Looking back: A history of Scranton football

BY CORY BURRELL
SPORTS EDITOR

“Undefeated since 1960.”

Many Scranton students are familiar with this satirical T-shirt about Scranton’s now-defunct football team. Fewer people know about the long history behind The University’s former team.

The first records of The University’s football team date back to 1892, when The University was St. Thomas College. In that year, the “Tommies,” as the football team was nicknamed, defeated Carbondale Area High School in a game on Thanksgiving, the first game on record for the program.

Assistant athletic director and sports information director Kevin Southard said football was the first official athletic team formed at The University, which was a common case for many colleges in the early 1800s.

“Football was the first sport and the one that probably garnered the most publicity,” Southard said.

Records on the football program between its inception in 1892 and 1920 are murky. Win-loss records, let alone scores, are incomplete in many areas. No team was fielded for at least two periods in this 27-year stretch. Reports on games from the Scranton Times, the most common source for information on games, were inconsistent. According to the Weinberg Memorial Library’s archives, newspaper game stories would sometimes “cover a game that wasn’t played.”

John Harding took the reins of the football program in 1926. Harding, who was also the athletic director and basketball coach, strengthened the team’s integrity and schedule by eliminating weaker competition such as high school and junior college teams.
Harding led the squad to great success in his 12 years as coach, compiling a 53-36-8 record with several notable victories, including a 24-6 win over Notre Dame’s “B” team.

Tom Davies took over head coaching duties for the 1938 and 1939 season, two of the best seasons in the school’s history. Davies won seven games each season, including an undefeated 7-0-2 1939 season. That season included the 31-0 blowout of the City College of New York Nov. 16, notable for being broadcast by NBC and being one of the first televised football games.

Also notable for the school was the promotion of the school, St. Thomas College, to university status and name change to The University of Scranton. The team name remained the Tommies, or Tomcats, until 1946, when athletic teams adopted the Royals name.

Robert “Pop” Jones, a former football player for the St. Thomas College team from 1929 to 1933, was the next head coach of The University in 1940, but only for three years. Varsity athletics were suspended in 1943 because of World War II, and Pete Carlesimo became head coach following the reinstatement of varsity sports in 1944.

Carlesimo, the athletic director and father of former NBA head coach P.J. Carlesimo, took control of the team in 1944. The Royals compiled an 80-60 record and had winning seasons in 10 of his 16 seasons. Even while experiencing on-the-field success, the Royals struggled to draw crowds and stay afloat financially. According the Library’s archives, much of Carlesimo’s efforts for the football team in the late 50s were focused on fundraising and innovative (at the time) scheduling techniques, such as Saturday morning games, to attract more people to games.

Despite Carlesimo’s best efforts, then-University president Rev. John J. Long, S. J., announced the discontinuation of the program on Jan. 3, 1961.

“Attendance at this sport, following a national pattern, continues to dwindle while the cost of fielding a team steadily increases,” Long said, according to an issue of The Aquinas from Jan. 13, 1961. “This can be attributed in part to the influence of television in changing the habits of sports fans who now prefer to watch top college and professional teams in the comfort of their homes instead of attending the games of their home college teams.”

According to the same issue of The Aquinas, the decision to drop football did not come as a “total surprise.”

“For many years now, the football Royals have been operating in the red,” The Aquinas article, written by then-sports editor Frank Ratchford, stated. “The gate receipts were poor and consequently it has impossible for the Royals to cover their own expenses. It is a well known fact that the people of Scranton like a winner, and unless you have something spectacular to offer them, you don’t receive their support at the gate. Such was the case.”

The football team ended with a 164-110-19 record in the program’s lifetime. In 1966, football came back briefly as a club team. The team lasted 12 years. After 1978, the club team dissolved and football was gone from The University. It remains gone to this day.

Some University students wonder if The University should consider bringing football back.

University athletic director Toby Lovecchio said the cost of re-establishing football at Scranton would come at a heavy cost.

“If you follow closely with the cost associated with football, it is very expensive and there are very few schools at the Division I level that generate a positive flow of revenue,” Lovecchio said. “And certainty at the DIII level, no one makes money.”

Lovecchio said The University would rather put those resources toward other initiatives.

“There are too many other important university initiatives that The University of Scranton has embarked on and will continue to embark on to this day,” Lovecchio said. “A new science building, a new student center, a new OT building, landscaping … all these things that cost a great deal of money that are more important to The University in totality.”

Scranton is far from the only Jesuit institution to distances itself from football. Of the 28 schools that are part of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, only five still have football programs. Only one, John Carroll University, is in Division III. Many of the schools that had football dropped the sport in the 30s and 40s, well before Scranton decided to end its own program.

Misericordia University, a fellow Division III university, has gone in the opposite direction. The Cougars formed a football program for the first time in school history in 2012. Misericordia athletic director Dave Martin said the team, despite going 0-10 last season and starting the season on a three-game losing streak, has “been exceeding” the school’s expectations on more important levels.

“From an enrollment standpoint, it’s done good,” Martin said. “We’ve had some great crowds. There continues to be excitement. It gives our students something to rally around … Nothing compares to the excitement a Saturday afternoon football [game] brings to the campus.”

Martin said the costs of such an undertaking, however, were steep and included redoing facilities, the field, hiring coaches and additional athletic trainers and other operational costs.

“It’s not cheap, but for me to give a dollar amount wouldn’t be fair,” Martin said. “It was expensive. It’s a huge undertaking … Our administration went all in … We did it the right way, and it was a huge undertaking.”

The possibility of football’s resurgence at The University is slim at best, but The University is still home to a rich history of football, a tradition that persists throughout northeast Pennsylvania.

“Northeast Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania as a whole, has always been a pretty big hotbed for football,” Southard said. “My dad is a ’46 graduate of Scranton, but he’ll tell you, if you look at rosters from even the bigger schools, they all have athletes that come from northeast Pennsylvania.”

Contact the writer:cory.burrell@scranton.edu

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