Note: This article is the full version of Krueger’s capstone project for his journalism minor, in which Alan Prendergast ’78 served as his advisor. An excerpted version ran in the Spring 2019 issue of the Bulletin.
In 1874, the “College Boys” represented Colorado College as they competed against the Active Club of Colorado Springs in baseball, the first sports contest in the small school’s history. The College Boys were defeated handily, losing by nearly 60 runs, 68-9. However crushing the loss may seem, the members of the College Boys were not playing simply to win or lose. They were playing because they believed that sport added to their student experience in a positive way. Though nearly a century and a half has passed since the playing of this game, the CC Department of Athletics has been built on the core tenet of improving the student-athlete experience. The 1874 baseball game, however inauspicious at the time, was the start for Colorado College athletics. It was the beginning of a truly unique athletics program that has been shaped by dedicated coaches and administrators, a restrictive geographical location and a rare position as a multidivisional NCAA school.
1874 was a time of infancy for college athletics in America. Almost all competition was on the intramural level, or, as was the case between the College Boys of Colorado College and the Active Club, a competition between students and members of the local community. The sport of basketball wouldn’t be invented for another 20 years, and even games such as football and baseball were so young that the average American wouldn’t have known the rules. College athletics in their beginnings boiled down to recreation; any form of prestige from winning games was absurd.
The following year, the College Boys again played the Active Club of Colorado Springs. In this meeting, the College Boys were successful, storming back from a 18-11 7th inning deficit to win by a final score of 26-18. More important than the score, though, was the fact that a relatively large number of spectators watched the game, which was played in Alamo Square — the current site of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. Not only could sport improve the student experience, but, some realized, sport could also act as a revenue stream for the small school.
The Colorado Springs Gazette published an article which recapped the game: “The college boys looked well in their new suits, which consisted of dark blue cap, white shirts with the frontispiece of dark flannel with the words College Boys, in white, and dark blue pants. The game throughout was very exciting, as both parties had many friends on the ground, and the cheers that rent the air as the game was finished were terrific.”
Baseball was the only sport to exist at the college for the first eight years, until football came along in February of 1882, with a game against the Sigafus Hose Company.
In 1884, with a discounted rate from the Rio Grande Railroad Company, the Denver University football team traveled south by train to face Colorado College’s football team. CC was declared the winner by a final score of 12-0 in what would be the first ever intercollegiate athletic game recorded for both CC and DU.
Despite obvious revenue potential, the value of sports was still not fully understood by administrators — not only at CC but at colleges nationwide. Before the playing of the college’s first-ever football game, CC’s President E.P. Tenney noticed a number of marks in Cutler Hall, apparently made by the team members throwing and kicking footballs against the ceiling. Infuriated, Tenney confiscated the one and only football that the College Boys owned. It wasn’t until two weeks later, when more than 20 members of the team were invited for tea at President Tenney’s house, that the ball was returned to them. Though football captain W.J. McCreery denied the team’s involvement in the discoloration of the Cutler Hall ceiling, the entire event demonstrates the small stature that athletics had at CC at the time.
In the spring of 1895, CC voted to join the Colorado Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), which was comprised of Colorado University, Denver University, and the Colorado School of Mines. Track, tennis, baseball, and football were all played in the first year of CC’s admission into the CIAA. After one year, travel expenses began to weigh on CC’s ability to play the other members of the CIAA. Despite more than 100 years of further development, CC athletics has still struggled with the geographical location in respect to other similar sized and academically comparable schools. Even in the early years of the CIAA, murmurs of discontent among other conference affiliates and CC administrators alike were commonplace.
Although his reputation has undergone critical reevaluation in the past year, President William Slocum was a key player in building the CC athletics program from the ground up. With more than $1,000 grossed from athletics in 1897, Slocum was convinced that with an investment from the college administration and town boosters, athletics could be a major revenue facet of the college. Within nine months of this formal recognition, on the shoulders of Slocum’s exceptional fundraising, the first pitch was thrown in 1898 at a baseball game on brand new College Athletic Field. Reverend Phillip Washburn dedicated the field, which would later come to be named after him.
