Getting to the Final Four in 1979 was Penn's plan all along. After all, the Quakers nearly beat eventual national runner-up Duke in the 1978 NCAA men's basketball tournament.
“We knew we were going to be pretty good,” head coach Bob Weinhauer said in 2015. “In fact, during the summer leading up to the season, I wrote each of the players a letter and gave them as one of our goals not just to get the NCAA [Tournament] but to get to the Final Four.”
How the Quakers got there is the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.
Penn won its eighth Ivy League championship in 10 years, but that was only good enough for the ninth seed in the 10-team East Regional.
But led by senior Tony Price, the Quakers beat four of the greatest coaches in college basketball history to reach the landmark Final Four.
Price scored 27 points in a 73-69 win over Jim Valvano and Iona and 25 points as Penn stunned Dean Smith and top-seeded North Carolina 72-71 on a James Salters free throw. The Quakers took the lead with 10:19 remaining and never relinquished it.
“Afterwards, Dean Smith was a gentleman and his team gave us all the credit," Weinhauer said. “It was two great teams playing their hearts out and one happened to come out ahead.”
In the regional semifinal, Penn stormed to a 50-37 halftime lead then held off Jim Boeheim and Syracuse for an 84-76 victory. Price scored 20 points and Tim Smith added 18 points and eight rebounds. Foul shooting proved the difference — Ken Hall was 11 of 12 from the line, Price 6 of 7 and Salters 4 for 4 at game's end. The Quakers scored only one field goal during the final eight minutes of the game.
In the regional final against Lou Carnesecca and 10th-seeded St. John’s, Price scored 20 points and Salters hit two free throws with 23 seconds remaining for a 64-62 victory in the regional final.
The Quakers became the fourth Ivy League school — and the first since Bill Bradley’s Princeton squad in 1965 — to reach the Final Four.
It was no ordinary Final Four. Penn joined Magic Johnson and Michigan State, Larry Bird and Indiana State and Mark Aguirre and DePaul in the Final Four.
And Penn was no ordinary Cinderella. Only UCLA, Notre Dame and Marquette appeared in as many NCAA Tournaments during the 1970s (8) as the Quakers.
Price ended his career with 18 points in a 101-67 loss to Michigan State in the semifinals and 31 points in a 96-93 loss to DePaul in the consolation game.
“It was a great run,” said Weinhauer, who had replaced Chuck Daly as head coach in 1977. “We expected to win. Deep down me and my staff knew there was a possibility we could lose, but we never projected that to our team. My team never lacked for confidence at any time.”
Meanwhile, Magic and Bird went on to play in the highest-rated college basketball game ever. Michigan State beat Indiana State, 75-64, and the NCAA Tournament has never been the same.
• Penn Athletics Hall of Fame
On the cover and above: Penn's Tony Price is mobbed leaving the court in Greensboro, N.C., after the Quakers beat St. John’s, 64-62, in the NCAA Tournament's East Regional final on March 18, 1979. The victory sent the Quakers to the Final Four in Salt Lake City. (Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Archives)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Northern Michigan and North Texas
• Tuesday: Northwestern State and Oakland
• Wednesday: Ohio and Old Dominion
• Thursday: Penn and Presbyterian
• Friday: Princeton and Providence