Author Archives: Damon Hatheway

Russ Reilly Era: Russ Reilly Interview

What led from the transition from Bates to Middlebury?

At Bates I was the head athletic trainer and assistant basketball coach. I really wanted to get out of athletic training and the opportunity availed itself during the spring of ’77. I had gotten to take the Bates golf team to the NESCAC championship and Tom Lawson had taken the Middlebury golf team to the championship. And it had just been announced that he had been promoted to the Director of Athletics position and there was going to be an opening for an assistant soccer coach and assistant basketball coach. So in a true example of merely being in the right place at the right time I was able to chat with him, was very informally interviewed over a day-and-a-half period and was ultimately offered the position as the assistant soccer coach and assistant men’s basketball coach, which I accepted. And that started my career at Middlebury.

What were your impressions of Tom Lawson as a coach?

Tom was meticulously detailed, very system oriented — a very good coach. He was a very successful high school of both soccer and absketball and all of those traits were going to make him a very successful athletic director.

Greg Birsky said that during Lawson’s coaching tenure they would run sprints after practice, which stopped when you became the head coach. What was the difference?

That’s a hard question to answer. I was a much more freelanced, fast-break kind of coach, so I felt that most of the running that we would need to do occurred during the drills in practice. Running for running’s sake was not all that necessary if everyone was pushing themselves during the drills. Did everyone run as hard as they could have every time? Probably not. But to me it seemed like a better approach than putting guys on the line and running them at the end. That didn’t seem to accomplish a whole lot. I’d much rather have them running with the ball because that’s what they’ll be doing during the game.

Birsky said you were a great “practice coach.” What does that mean to you?

Well I’d like ot think that practice for any coach is their class room. That’s where you’re teaching the basic lessons … the games are just exams. So if you’re not doing your job in the classroom teaching the skills of the game or your philosophy, then you’re probably not doing everything you can to prepare your team to be as successful as you might like them to be.

What do you remember from your first return to Bates?

It was a very emotional game for the people at Bates and myself and my wife. They presented her with flowers — it was quite a showing — and then they held the ball on us right from the get-go. We had to battle to come back. We were down six or seven at halftime and we battled back and we were able to figure out a way to win it in the end, just because the guys stayed disciplined, bore down a bit defensively, made some big shots at the end and were able to get out of their with what I thought was a great win, considering they really did hold the ball. It was one thing I didn’t expect, but I thought we reacted very well to it.

What kind of players were Greg Birsky and Kevin Kelleher?

They were terrific players. Greg was as accomplished a point guard as you could ever hope to coach. He could score, he was great at directing the team, good assist man, knew the game extremely well. Kevin was the consummate scorer. Period. He could shoot the ball from the outside, he could take it inside, he could rebound , he was a tough competitor — a lot of fun to coach.

Greg Birsky said he wasn’t always the easiest guy to coach … is that fair?

Greg’s a little hard on himself. I didn’t find him that hard to coach. Because of the way he approached it, he did have a great field of knowledge. And when I coached I always wanted the players to speak up if they had something to say. Coaches can’t see everything; they can’t always know their players as well as they might like to think they know them. And the palyers themselves have a better insight into their teammates than their coaches. I thought Greg would have been a terrific coach if decided that’s what he wanted to do.

He said early in your coaching career there were a couple of Bob Knight moments with regard to your interactions with the officials. Was that your demeanor on the sideline, as a fiery coach?

It was early in my career — I guess I matured over a period of time. I think the particular episode that he might have been referring to was when I stepped in to coach the team for two games during Tom Lawson’s last year. And we were playing U-Mass Lowell, which was a Division II school at the time. And we were in the game much longer than we should have been. We were playing a box and one defense and we were running this guy off the screen. And I wasn’t questioning that we didn’t foul the guy, we fouled him, there’s no doubt about it. But the guy took two dribbles past the screen and buried the shot and they counted the goal. That’s when I came unglued. And I think I booted a chair into the stands as I recall, which cost me my first technical. I think there were some faculty members in attendance who didn’t think I should become the next coach because I was too emotional.

What about the injury Greg Birsky sustained his senior season?

He had a real significant back injury so either you had to play him off the bench and you knew you were going to leave him in the game, or you had to leave him in the game period. I had forgotten about that. As you know injuries are a part of the game, but it’s especially unfortunate when it happens at the point guard position because it’s so important in terms of directing the operation when the game is underway. And if the point guard gets hurt and you don’t have anyone to back him up, it’s hard to get things get going both offensively and defensively. You need someone with a good head on their shoulders, can communicate, understands the game — certainly qualities Birsky had.

How does your career look, more big picture now going from head coach to director of athletics to assistant coach?

First of all, Jeff giving me the opportunity to get involved in coaching … I guess I didn’t realize how much I missed coaching. I remember President McCardell saying, “I’ll let you coach one more year, but that’s it.” And so it didn’t make sense to just go one more year. IF that’s the way you feel, let’s cut the umbilical cord right now. There were a couple of guys involved in the NESCAC who were both Athletic Directors and basketball coaches. So I didn’t think it was impossible. But I knew it was probably going to affect both positions, so he was right to tell me that I shouldn’t do it. At the time the College was embarking on a major capital campaign, so it was the right thing for me to do as the Athletic Director at the time. In hindsight, knowing how much I love coaching, love teaching, love being with young people, I’m not sure I would make that step again, but hindsight is always 20/20. Even though my role with the team is relatively small — I work with the big kids for 15 minutes a day — I just love teaching the game and trying to help kids on an individual basis with a little prod here, a little poke there, a little slap on the back on the back here, a little kick in the rear end there if they need it because that’s what I think coaching is.

What’s the story of Warren, the team’s equipment manager?

Warren was a retired Vermonter who had gotten involved as an assistant equipment guy and he and I used to have conversations all the time. And his favorite team was the Boston Celtics, but he had never ever been able to see them play. When I had been coaching at BU and Bates prior to coming here, I had made some contacts, particularly with KC Jones. At the time KC was the coach of Brandeis and then subsequently moved on to the Celtics and their organization. So I contacted KC and said “I’ve got this old-time Vermont farmer, long-time Celtics fan, never been to a game … can you help me out with tickets?” He got me five tickets! Enough for me to take our three captains, Warren and myself down to a Celtics game. Another alum arranged a meal for us at a big-time restaurant across from the Garden. At the end of the game KC arranged for us to go down into the Celtics locker room and take pictures with Dave Cowens and KC Jones. That picture hung in Warren’s living room until he died. It was just a great way of helping an old-time guy who had worked hard all his life, never really had much to show for himself, but he was just such a great person that I wanted to honor him. It was a fairly simple thing to do.

What are some of the biggest wins that you remember looking back as a coach?

Any win over Williams was a big win. Beating St. Mike’s two years in a row… probably 1984ish, I’m guessing. I had spent a full winter chasing this kid from Rutland, Vermont, Jimmy McAfree. I was the only coach in the state recruiting him — I was at every one of his games — and was assuming that we had a pretty good shot of getting him … he was going to be admitted. I remember going to the state championship game up in Burlington: on one side of me was the St. Michael’s coach and on the other side was Jeff Brown the assistant coach at UVM. And Jimmy goes off on an unbelievable individual performance in the championship game. I’m rooting for him to foul out while everyone else is rooting for him to score more points. And I remember closing the program and saying to myself, “It’s been nice knowing you Jimmy.” Because I knew in my heart that he was going to be recruited by St. Mike’s and UVM. This was a Friday night and on Sunday night he calls me and thanks me for all that I had done and all the interest that I had shown, but that he had made a decisions and that he wanted a higher level of competition, which I could understand. And I’m making the assumption that he’s going to UVM. And then he tells me he’s going St. Mike’s. I almost dropped the phone on the floor. Jimmy! I don’t understand, but his dad was a St. Mike’s guy and was a judge in the state. I remember he came down here his freshman year and we beat them by six or seven, and then the next year we went up to play them on their floor and they take the lead with nine seconds to go in the game. We get the ball come down and call time out in front of our bench. Fain Hackney, who is now a judge on the Cape, buries a shot at the top of the key. We ran a play designed by Hubie Brown, worked to perfection. He buried the shot and we won the game at the buzzer.

Beating Williams twice in the same season was definitely a highlight. That was a little bit later. And then one of my last games coaching we beat a Williams team here that was ranked second in the country. I remember going around campus telling everybody that if they were going to celebrate with us they had to be at the game. We put something in play where we changed defenses on every possession — they didn’t know what we were playing. I just wanted to get in their heads and screw them up and we did a pretty good job of it. John Miletus hit a big shot. I remember distinctly we had to play Union in the last game of the year and we’re waiting for the bus up by McCullough and Ron Liebowitz comes driving up, gets out of the car, runs up to me and says, “You son of a gun, you called that win!” And I said, “Well I had to convince everybody else that we were going to win it if I was going to convince the team.” And it was really the only time in my coaching career when I was really obnoxious about it — and I was really obnoxious in the week leading up to that game because I really wanted our team to believe they could do it and they somehow found a way how to do it.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

“I’m firmly convinced that if you’re playing a sport at a place like this it’s an extension of your the educational message. And your first mission is to teach.”

Russ Reilly Era: Greg Birsky Interview

How did you come to choose Middlebury? Were you recruited by Tom Lwason?

As it were, the first recruiting level I ever received was actually from the football coach at Middlebury, Micky Heineken. And I was never going to play football, I’m tiny. But I was all-state football player in high school in Vermont. So I looked at Middlebury. But then Tom Lawson called me after every game my senior year. He was talking to me all the time. He wanted me badly, so I wanted him. As they told me at the D-I level I was a d-I level in a D-III body. I was 5’9’’, 160 pounds and white and couldn’t really jump so no one really wanted me. But I was decent! Tom Lawson was a great recruiter. I wanted to go to Dartmouth, but I got waitlisted there and I ended up at Middlebury, which I think was a better fit for me in the end.

Tom Lawson was a really good high school coach in Vermont. Is that how you met him?

My father was a very scucesful high school basketball coach. I was the typical point guard — son of a basketball coach — and my father was a big name in the state of Vermont, Bo Birsky. Everyone knew him, Tom Lawson knew him, coached against him way back in the day. He coached at Proctor High School, which was Division Two. Springield, Vermont where I’m from at the time was Division One. Now they’ve shrunk all the way down to nothing because the town has lost all its business, but back in the 50s 60s and 70s it was something of a boon town with a pretty big high school. He knew my father so that was part of the reason why I was recruited. I was recruited at UVM too but they were going big UVM and they had a point guard out of the city that they took instead of me. I had the better education — I was number one in my class in high school so I was supposed to go to a good school, and I did.

Back then it wasn’t the same. I got a letter from Georgetown, from USC, just because I was on a list back then. Now they look at you on film, but they didn’t have that back then. Your name got known, so I got tons of recruiting letters, but as soon as they found out my size they were done.

