The West Coast Conference having Gonzaga to carry the mantle for its men’s basketball programs has been one of the more remarkable college basketball stories. Many programs flourish when they get a strong recruiting class, then fade into obscurity once coaches change or those players graduate.
However, the Bulldogs, who were the national runner-up in 2021 and have been ranked No. 1 during the 2022 season, wouldn’t have always been the conference’s best bet to choose to emerge victorious in a March madness bracket. San Francisco, which has a strong chance of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998, was once the envy of all the WCC programs. Their fortunes, however, took a turn south well before Gonzaga became the new kings of the conference.
Bill Russell Was a King Before he Was an 11-time NBA Champ
Phil Woolpert was hired as San Francisco’s coach in 1950 and would land his biggest recruiting coup when he took a chance on Bill Russell. Russell, who didn’t start at his Oakland high school, found his way to play for the Dons in 1954. San Francisco, which also featured future NBA player, K.C. Jones would set an NCAA record by reeling off a 60-game winning streak.
During this stretch, the Dons made three straight appearances in the Final Four. San Francisco won the championships in 1955 and 1956 while finishing third in 1957. The Dons were a dominant defensive team, holding its opponents to fewer than 60 points 47 times.
San Francisco, which started three black players, often dealt with the stifling racism in venues around the country for its games.
San Francisco Surges in the 1970s
The Dons made the NCAA tournament eight times between 1972 and 1982. Future Chicago Bulls standout Bill Cartwright led San Francisco to a 29-0 start during the 1977 season, where the Dons would be ranked No. 1, but were upset before reaching the Sweet 16. San Francisco made the Elite Eight twice, in 1973 and 1974, during this stretch.
The Dons won the WCC every year from 1977 to 1982 to close this dominant era.
Toward the end of the 1970s, issues started to arise from within San Francisco’s program. There were reports of booster and alumni interfering with the program and coaches acting inappropriately. The NCAA gave the Dons a year’s probably for the 1979-80 season for players being paid and recruiting that wasn’t above board. San Francisco was slapped with probation again in 1980-81 after more reports of illegal payments to players.
Rev. John Lo Schiavo, who was president of the university, loved basketball. He had been an all-city player during his high school days. However, he couldn’t take it anymore.
San Francisco Gives Itself Death Penalty
Lo Schiavo conducted an internal investigation and wanted to put a stop to the madness. He announced on July 29, 1982, that San Francisco would halt the basketball program. The school’s investigation showed alumni were paying players for jobs they weren’t doing, paying them Monday, providing gifts, and paying for food and entertainment expenses.
Academically, players were given special treatment. Other students would take tests and write papers for basketball players. There were a few incidents of misconduct on campus that was covered up by school officials.
Despite his love for the game, Lo Schiavo shut the program down. There would be no more San Francisco basketball until 1985.
The Sequel Never as Good as the Original
San Francisco has only been back to the NCAA Tournament once since the program shut down. The Dons won the WCC in 1998 but were quickly bounced from the tournament in an 85-68 loss to Utah. San Francisco hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1979 when it beat BYU by 23 points before bowing to UCLA in the Sweet 16.
Current coach Todd Golden has started to show improvement for the Dons. He has had two 20-win seasons in his first three seasons. San Francisco may get back to the tournament in the 2021-22 season. But the Dons will have a long way to go to get back to former glory.
The administration decided integrity was more important than winning. Despite the cost to the program, Lo Schiavo made a tough decision to maintain the university’s integrity.