Part II: Athletics Plays Key Role In Saint Michael’s Expansion Plans
When World War II came to an end, the College went through the rapid growth and expansion period that would forever change the institution. Athletics was a huge beneficiary of the expansion. President Rev. Daniel Lyons, ‘26 (himself a former student-athlete, coach, and athletic director at Saint Michael’s), saw athletics as both a healthy and positive outlet for students (particularly those older armed-service veterans arriving on the GI Bill), and also as a way to market the college and spread its quality reputation beyond northern New England. In 1946 the college began its expansion plan, with enrollment quickly swelling from less than 250 students to over 1,100, and buildings being moved to the Winooski Park campus from neighboring Fort Ethan Allen.
If one were to choose the most pivotal year in the century of athletics at the college, 1947 would have to receive strong consideration. Baseball returned to the Hilltop after its five-year wartime hiatus, and tennis was scheduled to begin again, too…until the tennis courts were destroyed in the college’s massive physical construction (tennis would return to play on new courts in 1949). In June of 1947, Pinky Ryan left Saint Michael’s to return to his alma mater, Clarkson University.
Ryan had done much to promote and improve the quality of the athletic experience at Saint Michael’s, even through the war years and his time serving his country while serving the college. He was extremely well-liked on campus and by the local media, and elevated the prestige level of the position of Athletic Director both on and off campus with his interpersonal abilities and dedicated, professional work ethic. Fr. Lyons and the college’s senior administration needed to find a successor who could relate to students and the community as Ryan did, yet also have the experience and sophistication necessary to carry out Lyons’ expansive vision for the college’s athletic program.
At that time, prominent alumnus Victor LeMieux, ’35, a former student-athlete himself, was building a successful career as a pharmaceutical scientist, and in working with college athletic programs, had befriended a talented Villanova University coach by the name of George ‘Doc’ Jacobs. LeMieux became good friends with Jacobs, and stayed in touch with him after he left Villanova and went to work in baseball’s minor leagues. LeMieux was also a very close friend of Fr. Lyons. When word of Ryan’s resignation was made public, LeMieux informed Lyons of this fine prospect from Pennsylvania and eventually introduced the two gentlemen. Interestingly, LeMieux would eventually have an annual Saint Michael’s athletic award named in his honor, an award recognizing the varsity student-athlete best displaying loyalty and leadership for their program and the college, both on and off the field of competition.
No one, not even Fr. Lyons himself, could have known the profound and enduring effect that George ‘Doc’ Jacobs (called ‘Doc’ because of his love of books) would have on the College when he announced Jacobs’ hiring in June of 1947. Jacobs came to the Knights as a highly-decorated coach and administrator in college and professional athletics. A tremendous student-athlete at Villanova, he earned ten varsity letters in football, basketball, and baseball. He returned to the university a short time after graduating in 1927, and coached football, basketball, and baseball over 15 years (1929-1944). He was a very successful coach and developed several players at Villanova who went on to play in baseball’s Major Leagues and in the National Football League. He left the university in 1944, after the institution decided to de-emphasize athletics due to declining enrollment during World War II. During the late 1930’s, Jacobs was also a minor league baseball manager during the summers, working in the St. Louis Browns, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Philadelphia Phillies organizations. In the 1940’s he went to the other side of the game and served as a minor league umpire!
When Fr. Lyons hired John Donoghue ’32 as Saint Michael’s first Director of Public Relations in September of 1947, the college had “the perfect storm” for fulfilling his dream for athletics. Jacobs would provide the expertise, structure, and management; Donoghue the publicity savvy and public relations experience; and Lyons the vision and financial support. With Jacobs’s hiring, the College also made the commitment to bring football back to varsity status.
