Big-time sport breeds few philosophers. That is not entirely because the men of that world do not have a meditative turn of mind; some of them do, indeed. But the tensions and pressures of their lives allow little time and less tranquillity for proper contemplation. For example, now that the 1968 collegiate basketball season is a thing of the past—now that the winning is done and the curtain has fallen on the high-tension drama—can major-college coaches heave a sigh and spend the spring in a Socratic pursuit of truth? Can they unwind now, content to dwell on the vicissitudes of man and the verities of life? No, they cannot. For now begins the time of the crudest competition of all—recruiting. And if a coach wants to survive, he had better be out crisscrossing the country, wheeling and wheedling, coaxing and coddling, to entice to his school the kids who will produce. There is no rest for the winner in major-college athletics, for every year, unlike a pro coach, he generally loses some of the talent that made him a winner. He must constantly replace what he constantly loses, and thus few men have either the time or the inclination to ask the questions or risk the definitions that would add a dimension of reason or rationale to the race in which they perform.
Perhaps it isn't essential for a man to divorce himself completely from the roar of the crowd in order to put things in perspective. But it helps. And few can better vouch for the satisfactions of tranquillity over the high-tension tumult of big-time coaching than Philipp D. Woolpert—an uncommonly sensitive man who a few years ago traded the soaring triumphs of a matchless coaching career at the University of San Francisco for the sunny docility of life at the University of San Diego, an obscure and distinctly small-time school that is considerably less renowned for its basketball teams than for the serene beauty of its campus. Phil Woolpert's perspective has sharpened, and his concern over the drift and direction of sports specifically and the world in general has deepened considerably in the relative peace of San Diego.
"This may be heresy," says Woolpert, "but I think there is something wrong with these games we play when winning becomes a motivating factor of behavior beyond the game itself. Winning has gotten to be an ingredient that we can't do without in this country. We have come to believe the only real measure of accomplishment comes in victory. It's the product of a bad system of values. Hell, it creates psychological problems where there shouldn't be any. I have no solution, but there must be a more rational approach than this overweening insistence on winning."
Heresy it isn't, of course, for, contrary to the fanaticism of a few high priests, victory is not yet a religion. But coming from Phil Woolpert, such words constitute a biting and thought-provoking irony, for he was once the winningest coach in America. With his magnificent University of San Francisco teams of the mid-'50s, winning was almost a bore and scenes of high-tension pandemonium were practically habit. His teams performed in the most celebrated arenas of America: Madison Square Garden, The Cow Palace, Chicago's Stadium, Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium, Los Angeles' Pan-Pacific Auditorium. He coached some superb players—Bill Russell, K. C. Jones, Mike Farmer, Gene Brown, Hal Perry. And the precision defensive patterns and exquisite game control that were Woolpert's trademark made these men all but unbeatable.
April 22, 1968
In those years Woolpert's name was synonymous with the kind of coaching success that young men new to the profession sit twirling their whistles and daydreaming about in the offices of a thousand high school locker rooms. Twice—in 1955 and 1956—USF won the NCAA national championship. In 1957, Russell and Jones of the All-Americas were gone, but Woolpert again took his team to the NCAA finals and finished third—the only time in history a school had finished so well three years running. And in 1958 Woolpert coached USF to a spectacular 25-2 record, both losses resulting from baskets scored seconds before the gun went off. Over those four dazzling years his record was 103 wins and 10 losses.
Indeed, he came to know the taste of victory with a bittersweet intensity beyond that experienced by any college coach—ever. From Dec. 17, 1954 until Dec. 17, 1956, the University of San Francisco won 60 consecutive intercollegiate games—21 more than any major team had ever accumulated before. The record is still unmatched and has only been in jeopardy once, during UCLA's recent streak, which Houston stopped at 47 this year.
Phil Woolpert was 39 when he won his first national championship; when he was 43 he left the rarefied air of big-time college coaching for good. It was a skyrocket ride that left a trail of dazzling records—and perplexing paradoxes. For Phil Woolpert is a rare and complex man, "a very subtle man," as Bill Russell once put it. And he doesn't fit the molds readymade or the clichés prefabricated for success in sport. "Our emphasis is so much on production, on a kind of visible improvement," he said recently. "People say to a guy, 'Hey, John, you're not working up to capacity. You could be making another $100 a day. What's the matter with you, John?' But what if John wants to improve in something intangible? Human communications, maybe, or loving his neighbor or studying sunsets? By our simplistic measures of success, a man like John doesn't count."
