The Untouchables is a 10-part series spotlighting college basketball's most unbreakable records. Last up is No. 1: UCLA's seven consecutive national championships from 1967 to 1973.
Moments after UCLA survived Villanova's upset bid to capture its fifth straight national championship in 1971, sophomore forward Larry Farmer waltzed into the Bruins locker room ready for a victory party.
"I was expecting the seniors would be giving high-fives, jumping up and down, hugging and screaming," Farmer said. "Instead when I got in there, it was quiet and guys were just relieved to have won. It was like, 'Phew, mission accomplished.'"
Celebrating championships with sighs of relief rather than screams of joy was an annual tradition for a UCLA program burdened by sky-high expectations at the peak of its dynasty. The Bruins won a record seven straight national titles from 1967-73 and 10 in 12 seasons from 1964-75, an unfathomable accomplishment that has only become more difficult to duplicate since then.
Whereas Lew Alcindor, Sidney Wicks and Bill Walton remained at UCLA through their senior seasons, today's top teams often have to reshuffle their rosters every year or two as a result of early defections. Furthermore, the Bruins never had to win more than four NCAA tournament games to claim a championship, nor did they have to deal with the same social media and national media pressures today's elite teams face.
For all those reasons, UCLA's title streak is the most unbreakable of all the marks established during the Bruins dynasty, more unassailable than even their 88-game win streak from 1971-74 or their 30.3-point average margin of victory during the 1972 season. No other Division I program has even won more than two straight national championships, let alone mounted a serious challenge at UCLA's seven in a row.
"Can it be done? I know that Coach Wooden would say, 'If we can do it, it can be done again,'" said John Vallely, a starting guard on the 1969 and '70 UCLA teams. "But is it likely with the present environment of the NCAA? Could you get the best kids out of high school, take them to Kentucky, have that sort of a run like they did last year, then do that year after year? Very unlikely, in my opinion."
A dynasty in college basketball's modern era seems next-to-impossible, but there were also few signs UCLA was capable of such a run the first 13 years of John Wooden's tenure. Bill Russell's San Francisco teams and Pete Newell's Cal teams dominated 1950s basketball on the West Coast, relegating the Bruins to second-tier status despite a handful of league titles during the era.
The pendulum swung in UCLA's favor in the early 1960s when Wooden landed talented recruits Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich and Keith Erickson and introduced a full-court zone press that later became one of his signatures. The Bruins didn't start a single player taller than 6-foot-5 in 1963-64, but they outran all their opponents, rolling to a 30-0 season and Wooden's first national title.
A major reason UCLA halted its trend of early NCAA tournament flameouts was Wooden's decision to alter his method of preparing for postseason games later in his career.
In the early years, Wooden extended the length of practices in March and spent more time readying the Bruins for the opposing team's offense and personnel. By the start of the title streak, Wooden scrapped that approach, shortening practices late in the season and spending that time correcting his own team's flaws rather than prepping for the opponent.
"I think he learned as the years went on that he just needed to keep us sharp in the fundamentals," said Lynn Shackelford, a member of the 1967-69 championship teams. "If you emphasize the other team too much or work players too hard, you're going to bring on a possibility of physical and mental fatigue at that point in the season. Those were the two big things I think he did later in his career. He used to say, 'Maybe I wasn't good at postseason play early in my career, but later in my career I learned it pretty good.'"
UCLA's near-flawless 205-5 record during its seven-year title streak suggests the pressure on the Bruins should have increased with every banner they raised, but the truth is that's too simplistic. Instead, it spiked some years and dipped others, depending on how much talent returned from the previous championship team.
Perhaps no team had it worse than the 1968-69 Bruins, which featured the dominant Alcindor as a senior and a lethal supporting cast. The seniors that year were part of a freshman team that routinely routed UCLA's varsity team during scrimmages four years earlier, so anything short of three straight championships for that class would have been a major disappointment.
Behind Alcindor's formidable interior presence and the perimeter scoring of Shackelford, Vallely, Wicks and Curtis Rowe, UCLA won its first 23 games that year by nine or more points. The aura of invincibility faded a bit in March, however, as the Bruins eked out narrow victories over Cal and USC, then lost their regular-season finale to the Trojans before regrouping to win the championship despite a closer-than-expected national semifinal against Drake.
"We weren't playing not to lose that season, but it was close to that," Shackelford said. "After the championship game in Louisville, I remember talking to this girl back at the hotel, and she said, 'I was hoping the other team would win. You guys didn't look very happy after the game.' I said, 'We really weren't that happy. We were more relieved because we were just doing what we were supposed to do.'"
Wooden was effective at easing the burden of UCLA's prior success by having his players focus on doing their best and improving each day rather than wins and losses, but those platitudes didn't mean the Bruins were immune to the pressure.
Having a Sports Illustrated writer embedded with the team the month leading up to UCLA surpassing San Francisco's record 60-game win streak in 1973 put the Bruins on edge by forcing them to ponder the significance of that achievement. Worse yet were the conversations with fans after home games in which UCLA merely slipped by lesser teams rather than putting them away early.
"We'd have fans come up to us after games and say, 'Oh, you're giving us a heart attack. That game was too close,'" Farmer said. "I'd be like, 'Yeah, but we beat them.' My junior year, we won games by an average of 30.3 points. My senior year, we went 30-0 and won another national championship, but the standard had become so high that we paled in comparison to what we'd done before."
While the standard of excellence set by UCLA challenged its players during that era, the Bruins did an impeccable job not letting it overwhelm them for the most part. They won their 28 NCAA tournament games during their seven-year title streak by an average of almost 18 points per game and they'd have won nine straight championships were it not for a three-point national semifinal loss to David Thompson-led NC State in 1974.
Farmer went an unparalleled 89-1 in his three varsity seasons at UCLA, but the current Western Michigan assistant does have one regret about his college career.
"If I could do anything over again, especially my senior year, I'd have had a lot more fun in the locker room after we won," Farmer said with a chuckle.