What was your first impression of the school? Of the team?

School-wise I was totally intimidated. Even though I was number one in my high school class, but I was in public school. I came in and got into classes and was blown away by the private school kids: what they knew, how they thought, how they spoke … the confidence that they had. I was definitely set back by that. I handled it, but I was intimidated. I was also intimidated by the wealth of the school. I came from a lower middle class background with both of my parents working in the school system in Vermont. I didn’t even know what a BMW was and I saw all these kids driving their parents kids around. So I was intimidated by the wealth.

The basketball team, however, was my saving grace. All of us were recruited, most of them were urban players out of Boston, New York or New Jersey. We had a totally different attitude. I felt out of sorts in school, but totally at home in the team. Dave Nelson was a great captain my freshman year and then when I became captain I tried to emulate a lot of what he did. He was really a team guy, going after the freshman making sure they were comfortable and then competitive as hell: we had great captain’s practice games.

What was the transition going from Tom Lawson who recruited you to Russ Reilly?

It was a good transition because he had come my junior year and he was the assistant coach so we all knew him. But I was probably not the easiest guy to coach because being a coach’s son I thought I knew as much or more than the coaches half time. I was coachable, but I would get a little upset [sometimes]. Tom was a great recruiter but he had a stifling offense for me that really slowed the game down. We won games, but I felt with the team he recruited we could have run a lot more. So I’d try to push the ball more; he’d be yelling and screaming at me. And if we blew somebody out he’d be happy and if we were losing he’d be upset. But we got along fine.

And then with Russ he let us run more and he let us open it up more and that was fun. And then I coached with Russ for two years so I stayed two more years and was his assistant coach. I thought I was going to go into the coaching business like my father and did a couple of years and then realized that wasn’t for me. I loved it, but I didn’t want to be financially strapped and I didn’t want to do the recruiting thing at the college level and didn’t want to coach at the high school level and gave it up and went into business.

Russ Reilly’s offense really opened things up and records start to fall. What was the big change from a tactical standpoint?

I had a great senior year because he let me dominate the ball. We ran more of a point-guard initiating offense. And basically I just found Kelleher half the time. He was there for three of my four years. I joke with him — I swear half his points came off half of the assists that I had. He was a great player: great hands, great instincts, always got himself open and was determined. He did the most with his abilities. But with Russ, when we had a chance to run, we ran. Tom was controlling and didn’t like it. There were a few of times when we took the game away from him and ran with him yelling at us on the bench. And then all of a sudden we’re up 20 and he’s saying, “Way to go!”

Who are the teammates you will remember playing with most?

My sophomore year was a huge team for D-III, at least back then. We walked in the door with Zenon Smotrycz at 6’9’’ — “Big Zee” — out of Jersey City, good player big guy, Peter Vuvora at 6’6’’ or 6’7’’ and wide. Those two were a senior and junior, Kelleher started as a freshman and he was 6’5’’, Mark Mauriello who was 6’5’’. The only guy under six feet was me; the other starting guard was 6’2’’. So we started 6’9’’, 6’7’’, 6’5’’, 6’2’’ and 5’9’’. That year we did very, very well. We beat UVM at home and UVM was trying to get ranked nationally. They had a seven-foot center. That was a big win for me and the other Vermont kids. That was my biggest win. I think I led the team that night with 14 points, but everyone had 12 or 13 — it was a beautiful game. And that was one of those games where Tom sat on the bench screaming at us to slow down and we were taking off.

What are some of the other outstanding memories from your career on and off the floor?

The beautiful thing for me is that I stayed and coached for a couple more years so I got to know a bunch more kids coming in and I played with them during the captain practices because I was young and foolish and having a great time. And then I ran the alumni game for 15 years. I started it with Russ and we had it going. Those years we had a big turnout. One year we put on a show — the game went 100-99. We played right before the varsity game and people were coming into watch it and it was exciting and fun. It was a bunch of guys in their 20s and 30s who were in good shape and they were good players. So we had a good thing going. As a basketball family I’m still best friends with all of my teammates. That’s what kept me sane. The things I miss the most, the after-practice laughs, going to eat in Proctor, the travels on the road trips, the story-telling — it was a wonderful time.

What are some of the stories traveling with the team that come back to you?

Every year we had a Maine trip, to go play Bates and Bowdoin or some combination. My senior year was Russ’s first year and there was a snowstorm going over. We get to Bates and they weren’t very good that year, and they just decided they want to beat Russ in his first game back. And they held the ball. Back then we didn’t have a shot clock — there was no shot clock in the college game until the mid-80s. (This was 1979). So they get ahead of us and they held the ball. And if you go back in history and watch the four-corners stall that NC State ran in the 70s, it’s as boring as hell … it’ll drive you nuts. But we finally get ahead and then they can’t hold the ball anymore because it’s illegal to hold the ball once you’re behind. And once we got ahead we blew them out so we won for Russ’s first game, which was awesome. And then the next day we had to play Colby, and Colby was real good. And we were real good — we should have had more wins than we did; we had a lot of close losses and Colby was one of them. We lost on a buzzer shot. Kelleher actually had a tap in to win it — we were down one — and it rimmed out after Jeff Sadir had a little fadeaway jumper that rimmed out as well. We had two shots to win with under five seconds. I still remember to it this day because it would have been a great win.

So we get on the bus and we start to drive home and another freaking snowstorm hits and it took forever. We had this great guy, Tex, who was in his late 70s or early 80s who would come to every practice and sti on the sideilines and watch us practice. He became, for lack of a better word, our team mascot. So we invited him to go on the road trip with us. He was a retired guy from New York, had a lot of money. We were half the state of Maine and couldn’t get out of the snow and he says, “Russ, we need to stop for a beer.” And Russ goes, “OK.” So we stop the bus, go into a bar, I don’t know where — we all pile into this place — and he sets us up. And he had a rule — “a pitcher a table so everyone gets two beers.” So we all sat down, drank beers, got back on the bus, which made the trip so much better.

What’s the biggest difference with the program today compared to the late 70s and early 80s?

The biggest difference is that winning begets winning. Jeff Brown is a great coach and now he’s turned into a great recruiter and a great coach. It’s the old line, “You can’t make chicken salad with chicken shit.” He was able to get some players and all of a sudden they got hot. And now that he’s hot, Middlebury basketball is the program. Is it any different about caring about kids committing to the team? No. If you knew my team, we were loaded with talent. And I would say these last few teams are the first teams that I saw that would be beating us. Russ didn’t have a lot of talent in certain years, but now I think Jeff Brown has it going and the whole school is excited about it and it’s awesome.

What was Russ Reilly’s coaching demeanor like and how did that affect you as a coach?

Russ was a terrific practice coach — he absolutely had it down to a T; he had it designed time-wise, he was very efficient, very effective teaching the basics and everything that needed to be done. IN the game he had a system where he made sure he rested people and made sure we were balanced. He was very educated as far as how to coach in those teims. I think he’ll tell you he had a couple of instances in his early years where he lost his cool — he threw a chair, he was like Bobby Knight! — but he hardly ever lost his cool at us; he lost it at the officials. The biggest thing about Russ is that he’s the nicest guy in the world and he cares about his players. He knew how to coach practice and he had a system in the game that worked. As a young coach he had a couple of episodes, but nothing bad.

I was having a great senior year and I hurt my back. I got taken to the rim by this guy and I went up and I flipped over and landed on my back and got knocked out. They were worried about my neck, but the next day I could hardly walk the next day because of my low back. And that injury has stayed with me for life. But I played, and Dick Watterman, who was the trainer at the time, would tape me up ardound my belly and my back — it was like a tourniquet brace — and I played at like 70 percent. So I went to Russ and said, “As soon as you sit me down to rest me I stiffen up and I can’t go. So I’d rather just keep playing and you take me out if I foul out or if I’m not playing well or I can’t make it to the end. So for the last 10 games of the season he just let me go. It was nice — he broke his own rules to let me keep playing. I was playing well, but he wanted to have the other guys play also. As long as I was moving, but as soon I sat down it was over.

Are there any moments from Kelleher’s career that stand out in your mind?

I don’t remember huge scoring outbursts, Kevin just scored a lot; he was a scorer. And he didn’t always score [the same way] — he had a lot of points on offensive rebounds just muscling in. He liked to score; he liked to shoot. The big joke when we were playing for Tom Lawson was that Tom would yell to me, “Don’t start the ball with Kelleher in the corner,” because Kelleher would just take the ball and shoot it. So he’d yell at me. And I’d say, “Coach, yell at Kell … he’s the one shooting. He’s supposed to kick it back out to me before we start the offense.”

But in general I played great with Kevin because he would fill the lane. Back then we didn’t have the three-point line either so you saw much more of the tendency on the 3-on-2 break where the two guys filling the lane would take it all the way to the hoop. Now in today’s game you either get a breakaway dunk or you penetrate, stop, kick it out and take a three. So you don’t see some of the beauty of the three passes side to side with an easy layup that you used to see when there wasn’t a three-point line. But in that sense, Kevin loved to score so he hustled his ass down and he was always one of the guys filling the lane. And for some reason — Jeff Sadir used to say, “You never give it to me when I fill the lane, you always give it to Kelleher!” — I would give him the ball (it was like he had a magnet in his hands) and he just scored. He didn’t miss layups, he didn’t miss underneath and we had great games. There was a game down in Castleton where I ended up having 27 points in the game with 11 assists and Kelleher had 25 points or something so either I shot it or I came down and threw it to him. And I just happened to have one of those games where I had some really fun passes — over the head, behind my back, one between my legs — and it was just in the flow of the game, I wasn’t showboating, but it was always to Kelleher. And he always finished. And he was an animal on the boards: didn’t jump well, boxed out extremely well, strong, was incredibly fit.

We were playing for Tom Lawson and his idea of the end of practice was what we called “And-Two,” which was basically just passing the ball without dribbling, going end to end with layups. It was kind of like running sprints with the ball, but it really wasn’t that hard. And Kell and I both came from programs in high school where we pressed all over the court and we ran and we had to be in shape. Kell was a pretty good cross country runner so he had great lung capacity and I was a football, basketball, baseball player, so we were both in pretty good shape. So at the end of practice we would say, “That wasn’t a good enough work out,” so he and I would stay and run suicides. And then other guys chimed in, so half the team would stick around and run extra sprints after practice. It was really Kevin’s idea and we did that from my sophomore year. But then when we played for Russ, his practices were hard and we ran sprints. We didn’t stay after those practices.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Yeah, my senior year our equipment manager at the school, Warren who was an old Vermonter who worked at the College, handed out towels, picked up after us. He was a retried farmer, didn’t have any teeth, spoke with a real strong Vermont access and was the nicest man in the world. He couldn’t understand anything the Boston guys would say. He was this great guy and he retired my senior year. So Russ put it together and we honored him at halftime during one of the last games of the homestand. We gave him tickets to see the Celtics. I got to go, all the captains got to go and the coaches got to go and we brought warren down to the Boston Garden. He had never been to the Garden; he was a lifelong Celtics fan watching on Vermont TV. So at this award ceremony at half time — and back then we didn’t have as many fans as the basketball team does now, but when they heard that Warren was going to be honored at half time all the athletes from other sports — lacrosse, hockey, football — really came out. I gave the award and the place rocked. It was emotional, people were crying, it was really cool. It was a highlight of my life, seeing the Middlebury basketball family honoring a guy who had really served us and helped us. Afterwards a lot of coaches went up to Russ and said, “Boy I haven’t seen that much emotion at Middlebury College in a long time.” So that was a big memory for me.

