Underappreciated Pete Padgett set foundation for Wolf Pack basketball

Pete Padgett during his time as Carson High's coach.

Pete Padgett during his time as Carson High's coach.

Pete Padgett simply personified the essence of Nevada Wolf Pack basketball.
Classic short shorts and low-cut sneakers. White tube socks pulled up midway between the ankles and knees. A menacing horseshoe mustache. A flurry of elbows and knees, shedding opponents off his back on the way to yet another rebound.

That image of Padgett is as Wolf Pack iconic as the arch and neon are to downtown Reno. Padgett, arguably the hardest-working basketball player in Wolf Pack history, was the Biggest Little Rebounder in the World.
Pugnacious Pete. The ultimate leader. A silver and blue-collar player.
“When you are a little bit limited you have to figure out something,” Padgett told the Reno Gazette-Journal two decades ago. “Intimidator? I’ve been told that. Maybe there was truth to it. I enjoyed contact.”
Padgett, who coached the Carson Senators boys’ basketball team for 15 years, wrote the book on contact.

“He would throw the elbows and intimidate you,” former Pack head coach and assistant Jack Spencer said two decades ago. “It was always a battle.”
That was college basketball in the 1970s. You either battled or joined the French Club. “It always seemed like there were battles when I played,” Pete said three decades ago.

Jim Croce’s Bad, Bad Leroy Brown had nothing on Pete Padgett in the 1970s.
“Battle Pete Padgett for a rebound and you’re likely to come out looking like you have a couple of pieces gone.

“He was tough, hard-nosed,” said Padgett teammate Chalmer Dillard in 1997. “He didn’t back down from anyone.”

The Wolf Pack recently honored basketball player Jazz Johnson with the Doc Martie Award, honoring the guard as the senior male athlete of the year for 2019-20. Each May, when the award is handed out, it brings to mind Padgett, the 1976 winner and, for many who saw him play, quite likely the most iconic Doc Martie Award winner in the school’s history.

Padgett never missed a game in his career, playing 104 in a row. He had a school-record 1,464 rebounds, over 200 more than anybody else in school history to this day. Padgett averaged a double-double in each of his four seasons (15.8 points, 14.1 rebounds for his career) and is the only player in school history with at least 1,400 points scored and 1,400 rebounds. He has the most double-doubles (72) in school history.

Padgett, even more importantly, was also the unquestioned heart and soul of the Pack basketball program and was a captain all four years. Off the court he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and earned a master’s degree in education administration a couple years later.
Doc Martie, Pack hoops coach in the 1920s and 30s, would have loved him. Padgett, after all, would have been as tough and productive in 1920 as he would have been in 2020. He just might be the quintessential Wolf Pack athlete.

“I worked at rebounding,” Padgett told the Gazette-Journal three decades ago. “It’s not a part of the game that’s highly glamorous. But I knew I had to rebound if we were going to be competitive.”

Glamorous is a word that has never been attached to Pete Padgett. Competitive, though, was stamped on his forehead. Although he had plenty of help from talented teammates like Mike Mardian, Perry Campbell, Dave Webber, Marvin Buckley, Mike Larios, Joey Schmidt and Edgar Jones, Padgett’s presence (and elbows) made sure the Wolf Pack would be competitive. They didn’t win often (just 43-61 over four years) but those 43 wins should have warranted a Pack parade down Virginia Street. The program that Padgett stepped into, after all, lost its last 20 games from the previous season, had not enjoyed even a two-game winning streak in three years and was 10-64 over its first three years in Division I.

“We didn’t get as many wins as we would have liked,” Padgett said in 1976. “But we laid the foundation for Nevada basketball. We did the heavy work.”
The losing, unfortunately, is why Padgett’s remarkable Wolf Pack career has never been fully appreciated. Yes, he is in the Wolf Pack Hall of Fame (inducted in 1988) but the university has yet to even retire his No. 44 jersey, which is sort of like Chicago’s O’Hare Airport using Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis to carry commuters back and forth to Detroit four times a day.

