Pete Newell lived a rich life in the game of basketball. In his 14 year coaching career, he won a national championship at Cal, an NIT championship at the University of San Francisco and an Olympic gold medal in Rome with Team USA. Later in life, he developed a camp for centers which became widely known as one of the premier camps for the position. As a result of his accomplishments and contributions to the game, he was ultimately inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame. This is his story.
Peter Francis “Pete” Newell was born on August 31, 1915 in Vancouver, British Columbia. His mother encouraged him to play small roles in several films before he turned 10. By the time he reached high school, his passion was basketball. After graduating from St. Agnes High School, Newell attended Loyola University of Los Angeles (now Loyola Marymount University) where he was a classmate of Phil Woolpert, a future coach in the NCAA. After serving in the United States Navy from 1942 to 1946, Pete Newell was hired as the head coach for the University of San Francisco Dons.
One day in the near future, USF would feature some of the most dominant college basketball teams of all time. Pete Newell entered the Dons’ program in the era just before that dominant stretch. He finished his first season with a losing record but the 1947-1948 season ended with a 13-11 record. The following year, the Dons posted a 25-5 record and an eighth place finish in the final AP Polls. They finished their magical run by defeating the Loyola Chicago Ramblers 48-47 in the NIT Championship Game in Madison Square Garden. While USF wasn’t as dominant in 1949-1950, they did return to the NIT Tournament where they lost to the City College of New York 65-46 in the first round. Following the season, Pete Newell left for Michigan State.
The year before Pete Newell arrived, Michigan State won just four games. During his first year, the Spartans went 10-11 and looked to be well adjusted for years to come. In the 1951-1952 season, Newell led the Spartans to a 13-9 record. Powered by Keith Stackhouse’s 11.8 points per game, the Spartans knew that their future was in good hands.
In 1952-1953, Michigan State again went 13-9 as Al Ferrari averaged 16.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. They were also powered by Stackhouse who averaged 12.5 points and Bob Armstrong who scored 11.3 points per game. Despite all of their returning firepower in 1953, the Spartans could not get back to their winning ways and ended the 1953-1954 season 9-13. At the end of the season, Pete Newell was hired as Cal’s new head coach.
When Nibs Price left after the 1954 season, Cal was 17-7 and cruising to winning season after winning season. Expectations were high for Pete Newell and he was a great disappointment, going 9-16 in his first year at the helm in Berkley. The Golden Bears had a complete turnaround the following year, going 17-8.
In 1957 and 1958, Cal went to the NCAA Tournament, winning the Pacific Coast Conference regular season title but losing in the Regional Final both years. After ending the previous two years in disappointing fashion, the Golden Bears were determined to win it all in 1959. Led by Denny Fitzpatrick (13.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg) and Darrall Imhoff (11.3 ppg, 11 rpg), Cal went 25-4, won the PCC championship for the third straight year and defeated West Virginia in the national championship game 71-70. Cal was even better in the 1959-1960 season going 28-2 while marching toward the national championship game. Their magical season ended with a 75-55 loss to Ohio State in the national championship game. Following their loss, Pete Newell stepped down as the head coach at Cal and headed off to Team USA to prepare for the Olympics.
In those days, professionals could not compete in the Olympics which were still very much dominated by amateur athletics. In 1960, the USA put together a basketball team which is considered one of the best amateur basketball teams of all time. It included players such as Jerry West, Darrall Imhoff, Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas. With Pete Newell leading this talented bunch, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Team USA would take home gold.
The USA team defeated Italy 88-54, Japan 125-66, Hungary 107-63, Yugoslavia 104-42, Uruguay 108-50, Russia 81-57, and Italy again 112-81. In the medal round, Team USA defeated Brazil 90-63 to take home gold. Over the course of the Olympic Games, five Americans averaged double figures in scoring: Oscar Robertson (17.3), Jerry Lucas (16.8), Jerry West (14.1), Terry Dischinger (11.3) and Adrian Smith (10.9). Years later, the team was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
During Pete Newell’s final year at Cal, he had been advised by a doctor to retire from coaching due to stress. Following his team’s gold medal performance in the Olympics, Newell retired from coaching and worked in various front offices for the next decade and a half. He worked as the general manager for the San Diego Rockets from 1968 to 1971 when they moved to Houston. After staying briefly in Houston to assist with the move, Pete Newell returned to the West Coast where he served as the Los Angeles Laker’s general manager. It was during that time when he helped the team acquire Kareem Abdul Jabbar from the Milwaukee Bucks. He left the Lakers in 1976 to care for his ailing wife. His wife, Florence, ultimately passed away in 1984.
Pete Newell was not quite done with the game as he developed a basketball camp for centers called “Big Man Camp”. In the years to come, he would tutor stars such as Kermit Washington, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Vlade Divac and Bill Walton among many, many others. Known as “the Footwork Master”, Pete Newell’s camp became a camp of great distinction. From the time the camp opened in 1976 to Pete Newell’s death, he tutored more than 200 NBA centers and it eventually became the standard for all centers coming into the league. In 2001, he opened a women’s version of the camp called “Pete Newell’s Tall Women’s Basketball Camp”. Amazingly, he never took any money for his services, always saying that he owed the game so much. His camps lasted until 2011, three years after his death. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. Pete Newell passed away on November 17, 2008 at the age of 93.