Pete Newell, head basketball coach at the University of California, is an intense perfectionist. At the height of the season, he is in the depths. He looks for bobby pins on the street to bring luck, and his 6-foot 1½-inch frame shrinks from a trim 180 pounds to a wracked 165. His stomach is too turbulent to keep much food, and on the day of a game he keeps going on 20 cups of coffee and maybe two packs of cigarettes. During a game he allows himself the treat of chewing on wet towels set aside by the team manager. Once in a while, he will inadvertently take some salt into his system by biting into a towel that a player has used to mop his brow. "Basketball," says Newell, explaining the reason for his malaise, "is a game of mistakes, and the team making the fewer mistakes generally wins."
Despite his worry, or perhaps because of it, California rarely makes more mistakes than an opponent. In fact, California on the average makes only six ball-control errors a game compared with an opponent's 15, and since Newell figures control of the ball is worth about 1.5 points, that gives Cal a 14-point head start before the teams even take to the court.
As the result of such attention to detail, Newell, a relatively young coach (44), has been able to accomplish much with players of ordinary ability. While coaching at the University of San Francisco, his first major job, he surprised almost everyone, except himself and his unknown players, by winning the National Invitation Tournament. At Michigan State, he took a team that had won only four and lost 18 and, within the space of a year, had it holding its own in the Big Ten. His greatest accomplishment to date, however, has been at Berkeley. He began coaching there in 1955, and since then California has won three Pacific Coast Conference titles and one National Collegiate Athletic Association championship. With only one loss in its first 13 games this year, California may be on its way to another national title.
To many Californians the NCAA victory last spring ranks as the university's greatest athletic achievement. Indeed, it was a truly remarkable team victory. Not one player on the team had been All-State or its equivalent in high school, and only one, Al Buch, the captain, had ever received any sort of outside recognition for his play in college. Buch made the West Coast NCAA squad, but at that he was tied in the voting for last place on the second team.
LIFE AGAINST THE ODDS
Newell himself has long been given to looking at life as a battle against odds. He was born in Vancouver, B.C., on August 31, 1915, the youngest of eight children. "I was 13 before I knew there was anything but a neck to a chicken," he says. When he was a year old, his father, Peter Francis Newell Sr., an official of the Knights of Columbus, moved to Los Angeles where Mrs. Newell fell into the spirit of the place by pushing young Peter, or Junior, as he was then called, and his sister, Catherine, into motion pictures. Newell acted until he was 8. At the peak of his career, he had a featured role in the film version of Gene Stratton Porter's novel, Michael O'Halloran, and it is part of family legend that he and Jackie Coogan "went down to the wire" in Chaplin's casting of The Kid. In other epics, Junior, who looked like a plump little Lord Fauntleroy, appeared with Theda Bara and Pauline White and once was directed by Eric Von Stroheim. Still, these were joyless years. Von Stroheim terrified him ("He looked just like one of those German generals who was going to devour all of us"), the hours were rigorous ("I have a vivid recollection of getting up at 5 in the morning to head for those bloody studios") and, worst of all, he had to wear an appalling Dutch bob ("I probably had more fights than any other kid in my end of the city"). "He always had a dirty face and a baseball bat in his hand," Catherine recalls, "and the haircut just didn't go with it. All he wanted for his birthday was a haircut. So finally my mother had it cut when he was 8."
The hated locks shorn, Newell threw himself into athletics, began blackmailing Catherine for smoking on the sly and got himself a paper route. There he first showed aptitude for coaching. "He always had two or three kids to help him," Catherine says. "One folded, one delivered and Pete directed. He always managed to have people do what he wanted." He also had a bad temper and once had to be subdued with a hose after denting a car fender with a bat. The temper is still with him, though he has learned how to control it in recent years. "In golf," says an old friend, "he used to rival Tommy Bolt. There was no tying him down. The clubs would fly in one direction and the bag in another."
The Depression was on when Newell was graduated from high school, and since money was tight (his father had died when he was 13), he decided to go to sea. A relative got him appointed a cadet officer on the Dollar Line, and he made several trips to the Far East. He came home to wait for a round-the-world run, but his friends persuaded him to enroll at Loyola with them. He did, and he worked his way through driving a truck and playing softball for Safeway Stores.
