Pete Peletta, the youthful coach of the University of San Francisco, was standing out in the cold in Detroit two years ago after his team's fourth straight defeat. An airline had lost his clothes, half his team had the flu, he was freezing and he could not get a cab. "Coach," said Jake Crawford, one of his players, "we just got buzzard's luck. Nothing will die and we can't kill nothing."
Since then, things have never been even close to that bad for Peletta and his men, but last week the Dons—the best USF squad since the halcyon days of Bill Russell—were caught in the same epidemic of buzzard's luck that caused upsets among a startling number of top teams. Besides San Francisco, NYU, Duke, Arizona State, Kansas State, Villanova and all three O States—Oregon, Oklahoma and Ohio—got bumped, while Loyola twice escaped by the hair of its chinny-chin-chin (see below).
Before USF's game with Oklahoma City University, the team lost one of its starting guards, Huey Thomas, who broke his ankle. Then, as Peletta and his boys were waiting at the airport for the plane that would take them to Oklahoma City, their trainer, Charles Newby, suffered a heart attack and died. Neither of these shocking losses, however, really can be blamed for the subsequent 97-84 defeat by OCU. The Dons have muscle and scoring power in Center Ollie Johnson and Forward Dave Lee. They are well drilled and they can run. But the Chiefs of Oklahoma City—the tallest college team ever—may be the best outside shots since the Khyber Rifles. USF has two heritages—one is Jesuit and the other is defensive basketball—and nobody had ever scored more than 91 points on the Dons before (last year's average: 58.4). But Coach Peletta's well-laid defenses were simply riddled by the OCU shooters.
Peletta came to San Francisco from Monterey Peninsula (junior) College four years ago. At 31, he was the youngest of 64 applicants for the job, and his selection was promptly greeted by questions like "who?" and "why?" He compounded the skepticism by being tough on his players. There is only one dormitory at USF, and when Peletta chewed out a player at practice, the whole student body would be mad at him by suppertime. "Pontius Pilate" was the nicest thing they called him. Since then Peletta has done some successful recruiting, his team has begun to win, his mood has mellowed and everyone on campus figures he is not so young and immature after all. He is, actually, a delightful man—the better to recruit; and an intense man—the better to coach. When he does relax he talks like one of those comedians named Joey, and there is always the suspicion that he is setting things up for a punch line.
Peletta's assistant, Phil Vukicevich, did what turned out to be an excellent scouting job on Oklahoma City. For all their height, the Chiefs are not good rebounders, and their defense consists of relying on their offense. "They give you lunch in order to get a sandwich for themselves," Peletta said. The only problem for USF, then, was stopping OCU's outside bombs. Oklahoma Coach Abe Lemons, who talks and philosophizes about three cans of corn this side of Andy Griffith, will not even let his fine guard, Bud Koper, drive. "You git kicked and such in there," he says. "Koper now, he throws up a Nike missile—it just searches out that basket. Besides, I got all those other big 'uns in there if he does miss." The big 'uns range up to 7-foot Eddie Jackson, who for all intents and purposes is a guard. It was Jackson who broke up a close game with five straight jumpers at the top of the foul circle a few minutes into the second half. The Chiefs shot 54.9%, which is about normal for them.
The Dons were stunned by this exhibition. Apparently still in shock two nights later, they lost to Loyola of New Orleans 66-63. West of the Rockies nobody dares play that kind of shoot-'em-up basketball. Pete Peletta sat back in his hotel room a couple hours after the game and thought about it. "It's wrong to say, I guess," he said. "But what shooting! They hit six or seven in a row at one point, and all I could think was, 'Gee, that's beautiful.' "