Forty years ago, the 1979 Final Four included Michigan State, Indiana State, Penn, and DePaul in one of the greatest Final Fours in the history of college basketball.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson played against each other in the NCAA Championship game and Magic’s Michigan State squad defeated Bird’s Indiana State to win the national championship. Magic ruined Indiana State’s undefeated season and handed the Sycamores (33-1) their only loss of the season.
However, the biggest surprise about the 1979 Final Four has to be the appearance of the Cinderella Penn Quakers. The Ivy League school, with a #9 seed, defeated some of the best coaches in the game.
For this flashback to 1979, the March Madness tournament featured a 40-team field with ten schools from each region. Penn was regarded as one of the least-talented teams in the tournament. The committee assigned them with a #9 seed, but they still went on to win four big games in nine days.
Bob Weinhauer replaced Chuck Daly (yes, that Chuck Daly) as the new head coach of Penn. His first task was to outline the goals of the season to his new players: reach the 1979 Final Four. The Quakers were on a mission. They won the Ivy League and earned a first-round game against Iona.
Penn picked off Iona, coached by Jim Valvano before he headed south and won a title with North Carolina State in 1983. At the time, Valvano was one of the hottest coaching prospects in the East.
In the next round, Penn took down mighty North Carolina and Dean Smith. Their run did not stop there. Penn defeated Jim Boeheim and a high-flying Syracuse team led by Louie Orr to reach the Sweet 16. In the Elite Eight, Penn was up against Lou Carnesecca and St. John’s. The Johnnies tried to slow down the action, but Penn still prevailed with a two-point squeaker.
In order to get to the Final Four, coach Weinhauer got his non-scholarship players to defeat four of the most-legendary coaches in the game: Dean Smith, Louie Carnesecca, Jim Valvano, and Jim Boeheim.
Penn ran out of gas in the Final Four. Magic Johnson and the Spartans smoked them by 34 points. However, Penn’s appearance in the Final Four marked the last time an Ivy League basketball team went that deep in the tournament. Even during their peak years with Pete Carril, the Princeton Tigers failed to reach the Final Four.
Magic vs. Bird
Magic and Bird have been entwined in basketball history together since the 1979 Final Four. The two would continue to battle in the NBA with the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics slugging it out for supremacy in the 1980s. However, the 1979 Final Four in Salt Lake City, Utah is where it all began.
Bird’s Indiana State team had not lost a game all season. They were matched up against Ron Meyer’s DePaul team. The Blue Demons were always a perennial contender and they had future NBA star Mark Agguire on their roster. Despite Agguire’s ability to score at will, Indiana State held off DePaul to advance to the championship game. Bird dropped 35 points with 16 rebounds and 9 assists. He missed a triple-double by a single assist.
In the championship game, Michigan State won by 11 points. Magic Johnson led all scorers with 24 points. The Spartans defense did whatever they could to stop Bird, who still managed to score 19 points and haul down 13 boards. The Magic vs. Bird battle is still the highest-rated broadcast in March Madness history.
Forty years later, Michigan State finds itself in the Final Four. Tom Izzo is trying to win his second title and third-overall championship for Michigan State.