Doc Jacobs arrived on campus in late summer, and conducted his first press conference on September 24, 1947. He was quoted in the next day’s Burlington Daily News as saying:
Please get one thing straight. I’m not up here to put Saint Michael’s in the Big Time. Don’t misunderstand – I’m not complaining, but I’ve just had enough, that’s all. I really like it up here. I know I’ve got a big task laid out for me, but I think that with the kind of cooperation I’ve already received from the officials here that we can build Saint Mike’s athletics up to a point where they can compare favorably with the other prominent small colleges. But not Big Time. It’s my job to sell Saint Michael’s…I couldn’t sell a bag of peanuts, but I feel pretty sure I know this business well enough to bring Saint Michael’s along so that it will be recognized generally outside Vermont and New England. But it will take time. Sure, we’re going to try to steer more athletes to this campus, but they’ve got to be students as well. There will be no lowering of the entrance requirements. I’ve turned down several athletes already who had plenty of ability on the field but far too little in the classroom.
Two months later (November 21), the Daily News published a story on Jacobs’ short-term master plan for athletics and his vision for the football program. Jacobs outlined an aggressive development plan, with football being the flagship sport for the college. The writer questioned Jacobs’ ability to realize his vision for football and captured the exchange in his story, “Jacobs is planning long-range. He told us that Saint Mike’s can’t get on Middlebury’s football schedule until 1950. When we suggested maybe it’s just as well, his eyes flashed and he responded with, ‘I think we’ll be ready for them in 1949 if we could get a game.’” The newspaper praised him for his marketing and public relations “savvy”, speaking specifically on his plans to get Saint Michael’s teams playing in the east’s major cities, and traveling around the state of Vermont playing home games (St. Albans, Rutland, Bennington, Brattleboro, et al.) to expose the college to areas of the state that aren’t able to access games on a regular basis.
Right away Jacobs felt that the college needed a new, unifying identity for athletics and, with the blessing of the administration, put together a ballot with suggested mascot nicknames for the student population to cast their vote. At the time, the college had no official mascot or nickname. At a pep rally on November 22, 1947, Jacobs announced that “Purple Knights” was the winner of the contest. A story on the process appeared in the student newspaper, The Michaelman, and outlined the reasoning behind choosing the nickname for the College:
Theologians ascribe four offices to St. Michael:
1. To fight Satan.
2. To rescue souls from Satan.
3. To call away from the earth and bring men’s souls to judgment.
4. To be the champion of God’s people in this world.
From this fourth office, St. Michael is regarded as the protector of the universal Church, and was invoked as the patron of the military orders of knights during the Middle Ages. The more immediate historical basis for the Purple Knights, as identified with the Archangel, is the Order of the Knights of St. Michael, established in 1469 by Louis XI of France. This group formed the chief military order of France until the institution of the Knights of the Holy Ghost, after which the two together formed the orders of the King. Before his fall from grace, King Henry XIII was invested with the Order of St. Michael by King Francis I, of France.
Once a year, the Knights of St. Michael made a pilgrimage to the historic Abbey of Mont St. Michel…. The setting of the shrine is most appropriate for the Heavenly Knight, whose place has always been where the danger is greatest. Standing off the raging coast of Brittany, in what the French call ‘the Peril of the Sea,’ is this enormous structure of stone and masonry; and over it, sword in hand, towers the militant figure of the Archangel more than 300 feet above the sea.
At the pep rally, Jacobs said “In the past we’ve been known as the Michaelmen, Mikemen, The Purple, The Hilltoppers, and other labels, but none of the names has completely symbolized the spirit which I found when I came to Saint Michael’s.” Fr. Lyons added, “I like the idea of the ‘Knights,’ and the purple is naturally suggested by our college colors of purple and gold.” The article concluded with an open call to the students of Saint Michael’s to submit artwork to Jacobs for consideration as the college’s official mascot logo. And thus, the knight on horseback that the college would use for more than 50 years was created by then-student Arthur Fraser, ’50, and adopted by the college. The basketball team beat Plattsburgh, 55-36, the day after the pep rally in their first varsity contest with the new nickname.
