Down deep in his heart and his duodenum, Peter Paul Peletta feels the results of nearly 16 years of coaching basketball. In the blood-pumping organ so often hymned by songwriters, he has a warm feeling for his players and his victories. In the first section of the small intestine, just below the stomach, he has another warm feeling—an ulcer. That is one reason why he will hang up his whistle and sneakers at the end of this season and become the University of San Francisco's first full-time athletic director, turning over the coaching duties to Assistant Phil Vukicevich, the man who used to tug at Pete's coattails to make him sit down and take it easy during close ball games. But Peletta's final coaching season has a little way to go yet, and he intends to bow out in style, with no less than a fourth straight West Coast Athletic Conference championship for his USF Dons and maybe a national title.
USF's winning the NCAA tournament is not so farfetched. At the end of last week the team had a 15-2 record and was working better as a unit in every game. And, after all, there is ample precedent. The Dons won it all in 1955, when a skinny Oakland kid named Bill Russell was the center and K. C. Jones starred in backcourt, and again in 1956, with more or less the same cast. That was a decade ago, and Pete was somewhere else, an unknown with as sound a digestive system as any doctor ever X-rayed. How he went from healthy obscurity to ulcerous renown is one of those duodenum-warming American success stories, which he was happy to relate over ravioli and a glass of Italian brandy, in a North Beach joint called the New Pisa.
Peletta was 21 and an ex-Santa Clara player when he started coaching in Lincoln, Calif. He mowed the outfield lawn on the baseball diamond and washed the towels. He also kicked the barber's son off the basketball team and thereafter had to drive 17 miles to get a haircut. He moved on to North Sacramento, Calif. and had just earned some tenure when he accepted a pay cut to take over as basketball coach at Monterey Peninsula College, a junior college that had not won a league game in five years. A fellow alumnus of Santa Clara owned a fish market in Monterey, and for the penniless Pelettas "every day was Friday." In the meantime, Phil Woolpert, coach of the USF championship teams, had departed, and successor Ross Giudice announced at the end of the 1959-60 season that he wanted to step down, too. Healthy Pete Peletta applied for the job.
"I didn't think I had a chance and wasn't too concerned about it," he said. "I kept reading the papers and never saw my name mentioned. They had everybody in there but the janitors." When the Jesuit officials of USF announced they had hired Peletta, the public, press and alumni responded with silence and quizzical looks. Pete himself responded by getting a speeding ticket on the way to his contract-signing ceremony and first press conference.
February 14, 1966
The results have been pleasant, except for the ulcer Pete developed three years ago and rediscovered last summer (he barely made it back in time for the start of school). This season may turn out to be the nicest of all, chiefly because of 6-foot-6 Forward Joe Ellis, a product of the same Oakland high school (McClymonds) that turned out Russell, Creighton's Paul Silas and Jim Hadnot of Providence, plus major league baseball stars Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson and Curt Flood. In games against the University of California at Santa Barbara and San Jose State last week, Ellis scored 18 and 21 points with his fadeaway jump shot, leading USF to easy victories.
Ellis does not have to play by himself. Center Erwin Mueller (6 feet 8) has recently become engaged and has curbed some goofy off-court tendencies, but he has not curbed his legendary appetite (SI, Dec. 6, 1965). He is agile enough to have played forward the past two seasons. Guard Russ Gumina is built like Rocky Marciano and is a steady, slick-passing floor leader. His flashier back-court partner, junior Larry Blum was the leading freshman scorer in USF history two years ago, and the other forward, sophomore Dennis Black, is a good re-bounder and shooter, perhaps the most improved player on the team.
Last Thursday night USF risked its unbeaten league record against Santa Barbara. In the WCAC holiday tourney at San Jose, Santa Barbara had given the Dons a tough fight before losing by seven points. In the Gauchos' own gym it should have been even tougher, but it turned out to be an embarrassing rout. USF was ahead 42-11 at the half and went on to an 83-43 win which might have been worse if Peletta had not emptied his bench in both halves. Whether the one-sidedness was due to Santa Barbara's ineptness, USF's eptness, or both, was difficult to determine. Fred Schaus, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, paid Joe Ellis a friendly little visit in the locker room after the game. Schaus did not look bored.
Saturday night the Dons played San Jose State in the tiny Spartan gym, an antique that Peletta figured was worth 20 points to the home team. Not so. USF hit 67.2% of its shots (Mueller was 14 for 16, Ellis 10 for 15, Black had 11 rebounds) and won 81-65.
USF has improved greatly since early-season losses to Stanford (in overtime) and Michigan. Now even Los Angeles people are handing in rave notices. Southern Cal Coach Forrest Twogood thinks USF has "its strongest team since the Russell era. Each kid is pretty complete in every way. It's a well-molded group." The Dons beat USC 81-73.
Peletta himself is more careful, especially when quizzed about any NCAA title hopes. He does not say, "We play them one at a time," but he does squirm around the question like one of his tricky guards and ends up not answering at all. But it is obvious that for the fourth straight year the Dons are the elite of the WCAC and should win the league, thereby automatically jumping into the second round of the Far West Regionals to be held at UCLA.
There it is again—UCLA. To USF partisans it is a four-letter word in more ways than one. The cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles make Sparta and Athens look like friendly neighbors, and basketball is another handy thing for them to squabble about. Los Angeles has lately had the better arguments. In 1963-64 Peletta's team, led by a Washington, D.C. import named Ollie Johnson, was unbeaten in the WCAC, went to the regionals and knocked off Utah State. Then came UCLA in the finals. USF led by eight at half time but wound up losing by four, and Johnny Wooden's Bruins went on to win the National Championship. In 1964-65 Ollie Johnson again starred, as USF lost only one league game and beat Oklahoma City in the regionals. But UCLA beat the Dons by eight in the regional finals and again won the NCAA title.
If USF and UCLA meet once again in the Far West finals March 12 (Oregon State and Stanford are giving the Bruins a fight in the AAWU), the Dons better get in their blows while they are able. Giant Lew Alcindor comes along next season for the UCLA varsity, and every basketball expert in the country believes the Bruins will win three straight national titles. Besides, USF seniors Ellis, Mueller and Gumina, not to mention P. P. Peletta, will be getting their last personal shots at UCLA. How two years of missing out on national glory must gall them!
"The seniors are very much intent on winning the conference so we get an opportunity to go to the Western Regionals," said Peletta between sips of Maalox, an anti-ulcer stomach liner. "We're all going out together."