Bay Area college basketball legend Pete Newell died yesterday at age 93. We’re not nearly old enough to have ever seen the coach in action, but we do remember him fondly for a couple of different reasons.
The first is the Pete Newell Challenge, a two game event played in Oakland (and later San Jose) during the holidays, which provided some major league matchups and great moments, the most well publicized being Tiger Woods leaping out of his courtside seat behind Casey Jacobsen after he nailed a three to ice an upset over Duke. The Challenge would inevitably include a between game tribute, where the dignified, kind-looking Newell would shuffle out and acknowledge the crowd.
The other memory I have of Newell is a meeting during a long O’Hare layover with Tandy Gillis, who played on Pete Newell’s 1959 National Championship team at Cal, and who my father professed had one of the best jumpshots he had ever seen (Of course dad was a 6’3” rebounder who probably never took a shot outside of ten feet, but still…) Gillis, a coach himself, spoke reverentially about Newell. He joked that Newell was the only person around whom Bobby Knight didn’t talk like he was the lead in a Mamet play. Apparently Knight was also flabbergasted that Newell allowed his former players to call him “Pete” rather than “Coach”, which speaks volumes about both men.
We had originally planned to participate in ESPN’s College Basketball Marathon by heading over to Moraga to check out the St. Mary’s/Fresno State game. Then someone told us that 11:00 start wasn’t Eastern time, and sorry, that “Moesha” rerun isn’t going to watch itself. So tonight we’ll be attending the Cal/USF game. It’s a fitting tribute not only to dad’s one year of college ball, but to the only man to have coached both schools. Sadly, with Newell passing and the premature death of Bill Walsh, the closest the Bay Area has to coaching genius emeritus now is Dusty Baker. Grim times indeed.