The outsiders

Forty years ago, the Quakers pieced together one of the greatest underdog stories in college basketball history, culminating in what many still believe to be the sport’s most important NCAA Final Four.

Forty years ago, the Quakers liked to say they had a secret. The slogan began when, while warming up for their second-round NCAA Tournament game versus North Carolina, then-assistant coach Bob Staak, sensing a bit of apprehension, told the players, “We’ve got a secret. Nobody knows it but we’re gonna beat these guys.” And then Penn did just that, pulling off arguably the best win in program history. After two more victories to get to the Final Four, the Quakers’ new motto became “It’s no longer a secret.” A banner with those words once fluttered across Walnut Street.

From left to right, James “Booney” Salters, Bobby Willis, Tim Smith, Matt White and Tony Price
From left to right, James “Booney” Salters, Bobby Willis, Tim Smith, Matt White, and Tony Price—the five starters on Penn’s 1978–79 Final Four team. (Photo: Rosenblum, Lansner, courtesy Daily Pennsylvanian/Penn Athletics)

While it hasn’t been a secret in the 40 years since, the accomplishment, in many ways, has become even more impressive over time as no Ivy League basketball team has come nearly as close to winning a national championship. “As the years go by—and they’ve gone by kind of quickly—it seems to become more and more precious,” says Tony Price, the star of the 1978–79 squad.

As such, the University has made a concerted effort to embrace its illustrious basketball history, first honoring the 1977–78 Sweet 16 team (which featured the core of the Final Four squad) last season during the dedication of the Atrium. And this year’s festivities, which included giving out rings and presenting former coach Bob Weinhauer with a framed jersey, marked Penn’s first official celebration of the Final Four team since its 25-year anniversary. “I can’t believe they’ve done so much for us in putting together this day,” says Tim Smith, the second-leading scorer on the ’78–’79 squad. “It really warms my heart to know they care that much about our team.”

Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.