The California Golden Bears Came Out of Nowhere to Win It All in 1959

Oscar Robertson (No. 12) led the Cincinnati Bearcats to the Final Four at the 1959 NCAA Tournament. This signed photo went to auction in October 2008.

By Jim O’Neal

The big question in 1959 was which one of the year’s big stars would lead their team to the NCAA championship: Oscar Robertson of Cincinnati, Bob Boozer at Kansas State, or “Zeke from Cabin Creek” Jerry West of West Virginia.

The answer was none of them, although Jerry and Oscar would guide their teams into the Final Four. The winner in 1959 was Coach Pete Newell’s starless California Golden Bears. They had won the Pacific Conference, but weren’t even ranked in the top 10 teams when the tournament started. They had a bye into the second round, where they were expected to be eliminated by a strong Utah team. Instead, they held the high-scoring Utes to a mere 53 points, while 6-10 center Darrall Imhoff monopolized the rebounding.

However, most eyes were looking to the east where West scored 25 points in an easy 82-68 win over a tough Dartmouth team. Then, several nights later, the 6-3 superstar chalked up 36 points to edge St. Joseph’s 95-92.

Kansas State had been ranked No. 1 at the end of the season and started strong by blistering DePaul 102-70 for only the third time a team had scored 100 points. Then they ran into Cincinnati and lost despite Boozer’s 32 points.

Meanwhile, California put away small Saint Mary’s in a game barely noticed and snuck into the Final Four.

Most thought Cincinnati would easily dispense with California in the semifinals given the explosive nature of the team that averaged 81 points a game complemented by the extraordinarily talented Oscar Robertson’s 29-point average. However, Coach Newell’s smothering defense prevailed in a 64-58 surprise upset.

West Virginia made the finals behind a sterling 38-point burst by West and easily beat Louisville 94-79.

So the stage was set to see if California could hold off Oscar Robertson one night and then Jerry West the next. When the final buzzer sounded, it was California 71 and West Virginia 70 in the biggest surprise of the year.

However, the next three years would clearly belong to the state of Ohio as Cincinnati and Ohio State fielded some of the best talent in tournament history.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].