The History of Holy Cross sports and why we stink nowadays

John Murphy ’21

Guest Writer

Let’s be real. Our school? Academically successful. Athletically? Successful historically. But, the Holy Cross athletic program’s last stint of relativity was the baseball team making the College World Series in 2017. The last time they had done so was in 1978. The football team has not been a nationwide news story since Gordie Lockbaum left in the late eighties. The last time the football team was ranked in the AP Top 25 was 1951. You might be thinking, but we left the FBS for Division 1-AA in football. Correct, and the last time we finished the season ranked in 1-AA was 1987. The basketball team has been one of the most successful of our teams and it has not won a game in the month of March since the 1952-53 season. It’s greatest achievements in recent years are getting smacked by the University of Oregon in 2016 and sharing the court with Dwyane Wade in 2003. Men’s Hockey hasn’t made the Tournament since 2006 in which they pulled off one of the largest upsets in NCAA Men’s hockey by defeating the University of Minnesota. Rowing and Women’s Ice Hockey has been this school’s one glimmer of athletic hope as of late. The Men’s Rowing team has finished the season in the top twenty four times in the last fifteen years. Out of the 25 sports team Holy Cross fielded last year, Women’s Hockey was the only one to finish with a winning record. One out of 25. That is nothing short of abysmal.

Sure basketball beat Harvard and nearly won the Patriot League tournament last year, and baseball beat Houston last year and made the College World Series in 2017, and football was briefly ranked mid-season with Peter Pujals behind center, but the Holy Cross communtiy deserves more. The House that Luth built lacks a winning atmosphere. Most of our sports have long and mostly successful histories. Our baseball team was founded just thirteen years after Abraham Lincoln died. Football started at Holy Cross in 1891, five years before the helmet was invented. Basketball began here in 1900, just nine years after the sport was invented and during Wliiam Mckinley’s presidency (non-history majors reading that name be like who????). Over those years, many games have been won and many stars have come and gone.  Stars like Boston Celtics heroes and NBA Hall of Famers Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn, Heisman finalist Gordie Lockbaum, 1939 NFL rushing leader and four time NFL champion Bill Osmanski, football Hall of Famer George Connor, two time US Amateur champion and PGA Hall of famer Willie Turnesa and the first Native American in Major League Baseball Louis Sockalexis have passed through our hallowed halls. Holy Cross is one of nine schools in the entire country to have won both a basketball (the Crusaders did so in 1947) and a baseball championship (1952) in the history of the school. The other eight schools remain prominent athletic powers to this day however- Stanford, UCLA, University of California, Oklahoma State, University of Michigan, The Ohio State, and the University of Florida.

Success seems to come and go in sports. However, our success seems to be staright up gone. As mentioned, Women’s Ice Hockey was our only winning record last season. That’s terrible on its own but it gets worse. The total combined record of all Holy Cross sports in the 2017-2018 school year ammounted to a tragic record of 141-303-18. That is a winning percentage of just .305. And it’s not getting better. As of October 31st, our fall thirteen teams hold two winning records (Women’s and Men’s Tennis). The total fall record of Holy Cross three weeks into October is 30-108-6. To paraphrase Phil Swift, that’s a lot of losses. That record puts the athletics program’s winning percentage at a measley .208. That’s as bad Hue Jackson’s tenure with the Cleveland Browns which included a streak of going 1-31. Six of our teams had zero wins as of October 31. To be fair though, most of those winless teams take part in tournaments against several teams, making it harder to win. These records look really bad. Really, really bad. But, historically, our teams have been pretty successful. For instance, basketball’s al time record is 1360-969 (.584) and baseball’s all time record is 621-512-55 (.523).

The largest inidcator in a shift of competition to heartache in Holy Cross’ history is our rivalry with Boston College. The rivalry began in 1896. Since then, Holy Cross’ record against Boston college in football is 31-49-3. Yes, that record seems poor but it’s wildly better than losing 62-14 makes the rivalry seem. In 1967, Boston College began a nine year winning streak. Before that, Holy Cross’ record in the series was 29-31-3. The series was nearly deadlocked and then Boston College went on a tear 18-2 tear into the seventies and eighties. After 1986, the rivalry ended because, well to be frank, Boston College was bored with beating us every year. It’s been forty years since we beat Boston College. But don’t forget to remind your Boston College friends that, despite recent games and our overall record, we held Boston College to a seven year stretch where they scored a total of THREE points.

