Round up some candles and order a cake. A distinguished member of the St. Thomas family is turning 100. Happy birthday to Tommie varsity athletics!
The Tommies’ first century of athletics has produced some Disney-like magic, thanks to players named Buzz (Hannahan), Taffy (Ostrem) and Popcorn (Brandt) and championship coaches nicknamed Wee (Walsh) and Doc (Russ).
In this year-long celebration of pride, passion and personalities, streets like Summit, Cretin, Cleveland, Finn and Selby could be renamed “Memory Lane,” with unlimited free parking.
If your Aquinas yearbooks aren’t handy, cruise the Web site to join in the reminiscing.
Retired public address announcer John Pates spoke for athletes, coaches and fans when he said once of St. Thomas: “This place gets in your blood.”
There are many images from which to choose:
- Colorful Irishman Tom Feely ’41, who represented St. Thomas as a student-athlete, two-sport head coach, athletic director and instructor for parts of seven decades.
- Other Hall of Fame coaches, including Feely, Walsh, Russ, Frank Deig, Joe Sweeney, Nic Musty, Ted Riverso, Joe Brandy, Mark Dienhart, Don Adee, Steve Fritz, Dennis Denning and Terry Skrypek.
- Pioneer distance runner Deb Thometz Leyden ’83, the first women’s individual national champion and member of the first national championship team.
- Brandt and fellow Tommies on the revered 1948 Cigar Bowl football team, which played a Jan. 1, 1949, game in Florida.
- Tough old-timer Tom Gibbons, whose peak athletic moment came not as a student but later in Montana, in 1923, when he lost a 15-round decision for the heavy-weight boxing crown to a chap named Jack Dempsey.
- Families with multiple Tommie letter winners, like the Dolans in baseball, the Behrns brothers in football, the O’Briens in wrestling, the Hintz sisters from the cross country teams, a variety of Floods and Flynns, and in the last 25 years, many Tommies who married fellow athletes.
- Remarkable track and field jumper “Leapin’” Leonard Jones ’95, whose nine individual NCAA titles and 21 MIAC crowns put him among the most-decorated athletes in conference history.
- Baseballer Chuck Hiller ’56, who went on to achieve professional fame with the San Francisco Giants. He’s believed to be the only MIAC alumnus to play in a World Series. He stroked a grand slam before a packed house at Yankee Stadium in the ’62 Series.
- One of St. Thomas’ 36 Verizon Academic All Americans. Perhaps a trio such as Andrew Hilliard ’03, Jake Barkley ’03 and Tom Carroll ’03 – senior roommates who each received the elite national honor in 2002-03.
- Or the many who have given back to St. Thomas, like 1905 football captain and major benefactor I.A. O’Shaughnessy, whose name adorns five major campus facilities.
“This is a wonderful way to step back and celebrate our past and honor those who have contributed to a significant part of the history of this university,” said Steve Fritz ’71, now in his fifth decade with Tommie sports. The former standout basketball player is the current athletic director and men’s basketball coach.
“We really are celebrating the people involved. Our new team championship banners represent everyone who ever played, whether that sport had no championships or 25 of them. We’re especially proud of the thousands of individuals, men and women, who contributed to the fabric of St. Thomas as students and as athletes.”
The Tommies’ elite athletic achievements are numerous:
- 10 national team championships won in five sports
- 47 individual NCAA champions, all since 1975
- One NCAA track and field relay title – the only one won by a Minnesota team
- 81 top-5 NCAA team finishes representing 18 sports
- 275 conference team championships
- 36 Verizon Academic All Americans
- More than 500 All Americans from the last 25 alone
- At least 25 Tommies who later had professional careers in football, baseball, hockey and soccer
- Top-35 finishes in the NACDA Directors’ Cup Division > III All-Sport competition all eight years it has been contested with a best of fourth in 1999-2000
- 32 of 38 men’s and women’s MIAC All-Sport titles in a span from 1980-2000
Dave Wright ’76 has closely followed St. Thomas athletics as an announcer and publicist since his undergraduate days in the 1970s. He called the Tommie program a model in college sports.
