Three University of Pennsylvania basketball players went to see Coach Dick Harter one day last week—separately and on their own. They wanted to know what they could do—what sacrifice they could make—to get their team back on the track. At practice later Harter and his chief assistant, Ray Edelman, were closeted with starting Guards Steve Bilsky and Dave Wohl for almost the entire first hour—reprimanding, discussing, suggesting, explaining. Penn, obviously, was in trouble. Maybe a losing streak coupled with a flu epidemic? Or was Bobby Morse flunking organic chemistry and blowing his chances for a Rhodes? Dwindling morale, perhaps, or half a pound of grass discovered in Corky Calhoun's locker?
Well, none of these, really. The Quakers just the night before had traveled to Princeton and beaten the Tigers 70-62. A few nights later they were to thump Harvard 81-62 at Cambridge. And Saturday they breezed by Dartmouth 92-77. That, in fact, was their 44th victory in the last 48 games and their 11th straight this season. For the juniors it was their 57th win against two losses, counting their undefeated freshman year.
So why the fuss? Part of the answer lies in the personality of Harter, an ex-Marine officer who believes so strongly in discipline and pays such attention to detail that the leggings on his players' warmup pants must be snapped shut right down to the shoe tops. No loose flaps will be tolerated. As might be expected, he is a neat-hair man. His own is so short it would not ruffle in a typhoon, but he allows his men to have neat sideburns and mustaches. After the Princeton game, which did not please him (too many turnovers), he ordered Bilsky and Wohl to get their hair trimmed, and they complied. Wohl, an intelligent and articulate history major, would like to wear his hair longer but figures it is too trivial a matter to hassle about.
Maybe so for Wohl but not for Harter. This year he had two Midwest prospects visiting the campus and told them he was going to send both home the next day unless they got haircuts. Wohl assured them the coach was not kidding. Reluctantly, they visited a barber.
Penn, though, is no gang of galley slaves. There are jokes enough and shooting contests along with the commitment from everyone to put in the work necessary to be champions of both the Ivies and Philadelphia's Big Five. At least. The Quakers had a 25-1 record going into the NCAA tournament last year, then lost to Niagara in the first round. Niagara had twice been soundly beaten by Big Five teams in the Palestra, while Penn had lost to none of its home-town rivals. Harter, determined not to slip again, vowed to work the team 10% harder in each practice this season. He has heard no complaints.
Edelman is Harter's "X's and O's man," a coach who sees games in terms of play patterns and defensive alignments. Harter considers himself more of a one-on-one man. He sees individual match-ups. Together they have installed an offense of more than 30 plays, with variations, for use against man-to-man defenses. (Harter believes almost all good teams play man-to-man.) The Quakers, especially Forward Calhoun, are excellent on defense themselves.
Penn's last brushup before beginning the Big Five, Quaker City tournament and Ivy battles was a game at Ohio State. It was important because Harter recruits heavily in Ohio. His first-team center, Jim Wolf, is from there (Jim left the state despite pleas from dignitaries ranging from the governor up to Woody Hayes), as are three members of the freshman team. The Quakers fell as much as seven points behind in the game but caught up with tough defense, good ball handling and Bilsky's foul shooting. The last 23 times the Quakers came down the floor on offense they avoided turnovers and got off good shots. They won 71-64, and Harter said, "It was a big win for Penn, the East and Big Five basketball. The sweetest ever."
The team's first Ivy game this season, against Princeton, was in the same arena—Jadwin Gymnasium—where Penn had been upset by Niagara. The place must have bad vibrations for the Quakers because they played poorly again. They would get an eight-or 10-point lead and then relax, letting Princeton back in the game. Penn won by eight, but it should easily have been 20. Harter did not hesitate to tell his team that in the locker room.
The bus arrived home after midnight, and the coaching staff stayed up until 2 a.m. going over scouting reports on Harvard, a team with a yardful of sophomore talent. The meeting had to be held then because X's and O's Edelman is a full-time junior high teacher and would not be on campus until the start of practice the next afternoon.
The closed-door discussion with Wohl and Bilsky was just that, a two-way thing, not a harangue. The coaches told the guards to stick to the plays and cut out the free-lancing. The guards asked Harter to stop chewing them out after every victory, that some of the fun was going out of it for them. With the air cleared, the team proceeded to have another one of those extra-10% practices.
Harvard's Indoor Athletic Building is a multisport complex, and the basketball gym is on the fourth floor. It is a poor place to play intercollegiate basketball, as Harvard's rivals in the recruiting wars are quick to point out. Still, Harvard out-maneuvered Penn to get Floyd Lewis from Washington, D.C., a sophomore and probably the best Crimson player. Calhoun, who always draws the toughest forward, was assigned to him.
Harvard raced out on the floor, a startling contrast to Penn: unsnapped leggings flopping, Afros, goatees, mustaches, loud rock music by the Temptations. Matt Bozek kept his overflowing locks out of his face with a Geronimo headband. Brian Newmark had bushy sideburns that birds could nest in. The Quakers' one touch of color was their new shoes—all red.
It used to be that only a few hundred students were willing to hike up the stairs for a Harvard home game, and some of those played bridge in the stands rather than watch the action. Times have changed. Lewis and classmate James Brown have sparked some interest, and the gym was packed for Pennsylvania. No card games and a lot of honest-to-shout rooting.
And there was something worth rooting for. While Calhoun neutralized Lewis, Brown was playing a little guard and a little forward, and frequently giving a good imitation of a pogo stick. He scored 16 points and took 10 rebounds, and Harvard led at the half 35-29.
But Penn, with hardly a game on its schedule that does not count toward a league or tournament championship, is accustomed to pressure. The Quakers came out for the second half determined to work the ball inside, and they did it beautifully. Passing well, fast breaking, feeding a talented sophomore of their own, Phil Hankinson, they outscored Harvard 19-5 and took a 48-40 lead. It was like an Olympic sprinter loping along lazily for 50 yards, then turning on the power and zooming past the outclassed club runner.
But then the Penn curse struck again. Just when the team seems to be ready to run away and leave the cleaning up to its excellent subs, at least one of whom many of the players feel should be a starter, there comes a lull. The Quakers, true to their nickname, lack a killer instinct. Harvard closed the gap to six. Penn called time out with 8:11 left and went into a slowdown. Little Bilsky is an expert at dribbling, dribbling, dribbling and finally drawing a foul. Seldom does he miss a free throw at the end of a game. Wohl works the same system pretty well, too. There was no way the Crimson could get the ball away without fouling, and Penn stretched the lead to 75-60 so the bench could be cleared. The boos from the crowd did not bother the players at all.
Later Harter had nothing but compliments—for one half of the game. "The first half was our worst of the year," he said, "and the second was unquestionably the best half since I've been at Pennsylvania."
Wohl was asked if Penn really belonged in the national championship picture. "I thought that no matter where I went to school I could play with anybody," he said. "This team is composed of guys who feel like that. We've seen UCLA and South Carolina on TV. They're good, but we're not awed."
In a way Harter was awed by Harvard. "Woo," he said. "It would have been the end of the hair program if we'd lost to those guys."