Friday, March 30, 2007

Great Teams I Have Loved -- The 1985 Villanova Wildcats

In the week leading up to the Final Four, we look at the last Philadelphia team to win a championship in a major sport -- the 1985 Villanova Willdcats.

Yes, it really has been 22 years since a team from the fourth or fifth largest metropolitan area, with six Division I NCAA basketball schools, teams in all four major sports, and a (barely) Division I football program has won a championship.

But on April 1, 1985 in Lexington, Villanova played a nearly flawless game and knocked off the mighty Villanova Wildcats.

To put this in perspective, let's look at what has gone on with some of the participants in the championship game since then:

  • Patrick Ewing was drafted #1 by the New York Knicks, and played a full career that will likely culminate with him being inducted into the basketball hall of fame this year. His son is on this year's team.
  • Rollie Massamino bounced to UNLV and Cleveland State, achieving little success in either place, and ended up coaching at Northwood University.
  • John Thompson retired from Georgetown in 1999, and his son, John Thompson III, will lead the Hoyas in the Final Four this weekend.
  • Tournament MOP Ed Pinckney enjoyed a full NBA career, and is now an assistant coach at Villanova.
  • Gary McLain appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated revealing his cocaine habit. He's now a motivational speaker.

Since the last major championship came to Philadelphia, the following have occurred:

  • The University of Florida and the University of Michigan have won championships in both basketball and football. (Ohio St. may join them this weekend).
  • Two other teams nicknamed the Wildcats (Arizona and Kentucky) have won NCAA championships.
  • The Stanley Cup has been won by franchises in Dallas, Texas, Raleigh, North Carolina and St. Petersburg, Florida, none of which had a team in 1985.
  • The World Series has been won by teams in Miami, Florida (twice!) and Phoenix, Arizona, neither of which had teams. The Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox both broke their historically long championship droughts.
  • The Super Bowl has been won by the Baltimore Ravens and St. Louis Rams. Since 1985, both these cities lost a team, then lured another into town, which then won the Super Bowl. Also, one of those teams that moved, the Indianapolis Colts, has also won a Super Bowl.
  • San Antonio, Texas has been host to three NBA champions.

Throughout all this neither the Philadelphia Eagles, Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia 76ers, Philadelphia Flyers, Villanova Wildcats, St. Joseph's Hawks, Temple Owls (football or basketball), Penn Quakers, LaSalle Explorers, or Drexel Dragons have won a national championship, or really even come close.

The closest was probably the 1987 Flyers, who pushed the Gretzky-Messier-Kurri-Coffey Edmonton Oilers to seven games, but even then, there was never really much doubt that the Oilers were the superior team and would ultimately prevail.

Kind of like the 1985 Villanova team...

Living on the East Coast, with my father having grown up in New York, the 1985 college basketball season was about 2 teams -- the John Thompson Patrick Ewing Georgetown Hoyas, and the Louie Carnasecca-Chris Mullin-Mark Jackson-Walter Berry St. John's Redmen. St. John's and Georgetown split their regular season games, then Georgetown won the Big East final to claim the #1 seed in the East, with St. John's heading West.

This was the first year of the 64 team tournament, and I believe the first time I actually filled out a bracket. Most people, especially in our part of the country, were anticipating another St. John's Georgetown tilt in the national semifinals, and considering that a de facto championship. That Villanova made it to make it three Big East teams in the Final Four was a nice story, but largely irrelevant.

The Hoyas crushed the Redmen, and Villanova got by Memphis St., the one non-Big East team at the party.

Then, pretty much everyone on Villanova had the game of their lives.

There was a certain mystique surrounding the Hoyas in those days, which no team since has really captured. I'd like to think that it's because the racial tension it was based upon has eclipsed, but I'm not sure. I don't think a major college program would hire someone like the elder John Thompson to coach its team today. Today, universities know that coaches will be in front of cameras and microphones, and won't want somebody who brings unwanted attention. They're blow-dried telegenic bland X's and O's guys. The John Thompsons and Bob Knights and Jerry Tarkanians and other coaches who don't give a crap what the world thinks of them are a dying breed.

I realize I haven't written much about the alleged topic of this articles. Until the tournament, there wasn't anything particularly special about this team, kind of like the 2007 Cardinals. But they managed to put it together for the six games of the tournament, and are now a part of history.

Hopefully another Philadelphia team will soon join them.