Phil Woolpert's success at San Diego scarcely lends itself to any simplistic measures. He has gone from celebrity to near anonymity, his income is down, and his prestige in the world beyond San Diego is minimal. Yet he is, by his own definition, a happy man. At 52, there is a distinguished silver cast to his dark brown hair and deep creases around his mouth; the creases become chasms when he laughs, which is often. When he frowns in moments of intense concentration, also often, his ruggedly handsome face (Charlton Heston is perhaps his nearest look-alike) somehow remains dynamic in repose, as if the struggle in his mind were reflected in his physical appearance. And when he voices his thoughts—in strikingly articulate phrases—his voice has an impressively deep, crackling timbre; it carries that authoritative sound you like to hear from airline pilots or pulpit preachersor Presidents—from any man you want to put your confidence in.
Since 1962, he has been at the University of San Diego (not to be confused with either San Diego State University or the University of California at San Diego). The school, a creation of the San Diego Roman Catholic diocese, is tiny and has an antiseptic, almost monastic aura about it. There are 700 women and 600 men in the two colleges, which are still, to a great extent, segregated by sex. It is not hard to feel a kind of metaphysical insulation from the churlish turmoil of the Real World at the school. The campus is a scene of almost postcard perfection—sparkling white Spanish baroque buildings set on a hilltop against a backdrop of lazy circling seagulls and a breathtaking view of San Diego's Harbor of the Sun.
The students (69% Catholic) are well behaved; the only memorable demonstration of youth in rebellion at USD, so far, was over a ludicrously parochial issue. "The kids petitioned the Student Affairs Committee to ease restrictions on what they wore to class," said Woolpert. "Well, we okayed sideburns and mustaches and Bermuda shorts and sandals and sneakers—just about everything they wanted. Except for socks. I don't remember why, but someone on the committee insisted they wear socks to class. So they picketed over socks."
Although the architecture and the setting create an impression of ancient severity, USD is really spanking new—and it has experienced some birth pains that border on trauma. Classes began in the women's college in 1952 and in the men's in 1954. At that time the USD athletic program was ambitiously designed to produce a football team that would bathe the school in overnight fame as an instant Notre Dame of the West.
"They had some kind of an idea about Horatio Alger success in football," said Woolpert, "and I'm afraid they went after it in a very naive and unfortunate way. There were a lot of local businessmen involved and, whether they were actually buying the football players, I don't know. But they were enrolling kids with microscopic grade averages and, eventually, the whole school nearly sank in the undertow. Once the bars are down in that kind of setup, everything seems to suffer. Enrollment dropped way off—to 250 or so—in the men's college, and the university came damned close to losing its accreditation." Football was canceled in 1962 after a new president of the men's college was brought in and the 3,000-seat stadium stands empty year-round except for high school games.
"This idea that money is the end-all power behind success, behind winning, is a major weakness in our values," Woolpert said. "It works in the courts, because wealthy men can afford the legal wizards that poor men cannot, and it has worked in the draft, because the money to attend college guarantees a deferment while the ghetto kid goes to war. I have never liked elitism—and certainly not when it is based on material possessions."
There are no Boosters Clubs or heavy commercial pressures on Phil Woolpert at USD; most of the alumni are still too young to have the affluence to afford much of a contribution to the old alma mater. There are no marathon winning streaks to protect, either. Woolpert is 65-65 since he arrived, 15-10 this year. When he was first hired by the university (the fifth coach in four years), the word went out among San Diego businessmen that he would be midwife to the birth of superbasketball at the school. "They were saying that I would make it the Kentucky of the West," said Woolpert. "Nothing was farther from my mind—or the school administration's either, after the football fiasco. I went on television as soon as I got here and threw cold water on that idea right away."
