Sport loses one of its true big men

Dufresne is a Times staff writer.

Pete Newell didn’t get cheated out of anything -- he died Monday in Rancho Santa Fe at 93.

But maybe we did.

Maybe the University of California did.

Maybe college basketball did.

Newell leaves behind family, friends, his Big Man Camp and a lasting legacy.

He exits the world stage as one of college basketball’s greatest coaches, teachers, ambassadors and minds.

Newell is one of only three coaches to have won NCAA, NIT and Olympic titles. He was revered among pupils and peers, most notably Bob Knight, who considered Newell one of the game’s “cornerstones” along with Clair Bee, Fred Taylor and Henry Iba.

Knight loved heaping praise on Newell, sometimes conspicuously at the expense of John Wooden. But Knight’s love of Newell was not concocted or contrived.


It was genuine, and thus Newell always had Knight’s back whenever he put his foot in his mouth, tossed a chair across a floor or placed his hand on the throat of an Indiana player.

“Three coaches had the most influence on college basketball in terms of tactics, both offensively and defensively,” Knight once said. “Clair Bee, Hank Iba and Pete. And I think Pete had the greatest total grasp.”

The strange thing is, Newell lived to be 93 but still left some of us wondering what might have been.

He coached only 14 years at the University of San Francisco, Michigan State and Cal. His record was 234-123.

Then, almost like Sandy Koufax, he was finished.

After stops at USF and Michigan State, Newell landed at Cal in 1954 and began a six-year run during which he posted a record of 119-44 with four NCAA trips.

Coaching in the Pacific Coast Conference during the same time, at UCLA, was a middle-aged man from Purdue named John R. Wooden.


While Wooden’s teams were repelled in forays into the NCAA tournament, Newell’s 1959 squad, led by a center from Alhambra High named Darrall Imhoff, won the NCAA title.

Cal defeated Cincinnati, starring Oscar Robertson, in the national semifinals and Jerry West-led West Virginia in the title game.

It was like knocking out Joe Frazier, and then Muhammad Ali.

“None of my players made first-team All-Coast Conference,” Newell said in “March Madness,” a book on the NCAA tournament. “And none would have made second team but they voted an 11th player on the team to accommodate one of my players. Well, that was ridiculous. The coach doesn’t get you there, it’s the players who get you there. And I had some damn good players.”

Cal made it back to the final in 1960, losing to Ohio State, which had on its roster a player named B. Knight, who missed his only shot in the game.

After leading the U.S. team, with West, Robertson and Imhoff, to the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Newell retired from coaching.

He was only 44.

Newell was a heavy smoker and caffeine-addled and very tightly strung. Doctors told him he needed, for health reasons, to quit coaching.


So Newell quit, at the height of his powers, in the prime of his career . . . and lived another half-century.

He stepped away at a time when Cal, not UCLA, was the West Coast basketball power.

Wooden had his way with Newell early, but Newell bested Wooden the last eight times the coaches met.

Newell got to the mountaintop first, in his early 40s. Wooden didn’t win his first NCAA title until his early 50s.

Imagine what might have been had Newell continued to coach against Wooden’s powerhouse UCLA teams.

The year Newell led Cal to the championship game in 1960, UCLA finished 14-12. It was Newell’s success that forced Wooden to rethink his approach, reassess his coaching techniques and retool for an unprecedented run in college basketball history.

Had Newell not been forced to quit, though, would Wooden have won 10 national titles in a 12-year span?


Would there have been a UCLA dynasty?

In an era when only the conference champion qualified for the NCAA tournament, might Cal have siphoned off a few league titles and denied UCLA the chance?

Could Wooden vs. Newell during the 1960s have been like Dean Smith vs. Mike Krzyzewski during the 1990s?

These questions have no answers . . . they’re only fun to think about.

Maybe Newell’s doctors were right. Maybe, had he continued, he wouldn’t have lived long enough to challenge Wooden, or even a staircase.

Newell resigned himself to resigning. He became Cal’s athletic director and began a post-coaching career as one of humanity’s nicest humans.

Newell even mentored a young public relations man, Tom Hansen, who would arrive in the conference office in 1960 and one day become Pacific 10 commissioner.

“He was a fine AD,” Hansen reflected Monday, “very caring about the program and the student-athletes, at a time when there was considerable unrest on the campus and football fortunes were down. . . . He was also very nice, and treated me, a very young administrator, with friendship and respect.”


Newell, once asked what made Bob Knight special, remarked: “Why are some teachers better than others in the same subject? They just have more of a gift for it.”

It could have also been said about Newell.

He had a gift for it.