Holy Cross Was Once King of Hoops

The Last Amateurs, John Feinstein’s highly acclaimed chronicle of a season in the Patriot League, talks about playing for glory and honor in Division One basketball — but not for NCAA basketball championships. That’s left to the big guys, the elite.

In fact, for the vast majority of the 342 Division One combatants — the small schools of the Patriot League, the Ivy League, the Summit Conference, the mid-majors, even the long downtrodden programs in the major conferences — just getting a ticket to the Big Dance is the Mecca, that one shining moment, the  equivalent of the North Carolina or UCLA or Kentucky making the Final Four and more.

But for the College of the Holy Cross, which lost in the Patriot League championship game to American University. it wasn’t always that way.

Glory Days
Once upon a time, Holy Cross (my alma mater), a small Jesuit college located in Worcester, Mass., with undergraduate enrollment around 2,700, was the best team in the country. In 1947, the Crusaders, behind coach Doggie Julian, NCAA tournament MVP George Kaftan and a freshman point guard named Bob Cousy, right, beat Oklahoma at Madison Square Garden to win the NCAA championship.

The Crusaders finished third in the tournament the following year, and were ranked No. 1 in the 1949-1950 campaign as they won 26 straight games to start the season.

In 1954, behind Tommy Heinsohn,, Holy Cross won the NIT back in the days when that meant something. Heinsohn and Cousy, below, are Hall of Famers, two key players in the Boston Celtics dynasty of the late 50s and 60s..

As late as 1977, Holy Cross was still considered a national power. That year, HC knocked off a good Providence team twice on last-second shots by forward Chris Potter, and led top-ranked Michigan at the half in the first round of the NCAA tournament before running out of gas down the stretch,

The following year, Sports Illustrated ranked Holy Cross and freshman of the year Ronnie Perry ninth in its pre-season poll, but the Crusaders never did achieve those lofty ranks. And they’ve never come close since.

HC and the Big East
When the Big East was founded in 1979, Holy Cross could have been a charter member. Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Syracuse and Seton Hall, all teams that HC once played on a regular basis, agreed to start the Big East, but the league needed more New England representation

However, athletic directors at Holy Cross, Boston College, Rhode Island and Connecticut agreed all four schools would remain a block. Take `em all or get none. If they couldn’t be separated, and the conference wanted the Boston market, which, of course, it needed, there would be a  big league.

“Connecticut had been very good in the Yankee Conference. Boston College and Holy Cross was a toss up; actually, Holy Cross had the better basketball tradition. But their president couldn’t be convinced,” said the first Big East commissioner, Dave Gavitt, about the league’s founding. “He felt academics would be compromised.”

DSCN1895 Former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca spoke to me, Lou with the SportsLifer right, about these inside Big East formative dealings during a talk at the 2007 East Regionals at the Meadowlands. He told me that Holy Cross was supposed to join the Big East, but the school’s president, the Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., vetoed the move for academic reasons.

Eventually, both BC and UConn agreed to join, making the Big East a seven-team league in the inaugural 1979-80 campaign.

Villanova joined a year later in 1980. and Pittsburgh joined in 1982. Also in 1982, Penn State applied for membership, but was rejected when Syracuse cast the deciding vote against the Nittany Lions application.

Crusaders Come Close
Holy  Cross remained independent for several seasons, but eventually joined the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) to start the 1983-84 season. Seven years later, Holy Cross entered the Patriot League, and coach George Blaney led them to the league championship and an NCAA berth in 1992, the league’s second season.
Ralph Willard, like Blaney a Holy Cross grad, took over the program in 1999, and two years later the Crusaders were in the NCAAs .

Beginning in 2001 they made it to the NCAA tournament three years in a row. They gave both second-seeded Kentucky (2001) and a Marquette team that went on to the Final Four in 2003 major scares, eventually losing both contests by the identical score of 72-68.

And in 2002, the Cross nearly achieved immortality.

A number 16 seed has never won a game, excluding the play-in game, in the NCAA tournament. But Holy Cross came close before losing to Kansas, 70-59, seven years ago.

The Crusaders held a five- point lead with 12 minutes to go and were behind by only four points with one minute left before the Jayhawks finally secured the win.

6 Comments on “Holy Cross Was Once King of Hoops”

  1. Kevin says:

    Your article is erroneous in stating that Syracuse cast the deciding vote against Penn St.’s inclusion in the Big East.

    Unfortunately, this is misinformation that has been oft-repeated by numerous sources over the years, but it is not true.

    Former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese stated in a 2009 NY Times interview that Syracuse “fought like crazy” to get Penn State into the Big East, and voted in favor of Penn St.’s admission all 5 times the league voted on the matter. Syracuse has been unfairly blamed for this, most likely because of the long-time sour relations between Joe Paterno and former Syracuse AD Jack Crouthamel. Nevertheless, Crouthamel strongly supported Penn St.’s inclusion in the Big East.

    Interview link is below.


  2. Truth Czar says:

    Holy Cross basketball is back! Beating Southern was HC ‘s first NCAA tourney victory since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term as President (1953). Now let’s go beat the Oregon Ducks!

  3. Joesader says:

    Nice article, but Holy Cross beat Oklahoma, not Kentucky, for the 1947 NCAA Championship. Having degrees from both schools I want to see the record set straight.

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