Padgett also had a love-hate relationship with Wolf Pack fans, maybe more so than any other player who wore the silver and blue. He was, after all, the coach’s son.

Coach Jim Padgett and freshman Pete Padgett were a package deal when they came to Nevada in April 1972 from the Bay Area. “A lot of people say the only reason I played so much here was because of my father,” Padgett told the Gazette-Journal in February 1976.

Padgett’s Pack played in the Centennial Coliseum where fans were so close the players could hear the popcorn being chewed.
“No Pack player was ever booed more by the home fans,” wrote the Gazette-Journal’s Steve Sneddon, who witnessed Padgett’s entire Wolf Pack career.
Padgett finished third in the nation in rebounding in 1972-73 (17.8 a game) and fifth in the nation the following year (15.2) but an April 1975 Gazette-Journal story reported Wolf Pack fans were not shy about shouting toward the bench, “Take him out, Dad.”
It wasn’t easy being Pete.

“It’s (playing for his father) been good for me in a lot of ways and bad in a lot of ways,” Padgett told the Gazette-Journal in 1976. “I’d be lying if I told you it wasn’t tough at times. It was tough on all of us. My mom, my brothers. My mom had to sit in the stands and listen to it.

“It’s not that I regret it. It’s just that it puts a lot of pressure on everyone involved. Me, my father, the other players. I don’t think I would go through it again. I was too sensitive to criticism. And I didn’t get along too well with some of the other players.”

Padgett stayed four years at Nevada with his father despite the losing and the unfair expectations and criticisms and became a Wolf Pack and Northern Nevada icon.

How good of a player was Pete Padgett? Let’s just say the Wolf Pack should give its Most Valuable Player each year a trophy that depicts the guy described above with the short shorts, low-cut sneakers and mustache.
Padgett is the undisputed best rebounder in the history of the school. And it’s not even close. He has pulled down the sixth-most rebounds in the history of Division I college basketball for those players who played in 1972-73 and after. He is the seventh leading scorer in school history with 1,642 points. He is also the best passing big man in school history. His 389 career assists are ninth in school history and the eight players ahead of him are all point guards. He had a double-double in 70 percent of the games he played.
When Padgett left Nevada he was arguably the best player in school history. He was first in career rebounds, second in scoring, first in games played, first in assists, first in free throws (attempted and made) and would have likely led in blocks if the NCAA kept track of such things at the time.

The elbows, toughness and grit were just a bonus to the entire Padgett package. He was much more than a thug in a tank top, mustache, short shorts and low-cut sneakers. Pete Padgett didn’t need his dad to get playing time.

Padgett just might have been the Wolf Pack’s first four or five-star recruit in school history, if such silly labels existed back in 1972.

Padgett was one of the best high school players in Northern California playing for Del Valle High in Livermore in the Foothill Athletic League. And, no, his dad didn’t coach him in high school. Jim, after all, was the head coach for the California Golden Bears, which is when pressure first attached itself to Pete Padgett. You try playing high school basketball in the Bay Area when your dad is the coach of the Cal Golden Bears.

Padgett averaged 24.2 points a game his senior year and was named to the Oakland Tribune’s All East-Bay First Team. He averaged 23.6 points and 15.6 rebounds for his high school career. He capped off his high school career by pulling down 11 rebounds in the prestigious North-South California All Star game at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.

Everyone assumed he was going to play forward or center at Cal for his dad. But Jim Padgett went 52-53 in four years at Cal (eight of the losses were to John Wooden and the UCLA dynasty) and resigned in April 1972.
Two weeks later the Padgetts were on their way to Northern Nevada. Pete Padgett, of course, was the key piece to the Wolf Pack’s recruiting class in late April 1972.

