ST. BONAVENTURE, NY – An era of St. Bonaventure University history widely referenced but often forgotten was the topic of a panel discussion on Monday night at the Walsh Science Center’s auditorium.
Titled “A Bygone Journey Back to a Proud Era in St. Bonaventure Sports History,” the panel featured Dr. John Soder, a 1956 graduate of St. Bonaventure and a former college professor, joined by Jack McGinley, former St. Bonaventure Board of Trustees chairman; J.P. Butler, Olean Times Herald sports editor, and OTH columnist Chuck Pollock.
The panel dove into the history of the SBU football program, which folded after the 1951 season.
McGinley, the nephew of the Rev. Silas Rooney, O.F.M., who served as Bonaventure’s athletic director in the 1940s and 1950s, opened the program by discussing the profound impact the university’s football program had on his college decision.
“As a kid growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, I grew up wanting to be Jack Butler on the football playground,” he said, referring to the lone Pro Football Hall of Fame player in the SBU program’s history.
The program came into existence at the end of the 19th century, with its first recorded seasons in 1895 and 1896. After a five-year absence, football returned to St. Bonaventure in 1902 and was played almost consistently – save for 1918 in the middle of World War I – until 1942, when play was suspended for World War II.
Among the program coaches was local legend Carroll “Mike” Reilly, the namesake for the university’s Reilly Center who also coached basketball and baseball.
“He probably minded the field is my guess,” McGinley added with a laugh, noting that making him the namesake for the university’s athletics center was a fitting tribute.
After World War II, colleges and universities made the decision to "step up" their athletic programs, McGinley explained.
“Not only are they going to step up in football, they are going to step up in basketball,” he said.
For the football program in 1946, University President the Rev. Thomas Plassmann, O.F.M., made waves throughout the country by hiring Hugh Devore fresh off of one season as the head coach at the University of Notre Dame, a football powerhouse whose influence on the game had a profound impact on the development of college football.
“It was a big deal at the time to get a big-name coach like Devore to a small school like Bonaventure,” Soder said. “The whole idea behind hiring Devore was to elevate the status of the college by joining big-time football. With this in mind, the school made it its mission to hire a big-time, national coach and after interviewing 100 or so prospects, they hired Devore.”
With Devore at the helm, former mayor and noted Olean businessman Fred Forness committed to donating $100,000 dollars to building a new football stadium on the site where the university's administration building, Hopkins Hall, was later built.
“The stadium was finished in a little over two months, which is quite amazing when you think about it,” Soder pointed out. “Forness actually got out on the job site and got down with the workers to do things like bolting the steel bleachers.”
During four seasons at the helm, Devore went 25-9-1 and put together the program's best winning percentage. However, after Plassmann’s departure in 1949 and hesitancy on the part of the next president, the Rev. Juvenal Lalor, O.F.M., to commit financially to the football program, Devore departed to become the new coach at New York University.
“I think Devore figured that the handwriting was on the wall,” Soder said. “It came as a surprise because he had already signed a three-year contract.”
Devore’s successor Joe Bach put together a 12-6 record in the final two seasons of Bonaventure football and was responsible for mentoring two of its greatest players: Butler and future NFL coaching legend Ted Marchibroda.
Butler, who went on to play nine seasons in the National Football League as a defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, had never played football until he arrived on campus at St. Bonaventure University.
“He only tried out at the behest of his roommates,” Soder explained.
McGinley went on to have a close friendship with Butler, whose playing career for the Steelers was cut short due to a knee injury.
“I asked him once if he ever regretted playing football due to the physical ailment,” McGinley added. “But he responded, ‘I just wish I had one more snap with a guy coming over the middle.’ ”
Famous opponents was the topic presented by J.P. Butler, who did his senior capstone in the Jandoli School of Communication at SBU on the history of the football program. Butler spoke about the collegiate debut of Johnny Unitas at Forness Field as a member of the visiting Louisville Cardinals
With Bonaventure up 19-7 going into the second half, Unitas led a comeback on 11 straight passes to take the lead before the Bonnies regained a 22-21 advantage on a field goal with two seconds left.
“The Bona fans thought the game was over and stormed the field,” Butler said, laughing and comparing that football game to the men’s basketball team’s Feb. 4, 2017, defeat to VCU – another moment in SBU sports history that also included a premature court storm.
“Luckily, Bona squibbed the kick and got the tackle and got the win,” Butler said. “But, certainly that game was not without controversy.”
Giving closing comments, Pollock talked at length about conversations he has had with Soder over Hugh Devore having not been inducted into the university's athletics hall of fame.
“That, to me, was brand-new information because I was hired by a guy, Mike Abdo, who was sports editor at the Times Herald when Hugh Devore was coaching, and he just had one story after another,” he said. “It was stunning to me that he wasn’t in the hall of fame and I realized that there was so much antagonized over with the money in the program that caused him to leave.”
Pollock also noted he has always marveled at how quickly the program developed. Turns out, he explained, it was just a sign of the times.
“I realized these were veterans," he said. "They were not boys fresh out of high school. You were dealing with guys who were in the South Pacific and at Normandy.”
Soder agreed and further emphasized the long-term effects the program has had on the school, though it no longer is in existence.
“In reviving the football program after World War II, part of Father Plassmann’s goal was to change St. Bonaventure from a college to a university and not soon after that it officially became a university,” he said. “Coach Devore and his team elevated the image of the college and put St. Bonaventure on the map.”
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