youth.
"I'm a product of the benighted white American middle class," he said, "and I suppose I'm as much a victim of its prejudices and misjudgments as anyone. But money has never been a prime consideration for me and, if I'd gone along with my dreams as a young man, I'd be a poorer, but maybe happier, social worker."
Until he was 10, Woolpert lived a nomadic existence, his family moving again and again—Kentucky, Ohio, New Jersey. His father was in stocks and bonds promotion. In 1925, seven Woolperts and a dog piled into a brand-new Chandler automobile and headed for that American Mecca of the Transient—Los Angeles. "It was before the Okies' migration," recalled Phil dryly, "but we slept under the stars all the way." They lived in an integrated section of L.A. (Actress Hattie McDaniel's brother was one of their neighbors), and that environment, together with the influence of Woolpert's outspoken and politically independent father, eventually led Phil to an intense liberalism.
When Woolpert graduated from L.A.'s Manual Arts High School in 1933, the Depression was in its bleakest days, and he had "positively no illusions about going to college." For a time he did the mundane, demeaning odd jobs of the day—peddling handbills, standing in lines of ragged men waiting to be picked for a day's construction work. He finally enrolled at a nearby junior college (it required only a small entrance fee), bent on a career "helping people—I didn't quite know how. Just helping them."
A mere sliver of a lad (6'2" , 135 pounds), Phil became a polished junior-college basketball player and caught the eye of Jim Needles, the feisty coach (he is still called "The Beast") of Loyola University of L.A. Needles gave Phil a four-year scholarship. Woolpert still looked like "the results of an X ray," as his Loyola teammate, Pete Newell, recalls, but Needles put him on a cod liver oil diet, and Woolpert became a smooth, furiously competitive forward (he was booted out of no less than four games for fistfighting).