Part IV: The 1970’s – An Era Of Dramatic Change For Purple Knight Athletics
As Jacobs had hoped, his longtime assistant Ed Markey was immediately named by Fr. Dupont as his successor, and Markey would serve the college as Athletic Director for the next 30 years. When he began his tenure as director, the college enrolled men only, offered six varsity sports, and had no feasible on-campus indoor athletic facility. The 1970’s, however, would begin another dramatic era of change for athletics at Saint Michael’s. The first class of women (22) enrolled at the college in September, 1970. In 1971 cross country became a varsity sport again and this time it would be permanent. In 1972 the college celebrated a groundbreaking for its long-awaited dream of an athletic facility, the Vincent C. Ross Sports Center.
Built at a cost of $2.5 million, the 66,000-square-foot facility provided the college many new services and athletic opportunities. Completely funded by the Ross family, the project brought to the campus a modern basketball facility with multi-purpose flexibility, and an indoor swimming pool, weight room, training room, and locker rooms. Interestingly, it was the legendary Fr. Lyons who once again played a pivotal role for athletics. Vincent Ross’s connection to Saint Michael’s was through his deep friendship with Lyons. The two would often spend time together when Lyons would stay as a guest at Ross’s beach house on the Connecticut shore. Fr. Moriarty spoke of the relationship between the two men at the building’s dedication on July 19, 1973, saying the two of them could walk on the beach together for long periods of time without saying a word to each other, yet each would know what the other was thinking. Lyons died in 1970, but there is no doubt that his relationship with the philanthropic Ross was the key to the creation of this facility. In fact, Ross had originally made a leadership gift of $500,000, and then stunned the gathering at the dedication when he announced he going to give the college the remainder of the necessary funds - $2 million! It was the first private gift of $1 million or more in the college’s history. The Ross Sports Center hosted its first college basketball game on December 1,1973, when 3,500 fans crammed inside to watch Saint Michael’s fall to Niagara University. A Niagara banner hangs in the building to this day, commemorating the Knights’ first opponent in this beautiful new basketball arena.
The year 1973 was momentous for college athletics legislation, too. The landmark Title IX went into effect, guaranteeing equal athletic opportunities for men and women. In August, the NCAA called a special convention to consider a three-division reorganization plan. The membership passed the plan, effective immediately, and Saint Michael’s officially became a Division II institution.
Basketball became the college’s first varsity women’s sport in 1973-74, and posted a 2-6 record under head coach Sally Watts. Varsity programming for women began to expand with increased enrollment, and in 1975 the college launched programs in field hockey and softball. That same year, Zaf Bludevich arrived on campus as athletic trainer, director of intramurals, and as the college’s first field hockey coach! A year later, Sue Duprat became the college’s first female full-time member of the athletic department, hired as coordinator of women’s athletics, coach of three sports (field hockey, basketball, softball), and advisor for cheerleading. Softball went varsity for the spring of 1977 and Duprat led the team to an 8-4 record in their first season.
In 1979 the College added women’s volleyball to its varsity slate. In 1980 women’s cross country became a varsity sport and finished 5-2 under coaches Rick Cleary and Bludevich. Women’s tennis was born, too, going 5-2 with head coach Tom Obbagy, ‘72. It should be noted here that, in light of Title IX’s dramatic impact, non-contact men’s sports could be considered co-educational by member institutions, allowing programs to count them as athletic opportunities for women. Therefore, in the 1970’s, Saint Michael’s had women running on the men’s cross-country team, and swimming on the men’s swim team.