The first football game played on Washburn field was against North Denver High School on October 1, 1898. Ironically, on the same day Colorado Springs witnessed the worst fire in city history, as the Antlers Hotel, along with 50 other downtown buildings, burned to the ground. The game was called at halftime to allow players to head downtown and help battle the blaze.
In 1908, the CC football team traveled to Austin to face the University of Texas, which hadn’t lost a game in three years. CC went on to blank Texas 15-0 in what is largely thought of as the greatest win in program history.
The college struggled financially throughout the early 20th century, amid World War I and an influenza outbreak. A heroic performance by tight end Frank “Slant Eye” Briggs in the 1919 Rocky Mountain Conference championship gave Colorado College something to celebrate. Briggs scored the team’s only points en route to a 13-0 victory over the Colorado Aggies. Briggs, along with four of his teammates, were named all-conference selections. Thousands of students, players, and spectators paraded through downtown Colorado Springs following the victory.
Colorado College football had established itself as a perennial power. The program even wooed William T. “Bully” Van de Graaff, an all-American at Alabama University, to leave his alma mater and become the head coach at Colorado College with an annual salary of $6,500, the highest salary west of the Mississippi. A 1927 game against the Colorado Aggies saw 10,282 in attendance at the new Van Diest Stadium.
A devastating flood swept down Monument Creek on Memorial Day in 1935. The flood even devoured “The Jungle” that separated the college and the creek. The disaster was a blessing in disguise for the college athletics department, as the 4-acre plot of land formerly known as Monument Valley Park was deeded to the college for just $1. Trustee P.B. Stewart then provided the necessary funds to convert the area into a baseball diamond, which has been called Stewart Field ever since. “The flood is why Stewart Field gets so torn up at the end of the fall. The ground soil is just terrible,” says longtime men’s soccer coach Horst Richardson.
In 1936, when eight schools from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference splintered into a new conference called “The Big Eight,” Colorado College’s inclusion was called into question by other member institutions. The larger institutions, such as Brigham Young and Utah University, held a secret meeting and called a vote to remove the little western school. Ever since this secret meeting, Colorado College has struggled to find conference and divisions that fit all the requirements of prestige and competitiveness. Currently, most of the Division Three programs at Colorado College are in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, mainly made up of similarly sized colleges in Texas. Both men’s and women’s lacrosse are independent, and men’s hockey and women’s soccer are both Division One programs in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and Mountain West, respectively. Until Denver-based Johnson and Wales University moved to Division Three last year, CC was the only Division Three program in the entire mountain time zone for decades. Many SCAC opponents feel that CC doesn’t add anything to their own student-athlete experience, because of the travel and the abundance of other Division Three schools in Texas. “It’s a bone of contention all the time. Schools don’t like coming up here to play us. For many other conference affiliates, it’s a major strain on their budget,” says Ken Ralph who was CC’s most recent athletic director until his departure in September of this year.
Hockey has become a major national feature of Colorado College athletics. As one of the two Division One programs at the school, CC hockey competes in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, widely regarded as the top college hockey conference. The program has continued to improve in the last two decades with multiple Hobey Baker award winners and the soon-to-be-built new on-campus Robson Arena.
The mid-’60s ushered in two key figures for the development of men’s soccer and men’s lacrosse: Hall of Famers Horst Richardson and Dr. Robert “Doc” Stabler. Doc Stabler created the men’s lacrosse team in 1964. After Richardson took the helm of the men’s soccer program just one year later, the two developed a friendship. Even in the mid-’60s, athletics, other than football, at the college was still largely an afterthought.
“When the Athletic Director Jerry Carle found out I was going to be the new men’s soccer coach, he said, ‘Here’s $300 for the program, now don’t bother me,’” Richardson says of the first season of his career.
1978 saw the creation of the women’s soccer program, which was founded by Steve Paul, a men’s soccer player whose girlfriend wanted a team. Paul created the first-ever national women’s soccer tournament, which was hosted at Colorado College in 1978. Still not formally recognized by the NCAA, women’s sports were governed by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women at the time.
