Part III: A Program Shift Creates More Opportunity For All Students
The football program continued to enjoy great success as one of the top small-college programs in the country over the next two seasons. After the inaugural varsity year of 1947, the Knights over the next six seasons had gone 26-11: no one foresaw the winter bombshell that gained nationwide press coverage. Fr. Francis Moriarty, ’40, college president and former student-athlete, announced on January 30, 1954 at a press conference that football was being discontinued at Saint Michael’s. He said:
“Football is a luxury that a small liberal arts College like Saint Michael’s cannot afford. We sorely need more dormitory space, a new chapel, and better facilities to serve the men who come to us. Therefore, we must make our choice. Football consumes too much time, effort, and money to justify its continuance. It is a difficult decision and it may be, in some circles, an unpopular one. Neither consideration, however, can deter us from our responsibilities to our students. This is not a short term decision. We can see nothing that is likely to change the situation. In fact, with television of major college games available in the majority of homes, the small colleges, even with championship teams, cannot hope to break even financially, especially in a thinly-populated area. The alternative is to continually send our team on the road. This is not good for the morale of the student body, or for the studies of the members of the football squad. Our students, faculty, alumni, and friends will want to know if we propose a replacement. Quite naturally, our future plans do not stop with this decision to discontinue varsity football. Saint Michael’s is located in the very heart of eastern America’s finest winter sports region. We plan to take advantage of our favorable location so that the entire student body may participate more actively in the facilities available. A committee of our administration, faculty, and students will submit a report on the entire program so that Saint Michael’s may continue and better its aim of producing well-rounded College graduates.”
He closed his statement by announcing that the college would offer varsity sports programs in ski, baseball, basketball, golf, sailing, and rifle.
Doc Jacobs had no public comment on the announcement. It came as a total surprise to him, as he was informed by President Moriarty the day before the press conference. He had already released the 1954 schedule to the media three weeks earlier.
The special committee referred to by Fr. Moriarty was organized by Fr. Dupont; it studied the relationship between all student activities and the Saint Michael’s Plan. The outcome of the committee’s work created a plan for expansion of intramural and interclass athletic activity. Consultants Doc Jacobs and Fr. Stankiewicz help to shape the plan, which was an immediate success. In the 1954-55 academic year, over 50% of the undergraduates participated in athletic activity. The varsity ski program began that winter under head coach and professor Dominic Casavant. A year later, varsity programs were launched in ice hockey (after a five-year hiatus), sailing, and golf. The sailing team had surprising success in its first season, gathering a second and three third-place finishes in its four intercollegiate regattas.
The new Saint Michael’s Interclass Activities program (the precursor to the college’s modern-day intramural program) was also launched in 1955 as a result of the special committee work from the year before, and was deemed a great success by the students and administration. The program was designed to “afford each and every student an outlet in some form of endeavor,” and featured year-round competition between the four classes in a broad range of activities – from traditional sports like football, baseball, and basketball, to contests in debating, writing, and music. The classes were coached by and contests officiated by varsity sport standouts and members of the College’s coaching staff. The junior class of 1956 captured the first-ever “Victorious Knight” trophy.
With football now gone from the varsity slate, Jacobs focused on the sport of basketball and building the program to a level of national prominence. Typical of Jacobs’ style, the road to success was short – just three years. The 1956-57 academic year marked the beginning of a remarkable four-year period in Saint Michael’s basketball. That year the team earned a berth in the first-ever NCAA College Division National Championship Tournament. The Knights went on to win the New England Regional title that year, a feat they would repeat in two of the next three years! The team qualified for the NCAA’s in each of the first four seasons of the tournament’s existence. Each of those seasons was a great story and very special in its own right, but 1957-58 was – and nearly 50 years later, remains – the most storied season in the College’s history.
In that remarkable season, the Knights advanced all the way to the NCAA National Championship game, taking with them the legendary Michaelman spirit and the hopes of greater Burlington. After defeating Adelphi, 97-58, to win their first Northeast Region Championship, the team traveled to the Elite Eight in Evansville, Indiana – annual site of the NCAA’s College Division Championship. Several cars filled with Michaelmen also made the trek from Winooski Park to Indiana. In the national quarterfinals, the team downed Grambling, 84-76, then the host team, Evansville, in the semifinals, 78-70. Because of illness and injuries, the Knights had played their way to the national championship using just five players since arriving in Evansville: Drew Denmead, ’58, Hank Gretkowski, ’59, Tony Nicodemo, ’59, Jim Browne, ’60, and Dick ‘Moose’ Zeitler, ’60. The national media, covering the tournament, began to refer to them as the “Iron Knights” in their game stories, in reference to their 40-minute, ironman-like efforts. Unfortunately, fatigue caught up with the mighty five, and they fell to South Dakota, 75-53, in the final game. When they arrived home at the Burlington Airport, their airplane was met by over a thousand cheering fans (including the mayors of Burlington and Winooski), and they were swept away in a parade of convertibles provided by the Chamber of Commerce, driving through the heart of Burlington and Winooski to the cheers of thousands.
