Jim Smith retired as the basketball coach at St. John's at the end of the 2014-15 season. He had held the job for 51 years, starting in the fall of 1964.
On Sunday, Smith relayed the thought that he wouldn't have made it through the first decade, if not for the intervention of his assistant Elmer Kohorst on one raucous night inside the notorious St. John's gym known as "Rat Hall.''
Kohorst, a two-time All-America catcher at Notre Dame and roommate for a time to Paul Hornung, died Friday at 85 in his hometown of Albany. Hornung, the Heisman winner for the Irish and a Packers star, died three weeks ago at 84.
Smith described Kohorst as "one of my best friends'' and offered this by email:
"Elmer told me that they had him room with Hornung with the idea that Elmer's daily Mass and good conduct would somehow rub off on Paul. Not so.''
As for Kohorst saving Smith's career at St. John's, it was in the early '70s, and with hated rival St. Thomas in Collegeville. The younger Smith and Tommies' veteran Tom Feely were frequent combatants on the cramped sidelines of Rat Hall (as well as the "Hot Box'' at St. Thomas).
Smith said this dust-up occurred when 7-foot-2 Bob Rosier was the main cog in the Tommies' pound-it-inside attack. Rosier towered over the MIAC opponents through the 1973-74 season.
Smith's review of this night's drama: "Rosier had four fouls and there were a couple of minutes left in the game. St. Thomas was very good, of course. We were up by six and a foul was called.
"Feely and I thought it could've been Rosier's fifth, which would've sealed it for us. Our gym was packed and so loud the referee had to come over to the scorer's table to report the foul.
"Tom and I both wanted to hear what the ref was saying. The foul was not on Rosier and, according to my version, Tom gently pushed me and told me to sit down.
"I reacted and Elmer put both arms around me and held me. I'm not sure what would've happened if he had not done so, but I assume he saved my coaching career. I loved the guy.''
The guy being Kohorst, not Feely.
Rowdy, cracker-box gyms are largely a thing of the past in basketball. I was at the St. Cloud Times from May 1966 to September 1968, and all these decades later, I've never seen zaniness to compare with Johnnies-Tommies when both teams were good and playing inside those claustrophobic gyms.
Example: An official was crowded under a basket, ready to hand off the ball for an in-bounds play. One of the "Rats'' put an empty half-pint bottle of whiskey in the official's back pocket and then as he started jogging down the floor, the gym rocked with the chant, "The ref is a drunk.''
That dangerous conduct would get a severe reprimand these days. Back then … well, the officials knew they had signed up for a tough night's work when they landed a Johnnies-Tommies tilt.
Earlier this year, Frank Berres, SJU Class of '57, died in Escanaba, Mich. at age 85. Berres, a graduate of Le Sueur High School, gets credit for forming the "Rat Pack,'' a cheering section that would become so infamous it had the gym named after it.
Berres' had the nickname "Rat,'' so it becaome the Rat Pack before Frank Sinatra's crew of carousing mates took over Las Vegas entertainment. In a 2004 interview with the Johnnies' alumni magazine, Berres said the nickname stemmed from the fact his dorm room on campus was so messy it resembled a rat's nest.
Kohorst was at Notre Dame at the same time Berres was forming the Rats. Elmer was the All-America catcher for the Irish in 1956 and 1957. He was signed by the Dodgers after the 1957 college season and played three years in the minors.
He coached with big success at St. John's Prep, and then was an assistant to Smith and the head baseball coach for the Johnnies.
The baseball All-America teams of his time consisted of 10 players: eight positions and two pitchers. Kohorst was joined on the 1956 team by two Gophers from the national champions: pitcher Jerry Thomas and shortstop Jerry Kindall.
The regional consisted of a pair of three-game series that were played in the Twin Cities. The Gophers opened by winning a 2-1 series vs. Kohorst and Notre Dame. They followed with two straight wins against Ohio to advance to Omaha for the first time.
Thomas was the MVP of that College World Series. And before the Gophers, Jerry had pitched for St. Thomas Academy, where the baseball coach was Tom Feely, which means everyone in Minnesota sports is separated by six degrees from the guy who coached a half-century at St. John's as a junior member of the athletic staff.