“The balance among the sports is impressive,” Wright said. “Except for a very few cases, St. Thomas is always a contender for the conference championship. Not everyone can say that. St. Thomas has been so good, for so long, and so clean.”
Few institutions can match the accomplishments of St. Thomas’ cross country runners. Joe Sweeney ’77 earned all-conference honors in that sport for all four seasons as a competitor, then coached five women’s national championship teams in the 1980s. Now in his 24th season of coaching with 49 MIAC cross country or track team championships to his credit, Sweeney said Tommie athletes have a passion to compete and excel.
“My perception of the St. Thomas athlete can be summed up with three words – pride, class and guts,” Sweeney said. “My runners just pour their hearts out for each other and the team cause. They have a lot of fun together, too, just great personalities. They are incredible kids from great families, committed beyond belief.”
The early years
In Joseph Connors’ book on the history of St. Thomas, Journey Toward Fulfillment, athletics often was cited as important to the institution’s growth and visibility.
Soon after St. Thomas opened in 1885, intramural sports teams appeared. Baseball was the most popular activity, with football and basketball also gaining interest near the turn of the century. The Tommies’ earliest opponents were neighborhood teams as well as collegians from Hamline and Macalester. The St. Thomas school colors are believed to have evolved from the Blues and Greys, the top two intramural baseball teams from the 1890s.
St. Thomas’ official intercollegiate varsity program began in 1904 with the hiring of an athletic director (recently ordained priest John Doyle) and head coaches, and its new conference affiliation. The Tommies won the first team championship awarded (in baseball) in the Minnesota Athletic Conference (MAC), the forerunner to the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC).
Many early Tommie teams had seminary students playing prime roles as players and student coaches. Most later were ordained priests.
An influential figure in the early years of Tommie athletics was Father John Dunphy, who served as athletic director from 1909 to 1921. Dunphy strived for integrity and a balance with academics – characteristics still at the core of St. Thomas’ athletic philosophy. In 1917, Dunphy declared two important basketball players ineligible for playing on outside teams. That decision sent a message that St. Thomas players were students first and would follow rules.
Connors’ book included a passage from a famous Dunphy sermon. Ninety years later, it could serve as a mission statement for modern St. Thomas athletics:
“Everybody can’t be smart, but everybody can be decent and honest. Obey the rules. This college program was planned by wise men to give you what you need. … Study hard. Work hard. If you play, play hard. Play to win. Play fair. Don’t be a quitter. Don’t whine. If life knocks you down, get up again. If someone else gets knocked down, help him up. Be loyal to your work, your family, your school and your religion. Learn your catechism. Say your prayers. Trust in God.”
St. Thomas established itself as a sports power in the 1920s. Former Notre Dame quarterback Joe Brandy came to coach at St. Thomas in 1921 and began a successful five-year career in four sports. Brandy guided the 1922 Tommie football team to an MIAC championship. He won 80 percent of his games in football (33-7-1), hockey (19-9), basketball (51-14) and baseball (42-6).
Upgrades in facilities were crucial to the progress of St. Thomas athletics throughout the 20th century. A new athletic field (at the site of the present O’Shaughnessy Stadium) was built in 1911 with a concrete wall and a running track. Much of the $8,000 cost was paid for with donations from the Alumni Association. In 1914, the $80,000 Armory was built, with a 100- by-172-foot indoor recreation area. At the time, it was the largest enclosed structure of its type in Minnesota. Despite a hard-packed dirt floor, it provided St. Thomas’ first adequate gymnasium. The Armory helped St. Thomas Academy establish a reputation as a top national military school.
In 1930, lights were installed on the football field and the Tommies played the first night football game in Twin Cities history.
Everyone knows today’s Twin Cities stadium sagas. An interesting story nearly came to pass on the St. Thomas campus nearly 50 years before the Metrodome. In 1928, then-St. Thomas president Father Matthew Schumacher was fascinated with the concept of building a 50,000-seat domed stadium on campus. That was during a five-year period when St. Thomas, under financial pressure, agreed to let the Holy Cross order of South Bend, Ind. – the order that ran Notre Dame – take temporary control of St. Thomas. (The local diocese later changed its mind and took back control of St. Thomas.)
