Harvard, Hair, and Harter’s Hunt for Perfection

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Dave Wohl drives to the basket during Penn’s 103–72 win over Harvard at the Palestra 50 years ago. It was one of 28 wins for the 1970–71 Quakers—and the game, jokes Wohl, that “saved civilization.”

If you look up Dave Wohl C’71’s trading card from when he played for the old Buffalo Braves of the NBA, you’ll see a photo of a player with a mustache, long sideburns, and bushy hair.

He never would have looked that way a couple of years earlier when he was a senior leader on the famed 1970–71 Penn basketball team that went 28–1 before its season ended with a stunningly lopsided 90–47 loss to Villanova in the NCAA tournament [“Almost Perfect,” Mar|Apr 2011].

His coach, the late Dick Harter Ed’53, wouldn’t allow it.

A former Marine who ran grueling practices and preached discipline, Harter once shocked Wohl and fellow senior guard Steve Bilsky W’71 when he told them that their hair had grown a quarter of an inch longer than he could permit. “You have to remember this was the hippie era,” Wohl says, recalling that the haircut meeting came right before the Quakers were scheduled to play at Ivy League upstart Harvard on January 7, 1971. “Harvard had these guys with long hair and beards and big afros, and it really began to be built up. It wasn’t just a game to see who was better. It was, all of a sudden, if we lose discipline, civilization is going to hell.”

Penn beat Harvard, 81–62, in the first matchup, and then followed that up with a 103–72 rout of the Crimson at the Palestra on February 19, with the clean-shaven Wohl logging 12 points and a then-program record 12 assists in the win. (The New York Times recap of that game opened: “Harvard displayed better looking hairdos, but Penn had far superior basketball ability.”)

“A lot of the preseason talk was that Harvard would dethrone Penn as Ivy League champion,” recalls Wohl, pointing to the emergence of the Crimson’s two sophomore stars, James Brown (who went on to become a famous sportscaster) and Floyd Lewis. Yet for Wohl and his teammates, “we were more scared that Dick Harter was going to make practices harder if we lost” than they were of any Harvard player.

In his recent book, Mad Hoops, author Bud Withers recounts the “line-in-the-sand intransigence for which Harter became renowned” with a quote in the Philadelphia Inquirer from then-Harvard coach Bob Harrison, who said: “Dick Harter talks about his ‘hair program.’ I was a Marine, too. What’s he want, hand-to-hand combat?”

For Wohl—who went on to a long coaching career in his own right [“Alumni Profiles,” Mar|Apr 2007] but never had a colleague or mentor quite like Harter—the motivation was simple 50 years ago. “I think all of us had a sigh of relief after [we beat Harvard],” Wohl says. “OK, we don’t have to have any harder practices. We’ve saved civilization. We’ve kind of done enough for one night.” —DZ

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