Sunday’s game against USC is big for Cal, coming four days after a lopsided loss to UCLA.
But the occasion is no less significant for Dr. Earl Shultz, who will be honored at halftime with the Pete Newell Career Achievement Award.
For Shultz, who played on Newell’s two Final Four teams at Cal and became a lifelong close friend of the late coaching legend, there can be bigger honor.
“For the guys who played for Pete,” Shultz said this week, “it’s the ultimate to be associated with Pete.”
Shultz was a sophomore reserve guard on the 1959 Cal team that won the NCAA title, then became a starter the next season when the Bears returned to the Final Four at the Cow Palace, losing to Ohio State in the title game.
He jokingly refers to himself and his teammates as “dinosaurs,” but these were Cal’s greatest teams. His first two seasons as a varsity player, the Bears went 53-6, won a pair of conference titles and helped Newell close out his career with the last of eight straight victories over John Wooden and UCLA.
The Bears haven’t been back to the Final Four since.
“I really probably didn’t appreciate the importance of the NCAA tournament,” Shultz said. “Nowadays it’s spectacular, an entirely different deal. The players are so much bigger and stronger and better. I don’t know if they’re smarter.”
All that may be true, but Cal didn’t dodge teams with talent at the Final Four. They beat Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati, then Jerry West and West Virginia for the ’59 championship, then the Big O once more on the way to the ’60 title game against a Buckeyes team that featured John Havlicek.
The Bears’ edge in those games wasn’t raw talent, but teamwork, preparation and coaching.
“Pete didn’t like mistakes. He was striving for perfection,” Shultz said. “I didn’t play in the Final Four my sophomore year. I was the fourth guard. But the guys just played magnificent.”
Still, the near-perfect performance against West Virginia was almost upstaged.
“In the second half, they put a half-court trap on us,” he said. “It was the only time any of us had seen Pete caught by surprise. We won it (71-70) at the very end.”
Shultz was a starter a year later, averaging 9.5 points on a team that lost just once before the national championship game. As a senior, he was a first-team all-conference pick and a third-team All-America selection by the Helms Athletic Foundation.
Shultz attended med school at UC San Francisco, then went into private practice as a physician in northern San Diego County.
In Newell’s final years, before his death at the age of 93 in 2008, no one was closer to him than Shultz. But when he arrived at Cal nearly a half century before, Shultz had only a vague familiarity with Newell’s coaching prowess.
He chose Cal because he wanted to pursue a pre-med major and he wanted to go away to school after growing up in Southern California.
“To be honest,” Shultz said, “I didn’t have an appreciation for the stature of the man.”
But that sense came quickly, and only grew.