Back in the 1950s the University of San Francisco basketball team introduced a couple of patented products called the left-handed backboard eraser and the 60-game win streak. Now USF has another hot item on the market. The trouble is, one minute it is as efficient as a digital computer, the next it is as useless as a pet rock.
So far, the Dons have racked up a 9-2 record while exhibiting the uneven pace of a cable car. Stanford, Hawaii, Oral Roberts and Niagara all apparently had San Francisco safely put away, but each time USF escaped with nothing but dents in its pride. If the miracles continue, people will be writing in for pieces of the Dons' uniforms.
Actually, San Francisco is a paradox, since the source of its problems is also the solution to them. The Dons rely heavily on three freshmen, all of whom have considerable talent to go with their inconsiderable experience. Another starter is a junior college transfer, and the fifth is a former forward who now plays guard. It is a new cast, and the players have a tendency to blow their lines. Once they stop running into each other, they are very likely to be a smash. Says freshman Winford Boynes, "We'll be killing people."
Right now they are killing them softly. Last week at the Ocean State Classic in Providence, R.I., San Francisco exhibited all of its' amazing grace and awful failings. Against Niagara in the opening game, USF was clumsy and fell 17 points behind by halftime. Then, in the second half, the Dons limited the Purple Eagles to only one field goal during a 16-minute stretch and won 60-57. Things were even worse in the championship game the next night, in which USF played like a bunch of dudes afraid of wrinkling their satin suits and lost to unassuming Rhode Island 85-77. The defeat pointed up another youth problem for San Francisco. The Dons have the best batch of teenage players in the country; the trouble is that the youngsters know it. What they do not know yet is that there are good players at almost every college these days, so exertion is needed against every opponent.
January 5, 1976
San Francisco displayed its inconsistency during an early-season game against Stanford when it was down 12-0 and looked as if it might be shut out. The Dons eventually won by five. "I think they're awesome," said Cardinal Coach Dick DiBiaso after the defeat. "They have the best talent in the country. When they learn to play together, it'll really be something to see."
This sort of comment causes USF Coach Bob Gaillard's eyes to cloud with anguish and his voice to take on a sand-papery rasp. As soon as he recruited his three high school and two junior college All-Americas to complement the four top players from last season's 19-7 squad, San Francisco fans began to make comparisons with the teams of 1955 and 1956, when Bill Russell took San Francisco to consecutive NCAA championships. Some of Gaillard's rooters even went so far as predicting an undefeated season. That possibility disappeared with an 81-80 loss three weeks ago at Hawaii. But even in that defeat by the Rainbows, the young Dons exhibited unusual promise. Far from home for the first time, they lost by only one point on a floor where much more experienced teams have often found it impossible to prevail. And-USF came back the next night to score a 105-103 double-overtime victory over the previously unbeaten Rainbows.
While San Franciscans talked of titles and win streaks before any of the newcomers had even suited up, Gaillard knew that he faced a year of ups and downs—because he planned it that way. He called in the returning veterans and told them they were losing their jobs. "I spent a lot of time thinking about it," says Gaillard. "Maybe we're not using I our best team now, but if we're going to be a factor in the NCAA tournament next spring the kids are going to have to get their feet wet."
The kids are freshmen Bill Cartwright, a seven-foot center, James Hardy, a 6'8" forward, and Boynes. Cartwright and Hardy were ardently pursued high school stars, but Boynes was the Holy Grail of last winter's college basketball recruiting. Every coach with a gasoline credit card showed up at his home in Oklahoma City, with the battle, for his signature finally coming down to a tug-of-war between Gaillard and Louisville Coach Denny Crum. Their tactics included early-morning stakeouts of Boynes' house. Crum would drive off with Boynes, while Gaillard sat ruefully in the house, playing checkers with Winford's brother. Then Gaillard would motor away, leaving Crum to talk about recipes with Boynes' mother. Once one of Gaillard's assistant coaches and Crum almost got into a fistfight.
"I never had time to think," Boynes says. "I came home, people were there. At school, people were there. I went to practice, people were there. They followed me at all-star games." Boynes says Oral Roberts told him that he had experienced a vision in which he had seen Winford playing for—who else?—Oral Roberts University. "How could I turn down God?" says Boynes.
Somehow he did, and he has been the answer to Gaillard's prayers. Boynes, who is capable of playing both forward and guard, is averaging a shade under 20 points and was named the most valuable player in the Cable Car Classic, which USF won by defeating a good Providence team 91-77. He is 6'6" and can shoot from the outside and glide on the inside. He is also one of those dedicated players whom coaches call "gym rats." "I'd spend 12 to 14 hours a day shooting all by myself when I was growing up," says Boynes, who gets almost ecstatic when he talks about basketball. "It's a game in which you can be you. You can be creative, invent new dimensions. It lets you be as good as you want to be, without limitations."
Gaillard, a man with a gambler's mustache and charmer's smile, had to be a consummate recruiter to be able to attract Boynes and the Dons' other bluechippers. When he took the USF job in 1970, the school's recruiting budget was $1,000, just about equal to his phone bill alone last year. Gaillard is helped by a booster club that sweetened his salary when Long Beach State tried to lure him away a few years ago. "I won't have to worry about meat prices," he said then. Gaillard's relentless schedule confounds even some of his energetic peers. Nevada-Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian said last year that Gaillard was hurting his 1974-75 team by spending so much time away from home. Tarkanian was after Hardy, too, but Gaillard's estimated 50 visits landed him. And despite their coach's travel, the Dons finished second in the West Coast Athletic Conference.
