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Monday, March 30, 2009 | Earl Shultz knew an empty feeling would arrive with this weekend’s NCAA basketball Final Four.
This season marked the 50th anniversary that legendary basketball coach Pete Newell led Cal to the 1959 NCAA championship. Shultz, a retired Rancho Santa Fe doctor who keeps busy as a thoroughbred horse race owner, was a guard for Newell’s 1959 team as well as his 1960 Cal club that returned to the Final Four before losing to Ohio State in the final.
Newell passed away in November at the age of 93. So Shultz attended Cal’s 50th anniversary celebration on Feb. 14 at halftime of a game on the Berkeley campus without his old coach, who kept a home in Rancho Santa Fe from his days as general manager of the NBA San Diego Rockets before they moved to Houston.
But what Shultz didn’t know — until San Diego State’s success in the NIT tournament — is bittersweet Final Four memories would hit him earlier than Saturday’s NCAA semifinal games in Detroit.
That’s because the Aztecs advanced to the NIT Final Four that begins Tuesday when the Aztecs (26-9) face Baylor (23-14) at 4 p.m. PT in a semifinal double-header at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“Pete would have been so happy for San Diego State,” Shultz said. “Pete liked (SDSU head coach Steve) Fisher. He thought he was a good teacher of the game. He liked how he taught his kids a good brand of basketball and to be good persons.”
Newell won a 1949 NIT title as the University of San Francisco coach when the NIT was equal to the NCAA tournament in prestige, but he didn’t look down on the modern NIT experience that is for teams left out of the 65-team NCAA bracket.
“He didn’t get to see it, but he would have thought the way San Diego State played in the NIT was wonderful,” Shultz said. “He also would have loved seeing San Diego State’s women in the NCAA tournament at Cox Arena.”
While watching a season of basketball unfold, a player or a coach who Newell worked with would invariably advance to the Final Four or the NBA championship. Newell influenced so many people in the game — ranging from legendary coach Bob Knight to the players who attended his Big Man’s Camps and Tall Women’s Camps.
“Pete always talked about giving back to the game,” Shultz said. “It gave him enormous pleasure to see guys that came to his camps and clinics have success.”
Knight considered Newell the game’s greatest coach, and he recently cited a statistic on an ESPN broadcast that Newell retired after the 1960 season having won the last eight games played between Cal and John Wooden’s UCLA teams.
Although Newell retired from coaching at age 45 because of the stress (he said he lived on coffee and cigarettes), he remained influential in the National Association of Basketball Coaches that annually holds its convention the week of the Final Four.
One of group’s awards is naming the Hillyard/NABC Silver Anniversary All-American team, which is presented to players from NCAA championship teams 25 years after their graduation for career accomplishments.
In 1986, Shultz was named to the Silver Anniversary team after he was nominated by Knight, who had come to know Shultz well from visiting with Newell so many times.
“At the time, I was one of three Cal players Pete coached that had been honored on a Silver Anniversary team, and that was more than any other school,” Shultz said. “That was something Pete was very proud of.”
That, of course, made Shultz proud. Shultz, now 69, watched over Newell in recent years when his health declined and he could no longer travel to the Final Four.
“I first met him in 1956, and I’ve been blessed to have crossed paths with him,” Shultz said. “He’s been like an extended member of my family. Pete was a humble, unassuming man that made everyone he knew feel they were special to him.”
Something else Shultz will miss about Newell is being the butt of a joke Knight loved to re-tell when he praised Newell in any setting that included members of Cal’s 1959 NCAA title team.
A year ago, when Knight introduced Newell when he was inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame by the Hall of Champions (my day job), Knight asked Shultz and two of his Cal teammates to stand. Shultz knew the zinger that was coming as he stood.
“They talk about championship teams and the players made the coach,”
Knight said. “You look at these three guys, and the coach made them.”
There are worse things in life than having Bob Knight tell an audience that Pete Newell made you a success.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Or send a letter to the editor.