A Glorious Stride

The 1970 Men’s Basketball National Championship

Correction: Thanks to our alumni, including our legendary 1970 team, it was brought to our attention that two of the archive images we originally published were incorrect. We sincerely apologize for this error and have updated these photos as of October 5, 2021. A correction will also be included in the next issue, and there will be additional photos to honor the 1970 champions.

Editor’s note: Like so much else in 2020—concerts, weddings, sports, life in general—celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Rams' NCAA championship was put on ice. However, as part of the Class of 1970 “virtual” reunion hub, the Office of Alumni Relations revisited the championship season with Great Moments in Rams History, featuring an online conversation with head coach Herb Magee '63, team captain John Pierantozzi '70, and Robert Cunningham, director of athletics communications. Then on March 16, 2021, the Alumni Relations team aired a re-watch of the championship game on its YouTube channel. The following quotes are pulled from these programs. In this issue of Jefferson Innovator, we took the Time Machine back to 1970 to admire those golden champion Rams.

If you want the drama—the one shining moment, the last-second jumper, the full-court chase-then-block to swing the game—the champion 1970 men’s Rams aren’t the team for you.

This gilded group glided effortlessly past the competition, a one-in-a-million narrative cousin to the ‘92 U.S. Olympic squad or the ‘96 Bulls or the assembled Avengers in Endgame. Verily, these young men snatched the loom from the Fates to weave their own destiny.

You wouldn’t have guessed it going into the 1969-1970 season. They weren’t on any of the coaches’ or sportswriters’ polls. The team was guided by a young Herb Magee ’63, only 28 years old and in his third season as head coach. The tallest player stood about 6-foot-5. Sports Illustrated called it a “patchwork team,” presumably a pun referencing the school’s then 39-letter name: Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science.

And the Rams tripped out of gate, starting the season 1-2 after falling to Villanova and Mount St. Mary’s.

Of course, Sham briefly pulled ahead of Secretariat at the start of the Belmont, before Big Red dusted the competition and rewrote the record book.

So too the Rams soon found their glorious stride. They steamrolled 28 straight, including 22 on the road, to take the title. And it was never close. They blew out almost everyone they played, with an average margin of victory a devastating 24.5 points.  

Looking back, team captain John Pierantozzi ’70 points to a midseason victory over defending champs Kentucky Wesleyan as the turning point. That Panthers squad came to Philadelphia ranked No. 2 in the country and heavily favored. Taking the court in the Palestra, the Cathedral of College Basketball, the Rams “took them apart,” recalls Pierantozzi. The Rams won 79-58. “From that point, we realized we could compete with anybody.”

When you watch footage of the team from back then, the first thing that stands out is the court. There were no 3-point lines, and no 7-footers, so the hardwood appears absolutely cavernous. Then you see it. These Rams are fast. They’re coordinated. And they don’t stop moving.

As David Foster Wallace might put it, their movements are “lithe rather than athletic.” They glide, more like Flyers than 76ers. Everyone hits their mark. Passes are crisp. Knees are bent, palms up, hands active. They follow the ball, box out, and jump the passing lanes.

The team is disciplined, and relentless.

These days Magee is hailed as the “Shot Doctor,” lending his singular expertise to NBA pros like Jameer Nelson, Evan Turner, Malik Rose, and even Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. But it was his commitment to defense that won it all.

Legend has it Magee bought a few $1 pamphlets written by then-Army Coach Bob Knight outlining how to teach defense. He wove Knight’s drills into his practices, instilling discipline and preaching hustle. These boys wouldn’t be outworked.

Magee laughs now. “One day Jim McGilvery (class of 1970) comes to me and says he added up all the suicides [a high-intensity sprinting drill that consists of running to multiple progressively distant lines as fast as you can] I made the guys run that year. He said it was over 50 miles!”

Magee says he’s always tried to coach his players the way he would want to be coached himself. That’s to say: “Let them play. Let them show what they can do.”

The ball would zip around, so everyone got a touch. And when you touch the ball, you get involved—and when you get involved, you don’t mind playing defense.

Thirty-two teams competed in the 1970 NCAA College Division Basketball Tournament, played in Evansville, Indiana, known colloquially as “River City.” The spotlight was on, too, as it was the first time the tournament would be featured on national TV.

The Rams met the moment.

They won by 27 over Youngstown, 18 over Ashland, 48 over American International, and 16 over Cal Riverside, before the title game with mighty Tennessee State.

A Vegas favorite, the muscular Tennessee State Tigers sported future NBA pros Lloyd Neal and Ted “The Hound” McClain.

On Friday, March 13, 1970, under the sign of Pisces and before a capacity crowd of 5,748 and a national audience, the Rams and Tigers tipped off for glory.

Textile grabbed the lead in the first minute on a sweet jumper by Pierantozzi. They never looked back, cruising to a 40-27 lead at the half.

Tennessee State’s McClain gave it a strong second half to pull within 66-62 with 4:20 remaining. But Pierantozzi made a key defensive stop to spring an 8-0 run, sealing the win. The final score was “close,” 76-65.

It was clobbering, but it was beautiful in the way that all excellence in sports redefines the notion of what’s humanly possible.

The Rams starting five played all 40 minutes, everyone scoring between 19 and 12 points, forever enshrining themselves in Textile, now Jefferson, lore.

The City of Brotherly Love, always hungry for a champ in any sport, welcomed the Rams home with a parade to the mayor’s office.

When Magee and the team returned to Henry Avenue, campus buildings had been renamed (via poster board, paint, and brush) in honor of the five starters: Jim McGilvery, Mike O’Rourke, John Pierantozzi, Carl Poole, and Bruce Shively.

In 2006, Magee told ESPN, “I remember saying at the time—and not trying to be cocky—'That was pretty easy.’”