The following week, in reaction to the growth in the College’s enrollment and the prevailing athletic policy among the nation’s top small colleges, Jacobs and Lyons announced that freshmen would no longer be eligible for varsity sports teams. Conforming to this trend was ingenious – it immediately raised the academic reputation of the College among aspirant institutions, and also made it much easier for Jacobs to set schedules for his teams in the pre-interstate highway, pre-conference days of Purple Knight athletic independence.
The following spring, 1948, Jacobs informed then-head football coach and history instructor Ronnie Corbett (a football hero himself at Boston College in the late 1930’s) that he himself would begin to serve as head coach of the program in the fall. He offered Corbett an assistant coach’s position, which was refused (the two men held reverse roles in the fall of 1947). Corbett returned to his alma mater to attend law school. Jacobs then hired Bill Piscione, whom he knew as a standout football and track athlete at Villanova, to assist him with football and also serve as head ice hockey coach. Piscione also served the college as a biology instructor!
Jacobs established another longstanding Purple Knight tradition two weeks later when he and his staff hosted the first Block M Varsity Awards Dinner. Vermont Governor Ernest Gibson was an honored guest and served as the evening’s featured speaker. Gibson was presented with a decorative cigarette lighter, engraved with the Block M logo, as a token of the college’s appreciation.
In May, Jacobs announced an expansion and tiering of the varsity sports offerings at the college. The major sports (those offering scholarships) would be football, basketball, and baseball. The minor sports would be golf, ice hockey, and tennis. He also committed to teaching a two-credit course entitled, “Coaching – Methods and Motives,” because of the sizeable number of Saint Michael’s graduates who were being hired as teachers, with a mandatory sport coaching responsibility as part of their new job descriptions.
Jacobs had coached the varsity basketball team in his first year at Saint Michael’s, but with the increased responsibilities of managing a more extensive athletic department, as well as serving as head coach of football, he decided to step away from this assignment. In June of 1948, he hired Bernard ‘Bennie’ Borgmann as head coach of the varsity basketball program. Borgmann was a member of the original Boston Celtics, whom Jacobs knew from his days as a minor league umpire in the Middle Atlantic League when Borgmann was managing the Huntington, W.V., franchise.
Borgmann’s talent and ability was immediately felt in the basketball program, as he reversed Jacob’s 7-14 record the previous year, leading the Knights to a 14-7 mark in 1948-49. To be closer to family in Pennsylvania he left Saint Michael’s in September of 1949 to accept the head coaching position at Muhlenberg College. Despite the late date, Jacobs agreed to release him from his contract, and would hire former star student-athlete Barry Branon, ’36, in October.
Thanks to the lobbying and vision of Jacobs, the college achieved its first official conference affiliation in late 1948. That December, the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) agreed to accept Saint Michael’s in a dramatic expansion, effective for the 1949-50 academic year. The college was one of 17 institutions joining the nation’s most prominent college-division conference. This was another wise strategic move by Jacobs, making scheduling quality opponents and hiring game officials much easier. The Associated Press story on the expansion called the 76-institution league “cumbersome,” and wondered about the geographic spread of the union, “stretching from Maine to as far south as South Carolina, and westward through Pennsylvania.” In 2004, the association’s membership is 317, made up of institutions from all three NCAA divisions!
Jacobs and Piscione went to work aggressively shaping their football program, recruiting talented players from the northeast, and creating a very solid contender, with a combination of tremendous coaching experience and punishing physical preparation. The coaching duo created the college’s first pre-season training camp, holding three-a-day workout sessions for two weeks in August at Camp Holy Cross in Colchester. Dr. Robert Knight, ’50, a highly-decorated end on those early teams, remembered the camp as, “torturous – absolute hell on earth” when he was inducted as a Charter Member to the college’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1987. But the mental and physical preparation paid immediate dividends. On September 25, 1949, the Knights stunned heavily-favored UVM, 13-2, in front of 5,000 fans at Vermont’s Centennial Field – giving the college its first varsity football victory since 1933.
