Christopher Thomforde, Princeton '69, was oblivious to the dark, cold Connecticut countryside whizzing by outside the windows of the chartered bus. Swaddled in topcoat and orange-and-black-striped Princeton Tiger scarf, he was engrossed in a textbook on politics. The overhead light emphasized the paleness of his blond hair, which is about 6'9" above the soles of his tender feet. Across the aisle Gary Walters, '67, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and an undone bow tie, slept occasionally and occasionally listened to Coach Butch van Breda Kolff tell short (or maybe tall) stories, like the one about his career as lacrosse coach at Lafayette. ("My first year we were 0-9. So the guy asked me, 'How will you do next year?' 'Can't do any worse,' I told him. So what does the guy do? He schedules 10 games. And we were 0-10!") Thomforde laughed and went back to his studying. Walters, clutching a book on psychology, fell into a doze again. Princeton's tired basketball team was on its way home after beating Yale by only one point at New Haven, squeezing past Brown by three at Providence and—in a weekend that saw five of the nation's top 10 teams lose—holding its customary place at the head of the Ivy League.
The Tigers, who have won five of the last seven Ivy basketball championships, should clinch another this week. They face Columbia, Cornell and Penn—all at home—and they have already beaten Columbia and Penn on the road. Their defeat at Cornell last Saturday—an upset—was only the second in 22 games. The other, to Louisville in the finals of the Quaker City Tournament, came when Captain Ed Hummer, their best defensive player, was out with the flu. They went on from there to beat North Carolina by 10 at Chapel Hill and to set a league Scoring record in swamping Dartmouth by a margin of 74 points. They would be powerful in any league. Each of the starters—Thomforde, Hummer, Walters, John Haarlow and Joe Heiser—would be a publicized hotshot on a less well-balanced team. As it is, each is scoring in double figures, though none ranks in the NCAA's top 20 in any category. They are current Ivy princes in a dynasty being fashioned by van Breda Kolff—unusual at a university long distinguished for academic excellence, and especially remarkable at a time when superior athletes generally seek collegiate showcases for their talents in order to enhance their value as future professionals.
Thomforde, a sophomore who wants to be a Lutheran minister, beat out two-year starter Robinson Osborn Brown, '67, for the job at center. He does not have much spring, but at his size he does not need much, and he can run up and down the court for a week without getting winded. Chris is so brimming with enthusiasm that he even applauds well-executed layups in pregame drills, and if somebody gave him a megaphone he would direct the sis-boom-bahs during the time-outs. This ardor goes beyond the court, too. To help undergraduates earn money, Princeton has a long list of miniature businesses—a student pizza agency, a student beer-mug agency, a student wall-banner agency and even an agency that sells shorty nighties (with Tiger emblems) to the coeds passing through. Thomforde is a mainstay of the student refreshment agency that peddles goodies at school sports events. This term he is a manager, but as a freshman he walked through the stands at football and soccer games hawking hot dogs, not too embarrassed that he was a conspicuous 6'8½" and his white coat was several sizes too small.
Chris considers Walters "the best I've ever played with." Walters suffered a pulled thigh muscle on the first day of practice after January examinations, and the injury slowed down his lateral movement considerably. It is one of the reasons the Tigers have not won by any 74-, 49- or 44-point margins in the last few weeks. Walters is 5'10"—smaller than Thomforde was in the eighth grade—and he handles the important ball-handling chores for Princeton. Before he was hurt he had a way of suddenly shifting into high gear and zooming past anybody in his way. "Until we got into the Ivy League season, we were playing hard every game," said Robby Brown. "The main thing is Gary. When Gary can't run, the whole tenor of the game changes."
February 27, 1967
There are other reasons for the narrower victories recently. First, a team on a long winning streak usually starts to play too carefully. Earlier in the season Walters and Heiser would pester opposing backcourt men to distraction and steal the ball a lot. Lately, opposing teams have had their centers bring the ball up, so that if Princeton wants to press, it has to use Thomforde, who still has much to learn about defense.
