Resur­gence on Hill­top

His­tory of pro­gram provides con­text for Smith, Dons

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - SPORTING GREEN - BRUCE JENK­INS

Hail the re­vival and call up the echoes.

It must come as a shock, to some, that the USF men’s bas­ket­ball team drew na­tional at­ten­tion for its West Coast Con­fer­ence matchup Satur­day against fifth-ranked Gon­zaga. When a pro­gram has spent decades in the shad­ows, it tends to be roundly dis­missed. But head coach Kyle Smith’s team is no fluke, rolling to a 14-2 record with vic­to­ries over Cal, Stan­ford and a long­time con­fer­ence neme­sis, St. Mary’s, along the way.

And it’s about time. Taken as a whole, the Dons’ pro­gram is rich in his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, for­ever buck­ing the odds against schools with in­fin­itely greater re­sources.

Picture a bunch of World War II vet­er­ans tak­ing the court at sto­ried Madi­son Square Gar­den and win­ning the 1949 NIT cham­pi­onship un­der head coach Pete Newell. That was con­sid­ered more pres­ti­gious than the NCAA Tour­na­ment at the time, and if any­thing was more sur­pris­ing than the Dons’ great tri­umph — chang­ing the way East Coast fans viewed the game — it was the sight of Newell, mak­ing all of $3,600 a year, con­duct­ing prac­tices in a run­down gym­na­sium. (The USF cam­pus was in such a dis­man­tled state after the war, it was com­monly called “The Rock­pile.”)

Shift now to the mid-’50s, when Newell’s suc­ces­sor, Phil Woolpert, re­fused to ac­knowl­edge a cli­mate of seg­re­ga­tion and ig­no­rance at every

level of the game. Start­ing three African Amer­i­can play­ers — K.C. Jones, Hal Perry

and the in­com­pa­ra­ble Bill Rus­sell — Woolpert en­gi­neered back-to-back NCAA ti­tles (1955 and ’56) and had a 60-game win­ning streak along the way.

It’s fairly com­mon knowl­edge that the USF teams of the late ’70s and early ’80s, fea­tur­ing Bill Cartwright, James Hardy, Win­ford Boynes and Quintin Dai­ley, were as trou­bled as they were tal­ented, leading to NCAA-en­forced pro­ba­tion, in­di­vid­ual run-ins with the law and even­tu­ally a three-year shut­down of the pro­gram (1982-85). But there’s so much more to the story.

Over the years, the Dons sent Fred La­cour, Joe El­lis, Phil Smith, Kevin Res­tani and Eric Fern­sten to the NBA, among many oth­ers. Oak­land-raised Don Lof­gran,

the high-fly­ing star of Newell’s ’49 team, had a one-handed jump shot that struck many as pure in­no­va­tion. Rus­sell’s teams rep­re­sented the pin­na­cle, but USF reached the NCAA Tour­na­ment three straight years in the Six­ties (1963-65) and eight times be­tween 1972 and ’82.

Ex­cite­ment has re­turned to the Hill­top. It’s a cool place to be — and for those with the sea­soned view, that is pleas­antly fa­mil­iar.

Change in the air

Ad­mir­ing Smith’s clever schemes, and alarmed by the dis­ap­point­ing Cal pro­gram un­der head coach Wyk­ing Jones, Bay Area in­sid­ers wouldn’t be sur­prised to see Smith in charge of the Bears’ pro­gram be­fore long ... Gon­zaga for­ward Rui Hachimura is an in­ter­est­ing player not just by the num­bers (20.8 points per game). The son of a Beni­nese fa­ther and Ja­panese mother, he grew up in a coastal town out­side Tokyo, didn’t start play­ing bas­ket­ball un­til he was 13, and be­gan speak­ing English only three years ago. “We get a lot of tapes” on the re­cruit­ing trail, said Few, “and here’s a guy from Ja­pan. But then you put your eyes on him, and you’re like, whoa. We’d bet­ter look into it.” With Tokyo due to host the 2020 Olympics, he’s the cen­ter­piece of that coun­try’s quest to qual­ify for the bas­ket­ball com­pe­ti­tion for the first time since 1976 ... With the Premier League soc­cer sea­son so sub­stan­tially cov­ered by the NBC sports net­works, it’s great to hear that Chris­tian Pulisic is trans­fer­ring from Borus­sia Dort­mund (Ger­many) to Chelsea. He’s only 20 and surely will be the high­est­pro­file Amer­i­can ever to play over­seas. Chelsea in­vari­ably fields a top-level squad, and there could be pure magic if Eden Haz­ard sticks around (he’s ru­mored to be leav­ing for Real Madrid) and teams with Pulisic ... For those who missed “Split End: The Cu­ri­ous Case of War­ren Wells”

Satur­day night, take note that there will be an en­core pre­sen­ta­tion at 8:30 p.m. Jan. 24 on NBC Sports Bay Area. Among the fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries told: Wells and Otis Tay­lor, two of the great­est deep threats the game has ever known, were to­gether in Kansas City camp in 1967. The Chiefs let Wells go and Raiders owner Al Davis

didn’t hes­i­tate to pick him up.

It’s prob­a­bly not wise to sug­gest that Kyler Mur­ray

could be part of a rev­o­lu­tion in the NFL, fea­tur­ing quar­ter­backs who rely heav­ily on their run­ning abil­ity. Fran Tarken­ton and Roger Staubach were mind-blow­ing scram­blers, but there’s no fu­ture in that. Michael Vick in­spired a lot of young run­ning quar­ter­backs, but he wasn’t an in­stru­ment of change. There was talk of Colin Kaeper­nick, Robert Grif­fin III, An­drew Luck and

Rus­sell Wil­son rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing the po­si­tion when they en­tered the league, but the old ways — run only when nec­es­sary — even­tu­ally pre­vailed. Now there’s Bal­ti­more’s

Lamar Jack­son, who re­minds many of Mur­ray with his blind­ing speed, but his quar­ter­back rat­ing (84.5) ranked with the worst among starters this sea­son ... En­joyed this take from ESPN’s Keith Law ,on his Hall of Fame bal­lot: “We can put in in­fe­rior play­ers be­cause their friends are on the var­i­ous com­mit­tees. We can put in Bud Selig, who over­saw a work stop­page that nearly killed the in­dus­try, then hap­pily looked the other way while per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs ap­peared in the game and the own­ers counted their money. We can cer­tainly put in

Barry Bonds.”

Scott Straz­zante/The Chron­i­cle 2018 (in­set); Bettmann Archive 1955

Nate Ren­fro, in­set, and his team­mates are try­ing to re­turn USF to promi­nence. The Dons, led by Bill Rus­sell (hold­ing tro­phy), won back-to-back na­tional ti­tles in the 1950s and rolled to a then-record 60 straight wins.

Wil­liam Mancebo / Getty Im­ages

Head coach Mark Few and Gon­zaga are ranked fifth.

Pe­ter Mor­ri­son / As­so­ci­ated Press 2018

USF se­nior point guard Frankie Fer­rari leads the WCC in as­sist-to-turnover ra­tio (3.6-to-1).

Robert Hous­ton / As­so­ci­ated Press 1956

Rus­sell (left) and team cap­tain K.C. Jones led the Dons to their sec­ond straight na­tional ti­tle in 1956.

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