Bill Russell was one of the greatest winners in the history of basketball. His Hall of Fame career started on the national stage in college, where he won two national championships and 55 games in a row at San Francisco.
Here's everything you need to know about Bill Russell's college career at San Francisco.
Bill Russell's college stats and vitals
School: San Francisco
Weight: 215 pounds
Years active: 1953-56
NCAA tournament record: 9-0
Career averages: 20.7 points per game, 20.3 rebounds per game, 51.6% shooting
How many points did Bill Russell average in college?
Russell averaged 20.7 points per game in three seasons at San Francisco, most notably a 21.4 scoring average in 1955.
What was Bill Russell's record in college?
In three seasons with Bill Russell, San Francisco went 71-8, capped off by a 28-1 season in 1955 followed by an undefeated, 29-0 season in 1956.
How many national championships did Bill Russell win in college?
Russell won two national championships in college, leading San Francisco to back-to-back national titles in 1955 and 1956. San Francisco was named the United Press national college basketball champion, prior to the 1955 NCAA Tournament, after the Dons went 23-1 in the regular season.
"The West Coast Dons' prospects were regarded so lightly before the start of the campaign that not a single coach mentioned them in the pre-season sizeup of the race," reported the United Press. "But (Phil) Woolpert's men, led by All-America center Bill Russell, fooled a host of basketball authorities."
What was Bill Russell's game like?
Russell was simply dominant, arriving in college at 6-8, but he was a fluid, agile athlete — to the surprise of many sportswriters. His arms were long and his hands were big, giving him a level of physical superiority over his opponents. Even on San Francisco's freshman team, observers noted that he was well on his way to becoming one of the greats in the game.
"This Russell kid, who has 'can't miss' stamped all over him, is really something to see and fans had better hustle out to Sunday to get a gander at him because it's a moot question whether the Frosh, although they can be counted on, can stay with the Olympians," The San Francisco Examiner's Bob Brachman wrote in March 1953. "Possessed of a 'wing spread' that looks something like the stretch of a B-36, and hands as big as a pair of shovels, Russell, a 6:8 prospect, from Oakland's McClymmonds High, showed all the earmarks of a future great."
A reporter from The Daily Oklahoman noted that Russell could run the court in "what seems like four or five easy strides," often ahead of the pack on fast breaks. Some newspaper writers contrasted Russell's activity level with that of many big men of the 1940s and '50s, who didn't play with as much energy as Russell.
During Russell's season with San Francisco's freshman team in 1953, The San Francisco Examiner labeled Russell the "dunker" and a "pivot," noting he would be "among the closely watched performers of the day." Russell had helped his team to a 19-4 record as a freshman.
Offensively, Russell would typically station himself below the basket and repeatedly make close-range shots that were difficult to defend. The Deseret News in Salt Lake City reported that in a game against BYU, Russell's San Francisco teammates took long jump shots, setting up Russell for easy put-backs. "His mates shot long to feed Russell at the tip-in zone and he made most everything that came his way," wrote sports editor Hack Miller. "He pivoted nicely on a couple of shots to show he could play basketball and was not on the court merely as an oddity."
This was a player who is one of just five NCAA Division I men's basketball players to ever average 20 points and 20 rebounds per game in his career, and a writer from The San Francisco Examiner once speculated after watching Russell play for San Francisco's freshman team that the big man must've blocked 20 of his opponent's shots.
The Salt Lake Tribune's John Mooney wrote that Russell was one of the few centers in the country who could "allow daylight and still cover his man," with "daylight" referring to the space between an offensive and defensive player as required by rules back then. In addition to his great height and length, Russell had impressive reflexes and jumping ability.
The Spokesman-Review's Bill Boni observed opposing shooters intentionally taking shots further away from the basket after having a shot blocked by Russell. Some would add even more arc to their jump shots, lowering their chances of going in. There's a reason San Francisco was allowing just over 50 points per game.
After covering San Francisco's season-opening 51-33 win over Cal in the 1953-54 season, the Oakland Tribune's Bill Dunbar wrote that Russell's "defensive play left Cal Center Bob McKeen so frustrated that the lanky Cal man had his best look at the basket from the bench," noting that Russell blocked layups that "looked like cinches for McKeen." The San Francisco Examiner reported that Russell had 13 blocks in the game, most of which he grabbed and started the fast break for the Dons. McKeen was an All-American; Russell was the game's high-scorer with 23 points.
After covering Russell's varsity debut, The San Francisco Examiner's Brachman wrote that the 6,000 fans who were in a sellout crowd (2,000 others were reportedly turned away) for a game between San Francisco and Cal "witnessed the 'birth' of a tremendous court star."
His game had developed since his freshman year at San Francisco, as did his frame. He reportedly added an inch and 10 pounds in the offseason.
"Russell has developed a left-handed spin jump shot to go with his left and right-handed hook shots this year and may better his average over his frosh attempts," reported The Salt Lake Tribune in December 1953.
There was a level of maturity and confidence to Russell, the player and the person, too.
