Note: This text provides an overview of the history of athletics at the University of Scranton. More detailed histories are available for football, basketball, and women's athletics. Please contact us if you would like to write and submit a history for another Royal team!
Athletics at St. Thomas College had an early and precarious beginning. On Thanksgiving Day, 1892, St. Thomas College defeated Carbondale High School in the College's first recorded football game. In 1893, a College Dramatic Society production was held to raise money for the library and to buy football uniforms. There appears to have been a few games played in 1893 as well, but there was no regular schedule. Similarly, a baseball team appears to have been active in the 1890s, playing "amateur ball" against local clubs.
The first full football schedule occurred in 1898 when the "Tommies" went 8 and 1 and shut out all of their opponents, after losing the first game of the year 6-5 to Keystone Academy. In 1908, the Tommies went undefeated and unscored upon. But in 1911 football was dropped. It was reinstalled in 1916 and remained a full time sport until 1960.
Right before World War I, Bill Moore effectively became athletic director at the College. For 12 years he coached all sports and organized a few. A basketball team was organized, after a few false starts, in 1916-1917. The team went undefeated during the 1921-1922 and 1922-1923 seasons and had a 40 game winning streak that ended in January 1924. A baseball team had been fielded for one game in 1907 but quickly dissolved. A few similar one-game seasons followed until Moore organized a team in 1916. The team went undefeated in 1917 but was then dropped until the 1920s. In 1918, the College fielded its first track team.
In 1926, John "Jack" Harding, a University of Pittsburgh football and baseball standout became football coach, basketball coach, and athletic director. He strengthened the program by eliminating games with junior colleges and academies. Within a couple of years the Tommies would only be playing varsity squads from four year colleges. During Harding's twelve-year reign, he fielded solid and successful teams: the football team went 53-36-8 and the basketball team went 128-63.
Intercollegiate swimming began at St. Thomas College in 1936, with meets held at Weston Field.
After Harding left, the football program was lead by Tom Davies from 1937 through 1939. His 1939 team went undefeated and participated in one of the first televised football games, a November 16 NBC broadcast of the Tommies' 31-0 rout of the City College of New York. From 1939 through 1942, the football program was run by Robert "Pop" Jones.
Harding was replaced as basketball coach by James "Buck" Freeman, who came from St. John's University in New York. Freeman only coached one season at first, though he later returned after World War II. From 1938 until the early 1940s, Edward "Red" Coleman, a St. Thomas graduate, coached the basketball team, which by then was playing some major schools like the University of Tennessee and the University of Nebraska.
In 1938, St. Thomas College became the University of Scranton; however, athletic teams would retain the nickname "Tommies" or "Tomcats" for several more years.
In 1942, administration of the University of Scranton passed from the Christian Brothers into Jesuit control. As with most colleges, the University saw its athletic programs curtailed by the drain of manpower into the war effort. In 1942, a schedule of football games was arranged, mostly featuring teams from military training sites, but in 1943, varsity athletics were suspended. A few games were scheduled in 1944 by new football coach Pete Carlesimo, but a full schedule did not return until after the war ended.
Although St. Thomas College had become the University of Scranton almost ten years earlier, in the early 1940s the school's athletic teams were still referred to as the "Tomcats." In 1946, Athletic Director Rev. John J. Coniff, S.J. held a contest to solicit new names for the team, promising a prize of twenty-five dollars and two season tickets to the winner. Of the approximately 100 submissions, however, none were deemed suitable. Instead, Rev. Coniff announced that the new title would be "THE ROYALS, significant of the Royal Purple of the old college and the present University."
As students returned to college after the War, athletics regained momentum. New intercollegiate teams were established, including baseball (1946), cross country (1947), golf (1948), and tennis (1956).
The football team had consistently winning seasons but began to limit itself to comparably-sized schools in the Northeast. Despite the team's success, attendance dropped as fans stayed home to watch national powerhouses battle on television. As a result, intercollegiate football was dropped as a varsity sport after the 1960 season. Football was revived as a club sport in the late 1960s and lasted until the mid-1970s, but has since disappeared.
The basketball team, however, continued playing larger and more geographically diverse teams, though often with poor results. Between 1945-1946 and 1965-1966, the basketball team only had three winning seasons, two being 1957-1958 and 1958-1959. The latter was particularly significant; the team joined the Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) and almost won the conference championship. Only when the basketball program dropped games with eastern basketball powers like Villanova and St. Bonaventure did the team begin to excel.
Over the next several decades, the University continued to field winning teams in baseball, cross country, and rifle and established intercollegiate teams in wrestling (1968), soccer (1969), and lacrosse (1987). Ongoing interest and recognition of University athletic teams prompted the establishment of the Athletics Wall of Fame in 1971.
With the demise of football, basketball became the primary sport on campus, After the opening of the Long Center in 1967, the men's basketball program was rejuvenated. The team won its first 21 home games, and in 1968-1969 the Royals won their first MAC championship. The next MAC title came in 1975-1976 under Robert "Bob" Bessoir, who served as coach for more than 25 years before his retirement in 2001. The team has since won the MAC championship twelve times in seventeen years and competes regularly in the NCAA Division III playoffs. The University is proud to have won two national men's NCAA Division III championships, in 1975-1976 and 1982-1983.
Women's basketball has also been successful. The program was established in 1975, and the team won its first MAC championship in 1977, winning again in 1978 and 1979. In 1980, the team was third in the nation and contended for the title. The team continued to have winning seasons and gain MAC championships with its 6th coming in 1983. Their first NCAA Division III championship came in 1985. The team has also continued to appear regularly in the NCAA playoffs.
Indeed, in 1972 Scranton had become coeducational. The first recorded appearance by women in University sports occurred in 1972, when two Marywood College students joined the University rifle team. By 1973, a woman participated in the karate club. By 1974, women were participating in intramural sports including softball and basketball, and by 1975 there were intramural women’s teams in volleyball, tennis, field hockey and basketball. Varsity teams soon emerged for tennis (1975), field hockey (1975), volleyball (1976), softball (1977), cross country (1980), soccer (1983), swimming (1986), and finally lacrosse (2000).