Glory Days - Remembering the Team That Took Saint Mary's to the "Elite Eight"
Bob Hagler talks about 1959 like it was yesterday. His silver hair peeking out of his 1950s-era Saint Mary’s baseball cap, he relives those days with a sparkle in his eye. The assistant coach of the celebrated 1959 Gaels’ basketball team that reached the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight speaks with such enthusiasm that he makes you, too, wish that you could return to that bygone era—back to simpler days with Elvis blaring from the speakers of an old Chevrolet and to the glory days of the Saint Mary’s basketball program.
“Going that far is something that stays with you for life. I’m so proud of those guys,” says Hagler.
In 1951, Saint Mary’s had disbanded its football program which had first brought national attention to the school during the golden era of Slip Madigan’s Galloping Gaels. By 1955, its basketball team wasn’t faring much better, ranking in last place. However, by the end of the decade that luck had changed.
As Sports Illustrated noted in 1959, “the Gaels have begun to gallop again, this time on the hardwood…the Gaels are back on the national scene again, primed to make loyal alumni, and a host of California fans, forget the golden days of football greatness.”
Part of that success can be attributed to Hagler. A graduate of the class of 1950, Hagler was the head coach of the freshman team that achieved an undefeated season in 1958 with standout players like future NBA star Tom Meschery. The next year those players joined the men’s team under Coach Jim Weaver and Hagler.
The Road to the NCAA Tournament
Hagler’s coaching mentality was simple and straight to the point. “I would always tell the guys three things: ‘No one is going to intimidate us, no one is going to outsmart us and no one is going to beat us up physically. If you don’t believe those things then walk out of the room right now.’”
The Gaels’ rise from last place to NCAA stardom in such a short period of time was remarkable. These days, the recruiting process focuses nationally and even internationally. However, back then the team consisted of mostly Bay Area boys who came from local Catholic high schools.
The team did hit some speed bumps along the way, losing one of their stars, Joe Gardere, midseason.
“Some of us fantasize and we play that ‘what if’ game—would we have won that game against Cal? Would we have been national champions like Cal went on to become?” says Ted Tsukahara, a freshman sports writer at Saint Mary’s in 1959 and now a professor at the College.
Tom Meschery, a member of the 1959 team who went on to NBA stardom with the Warriors, agrees, saying, “We might have beat Cal and gone to the Final Four if we had Joe on our team that year.”
The team also faced less-than-ideal playing conditions in the old Madigan gym, which was much smaller than McKeon Pavilion.
“There were fold-out bleachers on one side for the students and the other side had fold-out bleachers for the visitors,” says Tsukahara, who attended all the home games that year. “I can still remember the heat level and that noise level. We would all be stacked like sardines.”
Hardships and Hijinks
Throughout the hardships, the team and students still found time to participate in testosterone-fueled hijinks that helped to elevate school spirit at the all-male institution. When Santa Clara students were caught on campus, the letters SMC were shaved into their hair, and the “kidnapping” of a Stanford pompon girl added extra excitement to the basketball rallies.
With a standout season and a ticket to the Elite Eight, you would think that fame would descend upon the team. But in the days before ESPN, its win didn’t have the same national impact as when the Gaels went to the Sweet 16 in 2010. “Our phone booth stunt got more attention,” Meschery says, referring to the famous Life magazine cover of SMC students stuffed into a phone booth, an event took place a month later.
Around 13,000 fans filled the Cow Palace in March of 1959 for the NCAA Tournament matchup against Cal.
“The arena seemed huge to us,” says Hagler. “We played in the old Madigan gym, so to go from that to the Cow Palace was fantastic.”
In the end, Saint Mary’s lost the game 46-66. “Of course it was a sad loss but we kept our heads up and knew we did our best,” says Hagler.
Still an Avid Fan
Hagler still is an ardent fan of the Gaels and has had season tickets for years. He sits right behind the bench—a prime location, he says, and the same spot he would choose when he was a basketball scout. “You can see everything from there,” he says. “The first thing I notice is the relationship the team has with the coach. These kids all come out and touch everyone’s hands and the coach. That tells you a lot.”
Years later, it is still hard for Hagler to take off his coaching hat. “I see things on the court and start second-guessing as I watch the game, sometimes thinking ‘Oh no, we’re in trouble.’ But the secret of any good team is to work together, to be unselfish and be willing to give the ball up,” says Hagler. “It doesn’t make a difference who scores the points as long as you are on the winning team. Our team had that mentality and so does this team.”
Hagler and three of his players flew down to Houston for the Gaels’ Sweet 16 run in 2010. He was amazed at the crowd turnout and the successful program that Coach Randy Bennett has built.
“Randy has that great mentality that we are all family—on and off the court,” says Hagler. This carries over to include supportive fans and alumni who are still proud Gaels decades later, he says.
More than fifty years later, the 1959 team still holds the record as the best team that has ever played for Saint Mary’s. But Hagler and the players would like to see that all change eventually.
“After all,” says Meschery, “records are meant to be broken.”