Gaillard approaches everything that interests him with boundless energy and considerable skill. He took up golf while in college and, by practicing daily from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., became a scratch player. He went to the semifinal round of the California match-play championship last summer. Now he somehow finds time to spend hours at the San Francisco Racquet Club trying to perfect his tennis backhand. He was a star during his own basketball-playing days at USF, and his single-game high of 41 is still the school record.
Since returning to San Francisco as coach, Gaillard has compiled a 100-43 record and guided the Dons to three NCAA tournaments, where they have twice been beaten by UCLA. His record is among the best in college basketball, yet he can walk through cosmopolitan San Francisco and hardly draw a second glance. His former assistant coach, Phil Stumpo, is a popular Bay Area entertainer. When Gaillard is in the audience, Stumpo introduces him as "John Newcombe" because, says the coach, "People around here don't know me."
His recognition level will improve as his current team matures. Right now, almost every player on the squad believes he should be a starter. "Sometimes I think the coach over-recruits," says Russ Coleman, a first-stringer last year. "There aren't any hard feelings, but the freshmen have replaced three guys, and it's hard to cope with."
Coleman usually comes into games because of lack of leadership among the young starters. Several things happen immediately. First, he nervously sticks out his tongue, then he gets the offense moving. Against Oral Roberts in the opening round of the Cable Car Classic, the pregame handshake was the last display of teamwork by San Francisco's starters and the Dons quickly fell behind 33-20. In stepped Coleman. He scored 16 points and had seven assists and five steals in 26 minutes. USF won by 22.
"We're playing a lot of guys and everybody gets his shot, so there shouldn't be any complaints," says Cartwright. And he's right. All but one player on the traveling squad is averaging at least 10 minutes a game. The lone exception is Guard Sam Williams, a JC transfer and brother of the Golden State Warriors' outstanding rookie, Gus Williams. But when USF began to let down against Niagara, it was Williams who came off the bench in the second half and turned the game around with nine points and four assists.
The excellent performances of the other newcomers have tended to obscure the fact that Cartwright, who came to USF after being the most widely recruited high school center in the country, has been slow to adapt to the college game. Few big men have ever been dominant as freshmen. Of this year's best, Alabama's Leon Douglas was inconsistent in his first season and Indiana's Kent Benson hardly made an impression at all. Cartwright's average of 10.4 points per game and his .510 shooting percentage are not bad, but he has experienced myriad troubles. First, he was overweight, then his back bothered him and finally his knees ached. Now Cartwright's biggest problem is that he gets knocked around, even in practice, when senior Howard Smith, chagrined over the loss of his starting position, muscles him. "Billy doesn't understand that Howard can elbow him in the mouth and not mean anything by it," says Gaillard. Says Cartwright, "Howard's a competitor, but sometimes you feel like murdering him."
Gaillard almost jumped up and cheered when Cartwright elbowed an opponent to the floor in one of the Hawaii games. "Bill looks young, but I've never seen him intimidated," he says. "They can knock him down but they can't scare him. And it's nice that we've got Smith and Hardy around to pick him up. The other guys have to look at them, too."
One glance at Hardy should be enough to scare anyone thinking of roughing up Cartwright. The San Francisco newspapers run pictures of him that would be more appropriate on post-office bulletin boards. When Gaillard recruited Hardy, some people called the dour-appearing youth "a program wrecker." Actually, he is soft-spoken and diligent, and even has a sense of humor. He gave himself the nickname "Trouble" and painted it on the sides of his $8,000 souped-up van. He leads the team in rebounding (11 per game) and blocked shots and is shooting 87% from the free-throw line.
"Some people think the crew-cut kid automatically tries harder," says Gaillard. "They look at our guys wearing their hair in braids and ask, 'Any problems?' Everybody says that we must have dissension, that there is no way I can keep everybody happy. Well, they're right. I can't keep them happy. They have to keep me happy." Perhaps that is why Guard Marlon Redmond recently gave Gaillard the all-league award he won last year. Redmond is the only returnee in the starting lineup.
Despite what he says, Gaillard is not entirely adverse to doing some things to keep people happy. Around his players he wears faded jeans, sneakers and necklaces. Around the alumni he leans to cloth of a different cut—three-piece suits and striped neckties. There were recent rumors that Boynes was homesick. Suddenly his mother flew in to San Francisco, and the coach greeted her with a corsage and a big hug. Sometimes Gaillard hangs around with Bill Russell, a noted non-signer of autographs. A fan will send over a napkin. Rather than create discord, Gaillard will write Russell's name on it.
If at times he appears unconcerned about his team's uneven progress or blasé as his players stumble around the floor, it is again just a matter of adjusting to priorities. Right now Gaillard's team has time on its side. The Dons should stroll through their WCAC schedule; their toughest test will not come until late February against Cincinnati. San Francisco is playing its games with children, but each day they grow up a little.