In 1928, Schumacher consulted with many of his Notre Dame friends and had an architect draw up plans for the world’s first 50,000-seat domed stadium. It was projected to cost $900,000 if built with bowl seating, and $2.4 million if it was a two-deck facility. Schumacher believed a stadium would put the college on the national map, attract more students and bring in year-round rental revenues. He even sent a letter to a Notre Dame friend asking him for help in finding a donor to underwrite the cost of the stadium for naming rights. The stock market crash shelved the idea, although Schumacher was still studying the concept as late as 1932.
Also during that five-year Holy Cross era, legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne was given the honorary title as St. Thomas’ “Supervisor of Athletics,” which he held until his death in 1931. On Rockne’s three-day trip to campus in 1928, he attended football practices and spoke to a packed room of journalists, students and faculty.
In 1939, the $400,000 state-of-the-art O’Shaughnessy Hall athletic building opened. It was the home of St. Thomas basketball games for 42 seasons. Shortly after the O’Shaughnessy pool opened, St. Thomas began a mini-dynasty in swimming by winning the conference meet nine of the next 10 years it was held.
The outdoor field was upgraded and renamed O’Shaughnessy Stadium in the late 1940s after another gift from the university’s No. 1 benefactor paid for the stadium construction.
The early-1980s openings of Schoenecker Arena and Coughlan Fieldhouse plus the installation of an all-weather outdoor track helped propel the Tommies to excellence in basketball, volleyball, and track and field.
The end of World War II brought an influx of mature, skilled athletes to campus. The 1946 Tommie baseball team included four players who signed pro contracts – Red Hardy, Gene Sack, Peter Kramer and Wally Cox.
Many of the war vets played on St. Thomas’ 1948 football team that outscored five MIAC foes 138-6 and became just the second Minnesota team to play in a Jan. 1 bowl game. The Tommies were invited to the Cigar Bowl, played on New Year’s night in Tampa, Fla., where they faced a Missouri Valley team that had lost only once in its last 42 games. St. Thomas rallied from a 13-0 deficit to finish with a 13-13 tie. Five Tommies were offered NFL contracts.
Cigar Bowl coach Frank Deig won 56 games from 1946 to 1957 and still ranks first in school history for football coaching victories. His 1956 team was the last Tommie football team to finish a season unbeaten and untied. Deig also won 75 percent of his games as men’s basketball coach from 1940 to 1946 with a 16-1 MIAC championship team in 1946.
Other accomplished coaches of that era included Walsh and Nic Musty – a duo that guided the Tommies to wins in 29 of 30 football games from 1940 to 1945. Walsh won 90 percent of his games as coach in football and hockey.
Frank Mach ’55, a Tommie All-American football player in the 1950s, returned to St. Thomas as athletic director in 1968. He was a catalyst for dramatic growth and improvement over the next 20 years, when the national affiliation changed from NAIA to NCAA Division III.
Mach oversaw the creation of women’s varsity teams after women were admitted as students in 1977. Under the leadership of Mach and his successor, Fritz, the St. Thomas athletic program exploded in the 1980s and 1990s. The Tommies won nine national team titles from 1981 to 1991, including five in women’s cross country, two in men’s cross country and one each in men’s indoor track and in women’s basketball. St. Thomas dominated the MIAC all-sport championships, too, with 11 consecutive men’s and women’s titles from 1986 to 1996.
When Mach came on board in 1968, he tried to raise the bar and set higher goals for Tommie athletics. “I definitely wanted the sports program to be something we could be proud of,” Mach said.
“I remember taking my young daughter to a football game. St. Thomas got beat, and she had observed a couple of others where we’d gotten beat. She asked me, ‘Daddy, do the Thomases ever win?’ Well, I knew in my mind that was going to change and the Thomases were going to win one of these days on a more consistent basis. To see the program come back and be such a competitive, all-around program is probably the thing I’m most proud of.”