When Jacobs was hired in 1947, one of the specific charges issued him by President Lyons was to create a master plan for athletics, including programming and facilities. The campus’s original athletic physical plant was rapidly becoming obsolete. With the undergraduate expansion of the college and the demands of hosting a varsity basketball program, the gym in Jeanmarie Hall was in constant use. In addition, the fan base for the Purple Knight varsity was far larger than the 700 capacity of the gym. Jacobs made arrangements to play home games at Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium, a modern arena that held 1,500 fans. The team still practiced at the College Hall Gym, where oftentimes they would raise the ire of the Edmundites who had difficulty conducting services upstairs in the chapel with all the noise down below! A few years later, as the Fort Ethan Allen property continued to be dissected, the college gained ownership of the cavalry building, and converted it into a gymnasium. That building continued to serve the college for varsity team practice and intramural space into the early 1990’s. After a multi-million-dollar renovation, it now serves as the home of the Vermont Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Through the 1940’s, the original baseball field/football field complex continued to be impacted by construction on and off campus – Cheray Science Center, the proposed new Chapel of Saint Michael the Archangel, and the widening of State Highway 15. The outfield for baseball bordered the highway; baseballs were being hit into the roadway more and more. Interestingly, a ball hit onto Route 15 in a game was considered “live,” and outfielders would risk life and limb playing their positions! Founders Hall was also a target for any baseball hit deep down the right field line. As mentioned earlier, the tennis courts had been eliminated with the campus expansion in the mid-1940’s. Jacobs needed to create a new facility to serve the outdoor athletic programs, while also accommodating the massive fan-base that was building behind his football program. New tennis courts came in 1949, and were constructed on the site of their current location, just north of Alumni Hall. His complete dream was realized by the end of the summer of 1950 – a $100,000 football and baseball-field complex, located on the west side of Alumni Hall, north of what was then “Miketown.” The football field (with grandstands to seat 5,000) ran parallel to Alumni Hall, and the baseball diamond was placed on the far side of the field, where batters would eventually see the Durick Library (after it was constructed) in deep center field. Locker room facilities to accommodate the athletes were located in the basement of Alumni Hall. When the college christened the new football stadium in their first home game of the 1950 season, over 6,000 fans watched the Knights defeat the crosstown Catamounts, 27-6! The ice hockey rink remained on its original site, next to Founders Hall.
On September 1, 1951, thanks to Jacobs’ leadership, Saint Michael’s College became an official member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In those days, the NCAA structure allowed for a school to join as a University Division institution or a College Division institution. Based on demographics, Saint Michael’s joined the College Division. The benefits of this prestigious alliance (along with the ECAC membership that was ensured two years earlier) were multi-faceted and felt campus-wide, and continue to pay huge dividends as the college moves into its second century.
That fall, one of the most storied teams in Saint Michael’s history had a never-to-be-forgotten season. The 1951 Purple Knight varsity football team had a perfect 6-0-0 record, was the only unbeaten, untied team in New England, and reigned as undisputed College Division champions of the seven-state region. The team was dominant on both sides of the football. Offensively, they outscored their opponents 145-26, and on defense, they allowed only 314 total passing yards, ranking them #1 in New England and #2 in the nation against the pass. At the end of the year, the Burlington Daily News hosted a celebration dinner for the team on December 16, 1951, with Bishop Ryan and Tom Dowd (General Manager of the Boston Red Sox) serving as principal speakers.
Benny Borgmann note - Borgmann came to Saint Michael’s after coaching the Syracuse Nats in the National Basketball Association; and he remained a top scout in Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals organization. An amazing two-sport professional athlete, he played in more than 3,000 basketball and 2,000 baseball games. Borgmann would later be enshrined as a player in 1961 in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.