As a basketball player at Loyola he c ame under the spell of Jimmy Needles, the coach. Needles, now a San Francisco advertising man, had coached the first U.S. Olympic basketball team, and he had many ideas about the game. The main one was tempo control, the art of throwing the opposing team off stride and forcing it into error by playing the game at a speed to which it was unaccustomed. In Newell and Phil Woolpert, who has since won two NCAA championships as Newell's successor at the University of San Francisco, Needles had two entranced pupils. "Pete was a very unusual defensive player," Needles says. "We changed him from forward to guard because of his leadership and meticulousness in carrying out assignments. He was a great team player, and he was a great one for analyzing the idiosyncrasies of an opponent."
THE TURN TO COACHING
Newell gave up a notion of entering the foreign service and decided to become a coach. "I tried to discourage him," Needles says. "I felt that he could be successful in anything, but coaching is such a draining activity, and I was a little concerned that this would take him away from the normal way of living as far as his temperament was concerned." But Newell persisted and, after spending a so-so season as an outfielder in the Dodger farm system, he began coaching basketball, baseball, football and track at St. John's Military Academy in Los Angeles. Any qualms Needles may have had about Newell taking up coaching as a career vanished. Newell coached St. John's to two unbeaten seasons in all four sports.
Newell went into the Navy in 1942. On the way West to join a troop transport in the Pacific he stopped off to see Needles, who had become athletic business manager at USF. "Look me up when you get out," Needles said. "I'll have a job for you." Two years later, Newell did, and Needles made good on his promise. USF hired Newell to coach basketball, baseball and golf. "One reason I got the job," says Newell, "is that they went overboard on football and couldn't afford a first-class program all the way."
The first season at USF was a losing one, but the team was becoming a spoiler. One week it beat Utah, which went on to win the National Invitation Tournament in Madison Square Garden, and Newell was elated. Then it lost to Regis in Denver, and Newell was so upset he wouldn't speak to the players on the long, two-day train ride home. In his second season USF started to win and by 1949 had captured the NIT crown. In 1950, after USF again played in the NIT (this time losing in the first round to the famous grandslam team from CCNY), Michigan State made Newell an offer. Feeling that he could learn a lot in the Big Ten, he accepted. In four years he succeeded in building the team up, but the mid-western winters were hard on his family, and when California offered him the job he took it.
At all three schools, Newell has used the same approach. Basically, he has a "for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost" philosophy. To begin with, he demands that his players be in peak physical condition. For the first two weeks, they do nothing but exercise in the gym and run the fatiguing hills behind Berkeley. "Sometimes we have to wear an opponent down," he says. "A player should be conditioned to play the last five minutes of a game, not just the first five."
In the gym Newell has ideas about everything, ranging from the position of the feet to the use of vision. "Practice habits are game habits," he says. "If individual habits are sound, team habits will be sound. We're constantly trying to minimize mistakes." In practice, for example, a player must shuffle with his knees flexed, one hand up, the other down, for 20 minutes at a time. This is the correct defensive posture. Any other way is wrong. The player shuffles because that allows him to slide with the man he's guarding. If he crossed his feet instead of shuffling, he might lose his balance. Knees are flexed because, as Rene Herrerias, Newell's astute assistant, explains, "You have to bend your knees anyway before you react. So be in that position. Why wait to get to it?"
The player must learn to dribble and pass with either hand. He must also be ambidextrous with his feet. "We do not," says Newell, "subscribe to the theory that because a boy is naturally right-footed, he should always have his right foot forward. When he is playing the ball, his inside foot, the foot closest to an imaginary line drawn between the baskets, should be extended. This permits him to better defend vulnerable areas where he cannot depend on defensive assistance from teammates. These vulnerable areas are the sidelines and the backline." In addition, the inside hand should be raised. "The hand should be in the shooter's face to disconcert him," Newell says. "The other arm should be extended almost parallel to the floor to deflect passes. We condition arm muscles so the arms can be held up over protracted lengths of time. In boxing, it is fatal to drop your hands, and the same is true in basketball."