"Atop it all," reported The San Francisco Examiner, "Russell is a junior edition of the Globetrotters' Goose Tatum as a court jester. He conducts a full course of instruction for everyone on the premises, including explanations of infractions to officials."
What were some of Bill Russell's best games?
Russell, in his first year playing varsity, had a 19-point second half against BYU after a one-point first half. He might be slowed for maybe a half, but rarely a full game.
San Francisco won the All-College basketball tournament and Russell was named the tournament's MVP in his second varsity season. He was the only unanimous selection to the all-tournament team. The Dons won the tournament title with a 16-point victory over No. 8 George Washington, despite entering the tournament as an unheralded participant.
Russell had 23 points in the clinching game.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Russell's defensive play against Utah in the regional semifinals of the 1955 NCAA Tournament was "nigh perfect." Russell led all scorers with 29 points in a victory over West Texas State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, then in the regional final against Oregon State, Russell had 18 of his team's 30 points in the first half. After halftime, he had a single defensive sequence in which he blocked three different shots.
Russell put up massive stat lines in both of San Francisco's national championship game appearances. He had 23 points and 25 rebounds against La Salle in 1955, including 18 points in the first half. Legendary Kansas coach Phog Allen reportedly called Russell's first half the "most exciting he had ever seen in his coaching career of 45 years," reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. La Salle star Tom Gola was tasked with defending Russell but he picked up two quick fouls in the first half and the Explorers were forced to switch to a zone defense.
Russell's five-game point total of 118 points in the 1955 NCAA Tournament established a new tournament record, as he helped the Dons win 26 games in a row to end the season.
Russell and the Dons picked up where they left off, winning all 29 of their games in the 1956 season, which ended with Russell putting up 26 points and 27 rebounds versus Iowa in the national championship game.
San Francisco's center had six double-doubles in nine NCAA tournament games in his college career, including four 20-20 games in his last five NCAA tournament games. He went for 21 points and 23 rebounds against UCLA and 27 points and 22 rebounds in back-to-back games to start the 1956 NCAA Tournament. He also operated at extreme efficiency, making at least 60 percent of his field goal attempts in six of his first seven games in the NCAA tournament.
There was an 11-for-14 performance against Oregon State, 14-of-18 against West Texas State and 10-of-14 against Colorado, all in 1955.
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What awards did Bill Russell win in college?
Here are some of the awards Russell won in college:
- 1955 consensus First Team All-American
- 1955 West Regional Team
- 1955 Final Four Most Outstanding Player
- 1955 All-Tournament Team
- 1956 consensus First Team All-American
- 1956 Far West Regional Team
- 1956 All-Tournament Team
- 1950s All-Decade Team
- Named one of the top 15 players in NCAA tournament history in the 75 Years of March Madness Celebration
What records did Bill Russell set in college and where does he rank among historical greats?
Here are some of the records Russell set in college and where he ranks all-time in notable statistical categories:
- One of five players in NCAA history to average at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in a career
- Highest two-game rebound total in Final Four history: 50 rebounds
- Led the 1955 NCAA Tournament in scoring: 118 points
- Seventh all-time in career rebound average: 20.3 rebounds per game
- 12th, 18th all-time in most rebounds in a season: 609, 594 rebounds
- 13th all-time in career rebounds: 1,606 rebounds
- Tied for 24th all-time in highest rebounding average in a season: 21.0 rebounds per game
What did people say about Bill Russell?
San Francisco coach Phil Woolpert prior to Russell's first season playing varsity: "We are not even a dark horse or a major contender for the California Basketball Association championship. We have four veterans, and the question mark is our Bill Russell, a sophomore."
Woolpert on how good Russell could be: "As great as he wants to be and that's great."
West Texas State coach Gus Miller, after his team made the 1955 NCAA Tournament over Texas Tech thanks to a tie-breaking coin flip: "They stopped the coin flipping too soon. They should have kept right on flipping it until they decided the winner of our game with USF. That's the only way we'll win it, by a flip of the coin."
Utah coach Jack Gardner before playing San Francisco in the NCAA tournament: "We'll have a terrific problem, especially with their center, Bill Russell. He's one of the best rebounders in the nation, and will require some special attention."
Stanford coach Howie Dallmar: "Russell throws your offense all out of kilter. He's a mental hazard with his ability to block shots."
Former Stanford coach Everett Dean: "When he's in there the opposing shooter feels he'll get only one shot because Russell is such a tremendous rebounder. He's a great influence just being in there, whether he's near the basket or not. The other guy has the feeling he has to make his first shot or he won't get a chance at the rebound, so he tightens up. If they hadn't outlawed the goal-tending rule, he'd be even more spectacular."
Loyola (CA)'s Bob Cox: "Early in the game I was in the key. I faked right and saw his hand, then left and the hand was there again. So I faked right again and then went left and shot, clear. The ball came whistling back past — like walking off the court."
Bill Russell quotes
It's hard to find too many quotes from Russell during his playing days, but the following quote sums up his play and his college career pretty well.
Russell on San Francisco's win in the national championship game over La Salle: "I played on the greatest team in the world and we defeated the best team we ever played."