Russ Reilly Era: Kevin Kelleher Interview

What attracted to you to Middlebury originally? What attracted you to the team?

It was when I was being recruited. Tom Lawson was the head coach back then and he was recruiting me out of high school. I came up for a recruiting weekend to visit the college. And when you’re a recruit on campus you stay with one of the basketball players and I stayed with Mark Mauriello. And I met most of the players on the team and it seemed like a group of guys that got along, had a lot of fun and were serious about playing basketball. They were all recruited out of their respective high schools and enjoyed being part of the team. In terms of my decision-making process and selection of Middlebury it was that element and the school’s good reputation, but the tipping point was the basketball program, the guys on the team and how they got along. I saw that during that first weekend on campus as a recruit.

What was the transition like from Tom Lawson to Russ Reilly and what was the difference between the two?

Russ was an assistant coach his first year before he became the head coach, so I’m not sure if there was much of a difference with respect to his style of play. I think Russ was a little bit more open to pushing the ball up and [liked] a quicker game while Tom was more about “let’s control the ball” in more of a slow-down game. But I don’t remember that much of a difference.

When you got there as a freshman you instituted a system of sprints after practice was over. What was the impetus behind that?

When you go into practice and you’ve been working on offenses and set defenses you’re not getting a lot of running, so it’s up to individual players to do some real conditioning on the side. I do remember Russ building in the suicide at the end of practices just to make sure that people got their cardio workouts in. Because during the season you’re playing games you’re not going to rely just on your practices to stay in shape. You have to supplement that.

Russ Reilly called you the consummate scorer. Can you break down your game further?

I could play inside or outside, I was pretty aggressive as an offensive rebounder with respect to following shots up and trying to find holes and pockets. If you can shoot the ball from the outside and maneuver inside you have different ways to score and I took advantage of both the outside game and the inside game. A lot of it is just mindset. Every game you have to get yourself ready for it and ready to play and I tried to do that. I took advantage of every opportunity on the floor.

Greg Birsky said that under Tom Lawson they made sure the ball stayed out of your hand for a little while to slow the pace down. Why?

Tom played sort of a disciplined style: move the ball around, get some touches before we shoot. And my attitude was: if you have a good look take advantage of that look because after two or three touches you may not have that same look. You have to take advantage if you’re in transition. Pulling the ball out and slowing it down … that’s fine if you’re goal is to burn the clock and you’re in the lead and you want to protect that lead, but in the flow of the game, if you’ve got a great look out of transition, take advantage of it! Because sometimes you’ll find if you pull it out and the defense gets set, when you finally do have that shot it might be a shot that’s a lot worse than the shot you had initially. The whole thing with basketball is exploiting weaknesses and exploiting if the defense isn’t back and taking some of those easy scores. And that was the style that I played in.

Do you remember some of the times when you took the game out of Tom Lawson’s hands and pushed the tempo?

Greg Birsky was a great leader on the floor and he would push the ball up and he could score and take it to the hoop. And if he thought based on the team we were playing if there was an advantage to pushing the ball up he wouldn’t slow it down just to run an offense — he would increase the speed of the game and make it much more of a transition game.

He got me the ball quite a bit. I ran the court. If we got a rebound I said, “I’m going to be the first one down the court.” It’s just the way I played. Let’s push the ball up the court and see if we can get something in transition that’s better than if we walk it up the floor and run our offense.

Who are some of your teammates that you will remember playing with most vividly?

Lawson was a great recruiter. He brought in a lot of top players who had great credentials out of their high schools so there were a lot of really excellent basketball players. Specific names? There was a guy named Peter Murray in my class who came out of Albany who was a great, great shooter: he had incredible range — and this was a before we had a three-point line. And if we did, with the guys that we had who could shoot from the outside, we would have had a major advantage playing with that three-point line. But Peter was a great offensive deep scoring weapon. Jeff Sather who was out of Brattleboro, Vermont — he was a very solid, smooth forward. He had a lot of ability, a lot of skills. He could score, he was very athletic. My freshman year we had Zenon Smotchrycz who was 6’8’’, 6’9’’ — he was a banger. Mike Wagget was incredibly gifted, he could jump out of the gym. From Dorchester, Massachusetts, great shot blocker, great defensive player and he became a pretty good offensive player as well. And then Bobby Hamilton was out of Pittsfield, Mass. He was a point guard and just a really good ball handler. He could run the offense really effectively. All around we had a lot of really good players with good skills.

My [junior] year we had a really tough loss up at Colby. I think we were down by one and we had the ball. Somebody takes the shot, I remember the time was running out and I was in the position for the rebound, but instead I went up to tap it in because I thought we were going to tap it in and I missed the tap. If I had grabbed it and went up we would have won the game, and there was enough time to do that. So that was a pretty tough pill to swallow.

Our games against Williams and Amherst were always a dogfight. The fans were pretty nasty when you played down at Williams. So that was always a big rival.

We played one game against Bates and they knew they were outmatched and there was no 35-second clock back then so they just went into a four-corners stall offense at the start of the game, which is really frustrating because we could have buried these guys playing an up-tempo game. And I think the score at halftime was like 8-6. So at halftime we said, “we’ve gotta just try to get this game up-tempo.” Which we finally did. We got a lead so they couldn’t really stall and in the second half it opened up a little bit. Russ went ot Bates and it was at Bates so it was a nice win to beat them.

University of Vermont my freshman year. A Division I team, playing at Middlebury. We were completely outsized and outmatched and we beat them. I remember getting an elbow in the first half in my eye, had blood gushing all over, went in, got stitched up and came back and played the second half. And we ended up beating them. And that’s why they stopped playing us because there was nothing for them to gain.

St. Michael’s a Division II team, we beat them two out of my four years. We always played much better against the better quality teams. We just brought more to the game overall.

There was one game my senior year — it was the last game of my college career and the last game of Peter Murray’s college career. Peter went off. He probably played 20 minutes in the game and I think he had 30 points, just shooting rainbows from all over the place. He just couldn’t miss — so that was really fun to watch. We both went out on a big high, beating RPI in our home gym.

What about your memories with your teammates or coaches off the floor like those road trips?

It was a good group. We hung out together quite a bit. And during the season you spend a lot of time with your teammates so you get to know them pretty well. And we had to come back the day after christmas and us and the hockey team were the only ones on campus. And the dorms weren’t open so we’d stay as a group together in the infirmary and we used to have a lot of laughs and a lot of pranks. There was one incident — I forget which year it was — we had a road trip to maine. We were playing Bowdoin or Colby and staying at a hotel and one of these cheap hotels/motels and we left the hotel after breakfast to head to the Bowdoin gym and about an hour on the way a call comes in from the hotel saying that people had taken some stuff from the hotel rooms. So Russ stops the bus, calls me and Peter up because we’re captains and says, “I don’t want to know who did it, but if anyone has anything that belongs to the hotel, I want it brought up to the front of the bus right now and we’re going to bring it back.” There are pillows that just appear at the front of the bus, a piece of artwork from the wall — there was a fair amount of stuff that we brought back to the hotel room and apologized. But it was a good lesson.

Can you embellish on the story of Tex and the snowstorm?

Usually on road trips if we were playing close to the areas where one of the players was from [their families would host the team].

I grew in Worcester, Mass. and my brother played at Worcester Tech. And my junior year, his senior year we were playing at Worcester Tech and it was a big homecoming because we both played high school ball together and the papers wrote up this big rivalry. And they beat us, which was a real tough loss for me, playing in front of your home crowd and getting beat by your older brother. And after that we had a gathering at my parent’s house.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Obviously basketball has come a long way at Middlebury. My daughter played on the girl’s team — she graduated in 2008. My son played on the men’s team and graduated in 2010 so I’ve followed the Middlebury basketball team and back in the late 70s and early 80s there was an incredible amount of quality players back then, similar to what you’ve seen in the recent years, but it’s come a long way. Now you have the postseason play, which you didn’t have back then. Not having those postseason stuff back then was a little disappointing, but the there were some incredible players, similar to what you’ve seen the last 8 or 9 years from Middlebury. It’s been a good program and hopefully it will continue to blossom the way that it has.

Interview with Eugene Oliver

How did you come to Middlebury? What drew you to the school?

A private scholarship.

How did you come to choose to play basketball at Middlebury?

I was a walk on.

What was your experience like playing for Gerry Alaimo?
I had never played anything other than street ball. So that was my first brush with organized basketball. There were just a few black ballplayers at that time.

What was the difference in coaching style between Gerry Alaimo and then somebody likeee Gary Walters?

You went from a very hot-tempered coach [in Alaimo] to Walters who was a little quieter than Gerry was.

What are some of your most outstanding memories with Gerry Alaimo or Gary Walters?

I remember some of the times we as a team had to hold Gerry back. [Laughs] One time he threw a chair onto the floor he was so mad. He was very into the sport and into the game; he provided a temper for us.

When I joined the junior varsity, the team had been 1-22 for two seasons. So the varsity endured [two] 1-22 seasons. Which was very frustrating.

Our junior season we busted out. It was good for us. Most of the freshmen who were on the junior varsity team played on the varsity and we became the nucleus of the change.

If you can recall back what was the biggest difference between the teams that went 1-22 and the team that went 10-14? Was it a cultural thing or was it the actual talent of the players on the floor?

It was the talent of the players on the floor. One of the things we all knew, instead of playing 40 minutes, we could all go 60 minutes per man. That’s how hard we trained in practice.

How about off the court? Did you form a relationship with Gerry off the court?

Yeah we used to go to Gerry’s house off campus to see games on the TV, just to shoot the breeze — we stuck together as a team.

What will you remember most about the relationship that you had with your teammates off the court?

The relationship was a good one. All of us were student-athletes. When we got off the basketball court the focus had to be on studies and what we were doing. The team stuck together and had our meals together.

Are there any specific anecdotes about times with your teammates that you can share?

We played Norwich and we were on the bus and it was 26 degrees below zero. We were all bundled up in our coats, the heater was going full blast on the bus and we were still freezing. That was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life!

And how about specific games or plays that stand out in your mind?

One of the games I specifically remember was beating St. Michaels. My junior year we beat many teams that we had never beaten before or had a very poor record against. We came out from the doldrums of the old 1-22 seasons. We were now a basketball team that they had to reckon with. We were not a doormat anymore.