So if Holy Cross was once an athletic power, what happened? Why did the Crusaders take a turn for the worse and become a laughing stock of college sports? There could be a couple reasons. One is the city of Worcester. It’s not the same attraction in New England as it was in decades ago (Admit it. You pronounced the ‘r’ and ‘c’ before you got here). But then again, people go to the University of Alaska and that must be worse than Worcester, just the cold and endless summers alone so Worcester can’t be the problem. Another is that the athletic program is just in a lull. This however is unlikely. A slump doesn’t last forty years. At some point, you’d have expected the teams to turn it around. And it’s not like it’s only one sport, the entire athletics program has faulted for years. The real reason has to be the size of our school. Holy Cross is one of the smallest Division 1 school in the country. Every game is an uphill battle for us. According to the Holy Cross website, our current enrollment is about 3000. For reference, Ohio State has abour 46,000 students, University of Alabama 33,000, Oregon State 26,000, Duke 15,000, University of Minnesota 35,000, and Boston College has about 9,400. There are 20.46 million college students in America accoriding to Statista. This means that 0.00015% of college students go to Holy Cross. (Congrats to the other 0.00013% of you guys. We did it.)

Based on figures from 1965, there were about 4.98 million college students 53 years ago. The percentage of American citizens aged 18-24 in college has grown steadily since 1869. This means that the numbers from long ago for projected student populations will be a little bit off but they are still good to give a ballpark estimate or an idea for school sizes. If Holy Cross enrolled 0.00015% of the 4.98 million students in 1965, that would mean that 647 students would have been here in 1965. This year was after we won any national championships but in the middle of the period from about the 1940’s to 1980’s when Holy Cross was nationally recognized as a sports power meaning it can give a reliable glimpse into school sizes during our good ol’ days. Based on relative size, Ohio State would have enrolled 9899 students in 1965. Relatively speaking, Ohio State was still about 15.3 times bigger than Holy Cross. However, the difference between 1965 enrollment of these two schools (9252) is much less than the 42,000 difference it is today. Back to the Holy Cross being competitive with Boston College idea, in 1965, Boston College would have had an enrollment of about 2000. Again, Boston College was still three times larger but the difference between the populations was much, much smaller back then.

So why does school size matter? Well, for a couple reasons. One reason is sample size. Of course recruiting plays more of a part in college sports but the teams that either can’t recruit or don’t recruit well, a larger student population gives that school a better opportunity find good walk on players and that gives them an advantage. The larger schools have a better chance of there being a great player in their school who wasn’t recruited based on sheer numbers alone. Not only does the chance of finding diamonds in the rough help large schools but it also helps them make more money. More students that go to the school and graduate leads to more alumni. And what do alumni do? They give back to their school. This money can be used for athletic facilities to help athletes train and recover better and hire more experienced coaches who are better at recruiting which will help the school acquire more star power. Money leads to championships. Holy Cross just built the Luth center for all the athletes at the school for just under $60 million. Clemson just built a $55 million facility solely for football. Alabama recently built a $14 million facility for “sports nutrtition”. A dining hall. Just for athletes. Crazy stuff. Holy Cross has a very good network of alumni as well as a hefty endowment. The endowment for this year was more than what Clemson and Alabama brought in. However, these schools garnered more donations from former athletes and fans. Nick Saban, head football coach of Alabama, donated $1 million of his own money to Alabama for the dinning hall. These schools are also more athletically focused than Holy Cross. Some big schools like Clemson and Alabama gain publicity and notoriety from sports success. Holy Cross just happened to be good at sports all those years ago while consistently promoting academic success since its establishment. Our student athletes are some of the most succesful in the country when it comes to academics. Our 97% graduation rate in 2018 puts us in the top 20 out of 351 schools. And this isn’t a fluke from last year. That was the 10th consecutive year our school has posted a 97% graduation rate for student athletes. JT Barret said that you don’t go to Ohio State to play school. Well, Holy Cross plays school and plays very well. Bigger schools simply have much richer resources to pull from than Holy Cross which has made them more successful as their student population has grown to be much, much, much larger than Holy Cross’ in some cases.

Ok that’s all nice and dandy to know that we almost have no chance of succeeding again but now what? Well, we can either just continue our recruiting practices and hope to end up like Leicester City winning the Premier League. Or, we could just accept that we are never going to be Alabama or Duke or Notre Dame or Boston College. And that stinks. The games are just sad to watch sometimes. It’s like watching a Lv. 1 Caterpie try to fight a Lv. 40 Charizard (pat yourself on the back if you got that without Google). You hope and hope and hope for successful seasons but it just won’t happen, especially if things continue the way they’re going. Oh well, looks like we’re just going to be the Browns of the NCAA forevr then. As Iggy used to say “darn it!”

