The Ivy's last stand: Penn's 1979 Final Four run marked end of an era

Tony Price (15) and Penn celebrated with fans after the Quakers' win over St. John's in the East Regional final. Courtesy Penn Athletics

It's one of the best-kept secrets in college basketball history.

Forty years after the fact, everyone remembers the 1979 NCAA basketball tournament as the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird Show, and with good reason. But what pretty much no one remembers is the University of Pennsylvania squad that made it all the way to the Final Four.

An Ivy League team in the Final Four?

Yep. Long before there were UMBC and Loyola-Chicago, before there were George Mason and Butler and VCU, before there was Auburn minus Chuma Okeke, it was Penn that was college basketball's original -- and arguably most improbable -- Cinderella.

Coach Bob Weinhauer's basketball team didn't belong. The Quakers came from a bookworm conference that didn't, and still technically doesn't, allow athletic scholarships. Princeton had made a Final Four run with Bill Bradley in 1965 and Dartmouth did it a couple of times in the '40s, but otherwise, the Ivy League had fallen from national relevance. Penn had been a prominent program in the past, making six consecutive tourney appearances from 1970-1975 and climbing as high as No. 2 in the AP rankings at one point during the 1971-72 season. But things had changed.

The biggest change was the 1972 NCAA ruling that allowed freshmen to play varsity basketball. Every Division I school immediately adopted the new ordinance ... except the members of the Ivy League. As a result, top talents like Gene Banks -- the West Philly native who was the country's premier high school player in 1977 and who was recruited heavily by Penn -- went elsewhere.

As fate would have it, Banks wound up at Duke, the very team that bounced Penn from the 1978 tourney. In that game, Banks -- who finished among the ACC's top 10 in both scoring and rebounding as a freshman -- went off for 21 points and 10 boards. Duke proceeded to march all the way to the national championship game against Kentucky, a showdown Weinhauer watched from the stands in the old St. Louis Arena with one singular thought in his mind.

That should be us.

That summer, with rumors swirling that the underachieving Ivies could see their automatic bid revoked, Weinhauer -- who had taken over in November when Chuck Daly abruptly left Penn for the NBA, and who had never been a college head coach before -- crafted a handwritten letter to his players outlining the team's goals for the upcoming 1978-79 season. The most ridiculous objective on that list?

A trip to the Final Four.

Heading into the 1979 tourney, Weinhauer's goal seemed like a pipe dream. In a 40-team NCAA field that featured 10 schools in each region ('79 was the first year that the NCAA used seeds as we now know them), Penn was an afterthought as the No. 9 seed in the East.

The Quakers' tourney prospects were so dim that the night after clinching the Ivy League title, during a 74-72 loss at Columbia, the home fans taunted them by chanting, "First-round lo-ser ... first-round lo-ser ... first-round lo-ser."

They were so lightly regarded that on the eve of their first-round game against Iona, Gaels guard Kevin Hamilton paid a visit to the hotel room of Penn guard Booney Salters, whom he knew from their high school days in New York, and told Salters that drawing the Quakers was like having a first-round bye.

They were so anonymous that when they arrived at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina, for their game against Iona, they were greeted by misguided fans who were wearing No. 1 foam fingers ... that said Penn State instead of Penn.

It didn't take long for the Quakers to make a name for themselves.

"We were much better athletes than they thought."
Penn guard Tony Price, who scored 25 points on 12-of-18 shooting in the Quakers' 1979 NCAA tournament win over North Carolina.

In the opening round, Weinhauer's squad beat Iona 73-69, just barely squeaking past a higher-seeded Gaels team that was coached by Jim Valvano and featured mammoth center Jeff Ruland, a future NBA All-Star.

"You're supposed to have one common goal. That's why they won," says Ruland, now a scout with the Washington Wizards. "They outplayed us. They outcoached us."