I’ve spoken with Karl Lindholm, Rick Minton, etc. When you hear those names and the names of your other teammates, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Tough crew — very tough crew. What talent we had at the time was used on the court. All of that talent was meshed as a team.

Rick Minton told me that those teams suffered quite a few unfortunate injuries…

We lost Ray Rivera one year; he busted up his leg. We had some bad injuries.

One of the things that Jim Keyes told me was that the transition between Gerry Alaimo and Gary Walters wasn’t always necessarily smooth.

[Laughs] No.

Can you elaborate on that and what it was like to play for two contrasting coaches?

It was a contrast in strategy on how to play the game: Gerry was more of a smash-mouth coach — always on the boards. The contrast was big because now [under Gary Walters] we played more of a mental game as well, trying to utilize more of our talent and getting easier shots than we had before.

Did you form a relationship with Gary Walters in his one season here?

It was the relationship that I had with any coach. I could talk to him. I was always coachable, so I had no issues with Gary. Gerry had been ambitious with the team, but Gary was also bent on where the team should be going.

Gerry was also big on the hook shot. He wanted all of our big man to develop the hooks hot. Because that was the most unstoppable shot for the big man.

How did you feel playing basketball at Middlebury prepared you for life after Middlebury?

Playing organized ball, relying on your teammates was an important lesson. It made me more organized — as a student-athlete we had to manage what time we could give to the team, how much time we could give to our studies and the time we could give to ourselves.

Interview with Dave Pentkowski

How did you come to choose Middlebury?

I’m from Vermont originally, so I was familiar with Middlebury and Tom Lawson, the basketball coach, had been a high school coach of mine, so that was the original connection. But I left Vermont to go to Philips Exeter and graduated from there and then returned. One of the main reasons, at least from an athletics standpoint, that I picked Middlebury was to play two sports — I played soccer and basketball.

When I spoke to Tom Lawson he said he was surprised you chose Middlebury. Can you elaborate on that?

I had a scholarship to the University of North Carolina and I was trying to be practical. My chances of participating very much were pretty slim, although it was attractive — the thought of playing for that program.

I also liked the idea of being in a smaller environment. I grew up in a small town. I like Vermont.

And then specifically about the College itself, what attracted you to Middlebury?

I had been up and watched some of the basketball, which wasn’t great quality. It was definitely a school that was geared more towards hockey. And I had a friend, Dave Davidson who was also looking at Middlebury, and ended up being the center on our team, so that was another attraction, to be able to play with him. During the summer leading up to our freshmen year we probably played five nights a week together.

I don’t regret it, I tell you. I had such good friendships because of the basketball program.

Who are some of the people who stand out in your mind when you think back?

Kevin Cummings was the year behind me, and we’ve stayed very close. If we go a long period of time without talking and we pick up the phone, it’s like back on the first day at Middlebury.

There were guys I would have done anything for — it was a very close, very loyal group.

What are some of your more outstanding memories with those guys on campus?

In any sport you’re going to have highs and lows. And it’s a long season, too; you start before Christmas and you end in March. I remember being on campus during winter break and there’s no one else there, and there’s an echo in the dormitory.

I recall one time when Davidson was sick and we were going to play St. Michael’s, who was at that time one of the better teams, and we hung in and lost because I missed a free throw at the end of the game. You would think after 40 years you might forget that stuff, but you don’t. You still want to shoot it again.

Your freshman year the team goes 15-8, which is the winningest season the team has had in its history. You follow that up your senior year with a 17-8 season that went unmatched until very recently. What did Tom Lawson do as a coach that allowed you guys to be so successful?

We had talent, but I think we were undisciplined without him. We played more mature and I think that was a big part of it. By senior year we had talented juniors and we finally bought into the idea that we couldn’t all play the way we did in high school.

Tom was very regimented on offense. He was impatient if we were impatient offensively … there was no shot clock back then.

What was his style like from an Xs and Os standpoint?

I think that’s where we bucked him a little bit over the years. We wanted to play more of an up-tempo game. We spent a lot of time running Xs and Os, but it wasn’t the run-and-gun style we thought we were good at. But who knows, maybe we wouldn’t have succeeded at all if we had played that way. When Bobby Knight started at army he had games against Navy that were 22-20. They were very, very slow, hold the ball. We didn’t play like that, but there was some of that attitude that you should never take a bad shot.  I teased Tom a few years back at his retirement that he made us hold the ball so much that we would hold it, get a layup and lose by four.

What games or moments stand out in your mind?

We beat UVM a couple of times in my sophomore season. Those were big wins — to beat UVM was a huge thing. The Williams games were always good. Those went both ways … we got whipped pretty good and we beat them a couple of times. I remember getting in a fight at the end of the Wesleyan game at Wesleyan and ending up at the bottom of the pile.

What created that?

Me. [Laughs] I was getting some cheap shots throughout the game from one of their guys, who was a pretty good player. He was smacking me around and it got under my skin and after three overtimes and finally winning the game, I should have just walked away, but I was immature and went over to their bench and confronted him and of course the rest of his team wasn’t pleased they had just lost in triple overtime and I was causing a fuss. So before I knew it, I was at the bottom of the pile. I think that was probably the most disappointed Tom Lawson ever was with me.

How did your relationship with him as a coach develop from playing for him in high school and then again in college?

I go back to him where I was maybe in the third or fourth grade and he invited me to work out with the junior high. So I go way, way back with him. But we had a break from each other because he went to Middlebury when I was a junior in high school. So I had a different coach then and then I went to Philips Exeter for a year, so I had a different experience. I kind of started over with him in college. But we had such a history. I would get upset with him from time to time, but I would have his back then as I do now. I would do anything for the guy. He’s loyal, he’s a wonderful guy. He was like that with everybody. He was just a caring, caring guy very concerned about all his players.

There was some racial tensions at times. There were some black players who weren’t very good and [Tom] had to make them realize he was calling them as he saw it. One time when we had a couple of guys who were cut and they thought it was because coach was being prejudice. One of the deans came and watched as he ran a second tryout for them and the dean said, “I know why they cut those guys, they weren’t any good!

What’s the biggest difference between basketball of the 70s and basketball of today?

I’ve been back to Middlebury a couple of times — mostly to watch basketball!

How do you think playing basketball prepared you for life after Middlebury?

In my field the competition was part of what attracts me to do what I do now. I think that learning to deal with the calls you get, by referees, by coaches. Things that are out of your control, it’s the same as dealing with judges a lot of times. Judges make a ruling you don’t think is fair, but once he makes the call you just move on, you can sit around and stomp your feet.




Interview with Tom Lawson

What brought you to Middlebury?

It’s loaded in the sense that I, number one, am a native Vermonter. I grew up in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, went to school there, then went to the University of Vermont, and then realizing I wanted to do coaching I finished at Springfield College, in Massachusetts. Then I was coaching in high school here for a couple years or so, and was doing okay. When there was a change in 1969 at Middlebury in the Athletic Department, I think they hired about six or seven new coaches, and a new athletic director. The new athletic director was a retired football coach, Dick Coleman, from Princeton; for years and years, he’s pretty famous down there, or was anyway. So he came in as the athletic director and there was an opening in soccer, and I was coaching soccer and basketball, and I had gone something like four years without a loss or something (I didn’t; my team did). And that led to at least people knew who I was because of the state championships and all that stuff. I was able to have an interview with Dick Coleman. The soccer coach at Middlebury for quite a few years was Joe Marrone, who left to go to the University of Connecticut, where he became very, very successful. Well anyway I got his position, and to be honest with you—I can say this now—not that I didn’t want to coach soccer, but part of it was that with it went the assistant basketball job with Gary Walters. I gather you have quite a bit of knowledge about sports, and Gary Walters was from Princeton, so Dick hired him from Dartmouth to be the head basketball coach and I was the assistant, and he was my assistant in soccer. It was not an easy trade because he knew absolutely nothing about soccer. I knew a little bit about basketball. But anyway we worked it out and Gary stayed, a little less than one year, and went to Union, and one of the gratifying things about coaching is that somehow being the assistant coach I had established a pretty good relationship with a lot of the players. And unknown to me, they went to Dick Coleman, and said instead of having a search, why don’t you ask Tom if he would be interested in taking the basketball [position], which was what I was praying for everyday. But in those days I was a soccer coach, and I took the basketball job too, so now I have two varsity sports for seven or eight years. And on top of that, Dick Coleman got ill, and I assumed the assistant athletic director’s position, so I was like a one-armed paper hanger, trying to get all this done, but it was a great experience for me. So that is how I got to be basketball coach.

You had three straight winning seasons to start as a head coach, what was the transition like from Gary Walters to your coaching style? How did you change the culture of the team or approach of the team?

That’s an excellent question because, although we were great friends and still are, [Gary Walters and I were] different people completely. The philosophy was (this will point it out probably best): when we were playing a team with zone defense, Gary wouldn’t even come to practice. He had this philosophy that you play man-to-man all the time, and there’s no place in the game for zone defense, and so I had to show the defenses to the team. Gary was an in-your-face, very excitable person; very knowledgeable, a great competitor, maybe a little frustrated at the time with the quality of the talent. So [Walters’] season did not turn into a winning season, and that had been fifteen years I guess. So when I took over, the first thing I did was said, I’m a different person. At the time I was an assistant I also at that time had a freshman basketball team, so I had coached that myself in conjunction with working with Gary, and so I ran my own ideals and theories and philosophies, and I had a pretty good group of freshmen, but they couldn’t play varsity at that point in time. So I had that as a basis, and then I had good interactions with the ones who were coming back, which was quite a few. On the comical side, Jimmy Keyes, who was my first co-captain, my first team that I had as a full team, my second year here at Middlebury, and he was a left-handed, very small center, and Gary Walters earlier had said, “Jimmy if you take another hook shot I’m going to cut your arm off.” So in the first meeting I sat in front of the whole team and said, “Now Jimmy, your new position is—I’m going to put your left arm back one—and you shoot that hook shot every time you can and we’ll work on it all season.” It was that kind of interchange, and it was a very easy transition. We stopped doing the Princeton offense and that stuff because we didn’t have the talent to do the Princeton offense. I changed our defense from the pressure man-to-man which we weren’t capable of playing to disguising it as a matchup zone defense and then play the man-to-man defense withi that. We really became noted for that. I remember [the then RPI coach] said, “You’re the worst coach I have to prepare for. We can’t do anything against that stupid zone of yours.” It was a compliment to the kids, I said, “Would you rather play man-to-man and run up and down the court, or play really good man-to-man in this zone? I’ll show you how to do it.” Because in the back of my head I said at least I have intelligent kids, so we used the intelligence and they did a great job.

I spoke to Jim Keyes, and he told me that story about the hook shot.

He did? You should have stopped me. Jimmy was a great player, Middlebury was lucky to have him.