Kentucky it isn't, but Phil hasn't exactly taken up full-time sunset studies either—not when it comes to the basketball season, anyway. "Look, as a coach I can't try to lose. If I did, I'd be absurd," he said. He still is far from Buddha-cool in the dwindling hours before a game. Always a noticeably nervous man, he develops quick tics in his face as game time approaches and, occasionally, he jumps abruptly in his chair, as if someone had just fired a howitzer off the edge of the swimming pool outside his office window. "There's always this gnawing in the stomach," he said. "It's almost the same whether it's a national championship or the last game of a losing season. Somehow, I've got by all these years without getting an ulcer. If I did, I'd quit. But the pressure is always there. The pressure you put on yourself."
Still, he is a million miles, as the seagull flies, from the golden pressure cooker of those magnificent days of the mid-'50s. Why did he make the move? As Wordsworth wrote, "The Child is father to the Man," and Phil Woolpert's decisions were, to some extent, predestined in his youth.
"I'm a product of the benighted white American middle class," he said, "and I suppose I'm as much a victim of its prejudices and misjudgments as anyone. But money has never been a prime consideration for me and, if I'd gone along with my dreams as a young man, I'd be a poorer, but maybe happier, social worker."
Until he was 10, Woolpert lived a nomadic existence, his family moving again and again—Kentucky, Ohio, New Jersey. His father was in stocks and bonds promotion. In 1925, seven Woolperts and a dog piled into a brand-new Chandler automobile and headed for that American Mecca of the Transient—Los Angeles. "It was before the Okies' migration," recalled Phil dryly, "but we slept under the stars all the way." They lived in an integrated section of L.A. (Actress Hattie McDaniel's brother was one of their neighbors), and that environment, together with the influence of Woolpert's outspoken and politically independent father, eventually led Phil to an intense liberalism.
When Woolpert graduated from L.A.'s Manual Arts High School in 1933, the Depression was in its bleakest days, and he had "positively no illusions about going to college." For a time he did the mundane, demeaning odd jobs of the day—peddling handbills, standing in lines of ragged men waiting to be picked for a day's construction work. He finally enrolled at a nearby junior college (it required only a small entrance fee), bent on a career "helping people—I didn't quite know how. Just helping them."
A mere sliver of a lad (6'2" , 135 pounds), Phil became a polished junior-college basketball player and caught the eye of Jim Needles, the feisty coach (he is still called "The Beast") of Loyola University of L.A. Needles gave Phil a four-year scholarship. Woolpert still looked like "the results of an X ray," as his Loyola teammate, Pete Newell, recalls, but Needles put him on a cod liver oil diet, and Woolpert became a smooth, furiously competitive forward (he was booted out of no less than four games for fistfighting).
Of course, Loyola is a Catholic school, and Woolpert was—well, as he puts it, "I had a dim view of Catholics as a kid. I wasn't much of a fan of any church, in fact. My grandfather had been a Presbyterian preacher, but I don't think I'd been in a pew since I was 12. I'm an agnostic, pure and, I suppose, simple. It is, I guess, the coward's way out, but I just can't do it any other way." Ironically (a word that fits almost everything Phil Woolpert ever did), Loyola turned out to be just the first in a lifetime of constant connections with Catholicism; he has never coached anywhere but at Catholic schools—San Francisco's St. Ignatius High School, the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco and, of course, USD. "It's been a great, great exposure," he says. "My dim view has brightened, shall we say, profoundly." Indeed, before every game his team plays, the agnostic coach traditionally begins the locker room chant, "Hail Mary Full of Grace...." And Mary Woolpert, the tall, blonde lady he married in 1945, has always been "a tremendously faithful Catholic," he says.
When he was graduated from Loyola in 1940, "coaching was the farthest thing from my mind. I had majored in political science because the school didn't offer sociology, and I was off on my white charger to help the world." The world he first charged into was the California state-prison system. A new reform plan had just been instituted at Chino—unarmed guards, cells without locks, an honor system for inmates—and Woolpert was one of 35 men selected from 1,500 applicants to be supervisors. It was an enlightening period, but brief, for in August 1942 he was drafted, sent to Hawaii and, because of his training, was assigned to the staff of the disciplinary barracks outside Honolulu—the infamous Stockade. It proved to be a shattering time.
"This was the hellhole James Jones wrote about in From Here to Eternity," said Woolpert, "and if anything, he underwrote the scenes. God, how grotesque and sordid and brutal men can be! The place reeked of homosexuality, and the bulk of the company was illiterate. I shared an office for a time with a provost sergeant who was a blatant sadist and unabashed homosexual. He wore a perfumed handkerchief in his sleeve. His desk was always empty, polished and clean, except for a blackjack in the middle. He'd slug kids for having a spot of dirt on one shoe. They finally put him away."