“The Pack signed one of the most sought-after basketball players in Northern California in Pete Padgett, son of Nevada head coach Jim Padgett,” wrote the Gazette-Journal.

Jim Padgett would earn $16,050 in his first season as Pack coach, about half as much as Steve Alford earned for each of his 31 games this past season. That $16,050 was a steal even in 1972 considering it included a 6-8 freshman from Del Valle High.

The younger Padgett was recruited by almost every Pac-8 school as well as LSU. But family has always been the top priority in the Padgett household. So Pete came to the Pack.

The Gazette-Journal called Padgett the Pack’s “first true Division I basketball player,” based on the fact that Nevada had played just three years in Division I.

“He could have gone anyplace he wanted to go,” Jim Padgett said of his 6-8, 220-pound son. “He had a lot of offers.”

The Padgett family lived near Lake Tahoe when they first left the Bay Area in the spring of 1972. When asked at the annual Governor’s Dinner in Carson City in July 1972 about his son, Jim Padgett said, “He’s riding a motorcycle all over the Lake Tahoe area. But don’t worry. We’ll lock it up when the weather turns bad.”

The 6-foot-8, 18-year-old Padgett was more Peter Fonda in Easy Rider while riding his motorcycle than he was a Hell’s Angel. Until he stepped on the court, that is.

Pete Padgett came by his toughness and grit honestly. Jim Padgett, after all, was one of the roughest, toughest, no-nonsense coaches on the west coast after cutting his coaching teeth in the Bay Area for more than a decade at the high school, junior college and Division I level. Jim was 6-4, 225 pounds, played college basketball at Oregon State after World War II and later served two years in the Air Force during the Korean War.

“Coaches who knew him as a player kid him about his ‘hatchet-man’ days but nobody challenges him to arm wrestle,” the Gazette-Journal wrote in 1972.

As Jim Croce said, you don’t mess around with Jim. During his first Nevada press conference the elder Padgett said, “This (the Wolf Pack) is the state university. That branch office down south (UNLV) is not the state university.”

That tough, take-a-backseat-to-nobody attitude captured Northern Nevada perfectly.

Pete Padgett then proceeded to turn in arguably the greatest freshman season in Wolf Pack history. He had a double-double in eight of his first nine games. He had a school-record 29 rebounds against Sacramento State on Jan. 2, 1973 and broke the record with 30 six weeks later against Loyola Marymount. There was a 23-point, 24-rebound performance against Utah State in late January, 10 days after a 25-rebound showing in a win over St. Mary’s. The Wolf Pack went to the Padgett’s old neighborhood in Berkeley on Jan. 22, 1973 and lost to Cal, 88-71. But it was the Pack’s first game against either Cal or Stanford since 1946 and Pete had another double-double (17 points, 11 rebounds).

But Nevada, the Padgetts quickly found out, was not Cal. The Pack played the entire 1972-73 season with a jersey that read Wolfpack (one word) across the front because of a manufacturer’s error. The Pack was Division I in name only.

“We’re starting from scratch,” Jim Padgett said.

And it all started with the freshman center Pete Padgett had 14 points and 13 rebounds in his first college game against Seattle-Pacific.
“He’s going to be a heck of a player,” said Seattle-Pacific coach Les Habegger, a future NBA assistant coach and general manager. “He’s the best freshman I’ve seen in a long time.”

Padgett had 22 points, 23 rebounds and eight assists against Portland State in his seventh college game.

“That’s the greatest game you’ve ever played in your life,” father Jim told son Pete as they walked off the floor.

The 18-year-old Padgett was as consistent as the Sierra winds. He closed out his freshman year with 34 points and 19 boards in a win over St. Mary’s for his eighth double-double in a row.

It was the first year that freshmen were eligible to play on the varsity since the early years of the Korean War and Padgett made the most of it. He was named to the All-West Coast Athletic Conference Second Team and was picked as the Freshman of the Year.

