When a group of intramural athletes came together as a team for an exhibition game against NYU, no one anticipated that it would mark the beginning of a second era of Georgetown football. After 50 years, we examine the program’s progress.
The wind was howling on Kehoe Field. More than 8,000 fans packed into the bleachers and around the field, craning to see the Georgetown football team take down New York University in its first game after 13 years of nonexistence.
It was Nov. 21, 1964. The Hoyas would go on to win 28-6, their victory splashed across the sports pages of The Washington Post and even The New York Times with the headline “Georgetown Returns to Football.” Thanks to a small band of determined students, a tradition that had been lost in the struggles of the post-war years had been restored.
Fifty years later, time has transformed this narrative into legend, and the Georgetown football team has undergone several transformations of its own. Two division changes and seven head coaches later, the football team is strikingly different from the one that took to Kehoe Field on that chilly November afternoon. Unlike the 1964 squad, today’s Hoyas have an 11-game season, no longer play on the roof of Yates, practice six days a week and employ full-time coaches.
And now, the football program could undergo another even more drastic change depending on how Georgetown responds to the Patriot League’s 2012 decision to allow universities to offer athletic scholarships in addition to the financial aid that they already provide for football players. Georgetown has one of the smallest football budgets in the Patriot League: around $1.6 million. Although individuals can and do endow football scholarships, the university has not given any athletic scholarships since it became possible at the beginning of the 2013 school year.
Since the promise of scholarships improves the recruiting abilities of league opponents, the Hoyas will struggle to stay competitive should they choose not to offer athletic scholarships. University President John J. DeGioia, who played football at Georgetown himself, has in the past expressed his opposition to this type of scholarship program. The university is staring down a tough question about moving the football program forward, and it’s a question to which there is no easy answer. But, guidance can be found in remembering how and why football was brought back to the Hilltop in the first place.
Fourth and Long
The NYU game was a test of sorts: to gauge student interest in and the financial viability of transitioning the intramural football program at Georgetown into a club program. The game was a resounding success, but it was a long time in the making.
A Georgetown freshman in the fall of 1961, Rory Quirk (CAS ’65, GRD ’71, LAW ’80) stood a modest 6 feet 1 inch, weighed in at a diminutive 145 pounds and had no interest in playing football. A rower on the lightweight crew team and former sports editor of THE HOYA, Quirk may have lacked the necessary bulk to take the football field, but his curiosity and foresight made him the ideal person to lead the effort to bring college football back to the Hilltop. With equipment leftover from the varsity team’s heydays in the late 1930s and early 1940s — when the Hoyas faced off against football powerhouses like the University of Miami and Penn State University and played in the 1940 Orange Bowl game — the intramural football program at Georgetown was, if not thriving, at least comfortably established. Quirk, however, seized the opportunity for growth.
“It occurred to me, if we’re going to fund 85 to 100 guys to play intramural football games on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings, wouldn’t it make more sense to use it to fund a collegiate program, to engage students and raise the profile of Georgetown?” Quirk said in a recent interview with THE HOYA.
So Quirk — who will receive the Outstanding Service to Georgetown Football Award at this weekend’s 50th anniversary celebration — talked to his classmates, crunched some numbers and came up with a plan. He sent questionnaires to 50 universities with existing football programs, inquiring as to travel expenses, game-day costs, information about operations and how they were funded.
Out of the 50 universities polled, 49 responded. Out of the 49 respondents, 48 responded encouragingly: If the existing intramural budget could be properly utilized, it would be feasible to form a collegiate football team.
With tempered expectations, Quirk submitted a 150-page proposal to the university in the spring of 1963 and was answered with radio silence. The administration was fearful that reinstating football would open the old budget wound that had hemorrhaged money from 1946 to 1951.
But then, after further consideration and Quirk’s assurance that the plan would be cost-contained, an agreement was reached to play a game late in fall 1963 — near the end of the intramural season. Scheduled against Frostburg State University, a college in western Maryland, the game was cancelled after President Kennedy was assassinated the Friday before game day.
Undeterred by the tragic derailing of his well-laid plan, Quirk and his compatriots approached the university the next year with the same plan. The university answered in late spring 1964 — Quirk’s junior year — saying that a game would be played against NYU the following fall.
His years of research and planning had paid off, and finally, in his senior year, Quirk was able to watch the Hoyas take on NYU in the 1964 Homecoming game.
The Hoya squad that faced off against NYU was known as the intramural all-star team, a mish-mash of talented but inexperienced athletes who had never played a formal football game as a team. Coached by then-law students Bill Nash (LAW ’66) and John Murray (LAW ’65), what the Hoyas lacked in offensive schemes and elaborate play calling, they made up for with enthusiasm.
“The players played because they enjoyed the game,” Nash said. “And they worked their butts off. They wanted to win and they had a lot of spirit.”
The 40-odd students that suited up in gray pants, white shirts and silver helmets had only been practicing as a team for three weeks. NYU, on the other hand, had practiced for more than six weeks and were fresh off a showdown against Fordham University just two weeks earlier.
“They had the benefit of experience, so we were worried that we couldn’t compete,” Quirk said. “And we were worried about the weather, it could’ve been freezing in November. We were worried that no one would show up. That over 8,000 paid persons showed up — that was stunning.”
