Ramsay part of the Big Five and St. Joe's fabric

St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli at an exhibit in the Ramsay Basketball Center on Hawk Hill. He had the power to make players and coaches listen, Martelli said.
St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli at an exhibit in the Ramsay Basketball Center on Hawk Hill. He had the power to make players and coaches listen, Martelli said. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 30, 2014

The hardest part of St. Joseph's Hawks basketball practices under Jack Ramsay? Don DiJulia said it was being selected to play one-on-one.

With Ramsay.

"If you won - 'OK, we're playing again,' " said DiJulia, former Ramsay player, longtime St. Joe's athletic director. "If you won again - 'OK, we're playing again.' "

Jack Ramsay, who died Monday at age 89, was nearing 40 when DiJulia joined his team. Not that age ever meant anything with Ramsay.

This man goes down as Philadelphia's greatest contribution to basketball coaching, or maybe the coaching of any sport. Four of the six current Division I hoop coaches in Philadelphia (plus Penn State's coach) played high school ball for coaches who played for Ramsay. Five of his Hawks players went on to be NBA head coaches. That Ramsay coaching tree directly hits Connecticut women's coach Geno Auriemma, and half of the CYO coaches in Philly.

At St. Joe's, the wing of the old Fieldhouse separate from Hagan Arena is now called the Ramsay Basketball Center, home to the locker rooms and coaching offices. Can there be a more appropriate honor?

Ramsay went on to coach one of the great NBA championship teams, the Bill Walton-led Portland Trail Blazers. It's easy to focus on Ramsay's avuncular side, the professorial side. Yes, he was Dr. Jack after earning his doctorate at Penn. He became an early genius teaching pressure defense, including a zone press, which he first saw used by Pennsylvania Military College, now Widener. Ramsay's book, Pressure Basketball, published in 1963, became a coaching bible. He also was a great psychologist, convincing players that Albright's defense was just as effective as Duke's.

It just started with that ultra-competitiveness.

"He wanted everyone to believe that there is something inside you that can be better," DiJulia said. "So why not try to be better at everything?"

Bob Lyons wrote in his Big Five history, Palestra Pandemonium, how Ramsay consulted German military manuals in his early St. Joe's days, coming up with an energy drink, a precursor to Gatorade. The Germans tried running cold water over the stomachs of their fighter pilots to "heighten their intensity, mental acuity, and visual sharpness."

Ramsay, a Navy frogman during World War II, told Lyons, "I couldn't get the players to subscribe to it but I thought it helped me."

Ramsay's coaching arrival at his alma mater coincided with the formation of the Big Five. DiJulia pointed out that all the other local schools had already had their share of NCAA success while the Hawks had never been to the postseason.

"The Big Five is formed and who wins it?" DiJulia said.

St. Joe's, of course. In Ramsay's 11 seasons on Hawk Hill before leaving to become general manager of the 76ers, St. Joseph's went 234-72, reaching the NCAA tournament seven times and the NIT three times. He never won fewer than 17 games. Ramsay really meant it, DiJulia said, when he told the team that winning the Big Five was more important to him than winning a national title.

He almost left the Hawks job earlier, after three top Hawks players were found to have taken money to shave points in 1960-61. Ramsay looked inward, asking if he'd put winning ahead of their personal development.

So many coaches still worship at the Ramsay altar. Chattanooga women's coach Jim Foster is proud to be one of them. When Foster was coaching Vanderbilt, he was in Cleveland for a game and was asleep when he got a call from a school administrator. Ramsay, in town as a broadcaster with the Miami Heat, was in the restaurant downstairs.

"I get up, I get changed," Foster said over the phone Monday. "I get to spend a surprise hour and a half with Jack in a hotel in Cleveland."

Foster had been the Hawks women's coach, and met Ramsay for the first time when Foster made a St. Joe's recruiting visit to Oregon. Ramsay got the word and invited him to stay with him in Portland.

What stayed with Foster: Ramsay got up to take swimming lessons.

"He'd been a frogman in the Navy," Foster said. "And at the time he was 63; he was going to swimming lessons to improve his stroke for the triathlon!"

Whenever Ramsay came back to Hawk Hill, current Hawks coach Phil Martelli said, he always had the full attention of players and coaches.

"You know what his greatest trait was?" Martelli said Monday afternoon, standing on the basketball court. "He spoke softly. I'm convinced - I've never asked him but I've been thinking about it all day today. I think it was because he realized that listening was a lost art, and he was forcing you to listen."

Ramsay was back as recently as December when the '63 St. Joe's Elite Eight team was honored at a game against Creighton. "On that team eight of the 10 played in the same league, the Philadelphia Catholic League," DiJulia said. "And we had two foreigners, [from] Jenkintown and Cherry Hill."

Whatever distant parish they turned up from, their success under Ramsay was earned.

"We'd kid him at times," DiJulia said. " 'I wonder what our memories would be if we ever had a losing season?' How tough would it have been?"


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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