Bill Russell College Hoops Footage Captures a Remarkable Era in San Francisco History

Categories: Sports

The above footage is 12 seconds. That's about the time it took a young Bill Russell to snag a rebound, dribble the ball coast-to-coast, then drop in a finger roll while leaping over a hapless defender. It popped up on Youtube a few days ago, then was picked up by Deadspin on Monday, before making the internet rounds. Those 12 seconds capture a remarkable, and somewhat forgotten era in San Francisco history.

There is a reasonable argument that the greatest college football team of all time and the greatest college basketball team of all time attended classes on the same campus within five years of each other. Few, if any, colleges have experienced a stretch of such extreme success as the University of San Francisco in the '50s. But their stories go beyond that extreme success.

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The achievements would certainly stand on their own. The 1951 football Dons went undefeated and fielded eight NFL players. Three of those guys ended up in the Hall of Fame. Sports Illustrated later dubbed the '51 Dons the "Best Team You Never Heard Of."

USF was a basketball school, though. And, led by Russell, the Dons won back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956, winning a then-record 60 consecutive games along the way.

Not listed in the sports almanacs, however, is how each team's legacy is inextricably tied to the era's racial landscape.

The basketball team almost single-highhandedly shifted perceptions in the sport. As SI wrote in 2006, "The Dons were the forerunners for the modern game--in two short years they shifted college basketball's balance of power from white to black, from offense to defense and, thanks to the backboard-clearing, shot blocking, backward-dunking Russell, from horizontal to vertical."

The football team bypassed its much-deserved bowl game opportunity in defense of racial equality. As the New York Times wrote in 2009:

The team went 9-0, defeating its opponents by an average score of 32-8, but it was not selected for a postseason game by the Southern-based bowl game committees, ostensibly because of its weak schedule, but in fact because of its two black players, [Burl] Toler and [Ollie] Matson. In the interview, [Gino] Marchetti said [athletic publicity director Pete] Rozelle and [head coach Joe] Kuharich told the team they would be invited to play in a bowl only if the team agreed to leave the two black players behind.

"We answered 'No, we'd never do that,' " Marchetti said. "And after we said no and removed ourselves from consideration, nobody ever had a second thought about it."

In 2000, the United States Senate unanimously passed a resolution, submitted by Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, acknowledging that the Dons were victimized by racial prejudice and "that the treatment endured by this team was wrong and that recognition for it accomplishments is long overdue."

Fittingly each team, produced a civil rights pioneer. After a legendary playing career with the Boston Celtics, Russell became the NBA's first black head coach. Burl Toler, a standout linebacker and offensive lineman who was kept from the NFL by a bad knee injury, became the NFL's first black referee, a job he performed in between working as San Francisco's Police Commissioner from 1978 to 1986. In 2004, a charter school campus was named after him.

Because of financial strains, the 1951 season would be the Dons' last in Division I football. And the basketball team is no longer the powerhouse it once was.
But -- as those 12 grainy seconds remind us -- in those programs' wake are stories that helped define the city's identity.

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