Villanova's long, meandering voyage from a college basketball program anchored in the Philadelphia area to one that now sails in the national headwaters was aided by savvy coaching hires, by consistent recruiting triumphs, good timing, and financial largesse.
It wasn't an overnight journey. In fact, it could be argued that the launch took place half-century ago, in the disappointing eddy of a postseason loss to the Kansas Jayhawks, the same powerhouse the Wildcats will meet Saturday in a 2018 NCAA tournament semifinal.
Before that season-ending 55-49 defeat in an NIT quarterfinal on March 18, 1968, Villanova tended to populate its roster with local talent. Moderately successful, the Wildcats would produce an NBA star or two and play in the occasional NCAA tournament. But by the end of 1968, they seemed grounded, having been relegated to the NIT four years in succession, seven times since 1959.
All that, however, would start to change immediately after that 1968 game. As thoughts turned to the next season, Jack Kraft knew that when the 1968-69 schedule began in December, Villanova would be reinforced with the most ballyhooed recruit in its history.
Sports Illustrated ranked Villanova No. 11 and featured the Wildcats prominently in its 1968-69 preview issue. The 'Cats eventually climbed to No. 5, won 21 of 26 games, and earned the first of four straight NCAA bids. In 1971, they reached the tournament's final. Rollie Massimino arrived in 1973, charter Big East membership in 1979, the school's first national title in 1985.
This weekend Jay Wright's Wildcats will appear in their third Final Four in nine years. They won a second national championship in 2016. Beginning in 2014-15, they've won more games in a four-year span than any team ever.
While many factors contributed to this blossoming, the biggest catalyst was a gifted 6-8 forward from an all-black high school in Sarasota, Fla., who arrived at Villanova in the fall of 1967. Howard Porter, the Daily News gushed at the time, was "the greatest front-court prospect in Big Five history."
Porter's unusual ability and, just as important, his unusual address would build the foundation for all the success Villanova has subsequently enjoyed — the five Final Fours, the two national titles, the 34 Wildcats the NBA would draft after Porter went in the first round in 1971.
"Howard was the start of Villanova being recognized nationally," said Tom Ingelsby, the future all-Big Five guard who played with Porter on the Wildcats' 1971 NCAA runners-up. "Villanova always had a strong program, but Porter took the program [farther]."
Kansas had been playing basketball since 1898, Villanova since 1920, but until that 1968 NIT game, they'd never met. That night, before an NIT-record crowd of 19,500, the Wildcats blew a halftime lead and couldn't recover from the 14-2 Jayhawks run that began the second half. The loss left them with a 19-9 record, their third straight season below 20 wins.
But Villanova's coach and returning players were hardly pessimistic. The NIT game was their last without Porter. They knew what was coming. They'd been watching and practicing alongside the Florida phenom, who under existing NCAA eligibility rules was barred from varsity ball as a freshman. He'd torn up the Narberth Summer League in 1967 and did the same once the 1967-68 Wildcats' frosh schedule began. Porter collected 50 points and 28 rebounds in one January victory.
He reached 50 points twice that season and averaged better than 30 a game. The freshmen team, which traditionally had attracted little interest, filled the Field House for most of Porter's games. A Daily News story noted that even in practices, "when he steps on a basketball floor, people stop what they're doing and watch."
George Raveling, a Villanova assistant, had found Porter at Booker High, the one black high school in still largely segregated Sarasota. Raveling was one of the few black assistants, and one of the few aides from a northern college to scout those schools in the South. That's how he'd uncovered Johnny Jones, Kraft's 1967-68 star, in Pompano Beach, Fla., a few years earlier.
"The first time I saw Howard Porter," Raveling recalled this past week, "I watched for about five minutes and called Coach Kraft. I said, `Jack, we've got nobody who can do what this kid can.' His game was so far ahead of his time. He was a precursor to today's basketball. I'd never seen a big guy who could shoot like him.
"After the game, I talked to his coach on the court. He said, `Watch this,' and he put one of those little rims inside the regular rim. Howard started swishing them, like 16 in a row."
Raveling contended that Villanova was the only northern school interested in Porter. But word must have spread quickly. A year later, Porter would tell a Philadelphia reporter that he'd been contacted by more than a 100 colleges. (Two of his five finalists were Villanova and Kansas.)
Whatever the details, Porter led Villanova to places it hadn't been before.
"[Porter's recruitment] was the point where we became more national in recruitment," said Fran O'Hanlon, the Lafayette coach who played before and with Porter at Villanova.
The Wildcats won 64 of their 78 regular-season games in Porter's three varsity seasons. They qualified for the NCAAs all three years, most notably in 1971, when they advanced to the title game, losing there to perennial champion UCLA. Porter averaged 23 points and 15 rebounds for his career.
In 2006, the Big Five honored Porter as the second greatest player in its 50-year history. For Villanova, his positive experience there helped persuade other black stars from beyond Philadelphia to consider the school. In the next decade, out-of-town talents such as Larry Moody, Keith and Larry Herron, Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McClain, and Harold Pressley arrived in a steady stream.
Porter wasn't Villanova's first successful black athlete from outside the Philadelphia area. Johnny Jones, George Leftwich, and Raveling himself had been basketball stars. And track coach Jumbo Elliott had imported such future African American Olympic stars as Charlie Jenkins, Frank Budd, and Paul Drayton. But it was Porter who really opened the door wide for Kraft, and later Massimino and Wright.
"The quest became more intense," said Raveling, who's 80 and lives in Southern California. "Successful recruiting of these guys became one way that coaches and programs could validate their reputations."
Ironically, as Villanova basketball's fortunes improved, Porter's went the other way. The NCAA accused him of signing prematurely with an agent, expunging the Wildcats' 1971 NCAA run from the record books. He played seven seasons in the NBA but never became the superstar his promise had indicated. Then in 2007, while working as a probation officer, Porter was found dead in the trunk of a car parked in a Minneapolis alley.