Legendary coach dead at 93
November 18, 2008
BERKELEY, Calif. ” Pete Newell coached his last game nearly a half-century ago, but his impact on basketball is felt at the game’s highest level even today.
The beloved Hall of Fame coach, who won an NCAA championship and an Olympic gold medal, and who later tutored some of the game’s greatest big men, died Monday. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by the University of California, the school Newell coached to a national title in 1959. Newell, who had been living near San Diego, had a serious lung operation in 2005.
“I just don’t think anybody has contributed more to my life in more ways than Pete Newell did,” said Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight, Division I’s all-time victory leader, who coached three NCAA champions and also won Olympic gold. “Jerry West and I had a very tearful conversation about an hour after Pete had passed away this morning and I think Jerry felt exactly the same about Pete as I did.”
Newell died at about 10:45 a.m. in Rancho Santa Fe at the home of retired Dr. Earl Shultz, who played for Newell at Cal and had watched over him for the last several years.
Shultz said Newell had a meeting scheduled with West and a writer who was working on a book on West, who played for Newell’s 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball team.
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Newell coached for 14 years at San Francisco, Michigan State and California before doctors advised him to give it up because of the emotional toll. His final coaching job came in the 1960 Olympics, when he took a U.S. team led by Oscar Robertson, West and Jerry Lucas on a dominant run to a gold medal in Rome.
Newell later returned to prominence with his famous “big men” camps. He instructed some of the game’s greatest stars, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Shaquille O’Neal and Ralph Sampson.
Among Newell’s biggest admirers was Knight, whose teams practiced Newell’s style of patient, disciplined offense and tenacious, hardworking defense.
“Pete was a second father to both Jerry and myself and while I think that we’re awfully saddened by the passing I think that we can both feel extremely good about the relationship that we had with this basketball giant over most of our entire careers,” Knight said. “Nobody contributed more to the game and its history than Pete.”
Newell was born in Canada but grew up in Los Angeles. His mother envisioned an acting career for her son, and he appeared in several movies including “The Kid,” which made a star of Jackie Coogan.
He attended what is now Loyola Marymount University and served in the Navy during World War II.
“He’s 93. He had a wonderful life, and it was just old age,” Shultz said. “His health was not good, because they had removed two-thirds of his lung and he had smoked for many years. It was starting to be a real struggle for him physically. He was getting more weak and dwindling away a little bit.”
In 1946 he took a job at a small Catholic school, the University of San Francisco, coaching basketball as well as baseball, golf and tennis. The Dons won the National Invitation Tournament in 1949, when it was considered at least the equal of the NCAA tournament.
Following four seasons at USF, the last concluding with a return to the NIT, Newell moved to Michigan State. His best season there was 1952-53, when the Spartans went 13-9 overall and finished third in the Big Ten.
In 1954, Newell was hired at California. The Bears won four consecutive conference titles and made two trips to the Final Four, capturing the NCAA tournament in 1959.
The starless Bears had to beat two future Hall of Famers on their way to the championship. In the semifinals they defeated Robertson and Cincinnati 64-58. Then in the final, Cal beat West Virginia, which was led by West.
Showing it was no fluke, the Bears beat both teams again the following season with West and Robertson still in college. Cal topped West Virginia 65-45 in a holiday tournament and knocked off Cincinnati 77-69 in the Final Four.
Cal lost the 1960 championship game 75-55 to Ohio State, which was led by Lucas, John Havlicek and Knight.
Emotionally high strung, Newell lived on coffee, cigarettes and little else during the season. He was told by doctors to leave full-time coaching, which he did in 1960 at age 44. His overall record was 234-123, and he beat UCLA’s John Wooden the last eight times they met.
Newell ended his coaching career in the Olympics, when the U.S. team won every game by at least 24 points.
“He probably impacted more people when he left coaching,” said Jeff Fellenzer, the former tournament director and president of the Pete Newell Challenge. “He really reinvented himself. He never took a dime working those camps. He wanted to send a message to the NBA players it wasn’t about money.”
Newell served as athletic director at Cal from 1960-68, a turbulent era on the Berkeley campus. He worked for several NBA teams in a variety of capacities. He was general manager of the Rockets when they were in San Diego and orchestrated the trade that brought Abdul-Jabbar to Los Angeles when he ran the Lakers. He later was a consultant to the Warriors and a scout for the Cavaliers.
Newell is in part to credit for coming up with the “Golden State” name for the Warriors when they moved across San Francisco Bay to Oakland.
“This is obviously a very sad day for the game of basketball, whether you are associated with the NBA, college or high school ranks,” said Warriors coach Don Nelson, who knew Newell for more than 50 years.
“Pete was a great coach and a great man who had the ability to relate to players and people on every level. A countless number of coaches and players benefited from Pete’s tutelage over the years ” including those who attended his specialized camps each summer ” and will be indebted to him for the expertise and wisdom that he provided.”
Newell is survived by sons Pete Jr., Roger, Tom and Greg, and four grandchildren.
AP Basketball Writer Jim O’Connell in New York and AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this story.