The remarkable speed with which Jacobs built nationally-prominent programs in football and basketball at the college amazed many across the country. Few people knew that he had a secret weapon in a key area of successful college athletics – recruiting. Back when Doc Jacobs was coaching baseball at Villanova and involved in the Brooklyn Dodgers minor league system, he became very good friends with Mel Logan, who was a part-time scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers. When Jacobs was hired at Saint Michael’s in 1947, Mel told him, “Well, Doc, you just sit in your rocking chair up there, and we’ll send you some people.” And send them, he did!
Logan worked on the docks in Jersey City, New Jersey, with Ed Markey’s father, checking shipments that arrived at that port. His passion was sports and he was very talented evaluator of prospective student-athletes. “He knew everybody in northern New Jersey…the guy was at every game, and his knowledge and personality were incredible,” said Markey, “He was an amazing talent evaluator, particularly in football, basketball, and baseball.” Markey’s recruiting experience was similar to many of the talented student-athletes that arrived on campus during Jacob’s tenure at Saint Michael’s. Mel Logan told Markey’s father that he knew of a good Catholic school for his son in Vermont, where he could attend on an athletic scholarship. Despite having never heard of Saint Michael’s prior to Logan’s suggestion, Markey accepted the offer. When September arrived, he took the train from Penn Station to Burlington, and then the bus to Winooski Park. It was the first time he had ever been in Vermont and the first time he had ever seen Saint Michael’s. When he met Doc Jacobs later that day, it was the first time they had ever seen each other!
Many men would make the same trip from New Jersey over the next twenty years, agreeing to accept a scholarship to attend college at a school they had never seen, for a coach they had never met, in a state many had never visited. It speaks loudly to the trust between Jacobs and Logan, and the incredible gift Logan had for evaluating talent and selling Saint Michael’s in a difficult market! Logan sent many of the legendary football, basketball, and baseball athletes of the era to the College – including the entire starting five from the 1957-58 Iron Knights squad!
Connections. It was the x-factor that made Doc Jacobs a legend in his own time. No matter what the situation or challenge, Jacobs always seemed to have the answer. Late in the 1949-50 season, the Purple Knights were scheduled to face archrival Saint Anselm at Boston Garden, and starting point guard, Ed Markey, was nursing a badly sprained ankle. “In those days, nobody traveled with an athletic trainer,” Markey remembered, “the coach would tape ankles and tend to minor injuries himself. But my ankle was pretty bad, and Doc really wanted me to play. When we got to the hotel in Boston, he made a telephone call, and then he and I got in a cab and went to the McAuliffe Uniform Company, where the owner, Tim McAuliffe, was waiting for us (McAuliffe’s produced the majority of Major League Baseball uniforms and caps in the mid 20th century). We went upstairs, and who’s waiting for us inside? Jack Fadden, the athletic trainer for the Boston Red Sox. So I sit on a table, and Fadden tapes my ankle while spinning yarns with Doc and Tim McAuliffe. I couldn’t believe what was happening!”
Away from the basketball court and limelight, Jacobs expanded the athletic department’s varsity offerings to seven programs in 1957-58, adding riflery and cross country. The following year he orchestrated a business agreement that brought fame and much-needed funding to the Winooski Park campus, while utilizing the state-of-the-art football stadium that had no varsity program to call it home. In 1956 the World Champion New York Giants professional football team began a four-year summer training camp arrangement at the college. The Giants stayed in Alumni Hall and used the football locker rooms in the residence hall’s basement. The team members were huge celebrities in greater Burlington and opened their workouts to the general public. As a result, they built a strong fan following in northern Vermont that lives on to this day.
The 1960’s began with the debut of varsity soccer. Under head coach and professor Armand Citarella, the team won two of their three matches in 1960. Jacobs and Markey rebuilt the basketball program into a national power. In 1964-65, Rich Tarrant, ’65, led the Knights all the way to the NCAA Final Four. As the decade wore on, Jacobs began delegating more and more of his daily responsibilities. Markey, his dedicated and loyal assistant, assumed much of the increased coaching and administrative workload. Eventually, the man who had given the college so much gave his life to it. On May 19, 1968, Jacobs died in his on-campus home of a heart attack at the age of 68. A Saint Michael’s legend, Jacobs had served as a coach and athletic director at the College for 21 years. During that span of time, he led the Purple Knight basketball program to nine State Championships, five New England Championships (1956-1960), and four straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament. He led the football program to four successive State Championships, highlighted by his unbeaten, untied, 1951 New England College Division title team. By also leading the Knight baseball and golf teams to state titles, he became the only college coach in Vermont history to win collegiate championships in four different sports. In addition, he was also a member of the United Press International’s Coaches Rating Board, and served as a Vermont State Boxing Judge for the final ten years of his life. Jacobs received numerous citations and awards from national associations and is enshrined in the 23
Helms Foundation (Athletic Directors) and American Association of Baseball Coaches Halls of Fame. After his death, student-athletes provided an honor-guard over his casket while he lay in state in the campus chapel. Final-exam schedules were changed to allow students the opportunity to attend his funeral and grieve his passing.