Practice games are run at fast and slow speeds. "We practice like this so we can accelerate or decelerate in a game," Newell says. "We want to use tempo as a weapon. We want to make the other team play the game we think we can play better than they can, and this we can do by making them play at a speed they're not used to. When we play a ball-control team, we try to force them into a faster tempo of play. They're like a guy who takes a certain amount of time each day to shave a certain way. One day he's five minutes late, so he has to hurry up, and he cuts himself. When we play a fast-breaking team, we try to slow down the tempo with ball control. The fast break itself we stop by pressure on the rebounder. If he has pressure on him, he can't throw. We also choke the outlet pass to the guard out to get the pass. And we don't retreat. A man-to-man aggressiveness is very important. We don't concede."
Newell's teams are at their best defensively. "There are certain nights when you are off offensively," he says. "You'll have nights when you are off defensively, too, but your offensive performance varies more. Also, the good defensive team seems to come up with an above-par performance defensively when its shooting is off. The players seem to realize that through increased defensive play they can offset a poor shooting performance and still win the game.
"Man-to-man responsibilities are the dominant aspects of our basic defense. Along with this, we incorporate the press defense in various forms. We're usually in one form of a press throughout the game because it is important always to have pressure on the ball. Through our pressure, we are trying to increase an opponent's mistakes."
According to Newell's calculations, each lost ball is worth approximately 1.5 points. "The average college team scores on about 40% of its shots," he says. "For every 10 times they have the ball, they get 15 shots, and out of those 15, they get six baskets or 12 points. That puts the value of possession of the ball at 1.2. Adding the foul shots which the offensive team is more likely to get, that boosts the value of the ball maybe 3/10 of a point. So when we steal the ball or force an opponent into losing it, we have gained close to a point and a half toward the final outcome."
Since California doesn't lose the ball as often as an opponent does, that means that Cal can often beat a team with a higher shooting percentage. For example, last year Utah's Runnin' Redskins averaged 41% on 69 shots a game. Cal averaged 41% on 61 shots. When the two met, Utah hit 44% and Cal 46, but Cal won decisively 71-53, because Utah managed to get off only 43 shots against Cal's 74. California had forced Utah into too many ball-control errors.
Newell also has theories for holding down errors on the offense. "We want to get the shot opportunity in a good-percentage shooting zone," he says. "We're not concerned with driving all the way to the basket for the lay-up or cripple shot. We're content with a 10-foot shot. The more you drive into the basket, the more you risk losing the ball." To get to that 10-foot striking distance, Cal will play cat to the opponent's mouse. "We rely on execution," Newell says, harkening back to the practice drills. "If we feel that we can get the execution, we can get the shot, regardless of the defense." The team will vary its offensive weaves and patterns to work the ball in, but the bread-and-butter move has been reverse action. The players move the ball from side to side to unmass the defense in the basket area, and once the defense is drawn out, Cal strikes. "It's a tough move to defense," Newell says. "I know we have trouble defensing it."
Away from basketball, Newell is the devoted family man. He, his wife Florence, and their four sons live in a homey, two-story stucco house just across the line in Oakland. ("Taxes are lower," he explains.) He met Mrs. Newell, an attractive blonde, while he was coaching at St. John's. She had gone to see him twice when he played for Loyola, but she arrived late each time and he had already fouled out of the game. "He's very competitive," she says. "I'd like to add," he says, "that they only had four fouls in those days."
Newell likes to take it easy watching Maverick or reading detective stories. "If the cover looks sort of bloody and provocative, he'll read it," Mrs. Newell says. "Last year, he read a lot of books about the Mafia." Often though, Newell will slip into a trance; he's thinking about basketball. Sometimes he will snap out of it and concoct an elaborate practical joke.
THE BLEAK SIDE OF COACHING
But for all the jokes and all the fine points and all the success, there is the temptation for Newell to quit. "A coach is never really secure in his profession," he said recently. "You're not like a doctor. You're not like a lawyer. You can't let your 'practice' sustain itself. You're never any better than your last season or your last game, and any time you get smug, you'll go down quicker than you came up. You climb up one rung at a time, but you can go down all the way and not touch any. The team feels the way I do about a game, and if I ever took a game lightly the team would do the same thing. So, you prepare yourself mentally that each game you play is a real tough game. And each season you play is a real tough season. You can't allow yourself to relax. Every 15 minutes before a game, I wonder why I ever went into coaching. Eventually I'll have to get out. I don't want to be coaching when I'm 60. I don't feel that I could go through 16 more years of the tension that goes with each season." Newell took a breath and looked around the living room at his family. "Still I feel I have coaching years ahead of me," he said. "I still feel a number of years ahead of me."