Jim Padgett was named the WCAC Coach of the Year despite the Pack’s 10-16 record. He is still the conference’s (now named the West Coast Conference) only coach in history to win the award with a losing record.

Pete’s 17.8 rebounding average in 1972-73 is still a Wolf Pack single-season record as are his 462 rebounds that season. His 395 rebounds the following year are still the second most. That 17.8 rebounding average also remains the most in NCAA history for a freshman.

Not currently listed in the NCAA record book for freshmen, however, are Padgett’s 30 rebounds against Loyola Marymount or his 29 against Sacramento State as well as his 22 double-doubles. The NCAA record book lists all players with 27 or more rebounds in a game since 1972-1973 as well as all freshmen with 17 or more double-doubles in a season but Padgett is not listed.

The Nevada Appeal, though, recently contacted the NCAA about Padgett’s missing statistics and was informed that those records will now be included in future record books.

“I cannot find a reason why he is not included,” wrote J.D. Hamilton of the NCAA in an e-mail. “I will include him in the book this year.”
The Pack started Padgett’s sophomore year by beating Stanford and LSU. Padgett had 20 points and 11 boards against Stanford and seven points, 10 assists and 20 rebounds against LSU. It is, without question, the greatest two-game start to any Pack season.

Padgett then had 11 points and 24 rebounds against Sacramento State in the middle of December. “For Pete, with his capabilities, that was a normal night’s work for him,” Jim Padgett said.

Padgett started his sophomore year with 12 double-doubles in his first 13 games, giving him double-doubles in 20-of-21 games over the last two seasons. That season Seattle coach Bill O’Connor said, “He’s as fine a board man as there is in the country.“

“He’s a guy keeping me employed,” Jim Padgett said after 1973-74. “He’s putting groceries on the table.”

After the season Pete revealed that he developed an ulcer late in his sophomore year. He also got married that August. Everything he did was news.

A trip to Southern California in the middle of Padgett’s junior year, though, proved to be a disaster for both Padgetts. Pete had six points and eight rebounds and fouled out in a 91-76 loss at Pepperdine and the following night at Loyola Marymount had six points and three rebounds in a 109-84 loss.

He was ejected midway through the first half against Loyola Marymount after getting into a fight with the Lions’ Don Jackson. Padgett and Jackson, according to newspaper reports that were printed all over the country, battled for position and Padgett took a swing at Jackson. The two traded punches, landed in a heap on the court and Padgett suffered a cut over one eye.

Jim Padgett, presumably going out on the court to break up the fight, ended up throwing a punch of his own and hitting Jackson.

You don’t, after all, mess around with Jim’s son. Both players and the Pack coach were ejected. Nobody, though, was suspended or missed any games. College basketball in the 1970s was a grown man’s game.

Pete, though, seemed to flick it all off his back the way he removed opponents trying to beat him to a rebound. Two games later, in a 77-68 loss to San Francisco in Reno, Padgett had 20 points and 22 rebounds and became the fourth player in school history to go over 1,000 career points.
“I didn’t even know about it until I read it in the paper this morning,” said Padgett, who became the first in Pack history to go over 1,000 rebounds 10 days before at Pepperdine. “Of course I’d be happier with a win.”

Padgett had 19 points and 11 rebounds against UNLV and 21 points and 12 rebounds against Houston in back-to-back games in late January just a couple weeks after the Marymount incident.

The Pack took on Seattle at home on Feb. 1, 1975. A few Pack fans, some of which were reportedly members of the Pack football team, sat behind the Seattle bench and heckled the players and coaches. During one timeout the fans got up and stood menacingly right behind the bench. One Seattle player then threw a chair.

Jim Padgett, who would have been fired and barred from ever coaching again in the WCAC because of what happened at Loyola, stayed out of it. Pete Padgett and Wolf Pack athletic director Dick Trachok, a former Pack football player and head coach who fought in World War II, then bravely went over to the altercation and promptly calmed things down. Nobody, after all, messed with Pete Padgett when he was wearing his short shorts and low-cut sneakers, not even excitable Pack fans. It might have been Padgett’s greatest show of leadership in his Pack career.