Oh wait! Do I hear another suggestion? I think so. Reclassify! That’s right. That only makes sense. There’s no reason for us to be a Divison 1 college. We’re too small. We’re always the underdog. And fans don’t want to come out for bad teams. But wait. After all this smack talk I’ve realized. We don’t have bad teams. We have good teams made up of good players. I mean, you guys, the athletes, are all D1 athletes for goodness sake. That’s incredible. Almost nobody gets to play their sport at this level. It’s crazy how good our athletes are at sports. The only thing is our competition is crazier. Divison 1 schools have tens of thousands of students. Well, we do too. We have 0.3 ten thousand students. But it really makes no sense for us to be playing against much bigger schools like Boston College, Boston University, Army and American University. We will almost always be the underdog. Instead, let’s reclassify to Division 2. Yes, the scholarships will be different. But the competition will be more equal and fun to watch. More people will show up to the games and not just the tailgates. It will create an electric atmosphere and a buzz around the school. We won’t play in March Madness, the College World Series or the College Football playoffs on ESPN but c’mon. C’mon. Let’s be real. If we reclassify we can instead play teams like Bentey University, Franklin Pierce University, and the University of New Haven. We still won’t be the biggest school but we will be more competitive. The games will be against lesser known schools but they will be more fun to watch, and maybe play in. Just food for thought.


Categories: Opinions, Uncategorized

Tagged as:

12 replies »

  1. Interesting article, and good job on researching the past success of Holy Cross athletics. I fear (and hope) that your suggestion to down grade is ill timed, however. We are at the cusp of a great turn around! Over the last 10 years, we have established the Crusader Athletic Fund, added scholarships for key sports, built world class facilities, hired some excellent coaches and stepped up recruiting. Our “niche” is to pursue excellence in all aspects of college achievement, academic and athletic. We should not aspire to be Alabama, but we can and should be the best version possible of ourselves. The future is bright. Go, Cross, go!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for your article. You neglected to mentioned that when we went coed our male population was cut in half. I strongly agree that we should drop down to Div II. An ideal situation is if our men’s basketball team remains Div I and all other sports go Div II. Unfortunately, this is not allowed by the geniuses at the NCAA, which has a stranglehold on college sports. The only kind of interesting contest is a competitive one. For example, our women’s basketball team’s habit, in recent years, of playing Uconn was utterly boring. It was an exhibition, not a contest, and unfair to spectators. I would rather see a season full of competitive games than dream of playing (and losing to) Duke once every thirty years. Unfortunately, this will only happen when us old alums who lived through years when we were occasionally nationally prominent die off.


  3. Keep in mind if we drop down to Division II to play Division II schools we’re also only going to be able to recruit Division II talent.


  4. Yes obviously. Point being we’re not going to have automatic success based upon playing against the schools mentioned but still having the kinds of players we have now. It’s all relative. We may have worse results.


  5. Obviously we wouldn’t have “the kind of players we have now.” One differentiator we would have are our sports facilities, which are probably superior to most Div II schools. But a negative factor will always be that we are more selective academically, which hurts us today, of course. Our goal should be to be COMPETITIVE. We are NOT competitive today in most of our “minor” sports,


  6. Obviously. HC has to decide what they want to be. They’ve been wrestling with their identity for a long time. A perfect example of the confusion on top of the hill is during a football game. You have the HC band playing at the same time they’re blasting awful hip-hop music through the loudspeakers. Trying to tailgate with my Lifelong holy cross fan 80 yr old father and I can’t even hear what he is saying to me. How about beef up the band like some of the other schools that we play and let them play for the people who actually show up for the games. I’m sure the band would appreciate that too .


  7. How about permanent lighting for Fitton Field? I believe that holds great potential for a lot of things, but the powers that be are strangely silent about why it hasn’t been done a long time ago. And don’t tell me the reason for non action is that Federal Disability rules would require expensive upgrades to Fitton. With a great lawyer (Edw. Hanify) you can get anything done.


  8. Love the lighting idea. Those fball games were exciting with good crowds. Yeah, with the endowment and more ticket sales as s result, money shouldn’t be a problem.


  9. Permanent lighting allows for Saturday evening games that would attract more families. Also, allows for more types of events than just football…..some of which could be money-makers for the college. There is no other 23,500 seat outdoor venue in the area. Show some imagination.


  10. Love the academic success and that HOLY CROSS is D1 (look at Stanford). Playing schedules that mostly comprise Patriot and Ivy League schools there is no disparity. The new Hart Center will help with recruiting and with the new hires for AD and coaches I think there is a turn around in the making!


  11. The main reason for the collapse of athletics at Holy Cross, and particularly football, was Father Brooks. Coach Carter was in the process of putting Holy Cross’s football team back in the national limelight and having significant success when Father Brooks pulled the rug out from under him.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s