Just as his fears about turnout were eased as fan after fan purchased the $1 tickets and streamed onto the field, Quirk’s concern about the Hoyas’ readiness was nullified as the game got underway.
After a sloppy first half, during which the ball changed possession five times in the first quarter and NYU scored a touchdown following a Hoya fumble, Georgetown found its gear, scoring four touchdowns behind runs from fullback John Drury and his alternate John Quirk (of no relation to Rory Quirk).
It was how football was meant to be played — and the fans loved it.
“I was announcing on the PA system from the very top of the wooden bleachers, so I could see the whole place,” Quirk said. “When it started to get dark in the fourth quarter and we had the game in hand, the temperature dropped into the 30s and you would’ve thought that people might leave. But, the vast majority of people stayed until the bitter end. There was this electricity to the day, and I think people wanted to be a part of that buzz.”
The next day, The Washington Post read, “Georgetown University officials felt that yesterday’s revival of football was an exciting and delightful success, and it may have opened the way to more games.” The president of the university, Rev. Edward B. Bunn, S.J., said the event served as a “definite feeler for more games.”
For the coach, the implications of the win were just as sweet as the victory itself.
“There was some pessimism from the administration about the chances for success,” Nash said.“But because of the efforts of the students and the enthusiasm of the players, it got it started.”
Moving the Chains
The following season, the budding club team played two games. In the 1966 season, it played three; in both ’67 and ’68, it played five games. Then, in ‘69 — the year before the team moved to College Division football — it played seven games, winning all but two. Former quarterback and current president of the football booster organization, the Gridiron Club, Bruce Simmons (GSB ’69) has fond memories of his years playing football at Georgetown from 1965 to 1968.
“The practices were serious because we were serious about playing football, but they were not nearly as disciplined as they are now, of course.” Simmons said. “The fans were great. Georgetown was primarily men back then, and they would come out to the game and just have a party.”
In 1970, the club moved to College Division football before moving up again to play NCAA Division III football in 1973. The team held its own in DIII before a change in NCAA regulations required it to move to Division I AA in 1993. During its time in the Patriot League, the football team recorded two team-best 9-2 seasons in 1998 and 1999 and a devastating 0-11 season in 2009. Since 2000, the team has notched one winning season: an 8-3 Patriot League-winning record in 2011 that served as a lonely reminder of the excitement that football could bring to the Hilltop.
“The program’s changed immensely [from when I played here],” first-year Head Coach Rob Sgarlata (COL ’94) said.
Sgarlata credits the contributions of all former head coaches, especially Bob Benson, who oversaw the transition from Division III to Division I AA football, for getting the program where it is today.
“Back in 1993 when I was a senior and Bob Benson got the head job …. he changed the culture, not a little bit but a lot,” Sgarlata said. “He started pushing the university and department to start upgrading the program.”
In February 2012, following a coup by Fordham, the Patriot League decided to allow member institutions to give athletic scholarships.
“Certainly we are in a difficult situation playing in a scholarship league,” Simmons said. “We are approaching a point where we are going to be uncompetitive and where our student-athletes are at a point of injury risk. We are having discussions with the university but no decisions have been made. It is under review.”
But for now, the university plans to stay the course. Athletic Director Lee Reed said in a statement the the university will “continue [its] membership in the Patriot League and compete as a need-based aid program.”
Former defensive back Rohan Williamson (COL ’14) played football for four years at Georgetown and says he couldn’t imagine his college experience without it.
Despite waking up at 6 a.m. every day, enduring several losing seasons and sometimes dealing with frustrating disagreements between coaches and teammates, he says it was worth it because of the friendships he made.
As far as scholarships go, Williamson sees no reason why Georgetown shouldn’t offer athletic scholarships like the other league schools.
“I would like to see us go Division I A. I feel like there is no reason why we can’t go D1A [Division IA) like Stanford, Wake Forest, Duke. They are good institutions academically and have strong [football] programs,” Williamson said. “In the end, [the program] will be what the university makes it. Former NFL commissioner [and current chair of the university’s board of directors] Paul Tagliabue and President DeGioia actually care about football, so if they want to make [scholarships] happen, they will.”
Sgarlata, the head coach, however, doesn’t see financial limitations as a serious barrier to recruiting.
“Obviously, we’d always like to have more [money] … but that’s not what will make us successful here,” Sgarlata said. “There’s not a kid that gets recruited in the league that wouldn’t want to have the opportunity to come to school here.”
Regardless of how Georgetown football progresses, the revival and survival of the program has shown that success can’t always be measured in dollars or tallies in the win column. It was the love of the game that brought football back to life on the Hilltop 50 years ago. Now that the direction of the program’s future is at a crossroads, it’s worth keeping this guiding principle in mind.
“I could never have envisioned in 1964 that there would be a 50-year anniversary in 2014. To see something go from this very long-shot concept in 1964 to a 50th anniversary, I’m pleased and proud and very happy,” Quirk said.“Sometimes you dream up something that’s a long shot and when it works, that’s very gratifying.”
John Carlin says
How do the Ivy League schools we compete with deal with this issue?
James Brown says
I was delighted to see the picture of our Hoya fans during the 28 to 6 victory over NYU in the 1965 year book page 162. I was in the center of that picture in a grey coat with my right hand in the air holding the game program yelling “Hoya Saxa” – Touchdown!
James Ronald Brown C’67