Tracing the history of Stritch Athletics through the years
By Scott Rudie
The October 1971 quarterly Stritch newsletter announced the
birth of intercollegiate sports at Stritch with typical Franciscan modesty.
The small blurb on page 5 reported that Stritch had added a
regulation-sized softball diamond and volleyball court, and erected a
basketball backboard nearby as well.
“In response to a growing student interest in sports, the
College has made a modest beginning toward the development of outdoor athletic
facilities on campus,” the article reads.
Those small steps, implemented by an ad hoc committee of
students and staff members, marked the beginning of an incredible journey. More
than 40 years later, the Stritch Athletics program enjoys a legacy of success,
measured not only by the accomplishments on the field, but the character
development and high academic achievement of student athletes off the field.
Even a passing glance of the most basic statistics reveals
this high level of accomplishment. In their history, Stritch’s ten teams have made
more than 39 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) National
Tournament appearances, 32 conference tournament appearances, 33 regular season
conference championships, and 18 conference tournament championships. In
addition, Stritch boasts more than 100 all-conference athletes, 23 NAIA
All-Americans, 40 Stritch Scholar Athletes, 51 Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic
Conference Scholar Athletes, and 25 NAIA Scholar Athletes.
The birth of the teams
The University’s long history of athletics actually begins
with intramurals and club-related sports, dating back to 1947. The women competed
in such activities as softball, basketball, swimming, archery, skiing, and
horseback riding. Some also engaged in cheerleading, rooting for other
organizations that needed an infusion of spirit.
The birth of Stritch’s athletic programs as they are known
today began in 1971, a year after Stritch became coeducational. The school
formed the men’s basketball team at that time, joining the Wisconsin Conference
of Independent Colleges basketball league. Although Stritch had settled in to its Fox
Point/Glendale location by that time, on-campus basketball facilities did not
exist, so the team practiced at Mother of Perpetual Help School in Milwaukee and
played its home games at Messmer High School.
Many individuals became invested in the growth of Stritch
athletics. For example, when the fledgling basketball team did not have the
required number of student athletes, faculty members often filled in. And the
team was first coached by Richard Waski, a graduate student at Stritch at the
time of his hiring.
Dr. Robert Flahive, an administrator at Stritch for decades,
worked especially hard to build the athletic program, knowing it was one way in
which the newly admitted male population could feel at home.
“Dr. Flahive played an important role,” said Sister Camille
Kliebhan, OSF, Ph.D., Stritch president from 1974 to 1991 and current
chancellor. “He took a very active role for our male students.”
As the 1970s continued, Stritch added programs in women’s
basketball, women’s softball, and women’s volleyball, and the men’s basketball
team continued to improve under the direction of William Stier, who was hired
as athletic director in 1976. By 1977, the team ranked ninth in the nation.
In the early 1980s, Stritch added a men’s soccer program at Stier’s
The growth of the athletics programs in the ’70s and ’80s
necessitated a fresh look at available facilities. The administration saw an
opportunity to bring games to campus and enhance school spirit, so the Fieldhouse
opened in 1985 as part of an expansion that also included the library, Great
Hall, and Campus Center.
“We simply needed more space,” Sister Camille said. “When we
opened it, we were so proud of it. The games here brought a lot of energy and
student involvement. It just added another dimension.”
The new Fieldhouse attracted attention beyond the Stritch
community. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Milwaukee Bucks practiced
there. In those years, Stritch students enjoyed
chance encounters with Bucks mainstays such as Sidney Moncrief and Terry
Cummings or other NBA players, including hall of famers like New York Knicks
great Patrick Ewing.
“The word would go out that a team would be practicing, and
the students would come down to see who they could meet,” Sister Camille said.
Eventually, the Bucks’ practices relocated to the Cousins
Center. But many fondly remember their time at Stritch. For years, Sister
Camille’s desk held a placard that stated, “The Bucks stop here.”
When Sister Mary Lea Schneider, OSF, Ph.D., arrived as
president in 1991, she began plans to further develop Stritch’s athletic
programs, which led to the addition of the women’s and men’s cross country,
women’s soccer, men’s baseball, and men’s volleyball. An avid sports fan,
Sister Mary Lea remains especially proud of the hiring of Denny Fox, the former
athletic director and men’s basketball coach, and Rich Panella, who helped
build the women’s basketball program and then served as women’s basketball
coach and assistant director of athletics.Fox coached for 18 seasons at Stritch, developing the men’s
basketball program into one of the more successful NAIA Division II programs. Panella
coached for 23 seasons with Stritch, with an overall record of 548-139, an 80
percent career winning percentage. A
close friend of college basketball legend Rick Majerus, Panella worked with
Majerus to develop and host the annual summer
Rick Majerus Basketball Camp at Stritch.
Sister Mary Lea also is pleased by the high-profile
exhibition contests that have occurred over the years, including National
Collegiate Athletic Association Division I and Division III opponents such as University
of Wisconsin System schools and Marquette University. Last month, the men’s
basketball team took on the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The games with
these imposing opponents proved quite competitive – perhaps too competitive for
some, according to Sister Mary Lea.
“After a while, many of those teams didn’t want to play us
anymore,” she said. “They didn’t want to take the chance of losing to us.”
Many members of the Athletics Department fondly recall overseas
experiences that allowed student athletes not only to compete in new environments,
but also have enriching cultural experiences.
John Pfaffl , the current women’s basketball coach who since
1989 served in a variety of roles in athletics, including sports information
director and cross country coach, fondly recalled an exhibition game against
the University of Alaska- Anchorage. This excursion also involved full-day basketball
clinics for villagers, which took place amongst reindeer and caribou “in a town
without any cars.”
For Patrick Clemens, current athletic director who also
coached men’s and women’s soccer, the growth of athletics has contributed
greatly to making Stritch a highly attractive destination for international
“Through athletics, we’ve been able to add cultural
diversity to the school,” he said.
Over the years, student athletes have represented such
countries as Argentina, Australia, France, Ghana, Great Britain, Greece, Kenya,
Mexico, Nigeria, and several others.
The overall achievements of Stritch’s student athletes is
exemplified and memorialized in Stritch’s Athletics Hall of Fame, created in
2001 to honor former athletes, coaches, and friends who have made significant
contributions to the athletics programs at Stritch, whether on the field or
from the sidelines.
“We’ve been blessed with good coaches and wonderful student
athletes,” Sister Mary Lea said. “We graduate our athletes, and they have done
so much off the field; they always represent our school wonderfully.”
This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Stritch Magazine.