Although senior forward Tony Price, the Ivy League's player of the year, paced Penn with a game-high 27 points, it was seldom-used center Tom Leifsen who sealed the deal against Iona. A 44 percent free throw shooter who was in the game only because starter Matt White had fouled out, Leifsen hit four straight from the stripe down the stretch. His heroics were a Cinderella sign of things to come.

In the second round, also in Raleigh, the unranked Quakers drew a UNC squad that was one of college basketball's darlings.

"They were on TV so much," says Pete Bagatta, who was Penn's student manager that season, "that I thought they were a TV series."

The top seed in the East and the wiseguys' presumptive pick to win the whole thing, the Tar Heels featured four future NBA players. As if that weren't enough, Carolina had the luxury of playing what amounted to a home game in Raleigh. In fact, the odds of Penn pulling the upset were so low that Price's own mother chose to stay home in New York rather than travel to North Carolina because she didn't want to witness the end of her son's college career. But Price and the Quakers had other ideas.

At practice the day before the game, Penn assistant Bob Staak started trumpeting what would become the team's mantra during its improbable run: "We've got a secret."

Part of the secret was that back in October, Weinhauer -- whose Quakers started practice a week later than every other D-I school, per Ivy League rules -- had spent a portion of his fall break in Chapel Hill, watching and learning from his idol, Dean Smith. Five months later, as Smith's team prepared to face Penn, Smith told the media that if anyone knew his Tar Heels, it was Weinhauer. What Smith didn't realize was just how talented the Quakers were.

"We were much better athletes than they thought," says Price, who dropped 25 on UNC in leading Penn to a shocking 72-71 victory.

With the Heels out of the mix, everyone had all but given the East region to Jim Boeheim's 10th-ranked Syracuse squad. Featuring future Knicks forward Louis Orr and 6-foot-11 center Roosevelt Bouie, Cuse's high-octane offense -- known as the "Louie and Bouie Show" -- topped 100 points on eight different occasions during the season, including scoring a school-record 144 during a January beatdown of Siena. No way the Ivy champs could compete in a track meet with the run-and-gun Orangemen. Or so went the thinking. But the boys in red and blue never got the memo. Penn 84, Cuse 76.

In the fourth round, just one win from the Final Four, the Quakers faced a red-hot St. John's team that had already upended 13th-ranked Temple and sixth-ranked Duke en route to the regional finals. After watching Penn beat Syracuse at its own game, Lou Carnesecca's Redmen took the opposite tack by trying to slow things down. Didn't matter. Led by Price and fellow senior Tim Smith, whose 16 points included several huge buckets down the stretch, Penn won 64-62, in yet another heart-stopping finish.

Valvano. Dean. Boeheim. Carnesecca.

If you're scoring at home, that's four coaching legends. In his first full season as a college head coach, Bob Weinhauer and his gang of Ivy Leaguers beat them all. In a span of nine days.

"When we won," Leifsen says of Penn's victory over St. John's in the regional final, "people couldn't fathom what that meant."

What it meant was that the Quakers had managed to make Weinhauer look like a prophet. Somehow, they'd found a way to accomplish his most ludicrous goal and advance to the Final Four. It's a feat no Ivy team has accomplished since.

Says Tim Smith: "What we did in 1979 will never happen again."

When they arrived back in West Philly after winning the regional final, Smith and his teammates were the headliners at a pep rally to be held at historic Franklin Field. But because spring break began the day of the first-round game against Iona and didn't end until the day after the St. John's game, it was unclear just how aware of Penn's magical run everyone on campus was. As it turns out, they were well aware.

"More people than I'd ever seen before," Bagatta says of the enormous crowd that filled Franklin Field that day. "It was like we were The Beatles."

The story of that Cinderella Penn team is the kind of underdog tale that coulda shoulda woulda been a movie. Except that the Quakers went on to get hammered by Magic Johnson and Michigan State, losing 101-67 in the national semifinal. And then Magic battled Larry Bird in the championship. Forty years later, that's pretty much all anyone remembers.

Except for the guys who had the secret.