For many young students in the Sequim area, he wasn’t the heralded collegiate basketball coach, the instructor, the legend.
He was the first smiling face they’d see each day as their bus driver.
Phil Woolpert would have turned 99 this year, and though he died more than 25 years ago, memories of the hoops legend-turned-bus driver live on for Sequim residents like Norman Vorhies, class of 1980.
Vorhies, an admitted basketball fan and former player, recalls how kind — but serious — Woolpert was as a bus driver.
“On the bus I was very well behaved (but) my brother was a hyper guy,” Vorhies says, so they both wound up sitting close to the front and able to converse with the former NCAA coaching champ.
One day, Woolpert handed Vorhies a crisp black-and-white photo, signed on the back, a photo Vorhies held onto for years. In 2013, Vorhies had the photo authenticated by the Baltimore Sun, which originally took the photo. Vorheis said he plans on giving it to his son, Austin, as a keepsake.
The legend behind the photo, Vorhies says, is impressive. Consider that, by 1956, Woolpert — then 41 — had two National Collegiate Athletic Association championships under his belt, two graduates who would become two of the best pro players in America’s history and enough of a résumé to write his own ticket nearly anywhere he’d like to go.
For a man who said he would have become a social worker if he’d followed his dreams, though, Woolpert quickly learned to resent the spotlight, the expectations and everything he considered tainted about the game.
Using success as the only yardstick, Woolpert once said in an interview with Jimmy Come Lately Gazette reporter Jim White (“Phil Woolpert: The Man behind the 60-0 record,” Jan. 28, 1976), tends to make us a “nation of elitists. The end result being measured in the fact that unless a person is famous, he cannot be successful. That’s unrealistic.”
After stints coaching at San Diego University and with the American Basketball League’s San Francisco Saints, Woolpert retired to Sequim in 1972.
In his retirement, he chose something that could hardly be tainted by the fantasies and greed of big-time college sports: he chose to drive a bus.
“Big-time sports breeds few philosophers,” William Johnson once wrote in his 1968 Sports Illustrated portrait of Woolpert, nine years after he’d left San Francisco and, in his wake, two national championships and legitimacy among the most prestigious schools in college basketball history.
Woolpert will be forever linked with USF’s best prospects ever — National Basketball Hall-of-Fame players Bill Russell and K.C. Jones.
The trio and a team of skilled defenders helped the Dons to two NCAA titles. Even after Russell and Jones left, Woolpert managed to see the Dons place third in the NCAA tourney.
From 1954-1958, the Dons were a remarkable 104-10, including a then-NCAA best 60-game winning streak.
Lorrie Aillaud, a resident of Port Angeles, recalled how her father made all his teams — high school, college or pro — successful teams in a 2005 feature in the Sequim Gazette.
“A very consistent defense, he felt, was important,” Aillaud said, recalling very regimented practices.
When it came to game time, she says, Woolpert let his players go.
Johnson’s piece detailed how Woolpert grew more and more uncomfortable with the swelling of egos, sports department budgets and, eventually, corruption and greed within the supposedly sanctified halls of academia.
“He certainly cared about the game as a whole,” Aillaud recalled. “He wanted to see them (players) be well-rounded.”
Woolpert believed players should be at their best between the opening and end-of-game buzzers but in the locker rooms, the classrooms and at home, Aillaud said.
It seemed by the time Woolpert had moved to the small Catholic school of San Diego University in 1962, he had the aura and the makeup of a philosopher looking for a place far, far away from college basketball’s March Madness. He certainly must have found that in Sequim.
And when it came time to be a family man, he could do that too, Aillaud said, not to mention a sports nut who gently encouraged his sons and daughters to coach sports.
Woolpert’s son Paul coached the Yakima Sun Kings of the Continental Basketball Association and the NBA’s Development League Tulsa 66ers. Aillaud coached high school ball for several years. Nearly all of Woolpert’s offspring — sons Paul and Phillip Jr.; daughters Lorrie, Mary Thompson and Teresa Humes — each caught the coaching bug for a while, including granddaughter Becky Stanton, a volleyball coach in Sequim.
And the coaching bug is in the extended family as well: Aillaud’s son-in-law, Scott Rueck, is head coach of Oregon State’s women’s basketball program. He was recently selected ESPN PAC-12’s Coach of the year. In 2009, Rueck and Aillaud’s daughter Kerry, an assistant coach, guided George Fox to a 32–0 record and the NCAA Division III national title.
A hall-of-fame coach
Born in Danville, Ky., Woolpert studied at Los Angeles Junior College and graduated from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He then served his country in the Pacific Theater in World War II and married Mary Golden in 1945.
Woolpert coached St. Ignatius High School from 1946-1950 to a 63-29 record, then began his quick and illustrious collegiate coaching career, almost reluctantly: In his first year, the former prison counselor could tell recruiting was not to his pleasure.
“I did not think I could do the job justice,” Woolpert said in the Gazette 1976 interview.
However, Russell’s freakish talent and the Dons’ ability to dominate nearly every opponent served the school’s reputation well. The Dons were 153-78 under Woolpert’s mentoring.
Not only that, but Woolpert and the Dons were undeniably progressive. Researchers note that by the 1955-1956 season, USF was the first school to have a lineup of primarily black players. That fact caused great tension in countless cities — Louisville, New Orleans and Oklahoma City, to name three — but Woolpert backed his players and they him.
He then coached the University of San Diego to a 90-90 record.
After a brief stint as a pro coach, he moved his family to Sequim, where he took up driving buses for the Sequim School District.
Vorhies last saw Woolpert in 1985, he says, when the former bus driver needed help starting his car.
Two years later, on May 5, 1987, Woolpert died in his Sequim home.
Woolpert, who is buried in Port Angeles, was inducted into the college basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.
Woolpert’s University of San Francisco resume
• USF record included a 60-game winning streak, an NCAA record until UCLA’s 88-game winning streak
• During the 60-game winning streak, his Dons held opponents below 60 points 47 times
• Led USF to NCAA Championship in 1955 and 1956 and finished third in 1957
• In 1955, Woolpert, then 40, became the youngest coach in NCAA to win the title
• His Dons led the nation in defense in 1955, 1956 and 1958, and finished second in 1957
• From 1954-1958, his win-loss record in NCAA competition was 104-10
• Coach of the Year (1955, 1956)
• Pacific Coach of the Year (1957, 1958)
• One of the first coaches to start three or more black players