Who were some of the other players who stand out, when you look back, not just for what they accomplished on the floor but also off the floor?

On my freshman team was a young man from Maine and he had open-heart surgery and he was never supposed to play again. Well he played, he played for me for four years, and then early after he had graduated from Middlebury he did pass away. But the commitment and the drive and want that he had to play basketball, and play it well. He did a great job, and he was a great person.

The other captain was a small guy that was a close, close friend of Jimmy Keyes, John Flanagan, who was a very successful financial advisor for Edward Jones, a big promoter of Middlebury College.

Later on, I had a young man called David Pentkowski, who played for me in high school. When I came to the high school, he was in fifth or sixth grade. With very little genius I figured out he was going to be a great player and a great person. His senior year when I left to come up to Middlebury, he was from a very poor family, and we arranged for him to get a full scholarship to Exeter Academy.  He stayed there two years, his senior year and his post-graduate year, and he ended up being the captain of men’s soccer and men’s basketball as well as graduating with honors. He had a full academic ride to University of North Carolina, wanted to be able to play basketball and soccer, knew he was going to be a lawyer, and decided he was going to come to Middlebury. I said, “Wonderful, great. Why?” And he said, “I thought it through, and I can’t fathom a really good lawyer that didn’t have skills in the English language, is articulate, can write, all that stuff. Given the strengths of Middlebury, I know I can get into law school, etcetera, I chose Middlebury.” And he had a great career here.

Young man, his name was Zenon Smotrycz, he came from Jersey City, New Jersey, and he was about 6’10,” blonde hair, thin face, and a clone of Larry Bird. It got to be a joke, he would go to Boston, people would say, “You Larry?” and he would sign something for him. He went to work for New Balance, and then went out on his own, to this day he has a consulting business designing running shoes, and he goes all over the world. His son [Evan Smotrycz] played at University of Michigan, unfortunately he took this year off and transferred to Maryland, so he’ll play at Maryland for the rest of his career, but he started for Michigan, was a good player. I said all the genes must be from your mother because your father wasn’t that good. But he was interesting.

An Afro-American man who I’m very proud of is the Dean of Students and Bates College, great person, he played for me here, Jim Reese. He was a great person to talk with.

Dave Nelson was from North Quincy, Mass. His father was a cop, the whole nine yards, grew up very tough, good student, and somehow a good basketball player. He was about 6’2,” he was a very good basketball player but probably a better catcher in baseball. He hurt his shoulder, otherwise he would have been in the pros. But he ended up becoming a Lutheran minister. During Middlebury I’d ask him and he’d say, “I’m going to become a Lutheran minister,” and I said, “Sure.” His first request for an assignment was in some downtown totally tough, low-income, primarily black area, in Detroit. In the first three months he was there, his apartment was cleaned out three teams. He had a parish with 30 people in it. Three years later when he left, they had over 3,000 people. I had him back in that span of time and he spoke at the Chapel, and he just gave a great talk. He was all dressed in white, and he had a black beard at that time, a pretty impressive person up there, and I’m very proud of that.
There’s lawyers, Indian chiefs, and as I became athletic director in 1977, I kept the basketball job, and Russ Reilly was my assistant, and I finally said, I can’t do this, and I became full time athletic director in ’78.

What are some of your fondest memories interacting with your players off the court?

[Pauses] It shouldn’t be hard, but it is. I almost feel apologetic, in the sense that, with three major assignments, out of season, off the court, having a family I never saw, I didn’t seem to have any time. Now it seems like an excuse, but it’s an explanation. But I’ve seen our kids do unbelievable things. What some of the players did for smaller kids, going in to schools, not as much as they do now I think, but with the same dedication and feeling of “Hey, I did some something real good,” the interaction with players who have helped other players or other students. As you know, there’s something special about Middlebury. That just made me think of one basketball player that actually played a couple years for Russ, but I recruited him, the guy that is the CEO of Sony, Kevin Kelleher, his son went here and his daughter went here. I use him as an example. He was from Massachusetts, right outside of Worcester. He was a good student, a great basketball player, and a wonderful, wonderful kid. Anyway, I think I still have scars on my knees from getting on the floors to say [to the admissions office], “You’ve got to take this young man.” They didn’t think he could do the job. I said, “How many kids have I brought in that haven’t done the job?” Something I’m proud of, they admitted, well, none. I said, “Am I allowed one mistake then? Because this won’t be it.” So anyway they took him, and he graduated with honors, went to Rutgers, and then he was an accountant, and Sony saw unbelievable potential in him, and that’s where he is now. And he is the most humble guy, you would think he was sleeping the floors at Sony, he is that kind of person. He’s done a lot for Middlebury. Those are the ones, there’s a lot, I cut myself off from coaching but I said to my staff my job was to make the environment better, easier and more successful, for coaching, and I hope we did that over a period of twenty years and I’ve been retired for fifteen years. I tend to wander when I speak.

What games — great wins, bad losses — stand out in your mind?

I’m pretty sure it was my first basketball game at home against Trinity. I had an assistant basketball coach, who knew a little basketball, but I hired him because he was a strong soccer coach. I remember it well; I learned a great lesson. We were up more than 20 before halftime. And he said, “Aren’t you going to sub more?” We would play seven guys and hope we didn’t have to sub more. And I said, “ Yeah, you’re probably right.” So we subbed a little bit and came out the second half starting some subs. And our lead went down to 15, I put two more starters back in the game, went down to 12. I finally put everybody back in, but by that point all the momentum … everything was gone. They hit a shot from midcourt on the run to win it by one. And I sat there and I’m saying, “I’ve got to learn from this. And I did. That was one of the hardest, most hurting losses I’ve ever had.

We beat UVM two out of four in a four-year span and we beat St. Michael’s three out of four. And this particular year we had lost three games in a row; we weren’t playing very well. And Vermont came in and we won by about 15 points. It was such a gratifying win.

We were probably one of the most wanted Christmas tournament teams at big schools because of the 15 years without a winning record. So we played at Bentley and they had a 6’6’’ and 6’7’’ guards — All-Americans. With less than a minute to go, we were up one. We had a 6’9’’ kid at center, and he turned to hook one in and the refs called him for an offensive foul, which was very debatable. It was his fifth foul so he fouled out. And they beat us by one. But I was so proud of the way they played. They were in way over their heads. It goes back to the intellectual side of the game, which is a real deciding factor.

How do you think Middlebury basketball has changed from your days coaching to today?

One thing that I wish I had, since I had such great shooters, was the three-point line. I had one kid who would be the top scorer at Middlebury. Slower than death on defense, but could he shoot it.

The other big factor is scheduling. A lot of that isn’t by choice [unfortunately].

Any last things you’d like to add?

I pride myself on being humble. I didn’t like getting up and speaking, but I did. I liked working and helping young people. Of all the things I am probably most proud of was weathering the storm when I arrived here with the lack of facilities and Title IX.

Interview with Kyle Prescott

KylePrescottHeadShotKyle Prescott is a Middlebury alumnus (class of ’49) who played both football and hockey at Middlebury under Duke Nelson. A Canadian, Prescott matriculated to Middlebury College from Montreal after the war. In addition to playing two varsity sports, Prescott played a number of intramural sports and avidly followed various other varsity sports, men’s basketball chief among them. When not competing himself, he served as the trainer, or water boy for the basketball team, occupying a seat on the end of the bench. Prescott was named to the men’s ice hockey All-Time All-Stars team in the 1951 Sesquicentennial edition of The Kaleidoscope, Middlebury’s student-produced yearbook. Prescott had two sons who attended Middlebury and is a Life Trustee at the College.

Damon Hatheway: I understand that you played both football and hockey at Middlebury but that you followed the basketball team quite closely during your time at Middlebury and that you followed the team after graduating during your work with the college.

Kyle Prescott: Only because I enjoy basketball and I enjoy watching the team play.

DH: How would you describe your relationship with Middlebury basketball when you were a student?

KP: When I was a student I was able to meet and know all the coaches so I talked with them when they exercized in the Field House. But mostly I was in close contact with Russ Reilly or Erin Quinn. The only guy I didn’t know well in the last couple of years was [Jeff] Brown. But I followed the team and I went to practically all of the games and in those days, not very many people went to the games.

DH: How did your relationship with the team and the program change after you graduated?

KP: Well it seems to me from reading the campus and getting the sports information through the Trustee’s office, through the President’s office, that they’re doing terrific. My guess is that they went out and started recruiting players, and when you recruit the right players, then you build a good team. When you don’t do anything about recruiting, I’m afraid, you fall by the wayside… In the last campus I read they’re 13-0.

DH: They play Williams this weekend on Saturday — it’s a matchup of two top-10 teams in the country.

KP: Well any game against Williams is always a tough game, regardless of the sport. Middlebury and Williams are very keen rivals and they usually produce very good games.

DH: What was the relationship back in the 40s between the teams, specifically the basketball team, but also athletics in general and the student body?

KP: Well I was really into athletics. I played intramural athletics, plus hockey was my sport in the winter of course. I had come from Canada and Duke Nelson was our coach, but only after the second year I was there. There was nothing after the first year because the first year the veterans were coming back from World War II. Intercollegiate athletics only began after my second year. But most athletes are interested in the other athletic teams and how they’re doing, and in many cases you’re buddies with the players! So it’s not hard to know what’s going on. But basketball in the 40s wasn’t quite at the level that hockey was. But since then it has grown terrifically, and I am sure that much of it is based on with recruiting.

DH: At that time, how did athletics fit within the overall academic mission of the school?

KP: Well you had to be able to pass your exams, but at the same time maintain your practice days and your game days. You just had to make sure you did the right things at the right times and work them all in together.

DH: Did it seem then as it does now, that it was quite a time crunch in terms of time management both work-wise and practice-wise?

KP: Well you had to work them together or you didn’t pass, and if you didn’t pass you can’t play. So I think most of us worked our butts off as far as the academics go, but we also made sure that we got adequate practice time so that we put on a good performance when we had to play intercollegiate games.

DH: You mentioned that World War II had an effect on returning [soldiers], [particularly] with the G.I. Bill … how did that affect your experience and the men’s basketball team more specifically?

KP: I’m a Canadian, and the war ended in Canada — as far as Canada was concerned — before the Americans called it quits. So that’s why it was so frustrating my first year: I had come from Montreal to go to Middlebury, expecting to play hockey and other sports, and they just didn’t have them because there were no athletes there. But that next fall the G.I.s came back and things were more normal and all the teams started their programs. Duke Nelson happened to be the coach of both the football team and the hockey team. Sam [Guarnaccia] was [one of] the coach[es] of the basketball team. I knew him because he also coached football during football season. He was a good coach, but recruiting in those days was not very organized and they didn’t have a chance to search the high schools and the other schools that fed us players. It just took Middlebury a little while to get going.

