Q&A with 1971 Penn basketball alum Jim Wolf
Wolf recalls the legendary '71 team, predicts it would have beaten UCLA for national championship head-to-head
December 10, 2013, 8:03 am·
Jim Wolf was one of the stars on Penn men’s basketball’s 1970-71 team that made it all the way to the NCAA tournament regional final with an undefeated record. But a baffling loss to Villanova gave Penn its first loss of the season.
Years later, Wolf recalls the rivalry between the Wildcats and the Quakers, just how good that 28-1 team was and where his senior-year squad stands in the history of Philadelphia basketball.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: How crucial was the 32-30 win over Villanova your sophomore year in establishing Penn as a national contender once again?
Jim Wolf: We were having an OK year, and we knew we were going to be OK. I think that win showed us that we could be more than OK, I think that win showed us that we could actually be very good. And that we had a chance to start building a new tradition of Penn basketball.
Right after that we went and … played a couple of good teams there. But we were starting four sophomores and a junior, and that was such a big [roadblock] for us from that point forward. We still lost four games in the Ivy League, but we lost to Columbia and Princeton, and they were very, very good teams.
DP: What was the highlight of your senior season?
JW: Beating Villanova again … As a team, beating South Carolina and North Carolina in Raleigh, that was an unbelievable win. They had three All-Americans on that team. They were an unbelievable basketball team, and we just played so well.
DP: How hostile was the Raleigh crowd then in that game?
JW: The hostile crowd was when we played down in West Virginia. That was the crowd that was the hostile [one]. They threw a five-pound bag of sugar at the floor that almost beaned [Athletic Director and then-point guard] Steve Bilsky in the head.
I don’t remember the Raleigh crowd as being quite as hostile as that. It just felt like another game, it wasn’t like we were playing on the road. Of course, South Carolina was closer to Raleigh than we were, but they weren’t a North Carolina up there.
DP: How do you attempt to explain, even now, what happened in the final game of that year against ‘Nova?
JW: You know, I can’t. There’s just no explanation for it. The game in which everybody went flat, and it was tough, and we played the second game the night before and then had to play in the afternoon the next day.
We had the two toughest teams in the East to beat, Duquesne and South Carolina. Villanova had an easier slate. They sort of breezed into it. We gave forth our best efforts to beat Duquesne and South Carolina, and it was a very difficult thing to come back and beat a very good Villanova team even though we’d beaten them three years in a row.
DP: Do you think you were the better team that year than ‘Nova? Would you have beat them in a series?
JW: We were the second or first-best team in the country. I think we were the only team that would have matched up favorably against UCLA. Villanova gave them somewhat of a game in the finals, but we had the all-around scoring that was needed to beat UCLA.
There was no doubt in my mind that we were either the first or second-best team in the nation. Villanova got really hot during the tournament and played really well all of a sudden. I don’t think they had the kind of season they expected.
DP: Do you think Penn could have beaten UCLA head to head?
JW: I think so, I think a lot of people thought we were the team that matched up against them the best.
DP: How was your experience coaching under [Wolf’s coach at Penn during his playing days, Dick] Harter at Oregon?
JW: It made me want to become a high school basketball coach, not a college coach. When we were recruiting and we were at Penn, we did a lot of recruiting of the players that coach Harter and coach Phelps were bringing to campus, I enjoyed that. When I was a coach, I didn’t enjoy the recruiting side as a coach. It just wasn’t for me.
DP: And then you went on to coach in high school?
JW: Yes, I came back to Philadelphia. Marple Newtown High School. And I was the head basketball coach there.
DP: And how long did you stay there?
JW: Well I was there for 10 years. Then I went to Sharon, Pa., where I was a basketball coach and a fitness manager. And my most success at Sharon, came when we were the 20th ranked team in the state during my third year. I had to give it up after three years. Being fitness manager and basketball coach were both big jobs and I was having trouble health-wise.
DP: Where are you based now?
JW: I’m up in Sharon, PA. I retired in 2004. I also coached boy’s tennis and girl’s volleyball through my career and really enjoyed both of those. I raised my family, my two girls and they became pretty good high school athletes in volleyball and swimming.
DP: How would you compare the basketball cultures that you experienced at Penn and Oregon while you were there?
JW: Oregon played in the PAC-8 and had to play UCLA every year. It was different. The culture is really determined by the head coach. And so Harter didn’t change that much, he was successful in recruiting very good players. He knew how to start all over again at Oregon and do the same thing. Since I wasn’t on the players’ side of the court, I don’t know what their experience was like on campus at Oregon.
All I know is that every game was sold out and there were raging crowds. They would boo John Wooden every chance and they even booed his wife. I think the culture was actually better at Oregon before we got there. Oregon had their mascot painted on the basketball court and it was Donald Duck, that was one of the first things Harter did, he got rid of Donald duck. They still have a duck as a mascot but it wasn’t going to be Donald. He really changed the culture there and brought a more experienced approach to basketball.
DP: Do you have any favorite anecdotes from your Penn basketball days that you’d like to share?
JW: I remember kids getting on the bus and if their hair was too long, when we got there Digger would take them to the barbershop and make them get a haircut. That was during the days of longer hair, when I started there. As those years went on, the American culture, we got the longer hair. They would never allow us to have facial hair.
DP: Any thing else you wanted to add?
JW: It’s been like 40 years and very little [attention] and now the past two years there’s been a really nice article in the [Penn] Gazette and The New York Times when Dick Harter passed away [on March 11, 2012]. And now suddenly it’s back again. You can really feel good about your experience, that the people you were with were really good people.
DP: Did you expect the ’71 team to be as remembered and celebrated as it’s been?
JW: I never expect that. I don’t think, even though there have been teams that have broken our record, I still think we’re thought of as the best team ever in Philadelphia and with good reason.