For all its close calls and stampedes, the team's most notable effort came against North Carolina, after a miserable all-night excursion from New Jersey. The day before the game, at 4 p.m., the flight out of Newark Airport was canceled, and the squad had to wait around for a 7:45 p.m. train. It was so crowded that most of the players had no seats and perched on their suitcases in the aisle all the way to Washington, D.C. They had nothing to eat until a sandwich vendor came aboard at 4 a.m. When they arrived in Raleigh at about 6:30 a.m. the day of the game they jumped into taxis, only to meet more trouble and delays. One cab first traveled to Durham, home of Duke University, instead of Chapel Hill, causing another hour's loss of sleep. A second cab was operated by a sharpie who stopped in the middle of a tobacco field somewhere and demanded an exorbitant fee to drive the rest of the way to the motel. Van Breda Kolff, a husky ex-marine with a voice that has been roughened and deepened by too many cigars, got the price back down to normal when the cab arrived. The team slept all the rest of the day.
Perhaps, as North Carolina Coach Dean Smith suggested later, all their troubles helped the Tigers psychologically, if not physically. They beat the Tar Heels, No. 2 in the UPI poll at that time, 91-81. "Princeton can do well in the NCAA," Smith added.
"When we went East I said Princeton was one of the most underrated teams in the country," says Louisville Assistant Coach John Dromo. "This has since been proved, because now they are one of the best and stand as good a chance in the NCAA as anybody. I look for Princeton to be one of the powers in the East for the next several years."
Until last week all such talk of playing in the national collegiate championships was small comfort to the Tigers. Even if Princeton won the Ivy League title, as seemed likely, they would not be able to participate because of the controversial 1.6 rule. In essence, this rule states that a college may not offer an athletic scholarship to a prospective student whose predicted grade average is below 1.6 on a 4.0 scale (4.0 would be straight A's, 2.0 straight C's), and that a student-athlete becomes ineligible if his average falls below 1.6. Princeton was willing to comply with the rule, but two other Ivy League schools had refused, and the rest of the league decided to stand with the stubborn two. But last week the Ivies and the NCAA arrived at an "interim agreement" to allow winter and spring Ivy champs to compete for national titles. For Butch van Breda Kolff, it would mean more practices to run and more people pestering him for tickets. "But if my team wants to go," he said, "I want to go."
Van Breda Kolff's real given names are Willem Hendrik, but Butch seemed to fit him much better one recent afternoon when he was working in what is laughingly called his office. It is a large, uncarpeted room in a corner of Princeton's 19-year-old gym, probably once used as a storeroom. Butch sat at his desk in a red sweat shirt, and as he talked on the telephone his gravelly voice carried out the door and down an obscure, narrow stairway leading to the squash courts. There is no secretary and there are no plaques or photographs on the walls—just a little-used chalk board ("The only time I use chalk is to throw it," he says). The only touch of decoration is a large painting of a side-whiskered gentleman, Henry Marquand, onetime president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Butch swears that the hazy white rectangle behind Marquand's right shoulder is a basketball backboard.
Van Breda Kolff himself once attended classes in the neighborhood of Nassau Hall. The 1948 alumni directory lists him with "-45" after his name, giving him a hyphen rather than an apostrophe because he did not get his degree. He left school to be a defensive specialist for the New York Knickerbockers and earned his apostrophe at NYU. Princetonians did not hold this against him, however, when it came time to hire a basketball coach in the fall of 1962. After the Knicks he had gone to Lafayette and built a winning record when he was not moonlighting with lacrosse. Hofstra, a small college on Long Island, hired him away. He stayed seven years and had records like 20-7, 23-1 and 21-4 before moving on to Princeton. His teams won Ivy League titles the first three seasons but lost to Penn in '65-66. He has won with superior talent—most of which he recruited—and he has won on his coaching ability, too. The second Brown game this season is a good example. The Tigers had run away from the Bruins by 44 points at home, but somehow this game in Providence was even much of the way, and with 59 seconds left Brown trailed by one point and had the ball. Brown stalled and called a time-out with 18 seconds left to set up a final play. If it worked there would be no time left for Princeton to retaliate. Butch made his move. Princeton would fake a man-to-man defense just for a moment, to induce Brown into the wrong course of action, then quickly shift to a zone. Brown Guard Alan Fishman went for the man-to-man fake, barreled into the middle hoping to pass off to the team's best shooter and instead ran into a tangle of hands. He lost the ball and fouled Joe Heiser with three seconds left. Joe sank both free throws.
