GW’s greatest hoops teams played in the ’50s

Second in a series of articles

So there you were last Tuesday night, one ear to the speaker, listening to the GW game on the radio, like you were a Brooklyn Dodgers fan or something.

Your boys had just gone 2-0 for the fifth straight season, and you’re thinking to yourself (in that Dick Vitale voice you only use in your inner monologues), “Oh yeah! GW men’s basketball has arrived with a capital A, baby!” Again, you let yourself reminisce about the recent seasons gone by, particularly last year’s mark of 24-9 that earned the Colonials a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

(Whoa, I bet that was a tough year.) Umm, excuse me? (Oh hi, it’s just me again, University of North Carolina fan. You know, from last time. I was just saying that I know how hard it can be when you have a bad year like that. A couple years ago, my Tar Heels only won 21 games and got a No. 6 seed. It was really embarrassing.) Uh, that No. 9 seed was GW’s best since the field expanded to 64 teams. (Oh, sorry.)

Well, last issue, we ran through the GW men’s basketball history all the way through World War II. I take it you’re not impressed? (It’s been all right, I guess.) The last time we met, GW had just won the 1942-’43 Southern Conference Championship; a conference that included North Carolina, I might add. (All right, fair enough.)

This time, we’re going to detail the second tenure of a coach who, when he retired, was one of the winningest coaches in the history of the game. (Oh sure, Dean Smith. How’s he doing?) Hmm . I hear he’s fine, but actually, my sticky-footed friend, I speak of the greatest coach GW’s ever had, Mr. Bill Reinhart. (Aha . Well, you got me again.) Good, now where were we?

Reinhart returns

It was 1945. The war had concluded, and varsity basketball was returning to GW after a two-year hiatus. Arthur “Otts” Zahn, who had relieved Bill Reinhart when Reinhart left for the Navy, was still head coach, and GW was still competing in the Southern Conference. Zahn turned in a 7-8 record in 1945-’46, but recovered with a 21-7 record in 1946-’47.

It was the first of GW’s seven 20-win seasons in 84 years. In 1948, “George the Mascot” first lent his talents to the school. And Reinhart returned to coach the team in 1949, picking up just where he had left off.

As the 1950s dawned, Reinhart was continuing to field strong teams, and in 1952-’53, GW was third in the country in points scored, averaging 85.9. That team was led by senior captain Larry “Tex” Silverman, who would, 45 years later, give his alma mater a $1 million donation (hence the newly named “Tex” Silverman Court in the Smith Center).

The 1950s brought GW not only amazing regular season success, but also its first national postseason tournament appearance. National tournaments were still young. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics started its tournament in 1937. The National Invitational Tournament started in 1938, and the NCAA invited its first eight teams in 1939.

George Washington had some great years in the late 1930s, but didn’t make any of the fledgling tournaments. The NIT was started by New York City sportswriters and was held, as it is today, at Madison Square Garden. “Red” Auerbach was a sophomore on the team in 1938, and always felt that GW wasn’t invited to that first NIT because the tournament committee didn’t want the Colonials upsetting a popular New York team.

Dan Shaughnessy wrote in Seeing Red, that “only `Red’ could watch a 1990s Celtic victory in Madison Square Garden and think of it as a payback for an NIT slight from almost a half century earlier. But it’s true. All of Auerbach’s Madison Square Garden wins are a little payback for Reinhart. Losses to New York, and particularly losses in New York, remain the toughest to take.”

After the 1952-’53 season, seven teams broke off from the Southern Conference and started the Atlantic Coast Conference. GW answered with a brilliant 1953-’54 season. Behind the talents of senior John Holup and his brother, sophomore Joe Holup, the Colonials went 10-0 in the conference, beat six of the seven ACC teams and finished the regular season 20-2.

Using a zone defense, GW won the Southern Conference Tournament and advanced to its first NCAA Tournament game – a two-point loss to North Carolina State University. Yes, that’s the one ACC team GW didn’t beat in the regular season. That NCAA, by the way, was won by La Salle, still the only time any of the current Atlantic 10 teams have won an NCAA Tournament.

The 23-3 record GW compiled that year is still the best winning percentage in GW history. Center Joe Holup and teammate Eliot Karver were first and second in the nation in field goal percentage, the only time such a feat has been accomplished in NCAA history. The team got as high as No. 7 in the Associated Press poll, spending eight weeks in the top 10. GW finished ranked No. 12.

John Holup, a second-team All-Southern Conference selection, remembers those days well.

“In my sophomore year, we played Duke on Saturday. Sunday, we traveled,” Holup said. “We played Clemson on Monday, and South Carolina on Tuesday. We played the Citadel on Wednesday, and we were home by Friday.”

In those days when freshmen couldn’t play varsity, and no one ever played a game on Sunday, Holup attended a different GW than today’s University.

“Yeah, all the athletes lived together in Welling Hall (where the parking garage is now at H and 22nd streets),” Holup said. “There’s a gap between what happened in the ’50s and now. The University has gotten so big. There was a real community then. Quigley’s Pharmacy was a place we used to stop in all the time. They knew all the players.”

Holup thinks the only thing that’s changed in the game is the athleticism.

“I was 6-5 and I was considered tall,” he said. “In our days, no one dunked – we considered that showboating, and it was unheard of to block a shot. Goaltending wasn’t even a rule.”

