San Francisco was a powerhouse men’s basketball program for decades, highlighted by back-to-back NCAA titles in 1955 and ’56 with Hall of Fame center Bill Russell starring for the Dons.
The Dons not only won consecutive national championships, but claimed 15 West Coast Conference titles and made 15 NCAA appearances between 1955-’82. During the stretch of four decades, USF compiled a 21-13 record in NCAA appearances and advanced to the Elite Eight four times in 1964, ’65, ’73 and ’74.
Before the NCAA championship was considered the top postseason tournament, the Dons won the 1949 National Invitational Tournament under the direction of Naismith Hall of Fame coach Pete Newell.
The program produced 23 NBA players, including Hall of Fame players like Russell, K.C. Jones and Bill Cartwright, who won three NBA titles as the center for the Chicago Bulls.
The Dons were a perennial contender in the realm of college basketball, and then … poof! … they disappeared.
After the 1981-82 season, the action in USF’s War Memorial Gym was quieted with the school’s self-imposed three-year hiatus of the program due to a variety of NCAA violations.
Since basketball returned to USF in 1985-86 under former USF player Jim Brovelli, things have not quite been the same.
The program has only been back to the NCAA tournament once since being reinstated. It won the 1998 WCC tournament and snagged the league’s automatic bid. The Dons lost to Utah — a team that advanced to the Final Four that season — in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“I think when the program first returned there had been a three-year void and in all honesty it was kind of like taking a Division II program and starting back up in Division I,” USF play-by-play announcer Pat Olson said. “They started from scratch, and the commitment that had been there before was a little different. There was a different mindset after the three-year hiatus. I don’t think there were as many resources as there had been.”
Olson, the radio voice of the Dons’ for the past 22 years, believes the changes after the three-year absence from the national scene were not the only challenges the program faced as it tried to rebuild.
“It happened at the same time college basketball was kind of changing,” Olson said. “The power conferences and the TV packages sort of coincided with that and schools in the Pac-10 and ACC and SEC with the 15,000-seat arenas were the places where kids wanted to play. That was also a hurdle.”
While Brovelli led the Dons for 10 seasons, including a 19-win campaign in 1993, his attempts at returning to the postseason were futile. Philip Matthews took the helm of the program in 1996 until 2004, and did lead the Dons to the NCAA tournament in 1998 and the 2004 NIT.
Jesse Evans took the reins in 2005, and posted a winning record in his first season, followed by two losing campaigns. Then, after a 4-8 start to the 2007-08 season, Evans was relieved from his duties and Eddie Sutton, who had coached at programs like Kentucky, Arkansas and Oklahoma State, was named the interim head coach. Sutton went 6-13 during his short tenure with USF, but did become the fifth men’s basketball coach in NCAA history to reach 800 career victories.
“That was an interesting year to be around our program because a lot of the alumni were very upset with the change,” Olson said. “With all due respect to Eddie Sutton, he was sitting on 798 for his career wins total and it allowed him to get to the magical 800.”
Following the turmoil of the 2007-08 season, USF held a national search for a new head coach which ended in hiring Rex Walters — a former Kansas star and seven-year NBA veteran. “He brought a different culture and mindset to the program,” Olson said.
In addition to Walters two years ago, USF hired a new director of athletics — Scott Sidwell, who has increased fundraising efforts, helping the school make a larger commitment to resources for the men’s basketball program.
“There is definitely a renewed energy around the program,” Olson said. “You walk down the hallways and you can feel the momentum. I feel that we’re back on track to reach national prominence.”
And, with the college basketball landscape changing again, “mid-major” programs such as Butler, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s have been serious postseason contenders in recent years.
“Smaller schools are making noise in the NCAA tournament, so suddenly there is this shift again,” Olson said.
Walters enters his fifth season with the Dons, and has posted winning records in each of the past two years. USF finished 19-15 and in third place in the WCC two seasons ago, while last year the Dons went 20-14. Both years, the program competed in postseason play — the CBI in 2012 and the CIT in 2011.
While the Dons have not quite returned to the glory days of hanging national championship banners, there is definitely an effort to achieve the ultimate goal.
“USF wants to put itself back on the map and be able to land the type of recruits that will make us a successful program,” Olson said.