the dandy dons

Reviewed by Robert S. Brown, Daniel Webster College

15 August 2012       archive

A few months ago I had the chance to speak with Pulitzer Prize winning author Taylor Branch. Over the past year or so, Branch has been receiving plenty of notice for his scathing critique of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, but my questions involved the subject of a much earlier publication. In 1991, Branch worked with basketball legend Bill Russell on Russell's autobiography, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man. Having seen Russell make several light-hearted public experiences in recent years, including the NBA Finals trophy ceremonies and the Fenway Park World Series celebrations, I asked Branch if he thought Russell had mellowed over the years. Branch explained that he did not think it was a matter of softening, as he found Russell usually very approachable (though not for autographs). However, Russell felt he had suffered many slights over the years – some very real, others built up in his own mind – and the grudges he held were still very much in place.

Branch's story is particularly relevant when it comes to James Johnson's study of the University of San Francisco Dons' back-to-back NCAA champion teams of 1955 and 1956. While the book portends to be about the school and its teams, at the center of it all, both literally and figuratively, was Bill Russell. The first chapter of The Dandy Dons is entitled "Russell's Coming of Age," and it explores Russell's development as a young basketball player. The second chapter looks at Russell's decision to play at the University of San Francisco. The book continues to track Russell's evolution as a player and the team's development around him. While Coach Woolpert and other players, especially K.C. Jones, are discussed, the narrative never strays too far from what Bill Russell was doing.

Sadly, despite all of Johnson's fine research, including personal interviews with over twenty former San Francisco players and staff members, he was never able to interview his featured character, Bill Russell. In the book Johnson explains that Russell had a falling out with the University and to this day there is no relationship between them, despite efforts by the school to heal the wound. Perhaps due to this rift, Russell's voice is noticeably absent from Johnson's book. Johnson is able to lift some excellent materials from Russell's previous publications, but fresh insights addressing the specifics of the championship years would be valuable additions to this history.

Despite the lack of Russell's contributions, The Dandy Dons is a detailed story of one of college basketball history's most important teams. Johnson is able to place San Francisco's success story within the frames of race relations, the development of the NCAA tournament, and the general growth in popularity of college basketball in the United States. Johnson points out that during this era the University of San Francisco was one of several Catholic colleges that received national recognition from their basketball successes. Despite the lack of a campus gymnasium at this time – they used a local high school gym for practices – the Dons had won the NIT title in 1949 under their previous coach, Hall of Famer Pete Newell. However, the University achieved unprecedented success under new coach Phil Woolpert once Russell arrived. Besides the back-to-back NCAA tournament championships, the Dons won 60 consecutive games, an NCAA record they would hold until the rise of Wooden's UCLA dynasty in the early 1970s. Johnson also makes the case that the Dons' success finally established the NCAA tournament as the premier post-season basketball championship, largely though the audience it attracted to the early television broadcasts. Johnson also argues that Russell's dominant play led the NCAA to major rules changes in terms of offensive goaltending and widening the painted lane. The Dons may not have been from the largest school, but Johnson makes it clear their impact was far-reaching.

The heavy emphasis on Russell's role with the team is understandable, and all of basketball continues to celebrate Russell's achievements to this day. However, the University of San Francisco, no longer a regular college basketball title contender, has largely fallen into the sport shadows. Johnson's book is recommended to anyone interested in the early days of what has evolved into the billion dollar industry of "March Madness."

Johnson, James W. The Dandy Dons: Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Phil Woolpert and One of College Basketball's Greatest and Most Innovative Teams. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. 284pp. $19.95 paper.

Copyright © 2012 by Robert S. Brown

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