March 20, 2002
By Mark Purdy
San Jose Mercury News
True or False: Santa Clara University produced a Final Four team before UCLA did.
``We did?'' asked Ken Sears, one of the Santa Clara players who made it happen. ``Yes, I guess we did. You know, I never thought of it that way.''
He is not alone. When the history of college basketball is written, the Bay Area always seems to be in one of the skim-over chapters.
Each year at this time, I work myself into a lather of righteous hoops indignation. I grow sick of hearing about the great basketball traditions of the Big 12 teams, the ACC teams, or Big Ten teams or the mighty Bruins of Westwood.
I say this with every shred of provincialism I can muster: Hey, what about us? We were there before almost everyone else. We just don't celebrate or yap obnoxiously about it.
Today, let me make an attempt.
Fifty years ago this weekend, Santa Clara qualified for the school's one and only Final Four trip. The Broncos won the West Regional in Oregon -- along the way, defeating a UCLA team coached by John Wooden -- and advanced to Seattle for the national semifinals.
Yet even then, the achievement was treated modestly.
``I don't even think we had a party,'' said Bob Peters, the team's captain. ``After winning the regional, we went out and got something to eat. Then we got on the train to Washington. It just wasn't as big a deal as it is now. I don't think it hit us until years later what we'd actually done.''
Become a part of sports history. That's what they'd done. The 1952 NCAA tournament is generally regarded as college basketball's first official ``Final Four.'' Previously, the NCAA basketball championship had been a single-game event. Semifinal matchups were played in two different cities. The winners then traveled to a third site for the title game.
But that year, the NCAA made a format switch. The 16 invited teams played in four ``regionals.'' Those four winners advanced to Seattle for the championship round. That's a little history lesson for the four teams gathering here for this weekend's West Regional -- which is appropriately being hosted by Santa Clara, winner of the first West Regional ever played.
Especially in retrospect, it's an amazing achievement. In 1952, Santa Clara's enrollment consisted of about 1,500 men, and zero women. The basketball program was a cozy family-type operation guided by 32-year-old head coach Bob Feerick.
``I remember when I was recruited,'' said Sears, who grew up in Watsonville. ``Coach Feerick showed us the university and then took us to the school infirmary for the night. I had to sleep in a hospital bed.''
It must have worked. Sears signed. In those days, the Broncos were part of a vibrant Bay Area hoops landscape. Stanford had been the 1943 NCAA basketball champion. Over the next decade, USF and Cal would win their own national titles.
The 1951-52 season, however, belonged to Santa Clara. At first, expectations for the team were modest. Sears and Dick Garibaldi, two freshmen, were forced to play key roles. Feerick saw it as a rebuilding year. The team finished the regular season with three games in Hawaii and returned home with a 15-10 record. Much to Feerick's surprise, this was good enough for an at-large NCAA bid. The Broncos headed to Corvallis, Ore., to face UCLA in the West Regional semifinals.
Intimidation was no factor. Wooden, in his fourth season as the Bruins' head coach, was not yet a legend. And Santa Clara had already defeated UCLA seven weeks earlier, at the Cow Palace. In the second half at Corvallis, the Broncos ran off 12 straight points and held on to win 54-48.
``I know this much,'' said Peters. ``Very few teams can claim to have defeated John Wooden twice in the same season. In that Cow Palace game, Dal Brock was our team's best defender and he was guarding Jerry Norman, UCLA's best player. And Dal was killing him. I was crouched at the scorer's table waiting to come in, just a few feet from Wooden. And he was screaming: `For Chrissake, Norman, do something!' Until then, I never knew Wooden cursed.''
After the Broncos' semifinal victory over the Bruins, they had less than 24 hours to prepare for Wyoming and the regional championship game. Feerick's strategy stressed balance, and three Santa Clara players scored in double figures in a 56-53 victory. The next stop was Seattle and a date with Kansas.
``We had to play in Seattle just three nights later,'' said Garibaldi. ``But the Jesuits were so concerned about us missing classes that they made us go to school at Seattle University while we were up there. I remember we all went the first day, but on the second day we all ditched.''
There was also the matter of facing the Jayhawks and their mammoth 6-foot-9 center, Clyde Lovellette.
``You know my biggest memory of the entire Final Four experience?'' asked Sears. ``It happened right as we checked into the hotel where all four teams were staying. I got off the bus and walked over the elevator to go up to our room. The elevator door opened and this huge man was standing there. He was wearing this immense overcoat and a 10-gallon cowboy hat. He must have weighed 270 pounds. And I'm this skinny 185-pound freshman. I thought, `Look at this guy!' And I knew exactly who it was.''
Sears was assigned to guard Lovellette in the national semifinal game and never had a chance. He committed three early fouls, went to the bench, and finished with one point. Kansas won 74-55. The next evening, Santa Clara lost a tight consolation game to Illinois 67-64.
Seven members of the 1952 Broncos survive. Sears, who had a successful NBA career, is retired in Watsonville. He and his wife spend their winters in Mexico and do philanthropic work there. Brock is a retired lawyer in San Francisco. Mark Butier is a retired engineer. Peters, Jim Young and Dick Benedetti are retired educators. Garibaldi, who succeeded Feerick as Santa Clara's head coach, is involved with a Stockton basketball uniform company, On Sports. Last weekend, he hosted a small party at his home, to toast their anniversary.
``We had a very nice gathering,'' Garibaldi said. ``We told a lot of stories. When we won the West Regional, they promised us watches. But we never got them. Instead, we each got these small plaques. We were disappointed. I was thinking, though, that if we had gotten the watches, we'd probably have lost them by now. But we all still have those plaques.''
Peters confirmed this.
``My 16-year-old grandson was looking at the plaque this winter,'' he said. ``He was impressed.''
The NCAA Broncos of 1952 agree on one other thing: It's extremely unlikely their school will ever return to the Final Four. But the Sweet 16? You never know. Peters, who lives in San Jose, plans to attend the West Regional games this weekend at Compaq Center. My first wish is, some fan sitting next to him will want to make conversation, turn to Peters and ask if he's ever been to an NCAA game.
My second wish is this: He's not afraid to brag.