Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
by Gregg Lange '70

April 18, 2007:
The boys of winter – stalled
Van Breda Kolff '45's last Princeton team had a stellar 25-3 record

By Gregg Lange '70

In the April 4, 2007, Under the Ivy column, with apologies to the great ’65 and ’98 Princeton men’s basketball teams, we opined that the 1967 squad – Butch van Breda Kolff ’45’s last – was the University’s best ever, and began their story. Here’s the rest of the tale:

When we last left our intrepid roundballers (as the saying used to go before you were born), they had returned in triumph from Chapel Hill following a 91-81 pasting Jan. 2 of third-ranked North Carolina and young Dean Smith. Now 9-1 and nationally ranked at number seven, Captain Ed Hummer ’67 and his merry band had to turn around and begin their Ivy schedule four days later. This was no light matter: They had lost to four different Ivy teams the year prior and finished fourth.

Despite sleepwalking at Dillon against Yale 77-75, they won their first three and headed into Hanover for the final game before first semester exams. Leaving the underclassmen except center Chris Thomforde ’69 home to study, van Breda Kolff (VBK to you) had only 10 bodies and a bitterly cold Winter Carnival venue – the old Alumni Gym had tiny steam radiators and huge Georgian windows – with which to witness The Perfect Storm. With a tiny crowd bundled in winter coats and gloves indoors, Princeton kept warm by scoring 68 points in the first half, during which the five-man bench was emptied. Alternating various players in the second half did nothing to stop the frenzy, in part because Dartmouth kept pressing the action, and the result was a 116-42 carnage that left all involved speechless. Every Princeton player had at least five points and three rebounds. The team shot 51.1 percent, not spectacular, but had 82 rebounds, two per minute for the entire game. The second team, whose hard work in practice had propelled the starters to national prominence, scored 39 points to Dartmouth’s 42.

No Princetonian is unfamiliar with the post-exam January basketball blahs, so suffice it to say that the game following the two-week layoff was Penn at the Palestra, where the Tigers had lost the year before. VBK had them ready and they opened up a 15-point lead with three minutes to go, but then the Tigers stumbled and barely survived 70-66. The next Friday night Dartmouth appeared at Dillon, having thought long and hard about running with Princeton again.

Dartmouth stalled.

Since the NBA had introduced a shot clock 12 years earlier, college coaches (who had none) had taken increasing notice of their ability to slow a game to a crawl to counterbalance a talent gap. After the game in Hanover, the Princeton/Dartmouth gap was a given, and coach Doggie Julian had his charges hold the ball for eight minutes at the start of each half, even when behind. Tiger Band filled in the lulls playing “The Mickey Mouse Club March.” The crowd of 3,000 booed lustily, some of them having bought scalped tickets at inflated prices only to encounter a slumber party. VBK, once ahead, chose to let it sit, and Princeton won 30-16. Can you say “harbinger”?

By Feb.18 Princeton was 10-0 in the league, ranked third in the country, and had one huge hurdle left: Cornell. The Tigers entered Barton Hall to face a top-20 team that had lost there to Syracuse – by one point – and had beaten Kentucky and Adolph Rupp in Lexington. Cornell’s two premiere players, Greg Morris, the league’s top scorer, and Walt Esdaile, the beefy top rebounder, were strongly reminiscent of Beard and Unseld of Louisville, the only team to whom Princeton had lost. Princeton’s offense had been sluggish, scoring under 60 points per game in its last two road wins, and despite holding the Big Red to a season-low 62 points, Princeton lost 62-56, falling into a tie for the Ivy lead.

Then the Sports Illustrated cover hit the newsstands. An ueber-preppy image of Thomforde and Gary Walters ’67 in the paneled Dillon Gym library (yep, there’s a library), it declared: “Princeton Builds a Basketball Dynasty.” Meanwhile, dropping from third to sixth in the rankings, the Tigers threatened to become a dynasty without a postseason bid, despite their gaudy 20-2 record. They went to 21-2 with a 97-45 dissecting of Columbia, but sweet-shooting forward John Haarlow ’68 got walloped and broke his nose.

Only seven nights after the loss in Ithaca was the Cornell rematch at Dillon. With hangers-on crammed everywhere, it had the circus atmosphere of Bill Bradley ’65’s last home game two years earlier, with wild cheering for layup drills and pregame handshakes, especially when Haarlow showed up in a hideous makeshift wire mask. The Big Red never stood a serious chance. Haarlow, who could barely see to dribble, shot instead and had 25 points and 11 rebounds. Robby Brown ’67, whom VBK had not played in Ithaca, spelled Thomforde and had seven points and 10 huge rebounds. Although Cornell managed four more points than at home, they were leveled 81-66. So the only remaining impediment was Penn at Dillon four nights later. The crowd poured in, sensing another triumph in the perfect home season, but mindful of the four-point scare earlier at the Palestra. Rookie coach Dick Harter decided to surprise.