In those wartime years, executions—on the gallows or by a firing squad—were not unheard-of at the Stockade. "Your view of life is never the same after being around that kind of thing." said Woolpert. "The most haunting, chilling hours I ever spent happened one night before an execution. Every condemned man was given a last request, and this one fellow said he didn't want anything except a copy of The Warsaw Concerto. Then he sat down at the piano and, for the next eight or nine hours, he played it over and over and over. I was there all night. The kid never stopped. In the morning he went out and a firing squad killed him."
Understandably, Woolpert's zest for prison work faded at the Stockade and, even though he did not set out purposefully to become a basketball coach, it turned out that there just wasn't much he could do to prevent it. "I suppose none of us really knows—for certain—whether we're making the major decisions of our lives because we truly want to ourselves or because of what other people expect us to do," he said.
In August of 1946, eight months out of the service and just starting on a rather dull field job with the Veteran's Administration, Woolpert got a call from his old coach, Jim Needles, who was then athletic director at the University of San Francisco. The coaching job at St. Ignatius, a prep school for USF, was open. Would Phil be interested? He was not happy with the VA, and he was indeed interested. Needles and Pete Newell, then coaching at USF, gave him sterling recommendations, and he was hired. In his first year at the school his team won the city championship. In four years he rolled up a 63-29 record. "I liked it, and I had no ambitions at all to go into college coaching," he recalled.
Ah, but there were other people's expectations involved. When Newell quit USF in 1950 to go to Michigan State, Phil took the job—with trepidation and reluctance. No sooner had he walked into his new office than the trepidation turned to terror and the reluctance became abject resignation. "I opened one filing cabinet that first day," he said. "My God, there was folder after folder, each at least an inch thick, on high school prospects, or something. I was overwhelmed. I slammed the drawer, went home and told Mary, 'I quit—this is beyond my capacity.'
"Frankly, she whipped the hell out of me mentally that day, and I went back. She was right." But his first season was sheer misery (a 9-17 record), and at the end of it Woolpert told Needles he was through. "I figured I'd had my exposure to the big time and I just was not cut out for the pressures."
Needles persuaded him otherwise. "Phil felt guilty because he didn't think he was doing justice to the kids," said Needles. "It was typical of Phil to blame himself. But he had poor material, and I finally made him believe that he did have the technical mastery, that it wasn't all his fault." There were two more so-so years, but meanwhile one of Woolpert's scouts had spotted a clumsy, gangling kid named Bill Russell playing high school ball, in almost total anonymity, in Oakland. Woolpert offered Russell a scholarship, without having seen him play one minute of basketball.
"My God, the first time I did see him at a workout, I couldn't believe my eyes," said Woolpert. "He could jump—oh, how he could jump—but he was so ungainly. Still, there was something about Bill then that you just couldn't ignore. He had this rare, wonderful confidence in himself. Not braggadocio, but good honest confidence." As Woolpert recalls it, when Russell was first introduced as a freshman to the USF coaching staff he said, "Gentlemen, I want you to know that I am going to be the University of San Francisco's next All-America."
Of course, he was right. Bill Russell was the vortex of those whirling championship teams. "He was as fiercely competitive, as proud an athlete as ever appeared in any sport," said Woolpert. "With Bill's great leadership and K.C. Jones's silent determination, those teams were almost superhuman. But Bill was a man of many moods. We had a lot of run-ins." Perhaps with two men of the complexity and intensity of Russell and Woolpert, a clash was inevitable.
In recent years, Russell has made no secret of his negative view of Phil Woolpert. In his book Go Up For Glory, published in 1966, Russell wrote, "I was not fond of Woolpert as a coach, but I liked him as a man—sometimes. I believed then and I believe now that he played favorites. I do not believe Woolpert did this because of prejudice. It was just the way he was. Perhaps it was my own prejudices. But though I gained my first fame with him, I could never be close to him as a man. I was a good basketball player. There were some who said I was great. Woolpert never said anything.... It never hurts to say a good word for your player. It hurt me plenty that Woolpert didn't."