DH: [One] of the Kaleidoscopes — the Middlebury yearbook — said that during that time, coaches would have 60 kids trying out for the basketball team… Was that [the case] across the board with all athletics — that there were so many men on campus once the G.I. Bill was passed, that there were scores of people trying out for every sport?

KP: I suppose. I’m surprised there were 60 — there certainly weren’t 60 trying out for the hockey team, and I’ll bet there were not 60 trying out for the men’s basketball team, but I wasn’t that close to basketball, I was at my own practices so I don’t know everything that went on there. But it just takes a little time to develop — it takes time to develop your name, it takes time for high schools to catch on to Middlebury — where they are, what kind of programs they have — and I simply think it has taken the basketball team a little longer to get established. A lot depends on the coach. Duke Nelson [for example] was very widely known at Middlebury, and his two sports were football and hockey and then when we got a golf course, he became the golf coach!

DH: What are some of the lasting memories of the basketball team from the 40s? Who were some of the great players [and what are some] of the great anecdotes that stand out in your mind?

KP: I honestly can’t remember names very well, but I certainly can remember the many nights that I went to a basketball game, because I tried to see all of them. It was hard sometimes when you were supposed to study and you had to knock off the studying to go see one of your friends play. And there weren’t a lot of people watching, I can tell you that! I was amongst the few that were there. But things change. My two sons went to Middlebury and I would go down and watch them play, and then I became a trustee and I was there a lot and whenever I was there I would I would either watch basketball or hockey or whatever was going on. I certainly enjoyed basketball while I was in college and I enjoyed watching basketball when I came to Middlebury [after].

The 1951 Kaleidoscope named Prescott to Middlebury hockey's All-Time All-Stars.

The 1951 Kaleidoscope named Prescott to Middlebury hockey’s All-Time All-Stars.

DH: The 1951 Kaleidoscope did a special 150th Anniversary edition in which it named a couple of all-star teams. One of the [players] on the basketball team was Thomas Whalen, who graduated in 1948. What kind of player was he?

KP: I graduated in 1949 so I knew Tom well. He was a good player, he was one of our stars. He wasn’t especially tall, but he could handle himself on the court and did very well — always one of our better players, Tommy Whalen!

DH: Where did the team play in those days, in the late 40’s?

KP: [Laughs]. Our home “court” was the high school court. We didn’t have the extension on the new athletics facilities — they were only built the year I graduated, in 1949. So when I told you I’ve been watching basketball games at Middlebury, the games that I’ve watched at Middlebury [have happened only] since I graduated. During my days at Middlebury, all our games were at the high school gym.

Oh I remember, I was one of the trainers — water boys, whatever you call them — I was always on the bench of the basketball team. So that’s how I got to know the basketball guys well. It was hard for me to stay away from any game that was being played.

DH: I was actually at a high school basketball game yesterday at Middlebury Union High School.

KP: Oh really? But don’t forget, in that day, Middlebury Union High School had nothing to do with the old high school, which is now the Municipal Town Hall. There was a public high school there. All of that was merged — the College took over the elementary school and used that as classrooms and almost adjacent to that is another set of buildings — their the Municipal town hall, the Municipal Court is there and that’s where the big gymnasium is. Well in the old days that was part of the school system, and that was where Middlebury played its basketball games.

DH: How did the teams in those days make their schedules?

KP: We had to be back at school at the beginning of the week [so] a road trip would usually involve one game, or if we went to Maine it would involve two games.

DH: Did the [teams] ever travel over break times or vacations?

KP: No, not really. Once in a while we would come back to the college and practice, but I don’t think it was encouraged.

DH: When teams did go on road trips where would they stay?

KP: We stayed in hotels, if hotels were available. And when we’d go to Maine we’d play Bowdoin and Colby, maybe, we’d stay in a small hotel. When we’d go to Williams we’d stay at the Williams Inn. But that was not very important to the players at the time. In our time, we were just glad to get there, get the game over and hope for a win.

DH: Having followed Middlebury athletics over such an extended period of time, what’s the biggest difference between Middlebury athletics in the 1940s and athletics today?

KP: Oh, the teams are so much better these days and in most cases winning — except the hockey team. The trouble is every school is recruiting now and they’re a lot more even than the used to be, which makes it more difficult for Middlebury to win [the] NESCAC, for example. But they’re doing very well — I think it’s more difficult — and we certainly have terrific facilities. Kids who come to Middlebury are very fortunate.

DH: Final question: if there’s one last feeling or image in your mind from watching Middlebury basketball, what would it be?

KP: I was always interested in Middlebury basketball and watching the team, but they never won enough games while I was there — it was always a losing season. I’m so thrilled to see them doing so well now. And I’m sure that a good part of it is the recruiting that the coaching staff does.

DH: Wonderful, thank you.

KP: Good luck to Middlebury basketball, I’ll keep watching them win!

Interview with Rosario “Zip” Rausa

Rausa contributed to the Campus in addition to playing three varsity sports.

Rausa contributed to the Campus in addition to playing three varsity sports.

Rosario “Zip” Rausa ’57 was a three-sport athlete at Middlebury, dividing his time between the grid-iron, the basketball court and the baseball diamond. After graduating Rausa served as a pilot in the Navy before becoming an editor for Naval Aviation News, which he still edits to this day. He played under head coach Tony Lupien, and played alongside former greats Sonny Dennis, Tom Hart and Charlie Sykes.

Damon Hatheway: You came to Middlebury right after a number of difficult years for the [men’s basketball] program and then right before a number of one-win teams in the 60s. How did you choose Middlebury and what changed during the 50s?

Rosario “Zip” Rausa: I was originally going to go to Holy Cross and I wouldn’t be able to make the [basketball] team at Holy Cross. But my father was a baseball umpire in the Pony League, and this was AAA baseball. I was a catcher in baseball and they allowed me to catch batting practice one day and the manager of the team was Tony Lupien, who became the Middlebury coach! He was a good friend of my father’s and to make a long story short, just before the deadline for getting into school was about to pass, Tony intervened and I got into Middlebury. [So] that’s how I ended up getting there.

DH: What’s the longer version of the story, if you don’t mind me asking?

ZR: There really isn’t a longer version. I loved sports — I didn’t care too much about studying. I wanted to go where I could play, but I didn’t think of any other options other than Holy Cross. I was brought up as a Catholic and at one point in life I thought I might want to become a priest. But that faded real quick when I got to catch batting practice there in that Pony League. Tony intervened with the admissions director because of the deadline of applications and went to bat for me. And I got in! I went out for football and played on the football team [in the fall] and then when basketball [season] came, I didn’t expect to go out for the varsity [team], and I didn’t — I played on the JV team. My roommate Charlie Sykes was the superstar — we were the same age, same class — he went out and started for the varsity right away.

DH: I have quite a few questions about Charlie Sykes, but first I want to touch upon Tony Lupien. What kind of coach was he and what kind of impact did he have on the program?

ZR: He had a very positive impact all the way. He had been a professional baseball player — he was with the Boston Red Sox and a couple of other teams. So he knew all about sports and he knew the mentality of athletes. And of course he had a couple of ringers when I got there: we had Tom Hart and Sonny Dennis and then of course Charlie [Sykes]. But let me tell you [about] a couple of his [coaching] innovations that I [haven’t] seen anywhere before or since, but that I thought they were very successful. Playing against a zone defense was kind of difficult, but Tony came up with [a new offense]. Imagine the 2-2-1 setup on the court. You’re going against the zone, you’ve got two guards [at the top], two forwards on the [wing] and the center roaming underneath [on] the baseline. So the way the play was started is the guard on the left-hand side would hit the ball hard, pass it to his other guard on the right, which was a signal for one of the forwards to dash immediately into the foul line. And then the [guard] that tossed the ball in, hurried down to become the guard on the left-hand side, so now you have a 1-3-1 setup. You would stay with that until it didn’t work for a while, and then go back to the other innovation. But that way of going from a 2-2-1 to 1-3-1 did a lot to confuse the defenses and it also gave Tom Hart and Sonny Dennis a little more operability, and of course Charlie as well. The other innovation was — and this I did get to play with the varsity in the later years… Tony would designate four guards to be chasers and he would say to us on the bench ‘Go in there and give me a good two minutes.’ And that’s all it was. When you went in there, your job was to run all over the backcourt trying to steal the ball and give every ounce of your energy toward that effort. He didn’t want us to handle the ball or score anything — just to harass the other team. That worked pretty well for a while.

On top of that, Tony was easy to get along with. He knew he had a couple of major stars in Charlie, Sonny and Tom Hart. And the only one who really gave Tony any trouble — and it wasn’t any real trouble — was Tom Hart. Tom Hart was the nation’s leading rebounder. I’ll never forget the game … I was sitting at the end of the bench. Tony wanted Tom Hart to rebound and put the ball back in or just rebound — he didn’t want Tom to shoot from anywhere other than close in. I could tell that [Tom] was itching to shoot some one-hander from, oh, about the 15-foot mark from the basket. It was almost like watching a slow-motion movie: you could see Tom — he got a rebound and he dribbled it back out, just outside the top of the key, and Tony, who had a very deep, baritone voice, could sense that Hart was going to throw up a long, one-hander. So he started repeatedly saying, “Don’t do it, Tom. Don’t do it.” Well Hart threw it up, and it swished through the basket. Tony was irritated and looked at us down the bench and said, “I don’t care if that ball went in or not, he was not to take that shot.” Well we got a pretty good laugh out of that, and it didn’t happen more than once. He was a great organizer, very smart guy and I don’t think I ever saw him lose his temper genuinely.

Lupien not only coached well, he dressed well, too.

Lupien not only coached well, he dressed well, too.

When we had to go out to [upstate] New York to play St. Lawrence and Clarkson, Tony worked out a deal with a couple of limousine guys in Burlington. We would get in these limousines and drive across what I called the “White Tundra” to Clarkson and St. Lawrence. I wasn’t in the car when this happened, but one night when they were crossing a railroad track — and I believe it was dark — the limousine stalled on the tracks, and Tony was in that car. And so the story goes, Tony said, “Everybody get out — we have to push this car across the railroad tracks. Because the Montreal Limited would be there in two minutes.” Anyway, they got across the tracks safely and got in the car and proceeded the rest of the way.

And there’s another story — I’m not sure if Tom Hart came from a wealthy family or not, but he had his own car: it was a four door, blue, mercury sedan — very spacious. And Tom was given permission to drive to some of the games. One of his favorite things to do was [while] he was driving along on a big highway — he would never do this on a two-lane road — and he would shrink down in the driver’s seat so that you could not see him from another car. Jim Wagner, who was a good guard on our team, would control the steering wheel by holding it at six o’clock position and keep us on a steady course on the highway. Then they [would] slow down enough so that another car driven by one of the players would pull up alongside to see what was going on and it would look like there was no one in the driver’s seat. Everybody would be startled in the other car and that lasted for a little bit, but we talked about that for years. That was Tom Hart’s favorite trick.

