Before the Spectrum, before Princess Grace, even before Frankie Avalon and Fabian and the other dreamy rockers came out of the south side with their peg pants and their white shoes, Philadelphia had Tom Gola. The early '50s was the chosen time for the demigods of sport in that city. There was Chuck Bednarik, old concrete Charlie, who had come down from the steel mills of Bethlehem to become a star at Penn and to go both ways for the Eagles. There was Robin Roberts, off a Midwestern farm and the Michigan State campus, to fire nothing but strikes and win 20 every year for the Whiz Kid Phillies. But not they, not anyone, ever touched the legend of Tom Gola.
Tom Gola of La Salle is Philadelphia's one and only genuine folk hero partly because he is the city's own. He grew up, the son of a cop, 20 blocks from his school. He enrolled there in 1951, and for four years excelled on the basketball court with the grace, flair and sheer all-round excellence that to this day are the standards by which all others are judged. While Gola was at La Salle the Explorers won 102 games, finished first in the NIT and first in the NCAA, then second in the NCAA. No Philadelphian can ever forget the sound of the public-address system at Convention Hall whenever Tom Gola scored another deuce. "Golagoal, Golagoal, Golagoal," it would scream. What man was on an NCAA and NIT and an NBA championship team? "Arnie Ferrin of Utah and the Minneapolis Lakers and me," says Tom Gola. "How about that?"
Last Saturday night the sandy crew cut was gone, replaced by waves with the part on the right and some streaks of gray. The famous black sleeves of the old uniform were also gone, changed to a pinstripe suit and handsome cravat. The man is a licensed real-estate agent now, an insurance salesman and the distinguished Representative in the state legislature of the 170th District of Pennsylvania (northeast Philadelphia). But he is once again Gola of La Salle—in his first season as coach.
Last week, as easily as he introduced a resolution that would "investigate rumors of irregularities and conflicts of interest" in the city's housing and redevelopment authorities, Tom Gola presented for national consideration his La Salle basketball team. It is not only his first team but, with a record of 18-1, the first team in the East, too. In what surely must have been Philadelphia's biggest college game in years, La Salle's devastating run-rabbit-run attack, as in the days of old, turned back Villanova 74-67.
However loaded with excitement, the week was only an average one for Representative Gola. Since Jan. 7, the day he began his second term, the state legislature has met each Monday and Tuesday, a circumstance that normally forces Gola to be absent from Monday practice. On that first day of the week he drives 100 miles to Harrisburg to wait upon the Republican caucus and go over the calendar. He stays overnight in the capital, attends a usually short session on Tuesday, then drives back to Philadelphia in time to meet with his team. Last Wednesday morning he attended to his insurance business in the Philadelphia suburb of Fort Washington before driving another two hours to Easton, where that night La Salle ran to an easy victory over Lafayette. The next day Gola met with more business associates and attended a basketball luncheon and a political dinner before fulfilling still another appointment with the ever-fawning press. He did not get home to his wife and 9-year-old son until 2 o'clock the next morning. Friday held much of the same routine, and on Saturday, in addition to the big game, Gola was to experience his first taste of the rite that is the eternal bane of all coaches: the entertainment of visiting high school players.
"I don't know how he does it, physically," says Curt Fromal, the assistant coach. "His schedule is inhuman. It isn't the many jobs so much as it is the people who want to see him. Everybody wants something from Tom."
"Weekends are for the family, so I have to skip those 9-to-12 Communion breakfasts," laughs Gola. "But I knew what I was getting into. I had to try this. La Salle was going downhill. Organization had broken down. I wanted to make basketball important again."
La Salle basketball had come upon difficult times. Despite a 20-8 record and an NCAA bid last season, the team still had the look of a group of waifs. A trio of talented seniors—Larry Cannon, Bernie Williams and Stan Wlodarczyk—had met at a series of high school all-star games, and with a fourth man, 6'9" Isaiah King, were recruited to La Salle in 1965 by Bob Walters with the prospect of challenging for the national title for three years. But before the season even opened, Walters retired because of ulcers. King flunked out of school during his freshman year and never returned. The new coach, Joe Heyer, a freshly scrubbed 27-year-old who once had to be okayed by a student in order to be served a beer, was not prepared for the job. Recognizing his inexperience and inability to handle the pressure, he resigned after his second year.
Next to come was Jim Harding, a whip and sword guy who spread terror with his manner and who in past times, it is said, was regularly hung in effigy at another school by his own players. He resigned after one year to coach in the pros. That's when Gola came back on the scene, but it was not much of a scene. In October the school was slapped with a two-year NCAA probation from postseason play because of fostering illegal campus jobs and threatening to dispossess scholarship players of their scholarships. The NCAA has since made the latter indiscretion legal, not that that has deducted from the school's loss.
"I could have accepted a one-year probation willingly," Gola says. "But I don't agree with two. Everyone concerned with the infractions is gone, and here are these innocent kids with only one place to go. We play our last game at West Chester."