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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Memories of Coach Newell

Working in the basketball office at Cal had its perqs at times. Until late in my undergraduate years in Berkeley, while we all knew who Pete Newell was, I didn't know the man on a personal level other than the times he would come to the office to visit the program he brought to national prominence long ago.

An opportunity arose to get to know him when the coaching staff asked me to give him a ride somewhere. Of course, being in a car with a man who has been described by his protégé Bob Knight as "the best there ever was" can leave you awe-stricken. Just a little bit.

Keep in mind that the court in Haas Pavilion bears his name; he led the Bears to two consecutive Final Fours and its only National Championship (beating Oscar Robertson and Jerry West-led teams to do it without any future Hall of Famers on his roster). He's also one of three coaches (Dean Smith and Knight being the others) to win an NCAA Title, an NIT Title, and an Olympic Gold Medal. Between the world-famous Big Man Camps and Naismith Hall of Fame credentials, I had basketball royalty sitting shotgun.

Aside from the initial awkward moment when I introduced myself and he said, "Hi,
Bryan," he was as gracious and humble a man as you would find. He lit up when I told him that one of his former players, Bill McClintock, was my rebounding coach at Warriors basketball camp as a kid, which led to a brief anecdote.

The ride wasn't that long, but before he left he advised me to keep my grades up (while calling me
Ryan!). To me the biggest surprise was when I saw him at the Pac-10 Tournament a year after I had graduated and he still remembered my name. I thought that was pretty cool. Anyway, while those were my only two interactions with Coach Newell, his son Greg told me a great story. I hope I can do it justice:
When Pete Newell first took the head job at Cal, his teams lost seven consecutive times to UCLA and the legendary John Wooden. In the tunnel after the seventh loss, someone (either from the media or the UCLA bench, this I cannot remember) muttered within earshot of Newell's wife, Florence:

''A John Wooden team will NEVER lose to a Pete Newell team."

After that game, Newell went on to defeat the Wizard of Westwood eight straight times before retiring in 1960, the ONLY man to ever own such a winning streak.
Newell 8, Wooden 7. One of basketball history's most overlooked final scores. The man. The legend. The guy who called me Bryan.

R.I.P. Coach.

Coach and I, 2005.