My association with Saint Joseph's University (then College) dates back to September of 1942 when I enrolled there as a freshman on a basketball scholarship.
Run by the Jesuit fathers, Saint Joseph's (known popularly then as St. Joe's or "The College") had a high academic rating and the beginnings of a strong basketball tradition. It had attracted national attention in the 1930s with a team known as "The Mighty Mites" -- a combination of four small, quick players and a 6-4 passing magician at the post, Matt Guokas Sr. (the school compiled a 54-17 record from 1934-38).
As a senior at Upper Darby High School in the spring of '42, I had worked out for Saint Joseph's coach Bill Ferguson, along with a number of other scholastic players from the Pennsylvania-New Jersey area, in the second-floor gym at Saint Joseph's Prep School (The College had no gym of its own).
On the basis of that workout and my academic acceptance by the admissions office, I was granted a four-year scholarship that covered the costs of tuition, books and living in an area rooming house.
But this was during the World War II era, when student enrollment at St. Joe's was less than 500, and I was there only for my freshman year before going into active duty in the Navy. I was a reserve player that season (1942-43) on a good varsity team (18-4) that was led by George Senesky, the nation's highest scorer (515 points) and the Helms Foundation College Player of the Year.
After World War II, I returned to Saint Joseph's in 1946 and played three more years of basketball under Ferguson before starting my own coaching career at St. James High School in Chester, Pa. After three years there and three more at Mt. Pleasant High School (Wilmington, Del.), I returned to Saint Joseph's as head coach in 1955 -- the year the Big Five was born.
The Big Five is a competition played in the University of Pennsylvania's Palestra among five Philadelphia-area Division I schools: Saint Joseph's, La Salle, Penn, Temple and Villanova. The Big Five was immensely popular and rivalries quickly grew to intense proportions.
In 1955-56, Saint Joseph's won the first Big Five championship, compiled a 23-6 overall record and entered its first postseason competition ever, the National Invitation Tournament, finishing third. That season's success seemed to vault St. Joe's into the national collegiate basketball scene, and it has been there since.
During my 11-year coaching tenure, Saint Joseph's won or tied for the Big Five championship seven times, went to 10 postseason tournaments -- including seven NCAA appearances -- and reached the Final Four in 1961. My 1965-66 team was Sports Illustrated's preseason No. 1 (and, as I recall, we were in the top 5 most of the season before losing to Duke in the East Regionals).
After I left Saint Joseph's for the NBA in 1966, that same tradition was carried on by coaches Jack McKinney, Harry Booth, Jim Lynam, Jim Boyle and John Griffin -- all former Hawks players -- until Phil Martelli took over the head job in 1995-96. A graduate of Widener University, Martelli was a longtime St. Joe's assistant coach.
Martelli's teams have reached their zenith in the past two seasons under the court generalship of their bantam-sized point guard, Jameer Nelson. The Hawks play an unrelenting pressure defense and an up-tempo offense that features an array of 3-point sharpshooters.
The No. 3 Hawks are undefeated so far this season (20-0, 9-0 Atlantic 10). Their 20th win came Saturday over La Salle at the Palestra, 89-63. They have a realistic chance to run the table going into postseason competition. St. Joseph's has earned a place among the nation's college basketball elite -- and the Hawks play well enough as a team to reach the Final Four again.
Martelli has done a masterful job extracting the best from his Hawks. Nelson, a senior, is his coach on the floor, the glue that holds the team together by his unselfish and intense play. The Hawks are poised, they make clutch plays down the stretch in close games and they don't beat themselves -- all benchmarks of a well-coached team.
Some things are different at Saint Joseph's since I started there in 1942.
The enrollment is up to 3,850 students, and a number of residence facilities house more than 2,000 students. The Hawks also have their own fieldhouse (3,200 capacity) and a vastly expanded campus.
But some things haven't changed. Saint Joseph's still is among the smaller-enrollment institutions with a big-time basketball program. The Jesuits still offer the same high-quality education. St. Joe's students and alumni are as supportive as ever, and their spirit is unquenchable.
And Saint Joseph's followers still say with the same zealous conviction, "The Hawk Will Never Die."
Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Send Dr. Jack a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.