Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Jack Ramsay: coach, teacher, mentor

Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay, who helped mold players and coaches at Saint Joseph's and in the NBA, died at age 89.

A banner for Dr. Jack Ramsay hangs in Hagan Arena at Saint Joseph's. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)
A banner for Dr. Jack Ramsay hangs in Hagan Arena at Saint Joseph's. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)Read more

SAINT JOSEPH'S basketball was successful before 1955 and it has been successful since 1966. The "Mighty Mites" of the 1930s were a precursor to the Jameer Nelson teams of the early 2000s. St. Joe's basketball has always been special.

It was never more special or more successful than it was from 1955 to 1966, when 1949 St. Joseph's College graduate Jack Ramsay changed the way basketball on Hawk Hill was played and perceived. When the NCAA Tournament was a small club with fewer than 30 teams invited, automatically or otherwise, Ramsay's Hawks teams were there every year from 1959 to 1963 and again in 1965 and 1966.

That was little St. Joe's in the 1961 Final Four playing Ohio State and its legends, Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek. That was St. Joe's as the preseason No. 1. The 1-2-2 fullcourt press, explained in great detail in Ramsay's book, "Pressure Basketball," rescued more than a few St. Joe's teams from impossible deficits.

With players almost exclusively from Philadelphia or within a few hours drive, Ramsay coached some of the greatest teams of that era. His teams were in great shape. They played as a team, always. They were strategically sound. In his 11 seasons as the head coach at St. Joe's, Ramsay teams were an incredible 234-72 (.765), easily the best winning percentage in school history, and 34-10 in the Big 5, five times going 4-0.

His final two teams, starring Cliff Anderson and Matt Guokas, may have been his best, going 50-8. But that 1960-61 team, with sophomore point guard Jimmy Lynam running the show, was 25-5 and beat Wake Forest in Charlotte to get to the Final Four.

"He was way ahead of the curve, absolutely an innovator," Lynam said. "It wasn't just the success that he enjoyed; it was the manner in which he did it. He was just a low-key, unassuming type of person who just loved what he did. He had a real passion and a gift for it. He was a tremendous leader and motivator. He was able to squeeze every bit out of his group. It didn't matter what the level was. The regard that his players had for him, to me, that speaks volumes as to who he was and the manner in which he accomplished what he did."

"Dr. Jack" passed away yesterday in his sleep in Naples, Fla., after a long bout with cancer. He was 89. He will live forever on Hawk Hill. He played for the Hawks and coach Bill Ferguson. The Ramsay Center houses the men's and women's basketball teams. And anybody who understands the history of the university and its basketball program will never forget the contribution Dr. Jack made.

"There is a lot of the use of the word great and legend and Mt. Rushmores," SJU coach Phil Martelli said. "Well, the St. Joe Mt. Rushmore has one person on it and will always have one person on it. It wasn't just basketball. He was the epitome of the Hawks spirit. The spirit on campus of giving to others, of serving emanates from him."

SJU athletic director Don DiJulia played for Ramsay and knows his history as well as anyone. Ramsay's first year at St. Joe's was the first year of the Big 5.

"La Salle had just come off winning the national championship," DiJulia said. "[Paul] Arizin and Villanova had a run in the NCAA. Temple had been in the NCAA, St. Joe not.

"All of a sudden the first year of the Big 5, this guy comes from high school and beats everybody. The phenomenon of St. Joe winning from the outset, it was like an explosion. It was like, 'Wait a second, they're not supposed to do that.' "

But they did. In the greatest era of the Big 5, St. Joe's was its first dominant team.

Dr. Jack went on to become the general manager and coach of the Sixers and then the coach of the Buffalo Braves, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Indiana Pacers, winning 864 NBA games. He is as beloved in Portland as he is on Hawk Hill, coaching a team that played as beautiful a game as has ever been played to the 1977 NBA championship, overcoming an incredibly talented Sixers team to win the title with the great Bill Walton

"That was some of the best offensive play in the history of the NBA," Lynam said. "Those teams were just a delight to watch. For years people strived to have their teams play like that."

Ramsay was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. In just a few months, Philadelphia has lost two of its basketball icons, first Tom Gola, now Jack Ramsay.

Once he retired from coaching, Dr. Jack went on to become a television and radio analyst, his enthusiasm for and understanding of the game shining through every time he spoke.

He was a coach who spawned a coaching tree that has branches that have branches - Lynam, Jack McKinney, Paul Westhead, Jim Boyle, Matt Guokas, his son-in law Jim O'Brien. Lynam started coaching with Ramsay right after college and, like his mentor, was a success wherever he went.

That press, by the way, did not just work at St. Joe's.

"He brought that style of trapping, pressing defense to the NBA," said Lynam who remembers a preseason game when Ramsay, as the Sixers coach, threw a zone trap at the Knicks and the Sixers "won by 40."

Ramsay has the numbers on his coaching résumé. More than that, he has a legacy of lives affected. He was Dr. Jack because of his doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania. He was a teacher at heart.

"You know what jumps out to me," Martelli said. "In a world where we've gotten noisier and noisier and louder and boisterous gets you noticed, Jack got quieter and quieter and even more profound as he got quieter."

Martelli has won more games than any coach in SJU history. Those too are just numbers. It is the relationships that he cherishes, none more special than the one he had with Dr. Jack.

"He told me how proud he was of what we were doing," Martelli said. "To come into the Ramsay Center every day and think I have to try to get to that bar. I have to. He would never say it this way, but I would be letting him down."

Nobody ever wanted to let Jack Ramsay down because anybody who knew him was absolutely certain he would never let them down.

"His DNA was a teacher, a communicator, a coach, a mentor," DiJulia said. "And he got to know people when they looked him in the eye you knew he was in tune with what you were talking about . . . He was just an inspiration, a most positive person."

And there was, as DiJulia pointed out, the dedication of his first book, "Pressure Basketball." It was dedicated to the "Little Five," his five children.

"He was real, he was genuine, he was out for your best interest," DiJulia said.

The best teachers are like that. And Dr. Jack Ramsay was one of the best teachers who ever lived.