Of course, Loyola is a Catholic school, and Woolpert was—well, as he puts it, "I had a dim view of Catholics as a kid. I wasn't much of a fan of any church, in fact. My grandfather had been a Presbyterian preacher, but I don't think I'd been in a pew since I was 12. I'm an agnostic, pure and, I suppose, simple. It is, I guess, the coward's way out, but I just can't do it any other way." Ironically (a word that fits almost everything Phil Woolpert ever did), Loyola turned out to be just the first in a lifetime of constant connections with Catholicism; he has never coached anywhere but at Catholic schools—San Francisco's St. Ignatius High School, the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco and, of course, USD. "It's been a great, great exposure," he says. "My dim view has brightened, shall we say, profoundly." Indeed, before every game his team plays, the agnostic coach traditionally begins the locker room chant, "Hail Mary Full of Grace...." And Mary Woolpert, the tall, blonde lady he married in 1945, has always been "a tremendously faithful Catholic," he says.
When he was graduated from Loyola in 1940, "coaching was the farthest thing from my mind. I had majored in political science because the school didn't offer sociology, and I was off on my white charger to help the world." The world he first charged into was the California state-prison system. A new reform plan had just been instituted at Chino—unarmed guards, cells without locks, an honor system for inmates—and Woolpert was one of 35 men selected from 1,500 applicants to be supervisors. It was an enlightening period, but brief, for in August 1942 he was drafted, sent to Hawaii and, because of his training, was assigned to the staff of the disciplinary barracks outside Honolulu—the infamous Stockade. It proved to be a shattering time.
"This was the hellhole James Jones wrote about in From Here to Eternity," said Woolpert, "and if anything, he underwrote the scenes. God, how grotesque and sordid and brutal men can be! The place reeked of homosexuality, and the bulk of the company was illiterate. I shared an office for a time with a provost sergeant who was a blatant sadist and unabashed homosexual. He wore a perfumed handkerchief in his sleeve. His desk was always empty, polished and clean, except for a blackjack in the middle. He'd slug kids for having a spot of dirt on one shoe. They finally put him away."
In those wartime years, executions—on the gallows or by a firing squad—were not unheard-of at the Stockade. "Your view of life is never the same after being around that kind of thing." said Woolpert. "The most haunting, chilling hours I ever spent happened one night before an execution. Every condemned man was given a last request, and this one fellow said he didn't want anything except a copy of The Warsaw Concerto. Then he sat down at the piano and, for the next eight or nine hours, he played it over and over and over. I was there all night. The kid never stopped. In the morning he went out and a firing squad killed him."
Understandably, Woolpert's zest for prison work faded at the Stockade and, even though he did not set out purposefully to become a basketball coach, it turned out that there just wasn't much he could do to prevent it. "I suppose none of us really knows—for certain—whether we're making the major decisions of our lives because we truly want to ourselves or because of what other people expect us to do," he said.
In August of 1946, eight months out of the service and just starting on a rather dull field job with the Veteran's Administration, Woolpert got a call from his old coach, Jim Needles, who was then athletic director at the University of San Francisco. The coaching job at St. Ignatius, a prep school for USF, was open. Would Phil be interested? He was not happy with the VA, and he was indeed interested. Needles and Pete Newell, then coaching at USF, gave him sterling recommendations, and he was hired. In his first year at the school his team won the city championship. In four years he rolled up a 63-29 record. "I liked it, and I had no ambitions at all to go into college coaching," he recalled.
Ah, but there were other people's expectations involved. When Newell quit USF in 1950 to go to Michigan State, Phil took the job—with trepidation and reluctance. No sooner had he walked into his new office than the trepidation turned to terror and the reluctance became abject resignation. "I opened one filing cabinet that first day," he said. "My God, there was folder after folder, each at least an inch thick, on high school prospects, or something. I was overwhelmed. I slammed the drawer, went home and told Mary, 'I quit—this is beyond my capacity.'
"Frankly, she whipped the hell out of me mentally that day, and I went back. She was right." But his first season was sheer misery (a 9-17 record), and at the end of it Woolpert told Needles he was through. "I figured I'd had my exposure to the big time and I just was not cut out for the pressures."
Needles persuaded him otherwise. "Phil felt guilty because he didn't think he was doing justice to the kids," said Needles. "It was typical of Phil to blame himself. But he had poor material, and I finally made him believe that he did have the technical mastery, that it wasn't all his fault." There were two more so-so years, but meanwhile one of Woolpert's scouts had spotted a clumsy, gangling kid named Bill Russell playing high school ball, in almost total anonymity, in Oakland. Woolpert offered Russell a scholarship, without having seen him play one minute of basketball.
"My God, the first time I did see him at a workout, I couldn't believe my eyes," said Woolpert. "He could jump—oh, how he could jump—but he was so ungainly. Still, there was something about Bill then that you just couldn't ignore. He had this rare, wonderful confidence in himself. Not braggadocio, but good honest confidence." As Woolpert recalls it, when Russell was first introduced as a freshman to the USF coaching staff he said, "Gentlemen, I want you to know that I am going to be the University of San Francisco's next All-America."