Penn stalled.

Now Dartmouth was one thing; Julian had a 116-42 excuse. As executed by defending league-champion Penn, however, this paranoid slowdown was [your favorite epithet here]. With the crowd calling for Harter’s [your favorite anatomical part here], it was astonishing that the flimsy security detail kept everyone under minimal control. Leading by a couple of points through most of the surly game, including 9-8 at the half, Penn refused to play and VBK refused to bite. Facing the possibility of a playoff game with Cornell to determine who would go to the NCAAs, Princeton finally got a 17-16 lead with 1:04 to go, then stuffed the ball down Penn’s [your next favorite part here] to win 25-16, capped by a thundering four-point play (goaltending, intentional foul) by the ordinarily silky Heiser. The never-kindly Princeton-Penn hoops relationship hit a new low, as if it needed one.

In preparation for the NCAA tournament, fifth-ranked Princeton practiced terribly for a week, then faced West Virginia, the very decent Southern Conference champ. The good omen was Haarlow, who got rid of his mask after two weeks of encagement, but the game never developed a pace, with fouls called everywhere: Thomforde had four before halftime, then played the final 10 minutes with them after Robby Brown fouled out. The Tigers led the entire second half and pulled out a 68-57 win. But with one second remaining, Haarlow went down in a heap with a severe ankle sprain.

Clouds began to gather: The next game, six days later, was against fourth-ranked North Carolina, against whom Haarlow had scored 22 points in Chapel Hill. Princeton’s defense came out strong, but the offensive flow was sporadic, and bit by bit Carolina pulled away in a low-scoring duel. Haarlow played a couple of minutes but collapsed back onto the bench, done for the season. In another Herculean final effort, Heiser scored the last four points of regulation to tie the game at 63 and send it into overtime, but everyone on Princeton was loaded with fouls. So when Dean Smith and company got the overtime tip-off with the score still tied, they surprised everyone.

Carolina stalled.

With only 21 field goals in the first 40 minutes, Smith decided that shortening the game by more than two minutes and playing for free throws was his best bet – this wasn’t the birth of the famed Carolina Four Corners, but it was its debut on the national stage. He won the gamble. UNC was 11-for-11 from the foul line after the Tigers got behind in OT, and the final was 78-70. There would be no regional final for the Tigers; Carolina would go on to destroy a good Boston College team 96-80 on its way to the Final Four.

In those more gentlemanly days, there were third-place games for the teams who got to the regional rounds, and Princeton faced a St. John’s squad that had ranked as high as eighth during the year. VBK, the pressure off, started seniors Hummer, Walters, Brown, Bill Koch, and Larry Lucchino. Hummer clamped down on All-American Sonny Dove, who got only four baskets, and Thomforde came off the bench to dominate with 22 points and 15 rebounds as Princeton won handily 78-58. At 25-3, the season was over.

The Tigers had lost to only one team, second-ranked Louisville, that they had not also beaten, and to only one, Cornell, not ranked above them. They were 10-0 at Dillon, and a gaudy 11-1 on opponents’ courts. They outscored the opposition by 18 points per game, and outrebounded them by 11. Playing a national schedule, they shot 49.5 percent from the floor and held their opponents to 37.6 percent. Heiser was named All-East. He, Thomforde, and Walters were first-team All-Ivy; the ill-starred Haarlow second-team. Captain Hummer was honorable mention, and Dave Lawyer ’68 and Brown should have been.

Tempus fugit. Dean Smith perfected the Four Corners, which led to the college shot clock in 1983. Dick Harter went on to win two Ivy championships, and never used the stall again. Van Breda Kolff, 103-31 in his five years at Princeton, left for the Lakers and his rendezvous with destiny (in the person of Wilt Chamberlain), to be succeeded as Tiger coach by his student Pete Carril. Thomforde two years later became the captain of the first team to go 14-0 in the Ivy League, Walters eventually would be named the Princeton athletic director. Princeton wouldn’t win another NCAA tournament game for 16 years, and wouldn’t see another basketball class like 1967 – Hummer, Walters, Brown, Lucchino, Allen Adler, and Koch – until 1998.

But if you wander into Dillon Gym on a quiet evening, there still seem to be deep vibrations coming from the enameled cinderblocks. Listen closely. P

Have another view of which Princeton basketball team was the University’s best ever? Write to PAW at paw@princeton.edu

Lange '70Gregg Lange '70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.