Of course, any victory streak has its own built-in pressures, and when it gets to 60 straight it approaches extremes of human cruelty. "We couldn't ever really forget it, although we tried like hell," said Woolpert. "But it wasn't as bad as a lot of people might think. You know, teams really do play games one at a time, as the old clich� has it. And, of course, I was aware all along that we were benefited by a really fortuitous set of circumstances. That combination of kids—with their pride and their absolute conviction that they could not be beaten—is a rare, maybe even unique thing. Frankly, I'm damned proud of the string. Not so much because it was so long as because there is not one game that I feel guilty about. We never, as far as I know, took advantage unfairly of another team."
The string stretched for five games beyond the departure from USF of Russell, Jones & Co. Not until Dec. 15, 1956 did USF lose, and then it was in an unofficial exhibition against the U.S. Olympic team in Chicago. And who were the major players on that Olympic club? That's right—Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. Two nights later, Illinois snapped the streak—officially.
Despite those fine seasons, Woolpert never did feel at ease in big-time coaching. Yet a combination of coincidence and his own ambivalence about the pressures and pleasures of the major-college milieu created a kind of inertia around him. Even though he convinced himself again and again that he should quit, he stayed where he was. "In retrospect, I should have done what I wanted to do—resign at the end of that second national championship in 1956," he said. "But, hell, I've got my dread of insecurity and my intrinsic need for recognition as much as the next fellow. And I suppose I was foolishly, childishly motivated by the fear that people would say, "There's a guy who can't stand the pressure.' So I stayed, and we had a good season in '57. After 1958 I had pretty much made up my mind that this was it. We'd had a great year (25-2) and I knew the time had come. Then, that spring, two of our really good players were dropped from the squad. I just couldn't bring myself to leave a ship in that bad shape."
The USF ship proved to be in abysmal condition, all right—it wallowed through a 6-20 record in 1959, and only once in 35 years of intercollegiate basketball had USF done worse (2-13 in 1941). "I couldn't exactly tell you what was going through my mind then. Monumental confusion, certainly. Bitterness. Self-pity. Resignation," said Woolpert.
Even after that dismal season of '59, Woolpert did not quit, although he knew another year of misery was coming up. Then that summer he had an accident in Manila during a Jesuit-sponsored basketball tour of the Far East. It occurred under conditions that would set a Baptist Fundamentalist muttering about "God's infinite wisdom" and "fate foreordained." Even a good functioning agnostic might take pause. For at the height of a ferocious typhoon, Woolpert slipped on the slick tiles of a patio as he was running to his room. Lightning ripped the sky and thunder boomed all about. He landed on his back so hard that he was paralyzed for several minutes. Within the week he was on his way back to San Francisco, clad in a plaster coat from neck to waist to ease the pain of the bruised vertebrae in his back. "Ultimately, that did it," said Woolpert. "I was a nervous, jangled wreck. We started the practice season, and I was terrible. I wore a brace and harness then that irked hell out of me. There was quite a bit of pain. Everything was interrelated—the letdown of the previous year, my own confusion about my future, the bad back. Maybe if I'd been normal physically, things would have been different." The day before the first game of the 1959-60 season he announced he would take a leave of absence. Six months later he quit USF for good, and two years later he found his niche in the serenity of San Diego.
As with any man, some of the most formative decisions of his life had been just beyond his own control. Ultimately, he did not really choose the quiet, subtle brand of success he is enjoying in San Diego. Yet it somehow fits him perfectly and, as he says, "I am happy here. Damned happy."
Occasionally, there are still offers from big-time, big-salary schools—and, who knows, someday Woolpert may return to the championships. For now he says no. "I've been there—No. 1 and all that. I'd be a fool if I said the satisfaction and emoluments weren't wonderful. They were. But there are so many demands on your time—and, in a way, so many demands on your morality—at those high levels of competition. Besides the ordinary pressures to win, there gets to be an economic motive, too. Just plain money becomes a tremendously important factor—simply because so many schools have such astronomic athletic department budgets. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars are involved. I've always said that the athletic department budget should be consolidated with the general school budget—treat it like the philosophy or English department—and, instead of forcing the athletic department to produce its own revenue, turn everything from the gates back into the general college fund and allocate it on an annual basis. In other words, take sports out of the environment of profit and loss. We do that here at USD, but it's not an idea that will sweep the nation, I'm afraid.
"A couple of years ago, Wayne Hardin at Navy told me that his athletic department budget was $900,000. Can you imagine? Well, to meet that kind of budget you just have to fill the stadium every Saturday. You have to play a Top Ten style of football. You have to react to a form of profit motive—because winning means revenue for the athletic department. Look, honest coaches don't purposely try to loosen up academic standards for athletes. But with that kind of dollar pressure on them, the temptations sure as hell are there to use just slightly questionable tactics in recruiting. To get a real good kid, you might make just one exception for a low grade average. So you can win. Maybe, eventually, there'll be a deal with some alumni booster to give a really great kid's father some help in his business. Or to help pay for a tonsillectomy for a boy's kid brother. Or pay his sister's tuition at a finishing school. The pressure to win can corrupt—insidiously and unconsciously—the whole structure of a university. Hell, the structure of a whole society."
Not long ago, while sipping slowly at a martini, very dry but with lots of ice, Woolpert said, "I have an enormous empathy with the hippies. I might have been an extraordinarily good hippie. The best of what they stand for—love, peace, compassion for other people, individualism unobstructed by artificial values of the establishment—these are things I'd like to think. I stand for at my best."
The statement was not without its contradictions, for, as he spoke of hippies, there was Phil Woolpert, a middle-aged basketball coach, sitting on a broad sofa in the living room of his home—a place that is gracefully if not elegantly furnished on the inside and is surrounded by other homes similar on the outside. In the driveway were a Volkswagen bus and a 1967 Mercury station wagon, each containing its quota of the classic litter of suburbia, Kleenex and road maps and broken color crayons and old shopping lists and dirt-scuffed school papers of children. In his house there were five lively, uncommonly handsome youngsters, ranging from 7 to 18 years old, and neither Phil nor Mary Woolpert could sustain a particularly long conversation without interruptions to assert some very non-dropout authority about snitching the avocado chip dip or who would drive to the dance that night or "When, Mother, will you do my hair?" For a time, the phonograph put forth the sounds of an album called Freddy Martin Plays the Beatles
and Mary said, "Maybe that's the way people our age are supposed to function—as a link between Freddy Martin and the Beatles, a tie between yesterday and today."