Every year during March Madness, there are usually one or more teams that seemingly come out of nowhere to produce a major upset that sends the sports world into temporary insanity. Teams such as the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Loyola Chicago and Saint Peter's University in recent years have caused America to swoon in admiration with their tenacity against much, much greater competition. These teams are commonly known as "Cinderella teams" and almost never make it past the first couple of rounds. Seven decades ago, Santa Clara University almost did the impossible and made it all the way to the Final Four. Though they were a team full of underdogs, they came within two wins from being named national champions. This is their story.
Bob Feerick was born on January 2, 1920 in San Francisco. After starring at Lowell High School, he attended Santa Clara University where he played well enough to have his jersey number retired. Upon graduating in 1941, he served his country during World War II. After the war, he signed with the Washington Capitals of the brand new Basketball Association of America.
Playing under the legendary coach Red Aurbach proved to benefit Feerick's game. In his first two seasons, he averaged more than 16 points per game and was twice named All-BAA First-team. By 1950, Bob Feerick had retired as a player and was soon hired by his alma mater as their next basketball coach.
Under coach Ray Pesco the previous year, Santa Clara finished with a 14-8 record. However, they struggled in their first year under Bob Feerick, with Andy Collins leading the team with 8.8 points per game.
For all intents and purposes, the 1951-1952 season was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Feerick had managed to sign incoming freshman Ken Sears and Dick Garibaldi, both of whom were thrust into the spotlight early due to injuries. The regular season was bumpy from start to finish as the Broncos finished with a less than stellar 15-10 record. So it was a bit of a surprise when the Broncos found out that they had qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
With an enrollment of 1,500 men and no women, they were among the smallest schools to join the tournament. Their first opponent in the tournament was a UCLA team that was coached by a young John Wooden. Though Santa Clara was a much smaller school, they had a lot of confidence going into this game because they had beaten UCLA 66-59 at the Cow Palace just a month earlier.
The two teams began their first-round matchup trading leads and finished the first half with UCLA on top 35-31. However, the young Broncos team would not go down quietly. Led by Herb Schoenstein's 18 points and 11 rebounds, Santa Clara bounced back and won the game 68-59.
Santa Clara played against Wyoming next in Corvallis. Again, the Broncos ended the first half facing a deficit, this time by three points. And again, the Broncos clawed their way back to win 56-53. Both Ken Sears and Jim Young ended the game leading the team with 14 points each.
With that win, Santa Clara earned the privilege of being one of the first teams to play in the Final Four with its' current format, facing off against the mighty Kansas Jayhawks. In previous years, the national semifinals and national championship were held in separate cities. This was the first year where all three games were held in the same location. Kansas had a roster full of people destined for greatness in the sport. Future NBA Hall of Famer Clyde Lovellette would win three NBA titles with the Minneapolis Lakers and the Boston Celtics, becoming one of the rare players to accomplish such a feat with the two historic rivals. Riding the Jayhawks' bench was a little used junior named Dean Smith. Smith would go on to become one of the most legendary college basketball coaches of all time as he won two national championships with the University of North Carolina.
Santa Clara put up a valiant effort but Clyde Lovellette ultimately proved to be too much for the overmatched Broncos, leading the Jayhawks with 33 points and quickly putting the Broncos into a double-digit deficit which they couldn't get out of, ultimately losing 74-55. Kansas would go on to defeat Saint John's 80-63 for the national championship.
After their painful loss to Kansas in the national semifinal, Santa Clara lost in the regional final the next two years. Along the way, Ken Sears proved to be the leader that his school needed with his scoring average rising from seven points per game as a freshman to as high as 22.3 points per game as a senior while also earning two WCC Player of the Year Awards. After graduation, Sears was drafted fourth overall in 1955 by the New York Knicks. He did well in New York, earning two All-Star Game invitations in his first six years in the Big Apple. He retired in 1964 with the San Francisco Warriors.
Bob Feerick continued to coach at Santa Clara until 1962, finishing with a 186-120 record and a three-time WCC Coach of the Year. He stepped down in 1962 to take over the San Francisco Warriors, a coveted position considering the fact that they had recently moved from Philadelphia and still featured the great center Wilt Chamberlain. Unfortunately, Feerick couldn't take advantage of the opportunity as the Warriors finished 31-49. Though the 1951-1952 Santa Clara Broncos never won the national championship, their journey to the Final Four epitomized everything that the tournament now stands for, where the underdog has almost just as much chance at victory as the most talented of teams.