One of Mach’s best decisions came in 1969 when he hired Larry Russ as his athletic trainer and track and cross country coach. A practicing chiropractor with virtually no coaching background, Russ gradually built up the track and cross country teams and laid the groundwork for their remarkable success of the last 25 years. He coached track and field until 1980 (when Mark Dienhart replaced him) and coached cross country until retiring in 1993. He also coached the first two women’s cross country teams.
Russ’ 1984 and 1986 men’s cross country teams won the NCAA Division III team championships, and his 1985 team won the National Catholic Championship meet by outrunning Division I schools Villanova and Notre Dame. Russ coached 23 All-Americans, led by 1982 national champion Nic Manciu ’87. Russ’ teams qualified for nationals 17 out of 18 years from 1975 to 1992, and placed in the top seven in Division III 11 times from 1978 to 1990.
In MIAC competition, Russ’ 1974 team won St. Thomas’ first conference title in 29 seasons. The Tommies won the conference again from 1978 to 1980, then won 10 in a row from 1984 to 1993. Russ had five MIAC individual champions.
“Winning a national championship takes your breath away,” Russ said. “What those kids did for the school was something. You remember the day you were looking at the strong MIAC teams like Hamline, Macalester and St. John’s and wondering how you’re ever going to break into that company. It took awhile but we started getting a few of the elite runners; then it just took off from there. If you get the horses, they can make a coach look pretty good.”
Current men’s coach Pete Wareham ’85 was one of those elite runners who helped the Tommies become a national power. He had two top-three individual finishes in NCAA cross country meets.
“Over the years we’ve (recruited) a lot of state champions and guys who could have competed in Division I,” Wareham said. “But they like the balance of academics and athletics at St. Thomas. And in running, everyone feels like they are challenged and have the opportunity to compete against the highest level.”
On the women’s side, Sweeney’s first 23 seasons as Tommie cross country coach produced 10 top-two national team finishes, including championships in 1981, 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1987. He has coached two individual cross country national champions (Debbie Thometz and Lisa Koelfgen) plus 16 NCAA champions in track races from 1,500 to 10,000 meters, led by six-time winner Kelly Copps. In MIAC competition, Sweeney’s Tommies have won 49 championships out of 63 contested in cross country, indoor and outdoor track. That includes MIAC title streaks of 14 in a row in outdoor track (1985-98); nine in indoor track (1989-97); and nine in cross country (1981-89).
“Once St. Thomas runners had the taste of success – that’s all it took,” Sweeney said. “There was this silent quest to contend for national titles. No one ever talked about it. It was just accepted as the norm, the way we did things at St. Thomas.”
Sweeney has had 41 cross country All-Americans in his first 23 seasons as head coach, including 27 alone in the 1980s. That decade produced several dynamos, including Shari Sullivan (All-American honors all four seasons); and Thometz, Sara Hintz and Jenny Hintz (three top-10 national finishes each). Sweeney had a cross country All American or a team in the national meet 21 out of his first 23 seasons.
Basketball is another sport that put St. Thomas on the national map. The Tommies are the only MIAC team to play in both the NCAA Final Four for women and men. Coach Ted Riverso’s women won the 1991 NCAA Championship, led by Laurie Trow ’93, a three-time Kodak All-American and National Player of the Year who averaged 29.8 points per game during the 5-0 postseason run. The Tommie women had the best won-loss record in Division III during the 1990s, and Riverso’s 15-year record of 337-80 included 13 consecutive NCAA playoff berths and six MIAC championships. On the men’s side, Fritz has never had a losing season in his first 23 years and has guided the Tommies to nine MIAC championships in the last 15 seasons.
If basketball put St. Thomas on the national map, baseball put the Tommies on the international map. In January 2000, St. Thomas joined a select group to travel to Cuba for an exhibition game, then four months later hosted a return trip by the University of Havana. Under coach Dennis Denning ’66, teams reached the NCAA championship game three years in a row, taking second in 1999 and 2000 and winning the championship in 2001. Denning’s teams have won the regular-season or post-season title in the MIAC eight consecutive seasons.