Tony lived three hours away [from campus] and he would spend nights sleeping in the Field House. He would go home on weekends or during vacations. He was well-liked on campus and he wanted to win. Winning wasn’t everything for Tony, but it was the best thing. He was able to take those three talented guys, Sonny Dennis, Tom Hart and Charlie Sykes, and he blended it in with a couple of guards who were pretty good — Johnny Hoops was excellent — and we finally turned it around and had a winning season. Tony let those of us who were on the JV to sit on the bench during some of these games and we went down to play Dartmouth, and that to us was big time basketball. And Middlebury almost pulled off the upset of the year. I think we lost by two or three points in the last minute or so. Charlie Sykes was kind of a hero in that game.

DH: I have a note about Sonny Dennis’s free-throws against UVM. He made two free throws in the final seconds to beat UVM 75-74 he had 33 points in the game I think?

ZR: That might have been before I got there. But I believe it. I played football with Sonny. I wish they had some movies of the old games, just to watch Sonny Dennis run. He ran like a deer — he had huge, muscular thighs, but his calves were narrow… I never could understand that. He could drive, he could break some tackles, but if you got him in the open field you were never going to catch him. He was a marvel to watch. And Sonny Dennis was a good guy too. I understand that [he] did something in civilian life that was quite heroic. I think there was a civil rights problem in New Jersey and he managed to quell a potential riot using his personality and his skill. It could have turned out bad, but he was quite a hero that day.

SonnyDennisBreaksLongRunDH: You’ve spoken about Tom Hart, Sonny Dennis, and Charlie Sykes. What was so special about those guys and how did Tony Lupien attract those kinds of players to Middlebury?

ZR: That last question is a complete mystery to me, of course here were no Division I, II, or III setups in those days. I was amazed that the three of them came to Middlebury. They were certainly capable of being [recruited] by Ivy League teams if not bigger — and I never found out why. Charlie was one of the top players in New England prep schools and I can’t imagine someone not trying to recruit him… And especially Tom Hart! I think Tom was only 6’4’’, but he had enormous arms. You know when you go to marine land and the attendant holds out a piece of fish for the dolphin and it jumps up and grabs it? That’s what it looked like whenever [Tom Hart] went up for a rebound: he just went way up high and came back down. But it’s a mystery, and there are probably specific reasons in each case, but we were sure glad to have them. We beat some good teams in those days. I can’t imagine that happening in this day in age; they slipped through the recruiting process I guess.

DH: What was it like having that quality of athlete on such a small campus like Middlebury and what was the relationship between the team and the student body?

ZR: As I recall, we filled out the Field House for games when Tom and Sonny were there. Tom dropped out one year so the magic of the triumvirate disappeared for a while because he was having trouble with grades or something. I think they were loved. Incidentally, we had a guy who became a famous sports announcer, Gerry Gross, who would broadcast the games from a booth opposite the main tiers of seats. Gerry ended up going out west and he was broadcasting Pacific Coast League games, and very early in his career he was handling the East-West game. And he knew Tony better than anyone. When I went to that “Pony League” baseball camp, Gerry was the groundskeeper. They spent the whole summer together, playing baseball and cleaning the field and watering it down and that sort of thing.

DH: Back in the 50’s how was the relationship between athletics and academics at Middlebury? Was there any tension between the two groups? Was it difficult to manage athletics and academics at the same time? What was that dynamic like?

ZR: Absolutely not — there was no problem whatsoever. We had one professor, an English professor — thank God, he saved my life. Curly Perkins was his name. He went to every practice and every home game for all the sports — [he] just loved it immensely. Everybody feared the comprehensive exam — and I still fear the dam thing, even though it’s a long time later. You would go into a small room, one of the offices of one of the professors there. Perkins headed the thing, because the other guys grilled me. I did fair, but I could tell that they really didn’t like my performance. But Professor Perkins, when it was his turn, he always asked me a question he knew I could answer. I think I got the lowest grade possible, but I passed and I graduated. I was lucky I played football, basketball, baseball. Perkins gave the edge to get through, but sports made the difference.

DH: You were teammates with Charlie Sykes for four years — what kind of player and person was and is he?

ZR: Charlie Sykes, in my estimation, is one of the best persons who ever lived. Jim Wagner, one of our [teammates], during his senior year, he was asked by a person who was recruiting for a company, and they were asking questions about Charlie Sykes, and Charlie and I, we worked in a dining hall. Charlie was a dishwasher. This person who was seeking information on Charlie Sykes captured Jim Wagner and asked him, “What do you think of this Charles Sykes?” And Jim Wagner said, “You could ask the president of the College or the lowest ranking cleaning lady in Gifford Hall and you would get the same answer: he’s one of the best people that you could ever meet.” [Charlie] is a very easy-going guy — I always remember he slept well. He slept so wall we called him “Father Time.” He was kind to everybody — I never saw him mad. Not only that, he was smart. Charlie was a superb student; he was a very serious-minded individual. And he lived the life to prove that. He was in the army for a while and then he ended up with CARE. He went all over the world helping to feed people and he rose to the rank of number two [in the organization] before he retired. He’s a supreme being and I really felt privileged to be his roommate.

And we had another roommate — his name was Carl Scheer. And Carl became the General Manger of the Denver Nuggets and he’s a friend of Michael Jordan’s and he now runs the [Community Relations] program for the Charlotte Bobcats.

As far as Charlie goes, you couldn’t find a nicer person — everybody loved him. He was also an excellent track athlete. So was Sonny Dennis — I think Sonny could probably win a track meet all by himself.

DH: What moments, games or accolades stand out from your career?

ZR: In basketball there was one. I was a substitute until my senior year, and then I played a lot, but of course we lost a lot. We played at a small court up at St. Lawrence, and I grew up on a small court, so I felt at home, and I got to make quite a few set shots from the outside. I had 28 points that night and I haven’t done that before or since.


Rausa played in the backfield, using his speed to make plays with his feet and an outfielder's arm to throw the ball down field.

Rausa played in the backfield, using his speed to make plays with his feet and an outfielder’s arm to throw the ball down field.

DH: You returned to campus last year [with Charlie Sykes] and were recognized [at halftime]. What is your relationship now with the basketball program?

ZR: I followed it a lot towards the end of last year because they had a good chance of going to the Final Four and all that. This year I haven’t done that much, but I checked through it just the other day and looked up some information. And I will do it now, because Charlie and I were treated like royalty up there. I wish I had more time to talk to the players, but I did have a good visit with coach Brown — I was very impressed with him.

DH: And finally, what were you able to take from your basketball and football career at Middlebury into your post-college career?

ZR: The experience with sports helped me a lot, especially when I went into the Navy.  I was in the aviation program and I wanted to earn my wings so badly that it made press too hard. But I got through the primary phase and I went to a place called Whitings Field in Florida for what they call “Intermediate Training.” And this is where you either make it or break it. And they had a baseball team. And the captain of the base and the Executive Officer were huge baseball fans; they came to all of the games. I got the word that if I wanted to play baseball and if I got in trouble in the training program, they would help me out! Well I never needed that help, but I played baseball because that was the Ace up my sleeve in case I ever had a bad flight!

We had a great baseball team and a great coach. And to show you how important it was, one day, I’m down at the hanger getting ready for a flight, and I know that I’m going to be in trouble because we had a game that day right on base. It was supposed to start at one o’clock. And I knew that my flight wouldn’t get back on time to get down there for the start of the game. I had a US Marine Core instructor — and I love the marines, don’t get me wrong — so went and flew the flight, came back, and then I had to hustle down to the baseball field. And when I got there, the Executive Officer was sitting in the dugout and he said to me “Zip, where have you been?” I said, “Well, sir, I just got down from a flight.” And he said, “What do you mean a flight?” I said, “Well I told the instructor about the game, but said I had to fly, so I did what I was ordered.” And he wanted me to give him the name of the instructor. The flight instructor didn’t get in trouble, but I saw him the next day and he said, “Who the hell do you know?” And I tried to explain to him that I couldn’t do anything about what happened other than follow orders. So I think what I’m trying to say is that playing sports at Middlebury helped me get through the flight training program, and I went on to serve 30 years in the Navy.

DH: Anything else you’d like to add about your career?

ZR: I think I hit the highlights. I think Charlie and I would probably say the same thing. The collective experience at Middlebury was such that it [has] stayed with us forever. And then when we went back last year to be introduced at halftime at the game against William — that’s an uplifting experience. Most guys don’t get a chance for something like that. To me, the fact that they invited us back said a lot. That turned out to be one of the best weekends of our lives.


Interview with Charles Sykes

Sykes (bottom row, far right) worked as a waiter in the Gifford Dining Hall with teammates Zip Rausa and Jim Wagner (also pictured).

Sykes (bottom row, far right) worked as a waiter in the Gifford Dining Hall with teammates Zip Rausa and Jim Wagner (also pictured).

Charles Sykes ’57 ran track in addition to playing basketball at Middlebury. Off the court he worked as a dishwasher in Gifford, which served as a dining hall at the time. Sykes spent 25 years after graduating overseas, serving first in the military before rising through the ranks of CARE. Sykes still plays tennis and only recently stopped playing basketball after breaking his hand while playing in the Senior Olympics alongside Zip Rausa.

Damon Hatheway: You came to Middlebury after a number of futile years for the basketball program and then after you left they reverted back to being a one-win team in the early 60s. How did you choose Middlebury and why did things change during the 1950s?

CS: I had finished high school in East Baltimore, Dunbar High School, before Brown vs. The Board of Education [had been decided]. My parents thought it would be useful since I graduated in February from high school that I might spend six months at a prep school, which a friend of ours had sent their son to. [So] I spent a year at a little place called Tilton School in New Hampshire. That was my first knowledge of New England. As a result I became acquainted with some of the schools in New England. I did play basketball at Tilton and the coach was from the UNH and he wanted me to go to New Hampshire — he thought I could perhaps play ball there. But one of my friends at Tilton went to Middlebury. He was the year ahead of me, and he invited me to come up to Middlebury during my final year at Tilton, and I went up to meet him and talk to him. I went up and I liked the school, I liked the location, I enjoyed meeting the people there. I had contact with the admissions office and they had looked at my transcript and they were willing to give me admittance to Middlebury. Amongst the other schools of interest were New Hampshire, University of Vermont, and Brown. But I liked Middlebury, and since I knew someone there I thought that would be a good starting point. But by the time I got there the person I knew had left — had transferred somewhere else, so I didn’t really know anyone. But I did like the school. I thought it would be good to go to aschool that was more demanding academically [with] less [of an] emphasis on playing sports, which was true at Middlebury — there was very little pressure.

When I got there I enjoyed the people that I met and made new friends, and so on. My freshman year I flunked ROTC, which I think is a record, which no one else has ever managed to match. But later I graduated as a distinguished military student. So I guess I learned my right foot from my left foot. It was a bit of a struggle at first — the first year at Middlebury — but I settled in and enjoyed it. And basketball was one of the greatest diversions [during] those long winter games and early darkness. And working as a waiter at school and taking courses early in the morning, it was nice to go down to the Field House and throw the ball around.