“It was pretty typical of him,” Jim Padgett said after the game. “He’s always in position of taking on the most physical player on the other team. The fact he stepped in right there with a cool head is what I’ve always seen him do.”
In the rematch in Reno with Pepperdine in late February Padgett had 27 points and 16 rebounds in an 86-76 loss.

“Pete was killing us,” Pepperdine coach Gary Colson said. “I didn’t even want us to shoot.”

The season, the fights and near-fights, the continued losing (the Pack was 10-16 in 1974-75), took a toll on Padgett.

“I felt like I was dying out there,” said Padgett, who battled the flu the week before the final game of the year against UNLV when he had 11 points, 17 rebounds and six blocks. After three Nevada seasons Padgett had played 78 games and averaged 15.3 rebounds.

“I felt like I played 78 games just this season,” Padgett said.
It was a year of maturity and growth for Padgett, now nearly 21 years old and married. “I learned to get along with my teammates and it was one of the most enjoyable things of my life,” he said.

Padgett’s senior season marked the arrival of center Edgar Jones. The Pack improved to 12-14 and even had its first winning season (7-5) in WCAC games as Jones averaged 17.6 points and 10 rebounds a game and Padgett turned in 16.1 and 10.5.

One of the highlights of the year took place Jan. 3, 1976 when USC paid a visit to the Coliseum. Jones had 21 points and 12 boards and Padgett had 16 and nine but USC stole an 88-87 overtime victory in front of 6,000 fans, the largest Pack crowd in history at the time.

Padgett had 25 points and 16 rebounds in a 120-98 loss to UNLV in late January in front of a standing-room only home crowd of 6,224. Legendary Rebel coach Jerry Tarkanian summed up Padgett’s entire career that night.
“Pete is the most underrated performer on the west coast,” Tarkanian said. “If he gets 15 boards the people expect it. If he has 12 they think it’s a bad night. If one of my boys got 12 I’d give him a big kiss.”

The Pack beat Seattle at home 90-83 in Padgett’s last game. Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan made a special presentation to Padgett before the game. Padgett then went out and put up 22 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.
Padgett would end up leading the WCAC in rebounding all four seasons, the first in the conference’s history to do so. He was also named to the All-WCAC First Team his final three seasons.

“We played some pretty good teams and he didn’t miss a game,” Jim Padgett said. “He was in there game in and game out against the best college teams this country has to offer. He was the best I ever coached, top to bottom, start to finish.”

Jim Padgett would resign as Pack coach in early June 1976 at the age of 45, about the same time as Pete was getting drafted in the sixth round by the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA. Jim would run two clothing stores he owned in Reno, was the assistant general manager of the Shy Clown Casino in Reno and later become the educational supervisor for Nevada state prisons in Carson City.

Pete, who was cut a few months later by the Hawks, wasn’t done with the Pack. He returned in 1976-77 to finish his degree and pitch for the Pack baseball team.

Padgett was as menacing on the mound as he was on the court. He was big and strong with a fastball that had a mind of its own. He was drafted his senior year in high school in the 11th round by the Houston Astros and in the third round of the January 1977 draft by the New York Yankees despite pitching just one inning the past four years (his freshman year) for the Pack.

“He’s just now learning how to pitch,” Wolf Pack baseball coach Barry McKinnon said in March 1977.

Padgett received his bachelor’s degree and diploma on the morning of May 14, 1977 and then went out that afternoon and pitched a five-hitter against San Jose State. He pitched 66 innings for the 1977 Wolf Pack, going 3-4 with 42 strikeouts and 44 walks and an ERA of 6.41. The Detroit Tigers then picked him 52nd overall in early June in a special draft of players that had been drafted before but did not sign a contract.

