1978 was a turbulent year for Penn men’s basketball, but timely decisions and quick recoveries from tough losses brought an Ivy League title to the Red and Blue. It all began with the unexpected departure of coach Chuck Daly at a November practice in 1977.
“I remember walking off the floor, looking at the guys and saying, ‘He’s gone,'” senior Tom Crowley said.
Losing their coach just three weeks before their first game of the season could have been a recipe for disaster. However, like the remainder of the season and the new era of Penn men’s basketball brought about by Bob Weinhauer, change was a good thing.
"The change really, really helped us," Crowley said. "It sounds like I'm criticizing Coach Daly and I'm not. Coach Daly was a wonderful coach obviously. But Weinhauer took over and the whole atmosphere around the program changed."
Despite the praise Weinhauer deserves for multiple championships, he had a rough start with a narrow loss to Oklahoma.
"Did I feel I was prepared because of my high school career and the four years I spent with Chuck Daly? Sure," Weinhauer, who was only 37 when he got the job, said. "Was I nervous? Hell yes."
What Weinbauer lacked in experience, he made up for with a high-octane offense that took the league by storm.
The team was led by senior tri-captains Crowley, Keven McDonald, and Stan Green. Weinbauer’s decision to open the floor allowed these three to shoot nearly 50% from the field and average more than 80 points per game combined. This was a remarkable feat in a pre-shot clock, pre-three-point era.
“We were just learning to recognize how good we could be,” Weinhauer said. “It was a great team because we were willing to play together as a team and put all individual thoughts aside. I thought we did a great job of setting the tone for every game.”
McDonald noted Weinhauer was “more involved on a personal level,” which had an immediate impact. McDonald fueled the offense, averaging a prolific 22.3 points per game. This led to unprecedented performances like the 88-71 win over Southern California, when McDonald poured in 28 points. What followed in a 78-63 win at Princeton cemented the Quakers as Ivy League favorites.
“This was one of the worst lickings we’ve ever taken by Penn, at least since I’ve been here,” legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril said.
Scoring 78 points against Princeton, a team that slowed Penn down the previous two seasons, warranted comments like “let me tell you something: that may be the best win by a Penn team at Princeton, ever” by Weinhauer, and “it was the best win in the 70s” by Crowley.
The Quakers swept the Tigers in Weinhauer’s first year, with the second win, by a score of 49-44, even more thrilling than the first.
“That one right there, that was the thing that turned the Palestra upside down,” Weinhauer said.
Junior Tony Price made decisive free throws in the final seconds of the game after a technical foul by Princeton's Bob Roma.
“It was a rough-and-tumble game,” McDonald said. “The game sort of teetering on the edge of a brawl. It was just raucous the whole game. You could hardly hear yourself. The last couple minutes of the game symbolized that team, just the resolve that we’re winning this thing and going to get to the tournament.”
This was easier said than done, as the path to the Ivy League title was a grueling one, literally and figuratively speaking. The Quakers traveled through the Blizzard of 1978 in the back of National Guard army trucks to blow out Brown, 108-73, a day after giving Yale the same treatment, 96-78. McDonald put up historic numbers with 36 points in each game.
“It’s important for us to continue the great Penn tradition of being one of the best teams in the country and making the NCAA Tournament,” McDonald said after the Yale-Brown trip.
After their great run, Penn fell to 11-2 in conference play with their first defeat against Harvard and a gut-wrenching 88-84 loss to Columbia. The Quakers secured the Ivy title and broke the tie with the Lions with a comfortable win against Cornell and an assist from Princeton, which took down Columbia.
Penn's postseason included a respectable performance in the NCAA Tournament, but the Quakers were looking for even more. McDonald and the Red and Blue were poised for a deep run after a first-round 92-83 victory against Saint Bonaventure, but surrendered an eight-point lead against Duke in the second round and lost by a score of 84-80.
“It was a great season,” McDonald said. “But for a few bounces of the ball, we had a legitimate shot of going to the Final Four.”
From the transition to Weinhauer as coach to the unforgettable performances against Princeton, the 1978 team built a foundation for successful Penn teams over the next several seasons. The 1979 Quakers are the last Ivy League team to reach the Final Four.
“I think it was an important connector to the ‘79 team,” Crowley said. “It was a tremendous team, but ‘78 was kind of the year we got our swagger back.”