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TRIUMPH IN OBSCURITY
William Johnson
April 22, 1968
Irony accompanied Phil Woolpert through a skyrocket coaching career of matchless achievements and is with him even today amid the satisfactions of a tranquil, sunny campus in San Diego
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April 22, 1968

Triumph In Obscurity

Irony accompanied Phil Woolpert through a skyrocket coaching career of matchless achievements and is with him even today amid the satisfactions of a tranquil, sunny campus in San Diego

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Big-time sport breeds few philosophers. That is not entirely because the men of that world do not have a meditative turn of mind; some of them do, indeed. But the tensions and pressures of their lives allow little time and less tranquillity for proper contemplation. For example, now that the 1968 collegiate basketball season is a thing of the past—now that the winning is done and the curtain has fallen on the high-tension drama—can major-college coaches heave a sigh and spend the spring in a Socratic pursuit of truth? Can they unwind now, content to dwell on the vicissitudes of man and the verities of life? No, they cannot. For now begins the time of the crudest competition of all—recruiting. And if a coach wants to survive, he had better be out crisscrossing the country, wheeling and wheedling, coaxing and coddling, to entice to his school the kids who will produce. There is no rest for the winner in major-college athletics, for every year, unlike a pro coach, he generally loses some of the talent that made him a winner. He must constantly replace what he constantly loses, and thus few men have either the time or the inclination to ask the questions or risk the definitions that would add a dimension of reason or rationale to the race in which they perform.

Perhaps it isn't essential for a man to divorce himself completely from the roar of the crowd in order to put things in perspective. But it helps. And few can better vouch for the satisfactions of tranquillity over the high-tension tumult of big-time coaching than Philipp D. Woolpert—an uncommonly sensitive man who a few years ago traded the soaring triumphs of a matchless coaching career at the University of San Francisco for the sunny docility of life at the University of San Diego, an obscure and distinctly small-time school that is considerably less renowned for its basketball teams than for the serene beauty of its campus. Phil Woolpert's perspective has sharpened, and his concern over the drift and direction of sports specifically and the world in general has deepened considerably in the relative peace of San Diego.

"This may be heresy," says Woolpert, "but I think there is something wrong with these games we play when winning becomes a motivating factor of behavior beyond the game itself. Winning has gotten to be an ingredient that we can't do without in this country. We have come to believe the only real measure of accomplishment comes in victory. It's the product of a bad system of values. Hell, it creates psychological problems where there shouldn't be any. I have no solution, but there must be a more rational approach than this overweening insistence on winning."

Heresy it isn't, of course, for, contrary to the fanaticism of a few high priests, victory is not yet a religion. But coming from Phil Woolpert, such words constitute a biting and thought-provoking irony, for he was once the winningest coach in America. With his magnificent University of San Francisco teams of the mid-'50s, winning was almost a bore and scenes of high-tension pandemonium were practically habit. His teams performed in the most celebrated arenas of America: Madison Square Garden, The Cow Palace, Chicago's Stadium, Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium, Los Angeles' Pan-Pacific Auditorium. He coached some superb players—Bill Russell, K. C. Jones, Mike Farmer, Gene Brown, Hal Perry. And the precision defensive patterns and exquisite game control that were Woolpert's trademark made these men all but unbeatable.

In those years Woolpert's name was synonymous with the kind of coaching success that young men new to the profession sit twirling their whistles and daydreaming about in the offices of a thousand high school locker rooms. Twice—in 1955 and 1956—USF won the NCAA national championship. In 1957, Russell and Jones of the All-Americas were gone, but Woolpert again took his team to the NCAA finals and finished third—the only time in history a school had finished so well three years running. And in 1958 Woolpert coached USF to a spectacular 25-2 record, both losses resulting from baskets scored seconds before the gun went off. Over those four dazzling years his record was 103 wins and 10 losses.

Indeed, he came to know the taste of victory with a bittersweet intensity beyond that experienced by any college coach—ever. From Dec. 17, 1954 until Dec. 17, 1956, the University of San Francisco won 60 consecutive intercollegiate games—21 more than any major team had ever accumulated before. The record is still unmatched and has only been in jeopardy once, during UCLA's recent streak, which Houston stopped at 47 this year.

Phil Woolpert was 39 when he won his first national championship; when he was 43 he left the rarefied air of big-time college coaching for good. It was a skyrocket ride that left a trail of dazzling records—and perplexing paradoxes. For Phil Woolpert is a rare and complex man, "a very subtle man," as Bill Russell once put it. And he doesn't fit the molds readymade or the clich�s prefabricated for success in sport. "Our emphasis is so much on production, on a kind of visible improvement," he said recently. "People say to a guy, 'Hey, John, you're not working up to capacity. You could be making another $100 a day. What's the matter with you, John?' But what if John wants to improve in something intangible? Human communications, maybe, or loving his neighbor or studying sunsets? By our simplistic measures of success, a man like John doesn't count."

Phil Woolpert's success at San Diego scarcely lends itself to any simplistic measures. He has gone from celebrity to near anonymity, his income is down, and his prestige in the world beyond San Diego is minimal. Yet he is, by his own definition, a happy man. At 52, there is a distinguished silver cast to his dark brown hair and deep creases around his mouth; the creases become chasms when he laughs, which is often. When he frowns in moments of intense concentration, also often, his ruggedly handsome face ( Charlton Heston is perhaps his nearest look-alike) somehow remains dynamic in repose, as if the struggle in his mind were reflected in his physical appearance. And when he voices his thoughts—in strikingly articulate phrases—his voice has an impressively deep, crackling timbre; it carries that authoritative sound you like to hear from airline pilots or pulpit preachersor Presidents—from any man you want to put your confidence in.

Since 1962, he has been at the University of San Diego (not to be confused with either San Diego State University or the University of California at San Diego). The school, a creation of the San Diego Roman Catholic diocese, is tiny and has an antiseptic, almost monastic aura about it. There are 700 women and 600 men in the two colleges, which are still, to a great extent, segregated by sex. It is not hard to feel a kind of metaphysical insulation from the churlish turmoil of the Real World at the school. The campus is a scene of almost postcard perfection—sparkling white Spanish baroque buildings set on a hilltop against a backdrop of lazy circling seagulls and a breathtaking view of San Diego's Harbor of the Sun.

The students (69% Catholic) are well behaved; the only memorable demonstration of youth in rebellion at USD, so far, was over a ludicrously parochial issue. "The kids petitioned the Student Affairs Committee to ease restrictions on what they wore to class," said Woolpert. "Well, we okayed sideburns and mustaches and Bermuda shorts and sandals and sneakers—just about everything they wanted. Except for socks. I don't remember why, but someone on the committee insisted they wear socks to class. So they picketed over socks."

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