BERKELEY, Calif. | Pete Newell, the Hall of Fame basketball coach who won an NCAA championship and Olympic gold medal and later tutored some of the game’s greatest big men, died Monday. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by the University of California, the school Newell coached to a national title in 1959. Newell, who had been living near San Diego, had a serious lung operation in 2005.
He died at about 10:45 a.m. in Rancho Santa Fe at the home of retired Dr. Earl Schultz, who played for Newell at Cal and had watched over him for the last several years.
Schultz said Newell had a meeting scheduled with Jerry West and a writer who was working on a book on West, who played for Newell’s 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball team.
“He’s 93. He had a wonderful life, and it was just old age,” Schultz told the Associated Press. “His health was not good, because they had removed two-thirds of his lung and he had smoked for many years. It was starting to be a real struggle for him physically. He was getting more weak and dwindling away a little bit.”
Newell coached for 14 years at San Francisco, Michigan State and California before doctors advised him to give it up because of the emotional toll. His final coaching job came in the 1960 Olympics, when he took a U.S. team led by Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas to a gold medal in Rome.
Newell later returned to prominence with his famous “big men” camps. He instructed some of the game’s greatest stars, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Shaquille O’Neal and Ralph Sampson.
Among Newell’s biggest admirers was Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight, whose teams practiced Newell’s style of patient, disciplined offense and tenacious, hardworking defense.
“Three coaches had the most influence on college basketball in terms of tactics, both offensively and defensively,” Knight once said. “Clair Bee, Hank Iba and Pete. And I think Pete had the greatest total grasp. He really studied it and kept abreast of it, both professional and collegiate. He was truly remarkable.”
Newell was born in Canada but grew up in Los Angeles. His mother envisioned an acting career for her son, and he appeared in several movies including “The Kid,” which made a star of Jackie Coogan.
He attended what is now Loyola Marymount University and served in the Navy during World War II.
In 1946 he took a job at a small Roman Catholic school, the University of San Francisco, coaching basketball as well as baseball, golf and tennis. The Dons won the National Invitation Tournament in 1949, when it was considered at least the equal of the NCAA tournament.
Following four seasons at USF, the last concluding with another return visit to the NIT, Newell moved to Michigan State. His best season there was 1952-53, when the Spartans went 13-9 overall and finished third in the Big Ten.
In 1954, Newell was hired at California. The Bears won four consecutive conference titles and made two trips to the Final Four, capturing the NCAA tournament in 1959.
The starless Bears had to beat two future Hall of Famers on their way to the championship. In the semifinals they defeated Robertson and Cincinnati 64-58. Then in the final, Cal beat West Virginia, which was led by West.
Showing it was no fluke, the Bears beat both teams again the following season with West and Robertson still in college. Cal topped West Virginia 65-45 in a holiday tournament and knocked off Cincinnati 77-69 in the Final Four.
Emotionally high strung, Newell lived on coffee, cigarettes and little else during the season. He was told by doctors to leave full-time coaching, which he did in 1960 at age 44. His overall record was 234-123, and he beat UCLA’s John Wooden the last eight times they met.
Newell ended his coaching career in the Olympics, when the U.S. team won every game by at least 24 points.
“This is obviously a very sad day for the game of basketball, whether you are associated with the NBA, college or high school ranks,” said Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson, who knew Newell for more than 50 years.