There is a round of golf scheduled for later this week in the Twin Cities, where the senior tees will be used and stories of wild nights in basketball arenas will be told. Steve Fritz from St. Thomas and Jim Smith from St. John’s will make up half of the foursome, and will be the sources for those tales.
Smith came to Collegeville to coach basketball in the winter of 1964-65. This was three seasons before Fritz arrived in St. Paul as a 6-foot-5 freshman for the Tommies.
Fritz was in the middle of an amazing run of post men for Tommies coach Tom Feely: first Dan Hansard, then Fritz, then Bob Rosier.
Feely was an animated, quick-to-agitation, undersized Irishman and coached the Tommies from 1954 to 1980. Years ago, Feely’s wife was quoted in an article in a St. Paul newspaper that she could tell the result of a game by the sound of the garage door when her husband got home.
Smith coached for 51 seasons at St. John’s, announcing his retirement shortly after the end of the 2014-2015 season. In that time, he faced off with three St. Thomas coaches: Feely for 16 winters, Fritz for 31 winters, and current coach John Tauer for four seasons.
On Tuesday, St. Thomas announced that Fritz also was headed for retirement. He will retire as the athletic director next spring. He’s been in that job since 1992, he was the head basketball coach from 1980 to 2011, and has been at St. Thomas in some form for 51 years.
The first four of those years was as a Tommies post man – as was Hansard before and Rosier after him.
“We had an offense we would run that Tom called ‘Solo,’ ‘’ Fritz said. “That meant, ‘Throw the ball into the post.’ And we pretty much ran ‘Solo’ every trip down the floor.’’
Tauer played for Fritz and served as an assistant for a decade before becoming the head coach in the fall of 2011. Asked this week if he had watched film of Fritz as a player, Tauer laughed and said:
“You would not want to get sealed on his hip. He was 6-foot-5 and couldn’t jump, and yet he scored 2,000 points and had a 1,000 rebounds. He had an instinctive knack – a game that was simple but brilliant.
“He got you on his hip as close to the basket as possible, and if you took away one thing, he did the other.
“Dennis Fitzpatrick and the other guys that played with him, all basketball junkies, still complain that once they threw the ball in the post to Steve, and it was never coming out.
“To which Steve replies: ‘Yeah, if I threw it out, you guys would just chuck it up, and I’d have to fight for the rebound.’ ‘’
Smith had his own monster in the middle – Frank Wachlarowicz – in the late ‘70s at St. Joh’s, right at the end of the Hansard-Fritz-Rosier line of excellence for St. Thomas.
When reflecting on his career, Smith almost gets tears of joy when talking about those years with Wachlarowicz, the greatest Johnnies basketball player of all.
There was an element that went beyond the pindowns in the post to the Johnnies-Tommies rivalry in the ‘60s and the ‘70s:
The teams were still playing in their small, hot, raucous gyms.
At St. Thomas, it was a third-floor walkup, O’Shaughnessy Hall by name, the “Hot Box’’ for all the campus competitors in pickup games. The gym opened in 1939 and was torn down in 2010, to make room for the large student union that greets people on the corner of Summit and Cretin.
At St. John’s, it was a gym that came to be known as “Rat Hall,’’ in honor of the students that proudly harassed opponents. That gym still stands, although redone to a degree that makes it hard to recognize.
Mike Augustin, my boss at the St. Cloud Times, and I were covering an end-of-season Johnnies game at St. Thomas. The Tommies were celebrating their seniors, and had one of those large, crepe-paper hoops for the players to run through as they came into the overcrowded gym.
The lights were turned off and a spotlight shone on the hoop. Before the Tommies arrived, you could hear feet racing across the floor, and then a St. John’s student came tearing through the hoop, arms thrust in the air triumphantly, and all Hades broke loose.
And then there were the visits to Rat Hall, when Tom Feely’s son Pat was the lead guard (as well as the center fielder on the Tommies baseball team, also coached by his father). Pat is the father of Jay Feely, the placekicker.
Remember, these were the days when taunting was encouraged, and the Rats were ready for the Feelys. Pat was the Tommies’ main ballhandler, and when he was doing that, the gym rocked with a chant of “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.’’
As soon as Pat passed the ball, the Rats would go silent. When he got back the ball, the “Daddy’’ chant would erupt again. And on it went – all night. Pat seemed to handle it OK, but fiery Tom’s head turned more crimson than usual.
“The league was tough – tough down low,’’ Fritz said. “A team like Concordia … it had the Peterson twins from Henning and Bob Laney from Proctor. Today, with all the D-I schools, players like that would be at a mid-major.’’
Fritz knows there is one thing sure to be mentioned by Smith on the golf course this week:
“Grudnowski’s shot. Tom Grudnowski was a excellent guard for the Johnnies and he beat us with a shot at the end of a game in 1969. Then, my senior year, in ’71, they were at our place, a great game, and Grudnowski hit another shot right at the end.
“The referees said it was late and ran off the court. No replays, of course. The Johnnies still talk about it … getting robbed out of Grudnowski’s game-winner.’
And why not? It hasn’t even been a half-century yet, which in the Tommies-Johnnies rivalry means it’s too early to forget.