Playing basketball at GW in those years meant playing home games off campus at Uline Arena or at Fort Myer and practicing in poor conditions at the “Tin Tabernacle,” but it also meant playing for the winningest coach in GW history.

“We started practicing the first week of October. In the meantime, we were dressing in one room of the `Tin Tabernacle,’ and the football team was dressing in another,” Holup remembered with a laugh. “It was so small, they were just falling all over each other.

But playing for Reinhart was worth it.

“Reinhart was a good practice coach, and good at figuring out his players, and setting up an offense,” Holup said. “In games, we just won by doing what we had practiced,”

And what about those games with Georgetown University?

“Well, we handled them pretty well (going 6-2 in Holup’s years). We used to say that Georgetown recruited referees `from the Philadelphia area,’ which meant that they let Georgetown play pretty rough,” he said. “You knew you were going to be bruised after that game.”

A season to remember

The success of the team continued after John graduated. In 1954-’55, GW played a 30-game schedule that included opponents from all over the country. The team made an intersectional journey all the way to Oklahoma City and played in the All-College Tournament, which is today the oldest tournament in the country. GW beat Oklahoma State University and the University of Tulsa before succumbing to Bill Russell and the University of San Francisco, which was on its way to a national championship. Of course, NBA coaches around the country had heard of Russell, but it was nearly impossible to see a man who played all the way in California.

By this time, Arnold “Reds” Auerbach had become just “Red” Auerbach, and had coached for St. Albans (near the Washington Cathedral), the Washington Capitols (in the first season of the NBA) and was now coach of the Boston Celtics. Gene Guarilia, former Colonial and Celtic, would tell this story to Seeing Red author Dan Shaughnessy:

“We were all sitting down having lunch at Welling Hall at GW. The team had just come back from
the All-America College Tournament in Oklahoma City. San Francisco beat us and Russell blocked numerous shots. I was sitting at the table with Coach Reinhart and he turned to `Red’ and said, `I just saw the greatest defensive player who ever lived – Bill Russell from San Francisco. Try to get this guy, no matter what you have to pay or who you have to trade.’ “

That unassuming moment on 22nd Street would bring together perhaps the greatest NBA coach of all time with one of the NBA’s best defensive player. Russell would bring the Celtics 11 NBA Championships. Auerbach would be on the bench for nine of them.

That 1954-’55 GW team did more than just change the NBA. The Colonials won the Big Three Cup, which, for the first and only time, officially rewarded a team for having the best record in games between GW, the University of Maryland and Georgetown. The team also climbed to No. 5 in the AP Poll, its best ever ranking, but finished at No. 14. Behind Joe Holup and Walt “Corky” Devlin, the team went 24-6, a win total that wasn’t matched until last year.

GW’s great run ended with Joe Holup’s senior year, 1955-’56. The Colonials finished 19-7, appeared in the AP rankings, but finished out of it. For the third straight year, GW led the nation in field goal percentage and rebounding. This was, of course, mostly due to Holup, who led the country in both categories.

Holup averaged an amazing 23.2 rebounds per game that year (a GW single-season record) in addition to being the only Colonial to ever grab more than 2,000 rebounds in a career (2,030). Holup averaged 25 points per game in 1955-’56 (the second best season in GW history). His career average of 21.4 points per game is the best in school history, and Holup is also the only Colonial to ever score more than 2,000 points in a career (2,226).

Holup also holds the GW single-game scoring record of 49 points, which he set one week after dropping in 47. Among his assorted all-American laurels, he was a third-team AP All-American. Quite obviously, Joe Holup was the greatest basketball player GW has ever seen.

After Holup was drafted by the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers), the Colonials fell into a little slump that lasted, oh, 30 years.

The dark days

Between the 1929-’30 season and the 1955-’56 season, GW had only suffered through one losing year. Most of that success had come under Reinhart. In 1956-’57, the football team had its best season, winning the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Day and finishing 8-1-1, ranked 16th by the AP. It’s a good thing, because the basketball team was busy going 3-21. Ten years later, the football team would be history, and the basketball team still would be losing in bunches.

Reinhart managed to produce one more miracle before he retired. In 1961, GW finished the regular season 6-16, then proceeded to win the Southern Conference Tournament. GW advanced to the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Princeton University by 17 points at Madison Square Garden.

Reinhart retired in 1966 with a staggering record of 316-239. Reinhart had coached 24 seasons. That’s even more amazing when you consider that the Colonials had 22 coaches in their other 61 seasons. At the time of his retirement, he was the fourth winningest coach in NCAA history.

Through his coaching and life, Reinhart embodied discipline and loyalty, qualities that stuck with many of his former players. In basketball, he was not just known for wins. “Red” Auerbach learned much from Reinhart about practicing and conditioning. He would later say of Reinhart, “I liked his coaching philosophies. I liked the way he ran the break, conducted the practices and had control. There were a lot of things I liked about him. He was a great coach, way ahead of his time.”

Reinhart was famous for preaching the fast break, and, in fact, Auerbach believed Reinhart invented the modern fast break and the long outlet pass that Larry Bird would later execute to perfection. Bill Reinhart was the greatest coach GW ever saw, or as “Red” once said, “There are coaches in the Hall of Fame who couldn’t carry his jock.”

On Dec. 3, look for part three of the series: Until present day
Click here to read part one of the series

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.