Our Alma Mater Villanova University – 60 years ago.
As Villanova begins its defense of its NCAA National Basketball Championship title, I cannot help but reflect on Villanova as it was when Pat and I were students there 60+ years ago.
What a difference those 60 years have made. In 1957, Villanova had just attained university status 4 years earlier. With returning Korean Veterans, Its student body that year had swelled from less than 2,000 students a few years before to a then all time high of almost 4,000 full time students. The Student Union was in an old World War II Quonset Hut and many classes were still conducted in similar war surplus buildings. Despite the dynamic growth that Villanova was experiencing when we were there, it was still small enough to allow almost everybody to know everyone else on campus.
In 1957, the Nursing and Law Schools had yet to graduate their first classes. Except for the first two small classes of 20 or 30 nursing students (of whom Pat was one), Villanova was an all male school at that time. And believe it or not, despite a 66 to 1 ratio of males to females, the first female students were not that well accepted by the upper class guys. Old traditions such as an all male campus, died very slowly in those days especially when there were already plenty of girls at neighboring all-girl colleges.
Villanova’s athletic program reflected the size and attitude of its student body – small but very ambitious. Despite Villanova’s small size we had aspirations of our football program becoming the “Norte Dame Of The East”. The Wildcats’ small team played a big time schedule including the likes of Texas, Texas A&M, Georgia, Florida State, Baylor, etc. On the field, they were no match for those power houses that had 20 or 30 thousand students from which to draw. I remember Villanova taking a 40+ man traveling squad to College Station, Texas where the Aggies dressed about 140 players for our game and just wore us do out with fresh players as the brutal Texas heat took its toll on our small playing squad.
However, with the kind of schedule that Villanova played and a promotional tie-in with a local supermarket chain, every year, in the mid 1950s, the school set nationwide, regular season attendance records by packing 100 to 110,000 spectators into Philadelphia’s old Municipal Stadium (shown right) Saturday night after Saturday night.
The school’s basketball program in the 1950s, although rarely nationally ranked, was highly competitive and considered an eastern powerhouse. However, despite 36 appearances in NCAA basketball tournaments over the years, they never made the “the big dance” when Pat & I were there. In the early 1950s, Villanova moved its home games from their tiny, on campus Field House to the University of Pennsylvania’s 10,000+ seat Palestra where Penn and Villanova played doubleheaders against some of the top teams in the country. By the mid 50s, this joint venture led in to the establishment of Philadelphia’s famous Big Five league when La Salle, Temple and Saint Joe’s joined Penn and Villanova playing doubleheaders at the Palestra as well as playing each other for the Philadelphia city championship. To this day the Big Five and these rivalries still exist.
The athletic pride of the school in the 1950s was its track team. In 1956, five members of the Villanova track team competed in the Melbourne Olympics and brought three gold medals back to campus. Charlie Jenkins, (#116 in left pix) won a gold medal in the 400 meter event and a 2nd gold as a member of the U.S. 4 x 400 meter relay team. Ron Delany (shown below), competing for his native Ireland, won the gold in the 1500 meter (metric mile) event with an Olympic record-breaking time of 3:41.2, just 6/10ths of a second off the world record. His Gold was the first ever won by an Irish athlete.
In 1957, I had the good fortune to report on all of these events as the Sports Editor of the campus newspaper– The Villanovan. Today – exactly 60 years later, I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to have that job today and be able to report on Villanova as they enter the NCAA National Championship as:
THE #1 TEAM IN THE COUNTRY
THE #1 SEED IN THE TOURNAMENT and
THE DEFENDING NATIONAL CHAMPIONS!
It has to be “Pretty Heady” to say the least!
Posted by Frank Fleming 3/16/17
In Loving Memory Of
1936 – 2016
A Villanovan To The End