When van Breda Kolff got off the phone he rested his elbows on the disarrayed desk top and launched into an explanation of how he recruits men like Heiser, who was Philadelphia's most valuable player in his senior year at Central High School. There is no secret fund supplied by the Central Intelligence Agency, and, in fact, there is not much of a recruiting fund at all, he said. He and Assistant Art Hyland try to scout the top prospects in the East themselves, but for evaluating and wooing players elsewhere they must rely on an informal network of alumni and friends. It is this group of zealous Princetonians that coaches, apparently all over the country, refer to ruefully as tough competitors for local talent. Ivy League coaches have an understanding that they will not approach a high school player until he first shows an interest in their school—but it is not really a rule and there is no way to enforce it.
Van Breda Kolff cannot guarantee athletes financial aid. If a boy's parents can afford to foot the bill themselves, the school will not put up a dime. Butch estimates he loses two or three prospects a year because their parents, although well off or even wealthy, want the scholarships anyway. About 45% of all Princeton students—forwards, goalies, pianists and bookworms—receive aid. How much is decided by an impartial board after it examines parents' confidential income and property statements.
Gaining admission to the university is a recruiter's bad dream. Last year there were about 5,700 applicants, including 490 high school valedictorians; the freshman class numbered a little more than 800. Each year the admissions office sends Butch a list of new students with high school varsity basketball experience, so he can "identify the really superlative athletes." The odds are that he has been after those youngsters already, and prompted them to apply in the first place. Once in a while pure luck takes over. When John Haarlow was a high school senior in Hinsdale, Ill., he had exactly one scholarship offer, and it came from a school so small that he cannot remember its name. So he followed his two basketball-playing brothers to Princeton, sharpened up his left-handed, line-drive jump shot and now is second on the team in scoring.
If an applicant's grades and College Board scores give him only a marginal chance to be accepted but he has special ability in some field (such as being able to leap through a basketball hoop like a porpoise), the admissions office sometimes will take a chance on him. Last year, Butch says, he turned in a list of seven blue-chippers. Five were admitted and three actually enrolled (the other two went to Virginia and Notre Dame). The three blue-chip freshmen are good enough to help continue Princeton's dominance of the Ivy League next season. Talking about them obviously made van Breda Kolff forget for a moment about the ones that got away. He leaned back in his chair and speculated on whether the paper held in Henry Marquand's hand was the Wall Street Journal. He decided it was, since Marquand was a Princeton trustee.
Life on the Princeton campus is somewhat different from that at most American schools. More than 90% of the students in the three upper classes belong to one or another of the eating clubs on Prospect Avenue, "The Street." The basketball players are split between Ivy and Cottage. Members are chosen for these clubs by a complicated, tradition-shackled system called Bicker, the efficacy and fairness of which often seems to be the sole concern of the Daily Princetonian. However, the paper has paid close attention also to the basketball team and to Vassar's proposed move to the campus of the Yale Bulldogs. All-male Princeton is concerned about this move. Recently the Princetonian proudly headlined a Vassar slogan: WE'D RATHER BE TIGRESSES THAN BITCHES.
With clubs and without coeds, the students, including the basketball players, study hard. Rob by Brown, the most articulate if not the best pivotman, likes to discuss van Breda Kolff's freelance offense this way: "It's a sort of intellectual exercise, because you've got to see what everybody's doing and gauge your actions accordingly."
One floor below the basketball court Chris Thomforde, having shed his Tiger scarf and civvies, sprawled on a training table the other day while Trainer Bobo Holmes swabbed his feet with a skin-toughening solution. He smiled, but it was not because Bobo was tickling him. He was just remembering how surprised he had been when he posed for the cover of this week's SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in Raycroft Library, which is hidden at the end of an L-shaped hall off the lobby of Dillon Gym.
"A library in the gymnasium," he said. "That's typical of Princeton."