The NCAA has become so thoroughly modern in eligibility rules that football players can now participate in four games and still have it written off as a redshirt season.

That’s quite a contrast to the NCAA’s view going back a half-century. Freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition in any sport until 1968, and not eligible in football or basketball until 1972.

We were looking last month at considerable material from college basketball’s past in conjunction with the massive coverage given to the Final Four by the Star Tribune and

I ran across this item: The San Francisco Dons, back-to-back NCAA champions in 1955 and ’56, had to win their four tournament games in 1956 without star guard K.C. Jones. The NCAA had ruled in midseason that Jones would not be eligible for the tournament because he had played one game in 1953-54 before missing the rest of the schedule due to an appendicitis attack and surgery.

The Dons — the first team to win an NCAA title with three black starters — were mentioned in a column, but I didn’t get into the Jones issue, which was this:

He played for San Francisco’s freshman team in 1951-52, played a full varsity season as sophomore, had the one-game season in 1953-54, played for the Dons again in 1954-55, and came back for the fifth year in 1955-56 — ruled eligible by the California Athletic Association (forerunner to the West Coast Conference) but ineligible by the NCAA for the tournament.

I was reminded of this strange case when receiving a letter from Edward Griffin, a gent who moved to Minnesota 53 years ago, after growing up in California.

Griffin was on the Dons freshman team in 1955-56, when Jones, Bill Russell and Hal Perry were seniors. He wrote of the hostility faced by coach Phil Woolpert for integrating basketball to that degree on the West Coast, and the racism faced in other arenas by the black players.

“The Dons were remarkable athletes and models for all of us on campus,” Griffin wrote. “And, anyone who has heard Bill Russell’s cackling laugh after a blocked shot, or had a dribble stolen by K.C. Jones, never forgets it.”


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More on the great Dons:

• San Francisco had a record 60-game winning streak between a loss to UCLA on Dec. 11, 1954, and a loss to Illinois on Dec. 17, 1956. The record was surpassed by UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, which ended at Notre Dame on Jan. 19, 1974.

• Woolpert’s reaction to NCAA declaring Jones ineligible for 1956 tournament: “We’ll miss him, but we have a fine replacement in Eugene Brown.”

• Woolpert tired of college athletics and moved with wife Mary to Sequim, Wash., on the Olympic Peninsula, where he worked as a school bus driver.