One incident that particularly bothered Russell occurred in 1955 when Kenny Sears of Santa Clara was picked as Player of the Year in their conference. Russell thought he should have gotten the honor and blamed Woolpert's failure to praise him in the press.
"O.K.," said Woolpert, "my judgments are as imperfect as anyone's, but as a coach I have to make them. In those days I wasn't about to help give Bill an inflated sense of his own importance. As a sophomore he was a lazy player; I kicked him out of the gym many, many times for loafing during drills. When he was a junior there were a few problems; when he was a senior, none that I recall. He was furious about the Sears thing, and he told me he wouldn't show up for the presentation banquet. I said, 'Bill, that'll demean you as a man; it's beneath you.' He refused to go until the day of the dinner, then he was called on to make a speech. Honest to God, he was wonderful. He made a great, laudatory talk about Sears. A fine, unpredictable guy."
The USF national championship teams had three Negroes on the starting five—Russell, Jones and Hal Perry—as well as two splendid substitutes, Warren Baxter and Gene Brown. ("Phil was one of the first coaches to really key a major college team to Negro players," said Pete Newell. "Of course, that makes it all the more ironic that he was blasted by Russell.") Obviously, a nationally oriented team so constituted was bound to collide somewhere on its schedule with the bigotry of the day.
In December 1955, the University of San Francisco was booked to play Loyola of New Orleans, and there was a great deal of pregame upheaval, since New Orleans was then one of the really supersegregated cities in the U.S. "Everyone was edgy about it," recalled Woolpert. "And particularly Bill; he had been born in Louisiana." When USF arrived, the tension was extreme, but a local restaurateur—a Negro—threw a banquet for the team and the press. Each USF player was asked to make a speech, and Russell was the last to talk. "I was watching him as the fellows spoke," Woolpert recalled. "He was taking notes like crazy, and I was pretty worried about what he might say. Finally, he stood up and he was impassive as a sphinx. He looked around the table, and then he said: 'Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest place to be from in America is New Orleans....' And he went on from there to do a masterful job. Humorous and easygoing. No one could have defused a situation like that the way Bill did." When San Francisco did appear for the game, the team faced an all-white squad of Loyola players, before a capacity house—integrated. "The crowd cheered our Negroes kind of dutifully at the start," said Woolpert. "But you could almost bathe in the tension. About seven minutes into the game, a ball went up in the air and Russell came down with it. Two kids from Loyola fell, hard. Bill looked at them, then he put the ball down and helped both of them up. The crowd went wild, and the Negro kids on the team got standing ovations when they went out of the game that night."
Two years later there was an unpublicized but equally upsetting situation in Louisville during USF's victorious participation in the Blue Grass Festival. After a victory, the team's traditional celebration was to attend a movie, but Louisville would brook no racial mixing in its theaters, so Woolpert made dinner reservations for the team in a hotel dining room instead. "The kids went downstairs alone, and I was in my room," he said, "when the phone rang and one of the kids said, 'Coach, they won't let us in. No Negroes allowed.' I hit the roof. I called all over town that night and I finally got an assistant of Happy Chandler—he was governor there then. I chewed the guy up and down, and I told him I was going to write a letter to the NCAA telling them that the championships shouldn't be held in Louisville later that year because no one should dignify such bigotry by having a national competition there. We left the next day for Oklahoma City, and when I got there, I'd barely checked into my room when the phone rang. It was the manager of the arena in Louisville. 'Mr. Woolpert,' he said, 'won't you reconsider that letter? We're having a meeting of all restaurant, theater and hotel managers, and I think we can settle this thing.' I withheld the letter, and the town was opened up for the tournament. Of course, they went right back to the old ways as soon as it was over."
No one who saw Phil Woolpert's great USF teams can ever forget their cool mastery of fundamentals, along with an almost mystical ability to apply the kind of pressure that forced opponents to switch from their natural style and fall, fumbling, into the methodical, control game that San Francisco played best. Surprisingly enough in the light of the high-intensity, coast-to-coast recruiting of those days, nearly all of Woolpert's top men were products of the San Francisco area. Beyond that, as Jim Needles recalled, "Phil wouldn't take a kid unless he was positive—absolutely certain—that the boy could make it through college and would be able to make a success of something other than sports as a career."