DH: What kind of coach was Tony Lupien and what impact did he have on the program?

CS: Lupien was a very, very interesting person. I always liked to describe him as the “Dean of Life Sciences” because he was constantly engaged and talking with the team and with individuals on the team. He himself had had a very illustrious life, having graduated from Harvard and been captain of two sports [there].  Then he joined the Boston Red Sox in 1941, I believe, and had a couple of good years with the Red Sox before he went to the Navy. But he was a very interesting person to be around because he had a sense of humor and he had these interesting tales, which he would tell, which usually revolved around sports and stories that are passed on from generation to generation amongst those in the locker room.

He was also sort of a celebrity in New England. Everywhere we visited and had games people would recognize him — there would be shouts “Hi, Tony!” Tony knew all these people in every corner of New England, including northern New York state. Everywhere we went they would great him very warmly and vice versa. These were people who were not often professionals — [it was] the bellman at the Hartford Hotel or a gas station attendant or a locker room attendant. And we always wondered how he knew all these people. We all conjectured as to where he might have met these people and finally one day he told us, as we met a gas station attendant, we asked, “Where did you know him from, Tony?” He said, “Harvard Thirty-Four (’34).

And this would go on over and over and over again. One season we went down to Cambridge to play Harvard in a very low-scoring game. We beat Harvard that evening, and as we were leaving we heard someone say, “Hi, Tony.” And Tony turned around and said, “Hi, Jake.” And we all looked at each other and said, “Harvard, Thirty-Four!” In a way it told a story about Tony. He was very democratic, in the Greek sense of demos ­­­— the people — he knew the people and the people knew him. This was part of his character and part of his moniker, this recognition. And it might have reflected the fact that not everyone who went to Harvard, in a way he was saying, was a successful person in the corporate world, or in the government, or making their name in a variety of other fields. I guess that was the underlying message that he was sending to us. Anyway that’s what we drew [from it] — maybe we didn’t reach the right conclusion, but that’s what we thought after knowing him for several years.

DH: You’ve shared one or two already, but what are some of your favorite memories of [Tony]?
CS: There are so many! I think one of the funniest ones [was] he had invited us all to his house and had prepared a great big meal — spaghetti and meatballs. He had been working on the spaghetti and meatballs all day and we were enjoying it, and he was telling us this story. He said, “I like all of you guys, but I’ll tell you one thing: you know I have four daughters, but I would never think of any of you if you walked down the street with your sports bag and your tennis shoes over you shoulder. You wouldn’t be eligible to go out with one of my daughters — I just don’t trust you athletes.” [He said this] with a big smile on his face, of course, afterwards. And we did meet his daughters and they were delightful and very much loved their father and held him in great esteem. As we did.

DH: How was he able to recruit or attract such great players like yourself, Sonny Dennis, Tom Hart? How did he bring that kind of talent to Middlebury?

CS: I don’t know! Maybe [Donald] Rowe or someone was doing some kind of recruiting for him. No one ever approached me about going to Middlebury to play sports. I just went down the gym when the tryouts were taking place! So the question of how Tom Hart and Sonny Dennis, who were really the central figures in the success of the teams in that period, were recruited, I’m not sure. To be honest, I can’t say that I know. I was never recruited — I just went down because I needed a break from studies and work and just went down to the Field House one day and tried out and happened to make the team. The story might be a bit longer for Sonny and Tom, but I’m not sure.

DH: What kind of coach was Tony Lupien on the basketball floor?

CS: He was serious. First of all, no joking around. He understood that he wasn’t in the Major Leagues. In other words, he kept spirits up by often telling stories. For example, during my freshman year, I remember sometimes there would be about 30 or 40 people in the stands watching the game. And Tony would be in the locker room before the game and he said, “By the way boys, don’t let the crowd scare you when you go out there.” And when we would go out on the court and there wouldn’t be anyone in the stands at all, maybe 30 or 40 people. But it was interesting, in successive years there were more students, more towns people and faculty coming to watch the [basketball] games than the hockey games, which was unusual, because we could never compete with hockey in terms of attendance during [my] first year. But we started a winning streak and you could see the people ducking out of the hockey game and come over and watch the basketball!

Tom Hart, above, set a new Middlebury pole vaulting record at 12' 5'' in a meet with Williams.

Tom Hart, above, set a new Middlebury pole vaulting record at 12′ 5” in a meet with Williams.

DH: What was so special about [Tom Hart and Sony Dennis], and what was it like having two guys who were potentially pro basketball players on such a small campus?

CS: Sonny [competed] all year round — he was also an excellent football player. He was a back in the double wing formation. I ran track with both [Sonny and Tom]. Again they were so outstanding in track and field as well as basketball. Sonny was extremely competitive and he could hold his own probably with anybody we played against. Tom was a spectacular jumper — in track and field he high-jumped and also broad-jumped. He had this remarkable ability to get up above the rim at a time when dunking was discouraged, in fact I think Tony would have pulled anybody out of the game if they had tried to dunk the ball. But Tom was able to set such spectacular statistics in the rebounding game that I think are just incredible.

Unfortunately Tom missed a season in which he and Sonny would have played together again. And unquestionably when they were together it was just magical what they could do in terms of scoring and rebounding and how superior there play was to anyone else. In many ways the record seasons that they assisted at that time were attributable to their being together. Tom had to drop out one year to go to Mitchell College to make up some courses, and so he missed the season. When they were together it was spectacular.


DH: You, Zip Rausa and Carl Scheer were roommates — [what can you tell me about those individuals]?

CS: Carl [Scheer] transferred from Colgate and we did room together [during] my final year — that was a great experience. [Carl] continued his interest in sports and was the General Manager of the Denver Nuggets and now has moved on to Charlotte with the Bobcats. He had established a link with [Michael] Jordan, which has worked out over the years. Carl was a good friend and teammate.

Zip is very special because he was a teammate, classmate and was a roommate! And then one of the special carry-overs from basketball was that about 10 years ago we got together [and played] on the Virginia local team of over-sixties and played together in the Senior Olympics, representing Virginia in the 60 to 65 age group. Unfortunately I broke my hand in one of the games, which ended my playing days, but Zip continues to play, which is amazing. But it was great to have that opportunity to join forces with him again after all those years and enjoy the memories and enjoy the new experiences!

DH: When I spoke to Zip Rausa, he told me to ask you about a great performance that you had against Dartmouth — can you share more about that?

CS: It was my freshman year and we went up to Dartmouth to play Dartmouth and we lost in overtime. It was the first away game I ever played, and it was a great game. I was matched [up] with a guy named Pete Geithner, who’s the father of the former Secretary of the Treasury, [Timothy Geithner]. I later met [Pete] in New Dehli when I was the CARE Director in India in the early 70’s. And I didn’t let him forget that I held him to six points in that game and outscored him! It was a great game — I wish we had won it — but they were awfully good.

DH: Did race play a big role during your playing days at Middlebury?

CS: No it didn’t, it wasn’t a factor.

DH: What moments, games or accolades stand out most from your playing career?

CS: One, which is sort a disappointment for me. We were playing in Springfield [against] AIC, the American International College, and I got my fingers hooked on my rim. I had to get four stitches in between my fingers. For the next four games I had my fingers taped together on my right hand. It was such a disappointment because we lost three of the four games and I always thought that if I had been able to overcome that deficiency it would have made a big difference for the team. We lost some bad games and I felt badly about it.

The Campus called Sykes "the sparkplug" in a win over Norwich. Sykes had 20 points and 17 rebounds in the game.

The Campus called Sykes “the sparkplug” in a win over Norwich. Sykes had 20 points and 17 rebounds in the game.

DH: How about memories that stand out the other way?

CS: [Laughs] I guess against Williams I had a great night my junior year. I think I scored 26 points against Williams and we beat them by 20 points and they were so mad. They were so annoyed at us that when we went down there the next year they took it out on us at Williamstown, they really beat us badly. But it was great that evening [at Middlebury].

And then we played Army once at West Point and I remember that game well, because we were being harassed by the cadets. We were supposed to be steers, they kept saying, “These guys are steers, they don’t know how to play basketball.” Anyway they beat us. But in the subsequent four decades that followed us, one of the organizations that I worked for had conferences at hotels there on the campus of West Point. It was remarkable to see the transformation of the academy in those 40 years. When we went down to play them there were no women, there were very few minorities. In the subsequent years, culminating in the final one when the head of the core was a Vietnamese-American woman, leading the cadets out onto the ground. I thought it was so remarkable that first year when we went there, there were just male white faces in the crowd and a few brown faces, maybe, — and no women at all. And then to see each year successively this metamorphosis in gender and race and creed was remarkable.

DH: You came back to Middlebury last year for the Williams game. What kind of transformation have you seen at Middlebury over the years and how close have you stayed with the basketball program?

CS: [Zip and I] have been following the basketball program, mainly applauding its great success. To be ranked nationally is just incredible for successive years — not just one year, but for three or four in a row and to have players like Ryan Sharry and Nolan [Thompson] and others — they’re just spectacular. So for us, it’s amazing to see Middlebury keeping all its fine tradition of outstanding scholarship and intellectual achievement [while] being matched with this athleticism. It truly is the idealism of the ancient Greeks in terms of intellect and physical achievement.

DH: How were you able to apply what you may have learned while you were playing basketball to your post-Middlebury career.

Playing in the final game of his career, Sykes attempts a hook shot over a St. Michael's defender.

Playing in the final game of his career, Sykes attempts a hook shot over a St. Michael’s defender.

CS: That’s an interesting question. In 1962 I was in Algeria with a medical team, which was filling in for the French at a hospital in Algiers. The French had left a terrible situation after a 10-year civil war, after a war between France and [Algeria], which was their overseas colony at the time. [Algeria] got [its] independence in ’61 and in ’62 a civil war broke out between two Algerian groups contending for power. We had a medical team of volunteer doctors and nurses manning one of the hospitals there.And my Algerian counterpart asked me if I was interested in working with some young people — young Algerians in the city.  One of the things I did [was] start a basketball program for them. Given those long years of war and hostility, those kids really needed some diversion and some outlet to soften all the misery and killing that had taken place over that time. So that was one of things that my experience at Middlebury enabled me to do later, which was more avocational.  [Laughs] I think it was good for me too, there’s no question about that, to be able to get out with those kids. And they were happy to have an opportunity to play. Subsequently, when I went to Somalia and other places, I always took balls with me and needles and pumps, because I knew my colleagues out in the field were managing camps and providing assistance and trying to alleviate some of the poverty. I knew that somehow simple sports that didn’t require a lot of equipment were useful and valuable in terms of working with the kids in the refugee camps and villages. They needed this, and they had so little. So those were very valuable carry-overs [from Middlebury].