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Jack Olsen
September 23, 1968
Bill van Breda Kolff, who will be coaching Wilt Chamberlain this year, loves his beer and a good time, but he is a mighty serious fellow when it comes to pro basketball
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September 23, 1968

Hedonist Prophet Of The Spartan Game

Bill van Breda Kolff, who will be coaching Wilt Chamberlain this year, loves his beer and a good time, but he is a mighty serious fellow when it comes to pro basketball

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Butch van Breda Kolff (pronounced van bredda kawf) came to the Lakers as the third most successful active college coach (behind Adolph Rupp of Kentucky and Johnny Wooden of UCLA) with a cumulative record of 307 wins and 109 losses at Lafayette, Hofstra and finally Princeton, where his teams won the Ivy League title four years out of five and in general proved that they could compete with the kids from the housing projects.

"Butch was never a Princeton type," his wife says, "but they seemed to like the way he did things, Ivy or not."

"No," the coach agrees, "I was never Ivy. I was more like a townie. I chewed tobacco and wore crazy hats, anything to be different, and my friends were cops and bartenders and people like that. I didn't make it on the society scene. I also did a very un-Princeton thing: I flunked out—not once, but twice. That at least ties the track record. All I cared about was sports, competition."

Where the competitive drive came from in Van Breda Kolff's case may have something to do with his father, a Dutch-American stockbroker who played on Holland's 1912 bronze-medal Olympic soccer team. "Every summer we'd go back to The Netherlands on business," Van Breda Kolff recalls, "and there was one spell of five months when I even went to school there. We were well-to-do most of the time, certainly not rich but well-to-do. On Sundays we used to pile into the family's Hispano-Suiza—my mother and father and two sisters and me—and go out to the thee gartuin, the tea garden, and the older people would sit around and the kids would play games like soccer. My father taught me early that losing wasn't good. Was he strict? He was Dutch, wasn't he?"

To hear Van Breda Kolff tell it, he would never have been admitted to Princeton in the first place if his father had not sent him to The Hill School for a year of preparation. "The Hill School was like a prison," he says. "All we did was play sports and study, so I had pretty good grades and they let me into Princeton, and I didn't do badly in my freshman year. I mean, I passed, but barely. Then I went to school during the summer and brought my grades up, and my sophomore year came around and the day before the soccer season started the coach said, 'You're ineligible!" He explained that at Princeton summer grades didn't count. That didn't seem fair to me and, being a typical spoiled kid, I said the hell with everything and never picked up another book. So I flunked out and went into the Marines."

Even in those years Van Breda Kolff enjoyed the kiss of the hops, and after three years in the corps and reaching the dizzying heights of buck sergeant, beer almost proved his undoing. He came back to the base one night swinging a newly purchased pair of shoes around his head and singing the praises of alcoholic beverages. A shore patrolman asked him for his liberty card, "and when I didn't flash it practically instantly he gave me some lip. I hit him over the head with the shoes and the next thing I knew I was in trouble."

Over in the women's barracks, a pretty radio operator named Sergeant Florence Smith was getting into trouble, too, for unauthorized chattering on the radio circuit, and so it happened that the wedding of the two Cherry Point sergeants came close to being a wedding of two Cherry Point privates.

After the war Van Breda Kolff was allowed a second chance at Princeton and, although he captained the basketball team and was named an All-America center half at soccer, he managed to flunk out again. He went to the New York Knickerbockers where he played three years as a cornerman and took his BA at New York University in physical education. After 11 successful years as basketball coach at Lafayette and Hofstra, he found himself back at Princeton as head basketball coach. The Princeton Alumni Weekly noted: "True, Butch isn't like the other head varsity coaches at Princeton.... He smokes big stogies and has been known to be downright uncouth. He is plainly a loud, rambunctious guy, something which is a rarity around Princeton's athletic department, and it makes one wonder if there should not be more like him."

Van Breda Kolff cursed at his players, spent much of his time in Joe Fasanella's saloon on Alexander Street, grappled every working-class townie to his soul with hoops of steel and in general ignored the landed gentry from the other side of Westcott Road. He also rang up a 103-31 record in five seasons and established Princeton as a national basketball power. At first these successes were attributed to the presence of Bill Bradley, the vanilla young man from Missouri who was the greatest player of his time, but Van Breda Kolff knocked that idea in the head by racking up a 25-3 record two years after Bradley's graduation. Princeton was rated fifth in the country in 1967, the first time an Ivy League team broke into the top 10, and soon thereafter Van Breda Kolff became the first Ivy coach in history to take over a professional team.

Toward the end of his stay at Princeton, Van Breda Kolff was suffering from a plethora of success. "We had to win every game or the rich and the townies'd get sore," he remembers. Then there was a matter of money. "Not that I care all that much about money." Van Breda Kolff says. "If I were a money man, would I have coached at Princeton? I have a little money put away, and my family's not starving, so I don't worry as much about money as some guys do. But then it becomes a matter of pride. At Princeton I was making $12,000 a year. The school wasn't on a big-time sports kick, and that's all the job was worth. So one day I say to myself, 'What the hell's the sense of all this? You're breaking your chops!' So I talked the money situation over with Princeton and they told me what my 1968 salary would be: $13,000. And I said, 'That's it?' and they said, 'That's it!' " Van Breda Kolff decided to leave for Los Angeles, even though he had to come to terms with Jack Kent Cooke, the abrasive little infighter who has bought Southern California and is negotiating for Arizona and Texas and still has the first Canadian nickel he ever made selling encyclopedias to people who could only look at the pictures. "He came up a little in the salary—maybe about double what I was getting at Princeton," said Van Breda Kolff, "and I took the job."

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