Despite the cool and mathematical technique of Woolpert's game, his teams' 60-game string had some bizarre and hair-raising emotional moments. Take, for example, the night in Corvallis, Ore. when USF was playing Utah. The team had won 33 in a row but, at the half, Russell suddenly complained of chest pains. Not having his own team doctor along, Woolpert summoned a physician who—coincidentally—was a fan of the Oregon State team, which—also coincidentally—was to play USF the next night, if USF beat Utah. The OSU doctor's diagnosis was uncertain, but he suggested that Russell might have pneumonia and recommended that he play no more that night against Utah.
Faithfully, Woolpert kept Russell on the bench in the second half, although USF was clearly in trouble and Bill was insisting that he felt fine. Soon an ardent USF supporter turned up behind the bench and demanded to know why Woolpert was holding Russell out of the game. "In all honesty, the guy was pretty drunk when he asked me," said Woolpert. "And when I told him what happened, he began to rave that we should have a USF-oriented doctor look at Bill, that we shouldn't trust any Oregon State guy's opinion—even if he had taken the Hippocratic oath. This guy knew of a San Francisco doctor in the crowd and said he should look at Bill. I thought the doctor he was talking about was a Ph. D., not an M.D., because I'd once had one hell of a cocktail party conversation with him about free will or something. Anyway, it turned out that he was an M.D. and he did reexamine Bill, and he said that he was all right, maybe just a case of overexertion in the first half." Woolpert let Russell return to the Utah game, USF won going away that night and, Oregon State medicine notwithstanding, the team beat OSU 57-56 the next night.
Of course, any victory streak has its own built-in pressures, and when it gets to 60 straight it approaches extremes of human cruelty. "We couldn't ever really forget it, although we tried like hell," said Woolpert. "But it wasn't as bad as a lot of people might think. You know, teams really do play games one at a time, as the old cliché has it. And, of course, I was aware all along that we were benefited by a really fortuitous set of circumstances. That combination of kids—with their pride and their absolute conviction that they could not be beaten—is a rare, maybe even unique thing. Frankly, I'm damned proud of the string. Not so much because it was so long as because there is not one game that I feel guilty about. We never, as far as I know, took advantage unfairly of another team."
The string stretched for five games beyond the departure from USF of Russell, Jones & Co. Not until Dec. 15, 1956 did USF lose, and then it was in an unofficial exhibition against the U.S. Olympic team in Chicago. And who were the major players on that Olympic club? That's right—Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. Two nights later, Illinois snapped the streak—officially.
Despite those fine seasons, Woolpert never did feel at ease in big-time coaching. Yet a combination of coincidence and his own ambivalence about the pressures and pleasures of the major-college milieu created a kind of inertia around him. Even though he convinced himself again and again that he should quit, he stayed where he was. "In retrospect, I should have done what I wanted to do—resign at the end of that second national championship in 1956," he said. "But, hell, I've got my dread of insecurity and my intrinsic need for recognition as much as the next fellow. And I suppose I was foolishly, childishly motivated by the fear that people would say, "There's a guy who can't stand the pressure.' So I stayed, and we had a good season in '57. After 1958 I had pretty much made up my mind that this was it. We'd had a great year (25-2) and I knew the time had come. Then, that spring, two of our really good players were dropped from the squad. I just couldn't bring myself to leave a ship in that bad shape."
The USF ship proved to be in abysmal condition, all right—it wallowed through a 6-20 record in 1959, and only once in 35 years of intercollegiate basketball had USF done worse (2-13 in 1941). "I couldn't exactly tell you what was going through my mind then. Monumental confusion, certainly. Bitterness. Self-pity. Resignation," said Woolpert.
Even after that dismal season of '59, Woolpert did not quit, although he knew another year of misery was coming up. Then that summer he had an accident in Manila during a Jesuit-sponsored basketball tour of the Far East. It occurred under conditions that would set a Baptist Fundamentalist muttering about "God's infinite wisdom" and "fate foreordained." Even a good functioning agnostic might take pause. For at the height of a ferocious typhoon, Woolpert slipped on the slick tiles of a patio as he was running to his room. Lightning ripped the sky and thunder boomed all about. He landed on his back so hard that he was paralyzed for several minutes. Within the week he was on his way back to San Francisco, clad in a plaster coat from neck to waist to ease the pain of the bruised vertebrae in his back. "Ultimately, that did it," said Woolpert. "I was a nervous, jangled wreck. We started the practice season, and I was terrible. I wore a brace and harness then that irked hell out of me. There was quite a bit of pain. Everything was interrelated—the letdown of the previous year, my own confusion about my future, the bad back. Maybe if I'd been normal physically, things would have been different." The day before the first game of the 1959-60 season he announced he would take a leave of absence. Six months later he quit USF for good, and two years later he found his niche in the serenity of San Diego.
