HOW JACK KRAFT MADE VILLANOVA INTO A PHILLY POWERHOUSE

Kraft (photo above with UCLA coach John Wooden at the 1971 Final Four) died last week at the age of 93, and a large part of his legacy is the status the Wildcats enjoy today as the preeminent basketball program in the best hoops city in the country

By Theodore N. Beitchman

Nineteen seventy-one created a lot of Wildcat fans, and the roots of that glorious season were planted when Jack Kraft left Malvern Prep to replace Al Severance 10 years earlier. Kraft had also coached at Bishop Neumann for 12 years, and he had a feel for the Catholic League, which to this day is a great feeder to the Big Five.

Villanova athletic director Art Mahan thought he had St. Bonaventure coach Eddie Donovan all wrapped up as Severance’s successor in 1961. In fact, Donovan was seen house-hunting on the Main Line. But the NBA New York Knicks came through with a better offer.

Donovan lasted four years as Knicks coach while Kraft turned the Cats into a Philly powerhouse in an era when the Big Five became recognized nationwide as the best example of what Newsweek’s terrific writer Pete Axthelm called “The City Game.”

Welcome to the Big 5 in its heyday, when St. Joseph’s, Penn, Villanova, Temple and LaSalle regularly drew sellouts for doubleheaders two or three times a week at the Palestra, the barn on 33rd street, which was and is the home of the Quakers and the bane of the brave who visited to play one of the Big 5.

This was before the NCAA tournament became March Madness, and only 25 teams made the dance every year, so each game had more importance than they do today. And each game seemingly meant more to St. Joseph’s Jack Ramsay, Penn’s Jack McCloskey, Temple’s Harry Litwack, LaSalle’s Dudey Moore or newbie Kraft at Villanova.

Severance’s last team, in 1961, went 11-13, but he left some talent for Kraft — Honey Bear Leftwich, Hubie White, Jim McMonigle, Joe O’Brien — who turned in a 21-7 record, including two wins in the 1962 NCAA tournament. And two freshman recruited by Severance would elevate the Cats even higher — Wally Jones from Overbrook and Jim Washington from West Catholic, who led the Cats to the NCAA in 1964 and two NITs.

They also had great style. Jones was a whirling dervish point guard who would tuck his legs and explode a jump shot. Washington was a smooth as silk 6-6 banger who pulled 19 rebounds in an NCAA game. And when the Cats showed up at the Palestra for a big game, the entire team, including Kraft and trainer Jake Nevin, would wear Villanova blue berets!

Kraft extended his recruiting to south Jersey when he snared Bishop Eustace ace sho0ting guard Billy Melchionni for the 1963-64 squad which went 24-4. “Cy,” short for “Cyclops,” as Melchionni was known because of his shooting eye, went on to score more than 1,600 career points. Raveling spotted Johnny Jones in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” and alerted Kraft, who recruited the Floridian along with 6-5 forward Clarence Smith from Harrisburg. And then Rav personally scouted and signed the 6-8 Porter, who was also from Florida.

Smith and Porter joined Tom Ingelsby, Chris Ford, Hank Siemiontkowski that posted a 66-18 record in the three years from 1969-to-1971.

In 1968-69 the Cats went 21-5, the next season 22-7 and in 1970-71 20-8, but during that three-year period Penn won each regular season match-up — until March 23, when they met in the Eastern Regionals in Raleigh for a ticket to the Final Four.

That year’s Penn squad came into the regional final with a 28-0 record and a No. 3 national ranking, the best in school history. It is arguable that Penn had a better team, but Villanova was sky-high that late March day and Penn was flat as a board. The Cats bolted to a 22-6 lead and led at halftime 43-22, and the game was essentially over with Villanova winning 90-47.

Western Kentucky fell in the national semis at Houston, and then the Cats took on legendary coach John Wooden and UCLA in the final. The Bruins were defending national champs, and had won six of the preceding seven titles, and were heavily favored.

“We did a great job on Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe,” but a lightly regarded center, Steve Patterson, “was the difference-maker,” Mike Daly, a Cat sub, recalled. “We had UCLA on its heels down the stretch, but with no shot clock, they were able to hold the ball.” Wooden had always eschewed holding the ball, but even he adjusted when Villanova came roaring back to within six, and he instructed Henry Bibby to take the air out of the ball as UCLA won 68-62.

Then all hell broke loose. The NCAA came down hard on Porter and Villanova because he had actually signed with a couple of agents and received remuneration during his senior year. Even though Villanova alum Richie Phillips was able to negotiate Porter’s legal problems and transition to the NBA, the school had to forfeit its second-place finish in the tournament and the $72,000 it had earned.

As guard Ed Hastings, who missed playing during the 1971 season with a knee injury, would say, “The ’71 team had gone from ecstasy to an asterisk.”

Kraft would coach the Cats into the NCAAs the next year, losing to Penn in the regionals semis, and then he headed to Rhode Island, paving the way for Rollie Massimino.

Kraft was buttoned-down, in his dress and his temperament. He seemed to always wear a blue blazer and grey slacks, and he was largely imperturbable, even when Wally Jones was firing blind crosscourt passes.

 

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