Before Wooden’s Bruins were No. 1, Newell had his number
Pete Newell didn’t stay long enough at California for his simmering rivalry with John Wooden to reach a full boil, but he stayed long enough to leave a lasting impression on the man who would lead UCLA’s remarkable run of 10 NCAA championships in 12 seasons.
Wooden says that matching wits with the influential Newell, who died last month, made him a more patient, well-rounded coach.
“I thought that from the very first, even before he went to Cal,” says Wooden, who plans to attend today when Newell is memorialized at Loyola Marymount’s Sacred Heart Chapel.
“I considered him to be one of the greatest of all because he was great both offensively and defensively -- and sound fundamentally.”
During Newell’s last four seasons at Cal, from 1956 through the 1959-60 season, his Golden Bears replaced Wooden’s Bruins as the dominant force in the Pacific Coast Conference. Winner of four consecutive conference titles -- after UCLA had gone 27-1 in conference play the previous two seasons -- Cal won its only NCAA championship in 1959 and reached the final again in 1960.
Newell, who had coached previously at San Francisco and Michigan State, was matched against Wooden 15 times over six seasons at Cal.
Wooden’s teams won the first seven, Newell’s the last eight.
It was not always a cordial rivalry, written accounts suggest. In the Wooden biography “The Wizard of Westwood,” authors Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh describe Newell as the UCLA coach’s “bitter nemesis.”
And in “A Good Man: The Pete Newell Story,” author Bruce Jenkins writes that the two men had little in common, “and neither had much respect for the other’s style.”
But then Newell, only 44 at the time, abruptly retired in 1960, citing stress. A year later, UCLA started a 52-game, 25-year winning streak against Cal and, in 1962, Wooden and the Bruins reached the Final Four for the first time.
In 1964, introducing a zone press similar to the one Newell had used at Cal, a team led by Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich gave UCLA its first NCAA title.
By the time Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton and a slew of other All-Americans had passed through Westwood, piling up title after title until Wooden’s exit in 1975, their coach’s once-upon-a-time battles with Newell were long forgotten.
Except, of course, by Cal fans. They wondered what might have been if Newell hadn’t left and bristled at purported slights by Wooden toward Newell.
“You know, Goodrich once told me that if Pete hadn’t retired, he would have gone to Cal,” Cal graduate and longtime publicist Bob Steiner is quoted as saying in Jenkins’ Newell biography. “Think of that chain reaction. They don’t win the first championship. They don’t get Alcindor. I’ve always been [upset] about that. But I don’t know who I’m mad at, Goodrich or Newell.”
Goodrich, living in Connecticut, laughed when he was read the quote.
But he didn’t deny its veracity.
The former Laker, who led Sun Valley Polytechnic High to the 1961 City Section championship, says his parents, Gail and Jean, socialized with Newell and his wife, Florence.
“My mom played on the same softball team as Pete Newell’s wife and my dad played against Pete Newell in basketball after college,” Goodrich says. “Growing up, I was a USC fan because my dad played there, but in 1959, 1960, I’m a sophomore, junior in high school and Cal’s on top. . . .
“Assuming that Pete Newell would have liked to have me play for him, I would have had a very, very tough decision to make. If he stays there and shows a lot of interest, there’s a very good chance I would have gone to Cal.”
Wooden’s up-tempo style might have suited Goodrich better than Newell’s ball-control offense, but the Cal coach’s retirement made the point moot.
Goodrich enrolled at UCLA and a dynasty was born.
Wooden and Newell, meanwhile, followed divergent paths to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, Newell spreading his influence to the NBA as general manager of the Lakers, operating his respected Big Man Camp for more than 30 years and traveling the world as a kind of basketball ambassador.
Wooden, 98, stuck closer to home after leaving UCLA, but his influence was no less global. Through numerous books, speaking engagements and his famous Pyramid of Success life model, Wooden has touched lives worldwide.
Later in life, the two coaching legends became friends.
Wooden says talk of bad blood was overblown: “I know occasionally there would be something that would infer there was something between us, but I don’t ever remember having a cross word or a bad feeling toward Pete.
“Disappointment, yes,” he notes with a laugh, alluding to his record against Newell’s teams, “but no bad feelings.”
Wooden says Newell was unmatched in helping players reach their potential, citing as an example Cal’s national championship team, led by Darrall Imhoff.
“Not everybody would have won a championship with that material,” Wooden says. “Not that it wasn’t good; it had to be good. But he got the most out of each individual. I think that was one of his strengths, but he had a lot of strengths.”