Mark Dienhart ’75 has traveled both sides of the college athletics spectrum. He served nearly a decade as a Minnesota Gophers men’s athletics administrator and also has 20 years affiliated with the Tommies as an athlete, scholar, coach, administrator and even a soccer dad. Now the institution’s executive vice president, Dienhart appreciates how the athletic program fits into St. Thomas’ overall educational mission.
“The teamwork aspects and the types of social atmosphere that athletics creates are very important,” Dienhart said. “And the great thing about athletics is that kids discover things about themselves. The kid who takes a last-second shot and either makes it and gains from that or misses it and gets asked about it all weekend and comes back to practice on Monday and learns something, he or she became different people.”
Dienhart said Division III athletic programs are often underestimated. “There’s a stereotype that the Division III athletes are not very good athletes but are probably pretty serious students, and basically this is intramural competition,” Dienhart said. “There’s nothing further from the truth. St. Thomas had Division I-caliber athletes that played with me and for me when I coached. A couple of them (Jim Gustafson and Neal Guggemos) had five-year NFL careers.”
Tom Hodgson, ’90 M.A., ’93 Ed.D., who has coached Tommie men and women swimmers for 24 seasons, called athletics a “meaningful part of any liberal education.”
“Athletics, like almost no other activity in a college student’s life, can bring into focus the notions of discipline, cooperation, and work ethic,” Hodgson said. “It’s almost like an ‘internship for life.’ Once you’ve stood on the starting blocks for the conference finals in the 200 butterfly, and your entire season of training gets called for a reckoning, somehow the challenges of the future seem just a little less scary.”
With the growth and expansion of an institution like St. Thomas, athletics can serve as an important rallying point. “Athletics creates a sense of community – you’re the Tommies,” Dienhart said. “There’s a pride in what you have in common.”
What will the next 100 years be like for St. Thomas athletics? “This school is special,” Dienhart said. “It’s on a journey to someplace, and where it’s going to end up is someplace special, too. I think the athletic program will play a role in that. We have a board of trustees and a president now who are putting the investment that we need into athletics to get us back to a point where we have the type of facilities to remain competitive.”
In the first 25 years, the Tommies competed at times in the MAC, Tri-State and North Central Conferences and regularly faced the likes of Creighton, Marquette, North Dakota State, North Dakota, South Dakota and Drake. The formation of the MIAC in 1920 made better economic sense with less travel required. It also led to the many intense rivalries that are alive to this day. The Tommies have had epic games with outstate schools St. John’s, Gustavus, Concordia, and neighboring institutions Macalester, Hamline and Augsburg.
“The MIAC has great rivalries,” said Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse. “The religious aspect of the Tommies playing the big, bad Lutherans from Concordia or Gustavus is wonderful. These are great rivalries and great schools.”
Reusse, who worked at the St. Cloud Times prior to coming to the Twin Cities, especially appreciates the Tommie-Johnnie battles.
“One of my best friends was Mike Augustin, a sportswriter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press,” Reusse said. “Mike went to St. John’s and he loved the Johnnies. But he was also buddies with all the Tommies. When Mike died of cancer, there were two guys holding his hand, and one of them was Steve Fritz, a Tommie. That’s what you get in the MIAC.”
Reusse often tells of a memorable Tommie-Johnnie basketball game in the old O’Shaughnessy Hall gym. The lights were dimmed for Senior Night, and just before the Tommies were to break through a paper-covered ring, a St. John’s fan spoiled the moment as he sprinted through the paper. Just when a riot seemed likely, St. John’s priest Finian McDonald dashed into the fray and saved the prankster from physical harm.
“There were a hundred St. Thomas students after him and they had vengeance on their minds,” an observer later told Reusse. “Father Finian stepped in front of the charge and parted his hands. He looked like God.”
There have been other lighter moments, too.
Feely was coaching a basketball game at Macalester years ago when a dog wandered into the gym. After halting the game, one of the men in stripes told Feely it was an official’s time out. The fiery coach told the referee, “Of course it’s your time out – I saw the dog lead you in here. It’s your seeing-eye dog.”
Pride, passion, personalities – and pooches. That’s 100 years of St. Thomas athletics. Or for our canine friends, that’s 700 in dog years.