As women’s sports grew, CC showed a willingness to innovate in all levels of the athletics program, even in its choice of administrators. Julie Soriero became the first female athletic director of the college in 2003, completing a four-year tenure at CC and then taking the athletic director job at MIT, where she still presides today.
Ken Ralph took the helm as the athletic director in 2007 after forming a connection with CC President Dick Celeste to fight a proposed NCAA rule to disallow multidivisional schools to give athletic scholarships. Ralph was instrumental in expanding and renovating the El Pomar Sports Center. Ralph also controversially eliminated the football team, along with women’s softball and water polo, when the 2008 economic downturn forced the college to make changes. Just like the Monument Creek flood of 1935, what first may have seemed like a disaster was instead a blessing in disguise. As difficult decisions needed to be made, school administrators and board members were given the opportunity to look inward at the goals of the institution. The decisions that followed allowed for a return from an odyssey of years of self-discovery, and a reaffirmation of the Department of Athletics’ central doctrine: improving the student-athlete experience.
“In 2008, we had to make vertical cuts after we realized horizontal cuts to programs who were already underfunded would undermine a team’s ability to play a nonconference schedule,” Ralph says. “We decided to eliminate football because they had the lowest academic profile and performance of any team, worst giving rate of any athletic program, worst retention, and we had just come off an 0-10 season. They only had one winning season in the last 33 years. Then the elimination of softball and water polo allowed us to support quality over quantity.”
Both water polo and softball struggled to gain traction at the school for years, but it was the decision to cut football that angered community members and football alumni. They cited 127 seasons of history dating to 1882, the diversity the team brings to campus, the sense of community having a football team builds, and the fundraising opportunities other schools with Division Three football teams have taken advantage of.
Though controversial, the cuts proved successful. In the three years prior to discontinuing football, CC won one conference championship (men’s cross country). In the three years after the discontinuation of the three sports, CC won 16 conference championships.
“The worst correct decision I’ve ever made,” Ralph says.
The decision set CC on the path to truly realizing its full potential. As a small school in the Mountain Time zone, athletics certainly cannot be all things to all comers. Many community members grew up attending CC football games, and were outraged by the decision to eliminate something they hold dear. However, if CC’s Department of Athletics wants to stay on par with its core values, the experience of the student-athlete comes before the heartstrings of the community members. The student-athlete experience ultimately drove the decision to sponsor less programs, and therefore elevated the experience of the remaining student-athletes.
The culmination of years of difficult decisions and a focus on the student-athlete experience came to bear during the playing for the Gold Pan in 2016 at Coors Field. In front of more than 35,000 spectators, CC and DU faced each other in hockey. The rivalry of DU and CC has been a major earmark of both programs over the years. Currently, DU holds a 169-117-17 overall record against the Tigers in more than 300 all-time meetings between the two hockey programs. The Battle on Blake, as the game was dubbed, displayed the fact that CC can showcase its premiere sport on a national stage, while still maintaining the core tenets that create a quality student-athlete experience. The 2015-16 academic year also saw men’s lacrosse earn its first ever NCAA home game, a win over No. 1 nationally ranked Trinity University for the men’s soccer program, and a second place conference championship finish for the men’s cross country program.
As the program searches for its next athletic director following the departure of Ken Ralph, years of tradition are to be remembered. Engrained in the tradition is an ability to adapt among years of economic and social change, while still maintaining the core value of a quality student-athlete experience. It is not any one program, coach, administrator or athlete that makes CC athletics unique, but instead it is the ability to adapt amid a swirling landscape in order to build the best possible student-athlete experience.
In the months before his departure, Ken Ralph announced a partnership with the Colorado Springs’ City for Champions initiative to build the Edward J. Robson Arena for the hockey team. For the first time since the program’s founding in 1938, CC hockey will play its home games on-campus.
“We are thrilled to partner with the city on this important project. This is a game-changer for both Colorado College and downtown Colorado Springs,” says Ralph. “This is one of those rare circumstances where it is a win for all involved.”
Editor’s Note: Ralph departed last summer as athletic director, and CC welcomes Lesley Irvine.