As with any man, some of the most formative decisions of his life had been just beyond his own control. Ultimately, he did not really choose the quiet, subtle brand of success he is enjoying in San Diego. Yet it somehow fits him perfectly and, as he says, "I am happy here. Damned happy."
Occasionally, there are still offers from big-time, big-salary schools—and, who knows, someday Woolpert may return to the championships. For now he says no. "I've been there—No. 1 and all that. I'd be a fool if I said the satisfaction and emoluments weren't wonderful. They were. But there are so many demands on your time—and, in a way, so many demands on your morality—at those high levels of competition. Besides the ordinary pressures to win, there gets to be an economic motive, too. Just plain money becomes a tremendously important factor—simply because so many schools have such astronomic athletic department budgets. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars are involved. I've always said that the athletic department budget should be consolidated with the general school budget—treat it like the philosophy or English department—and, instead of forcing the athletic department to produce its own revenue, turn everything from the gates back into the general college fund and allocate it on an annual basis. In other words, take sports out of the environment of profit and loss. We do that here at USD, but it's not an idea that will sweep the nation, I'm afraid.
"A couple of years ago, Wayne Hardin at Navy told me that his athletic department budget was $900,000. Can you imagine? Well, to meet that kind of budget you just have to fill the stadium every Saturday. You have to play a Top Ten style of football. You have to react to a form of profit motive—because winning means revenue for the athletic department. Look, honest coaches don't purposely try to loosen up academic standards for athletes. But with that kind of dollar pressure on them, the temptations sure as hell are there to use just slightly questionable tactics in recruiting. To get a real good kid, you might make just one exception for a low grade average. So you can win. Maybe, eventually, there'll be a deal with some alumni booster to give a really great kid's father some help in his business. Or to help pay for a tonsillectomy for a boy's kid brother. Or pay his sister's tuition at a finishing school. The pressure to win can corrupt—insidiously and unconsciously—the whole structure of a university. Hell, the structure of a whole society."
Not long ago, while sipping slowly at a martini, very dry but with lots of ice, Woolpert said, "I have an enormous empathy with the hippies. I might have been an extraordinarily good hippie. The best of what they stand for—love, peace, compassion for other people, individualism unobstructed by artificial values of the establishment—these are things I'd like to think. I stand for at my best."
The statement was not without its contradictions, for, as he spoke of hippies, there was Phil Woolpert, a middle-aged basketball coach, sitting on a broad sofa in the living room of his home—a place that is gracefully if not elegantly furnished on the inside and is surrounded by other homes similar on the outside. In the driveway were a Volkswagen bus and a 1967 Mercury station wagon, each containing its quota of the classic litter of suburbia, Kleenex and road maps and broken color crayons and old shopping lists and dirt-scuffed school papers of children. In his house there were five lively, uncommonly handsome youngsters, ranging from 7 to 18 years old, and neither Phil nor Mary Woolpert could sustain a particularly long conversation without interruptions to assert some very non-dropout authority about snitching the avocado chip dip or who would drive to the dance that night or "When, Mother, will you do my hair?" For a time, the phonograph put forth the sounds of an album called Freddy Martin Plays the Beatles and Mary said, "Maybe that's the way people our age are supposed to function—as a link between Freddy Martin and the Beatles, a tie between yesterday and today."
"It seems like a ridiculously passive part to play," said Phil Woolpert. But he mused about the idea for a time, linking his fingers for a visual aid, and discussed the need for bridges between generations. "Hell, not just generations—between races and all our social strata and individuals and nations and the whole damned schmeer," he said, suddenly animated. "Our values on all these levels have gotten so screwed up—and I wonder if we know what abyss we're heading for. But how do we change it? Or more to the point—when? I wish I knew."