“I might try the coaching end of it,” Padgett said in the spring of 1977. “I hope to go wherever I can get on and get a job.”

That just so happened to be Carson City where Padgett became head coach Tom Andreason’s basketball assistant in the fall of 1977. Three years later Padgett replaced Andreason as the Senators’ head coach and won a zone title in his first year with a team that included Craig Allison, future major league pitcher Charlie Kerfeld and Chris Padgett, his brother. His second zone title was his final year as coach of the Senators in 1995.

Padgett’s scrappy Senator teams averaged 17 wins a year in Padgett’s 15 seasons and became a reflection of their hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach. Padgett, with his father Jim often sitting behind him in the Carson High stands, would compile an impressive 256-141 record with the Senators, also winning five division championships.

Padgett became the Reno Huskies coach in 1995-96 where he would later coach his son David and keep a close eye on his daughter Melissa. David Padgett would turn out to be 6-foot-11 and arguably the best college basketball player ever born in Northern Nevada. David, who showed typical Padgett grit and determination while battling numerous injuries during his high school and college career, went on to play at Kansas and Louisville and even led Louisville to 22 victories as an interim head coach in 2017-18.

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to call the Padgetts Northern Nevada’s unofficial First Family of Basketball. You certainly cannot, after all, write the history of Wolf Pack or Northern Nevada high school basketball without the Padgetts.

It all began when Jim, whose mother stood 6-feet-tall, played high school basketball in Oklahoma and later became a teacher, came to the Wolf Pack with his son in the spring of 1972. Pete’s brothers Jim and Chris each were standout players. Pete coached Chris at Carson High and Jim Jr. had a solid career for the Huskies from 1972-75.

Pete was a high school coach for 25 seasons at Carson and Reno High, winning 373 games. He was named to the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association Hall of Fame in 2014.

Pete’s son David and his daughter Melissa each played four memorable seasons for Reno High. Melissa, a 6-2 senior when David was a freshman in 1999-00, went on to play at the University of San Diego and later became a teacher and coach.

“They all care for each other so much,” said Dave Christiansen, a close Padgett family friend as well as Pete’s assistant at Carson and Reno. It was Christiansen who coached Reno High for one year (2000-01) when Pete became an assistant coach at UC Santa Barbara before returning to Reno for David’s final two seasons.

“You know, it’s a strange web we’ve created,” Pete said in 1998, when David was in junior high school. “I played for my dad, I coached (brother) Chris at Carson. My brother Jim played for Reno High and now I’m watching Melissa play for Reno.”

Jim Padgett obviously influenced Pete Padgett who, in turn, influenced dozens of coaches and hundreds of players in Northern Nevada.
“Maybe we had an influence on basketball in Northern Nevada,” Pete Padgett said in 2003 after announcing his retirement from high school coaching. “Maybe we didn’t.”

Padgett’s basketball influence on the Wolf Pack, unfortunately, ended in March 1976. After Padgett earned his master’s degree in 1977 the Pack has hired eight head coaches and none of them were named Padgett.
“Someday I would like to be the basketball coach up at the university,” Padgett told the Gazette-Journal in August 1976.

Padgett, though, didn’t need the Wolf Pack to have a professional life in basketball. More than three decades later, after the death of his father in 2009, Padgett was quoted as saying, “I’m still a basketball junkie.”

Padgett, who moved to Kentucky to advise David during Louisville’s 2017-18 season, was a coach’s son who turned out to be his brother’s and son’s coach. Cut him open and look at his heart and you’ll likely find it is orange, perfectly round, made of rubber or leather, can bounce and has Wilson or Spalding stamped across the front.

“I think basketball was our life,” Padgett said after his dad passed away at the age of 79. “That’s pretty much what we were and are, and that’s basketball people.

“He (Jim Padgett) had a long career and he always used to tell me, ‘You’re always a coach.’”


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