In a year that is remembered for Magic Johnson and Larry Bird ascending to the top of the basketball world — a spot they held for more than a decade — the Penn Quakers were just as big a story.
Behind its motto “we got a secret,” the 1979 Penn basketball team pulled off one of the best runs in NCAA tournament history all the way to the program’s only Final Four appearance. During the tournament run, the Quakers defeated four hall-of-fame coaches.
“There was no secret if you watched them,” said Michael Lachs, a Penn student at the time, who worked at the Palestra changing the names on the scoreboard for each game. “You said, ‘my god, these guys are really good.’ And the campus was completely behind them… The core to the team’s success was that they started four seniors.”
Penn started four seniors and one junior that season. The Quakers were led by Tony Price, who averaged 19.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Tim Smith posted 13.4 points and 6.4 boards. Matt White was also in double figures with 11.7 points and 7.5 rebounds. James Salters and Bobby Willis both posted more than nine points per game.
The NCAA tournament that year featured a 40-team field with four regions of 10 teams. The Quakers were the No. 9 seed in the East Region.
In the opening round, Penn topped Jim Valvano’s Iona Gaels 73-69. Price netted a game-high 27 points and 12 rebounds. The Gaels were led by future NBA All-Star Jeff Ruland, who amassed 19 points and 15 rebounds.
In the second round, the Quakers edged Dean Smith and top-seed North Carolina 72-71. Pennsylvania shot 52% for the game and had four players in double figures. Price knocked down 25 points on 12-for-18 shooting.
Penn followed that game with an 84-76 win over Jim Boeheim and Syracuse. The Quakers raced out to a 50-37 lead at halftime before the Orange closed the gap in the second half but was never within striking distance. Five Quakers scored at least 11 points with Price as the high at 20.
To secure its spot in the Final Four, Pennsylvania topped St. John’s and Lou Carnesecca 64-62. Price once again paced the Quakers with 21 points.
“The hall-of-fame coaches that Penn was going up against is just unparalleled in NCAA history,” Lachs said. “Those guys won a load of games and a load of national championships and league titles. All those guys were really good coaches, and Penn was right there with all of them.”
In the Final Four, the Quakers ran into Michigan State and Magic Johnson. The Spartans prevailed 101-67 and led 51-17 at halftime. Johnson recorded a triple-double with 29 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Greg Kelser tallied 28 points. Price led Penn with 18 points, and White contributed 13 points and 11 boards.
Penn then played DePaul in the third-place game. The Blue Demons won 96-93 in overtime. The Quakers outscored the Demons by nine in the second half to force the extra period. Price netted 31 points and pulled down 14 rebounds.
Price was the leading scorer of the tournament with 142 points over the six games for an average of 23.7 points per contest.
Appearing in March Madness for the second of three straight years, Penn entered the Tournament 21-5 and 13-1 in the Ivy League. The year before the Quakers fell to Duke in the Sweet 16.
“It was not like a team that was all of sudden went from a ‘B+’ to an ‘A’ team just because they started playing well,” Lachs said. “This was just a deep, good team that nobody knew about.”
Pennsylvania was coached by Bob Weinhauer, who was in his second season at the helm. He assumed the position when Hall-of-Famer Chuck Daly left for an assistant coaching position with the Philadelphia 76ers.
What happened afterwards?
Weinhauer coached Penn for another three seasons. The Quakers finished at least tied for first in each of his five years at the helm. He was the head coach at Arizona State for three years before jumping to pro ranks, where served as an assistant for a decade.
Price was selected in the second round, 29th overall in the 1979 NBA Draft. He played a total of five games in the NBA with the San Diego Clippers in the 1981 season.