The 1955-1956 University of San Francisco basketball team won back-to-back national titles while losing just once in those two years. Led by future NBA legends Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, the Dons took the nation by storm and established themselves as one of the sport's most legendary teams. However, the man behind all of their success had a unique view on the game. Their coach, Phil Woolpert, became disillusioned with the mindset of winning while his team won back-to-back national championships and sent players to NBA glory. At the peak of his career, Woolpert made the decision to step down from his dominant program, having grown tired of having to win so much in order to appease so many people. What caused him to think this? Was it the road he traveled or a particular moment in his life? This is his story.
Phil Woolpert was born on December 15, 1915 in Danville, Kentucky. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was young and he graduated from Manuel Arts High School in 1933 with nary a chance at higher education. Woolpert spent the next couple of years working odd jobs around town such as peddling handbills and standing in long lines at construction sites, waiting for a chance at a day's paycheck.
In time, he bet on himself and enrolled in L.A. Junior College where he grew into a respectable basketball player. At the time, he only wanted to get into a career helping people, but he didn't know how he wanted to accomplish that. Slowly, the game of basketball became his love and obsession. He grew in his love for the game of basketball while attending Loyola University, graduating in 1940 with a degree in political science.
Woolpert entered the coaching ranks in 1946, being named the head coach at Saint Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco. In his four years as the Wildcat's coach, Woolpert posted a 63-29 record before his friend Pete Newell stepped down as the University of San Francisco's head coach. Originally uninterested in the job, Woolpert took over for his friend and stepped into history.
Despite the team having finished the previous year 12th in the nation, Phil Woolpert's first season as the Don's head coach was not successful as the team finished 9-17. The following year, future NBA Hall of Famer K.C. Jones arrived on campus and the atmosphere of the basketball program immediately began to change... despite the team still finishing with a losing record the next two years.
However, another future NBA Hall of Famer would join the team. When Bill Russell stepped on the court for the first time donning the Don's jersey, the sport of basketball began a shift which would launch it into the wonderous age of television. With so much talent blossoming at just the right time, the team prospered in the 1953-1954 season, finishing the year 14-7.
The following year proved to be special. Led by Russell's more than 20 points and 20 rebounds per game, the Dons finished the year 28-1 and, after defeating La Salle University 77-63, became national champions. To top it off, their coach earned Coach of the Year honors. After all of that hard work, Phil Woolpert had climbed the mountaintop. Seeing the world below him, he wondered how anything could top that feeling of euphoria.
USF continued to win and posted a perfect record the following year with Phil Woolpert again receiving the Coach of the Year honor. By the time the team reached the national title game, defeating Iowa 83-71 was simply a formality. Woolpert began to realize that as the wins piled up, they meant less and less to him. He began to lose his passion for coaching.
Three years later, Phil Woolpert stepped down as USF's coach to take over the San Francisco Saints of the American Basketball League. He quickly tired of the ABL and left in 1962 to coach the University of San Diego. Away from the pressure of continued excellence and national championship aspirations, Phil Woolpert found a safe haven where he could coach in peace while molding young minds and challenging convictions.
In 1968, in the midst of his coaching responsibilities in San Diego, Sports Illustrated interviewed Woolpert, inquiring about his unexpected decision to step down from a nationally renowned program. He answered "This may be heresy, 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."
Into the Oblivion
After recording a perfectly even record at USD (90 wins, 90 losses), Phil Woolpert retired from the coaching life in 1969 and moved to Washington, where he would spend his remaining years working as a school bus driver. For a man who never cared for the spotlight, it was the perfect career choice. Day after day, students would step on and off the bus, never knowing the kinds of stories their faithful driver could tell. Stories of the legends of the game in their youth, battling for supremacy in the college ranks against other future legends of the NBA. Stories which could and deserved to be told time and again for decades to come. Phil Woolpert died on May 5, 1987 as a man content with himself. Despite his ill-fondness for attention, Phil Woolpert was posthumously voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. Though he chose to distance himself from the game in his later years, the game refused to distance itself from him.