Loyola Athletics: Future...and Past

New Loyola Wolf Pack logo.
New Loyola Wolf Pack logo.

View the complete issue of fall 2013 LOYNO Magazine.

By Ramon Antonio Vargas '09, The History Press, 2013

A world at war disrupts a city and a basketball team on the rise.

Excerpted from Fight, Grin & Squarely Play the Game: The 1945 Loyola New Orleans Basketball Championship & Legacy

Loyola University New Orleans unveiled a new Wolf Pack logo to kick off the 2013-2014 athletics season. The new logo, the sixth since the Wolf Pack became the university’s mascot in 1924, was officially launched on Aug. 29 during Maroon and Gold Day. The free event, held on the Peace Quad, featured music, food, giveaways, and a special appearance by Havoc. Dr. Michael Giorlando, head men’s basketball coach and director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Wellness at Loyola, hosted the event, and the Loyola Golden Eyes Dance Team and the Cheer Team performed.

The logo replaces the Wolf Pack logo that has been used since 1997 and was a joint effort that included representatives from the Office of Student Affairs and the Office of Institutional Advancement, alumni, student athletes, and outside sports design company Phoenix Design Works.

“Loyola’s athletics program has grown exponentially since its rebirth in the ‘90s, and we hope it will keep growing with a brand that reflects its future,” says Allee Parker, Loyola’s director of creative services.

The Wolf Pack symbolizes Loyola’s Jesuit values, such as strength in numbers and pride in teamwork, and this bold new look also signifies that Loyola Athletics are prepared to move into the future. Loyola now has varsity teams for men’s baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s cross country and track, men’s and women’s golf, and men’s and women’s tennis.

With his peerless passing, dribbling and scoring, freshman Sammy Trombatore forced his basketball coach at Loyola University in New Orleans to start him in the game in which the school had a chance to clinch its first-ever conference championship. Trombatore did not let his coach, John C. “Jack” Orsley, down that Monday, March 4, 1942. He hit six field goals and two free throws for fourteen crucial points against Spring Hill College, one of Loyola’s fiercest rivals.

The Loyola Wolf Pack won 51–45, and thus the program earned its unprecedented Dixie Conference title. The five- foot, eleven-inch Trombatore ended up scoring as many points as Loyola’s senior captain, its veteran leader, six-foot, eight- inch James J. “Big Jim” McCafferty. He was selected for all-conference honors. He was growing into a star who made winning a habit. And he was becoming a cornerstone around whom Orsley and Loyola could build a championship basketball team—or so the school and coach thought.

Before arriving at Loyola, Trombatore led his New Or- leans high school, St. Aloysius, to the state championship in 1941. Then, as a college rookie, he rapidly became the second-highest scorer on a fourteen-win Wolf Pack, contributing to victories over schools such as Millsaps, Howard (now known as Samford), Spring Hill and various colleges in the state of Louisiana.

“Sam was as smooth as silk,” Orsley would marvel. “He could hurt you as much with his passing and his feinting as he could with his scoring. He could fake a defensive man out of his sneakers. And he did it with the grace of a ballet dancer.”

Sam Ciolino, who played basketball for Loyola in the 1940s, echoed that praise, saying, “Sam Trombatore could fake out people like you wouldn’t believe. More people than you could count fell because of his fakes.”

With World War II ongoing in the backdrop in the next season, Loyola and Trombatore played sixteen games against their traditional opponents, like Spring Hill, Millsaps and Howard, and they also took on teams of military servicemen stationed around the region. Trombatore led the Wolf Pack in scoring, and Orsley’s team won fourteen of its games. By virtue of its excellent record, Loyola could fairly claim it was the champion of its conference a second consecutive year. “This was Loyola’s best year in his- tory,” New Orleans’ Times-Picayune newspaper declared.

Basketball officials noticed, and they invited Loyola to play in the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball championship tourna- ment in Kansas City in March 1943. The Wolf Pack certainly would have loved to go, espe- cially since Loyola had never been asked to participate in the tournament.

However, of the nine players Loyola would have had available for the competition, two—starting guard Milton “Whitey” Jackson and substitute guard Frank Kiernan—were called to active service with the U.S. Army Air Corps the week the university got its tournament bid. Another, starting guard Bob Segura, a reserve military officer in the dentistry school, could not leave campus due to travel restrictions for students.

That left six players whom Orsley could take to Kansas City—five on the court and one on the bench. The coach knew he did not have enough men to field a competitive squad, even with a talent like Trombatore on his side. So Orsley, also Loyola’s athletic director, declined the invitation, disappointing as that was to the university’s community. “The draft board was catching up with our boys,” the coach explained.

When the 1943–44 season arrived, the draft board had not yet caught up with Trombatore. And because of that, he was as dominant as ever as Loyola vied for the New Orleans Senior Amateur Athletic Union title, facing teams from local recreational clubs and military facilities. In a particularly memorable 47–39 Loyola victory that year against a team representing New Orleans’ Kingsley House Community Center, Trombatore erupted for thirty-six points. Of course, that means all of Kingsley House outscored Trombatore by a scant three points on that occasion.

Loyola finished with a 21–3 record and won the Senior AAU league (the Wolf Pack competed there because its normal conference had suspended play due to the war). It was the first season in which Loyola’s basketball team had reached twenty wins. Trombatore scored 488 points despite missing five games due to a sprained ankle. Otherwise, he would have undoubtedly tallied more than 500 points, a vast figure for a basketball player in those days. With his scoring average of 25.7 points per game, Trombatore earned a place on The Associated Press’ All-America list, as well as the epithet “Point-a-Minute.”

“The way Trombatore made the goals was the thing!” the Times-Picayune wrote that year. “He made them from the left side, from the right side and from the middle—they all looked alike to him.”

The war prevented a national championship tournament from being held in 1944. However, if that tournament came back after the 1944–45 season, Trombatore’s All-America credentials meant that Coach Orsley’s Wolf Pack had to be considered a contender. But such lofty expectations were shattered by a terse Times-Picayune dispatch on April 11, 1944, that read, “Sammy Trombatore, sensational basketballer for Loyola this past season and nominee to the All-America team, is scheduled to leave today to enter the active service of the United States Army.”

Trombatore, at the very least, was going to miss what would have been his fourth season at Loyola. Trombatore’s departure crushed Orsley. In Orsley’s opinion, Trombatore pos- sessed more all-around ability than any other basketball player he had ever coached.

Now, there was no telling whether Trombatore would ever play basketball for Loyola again, or whether he would come back to New Orleans at all. The dream of building a champi- onship team around Trombatore was over.

World War II, of course, didn’t just disrupt Trombatore’s basketball career and the Loyola Wolf Pack’s ambitions. The fighting had disrupted the lives of all New Orleanians, among them Loyola students such as Luke Cuccia, a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who was sent to fight in the Pacific.

The night before a battle against Japanese soldiers in the Philippines, Sergeant Cuccia attended Mass and received Holy Communion. At sunrise, he charged into blankets of machine gun and artillery fire unleashed by the Japanese. “On my first day up, a Japanese mortar exploded a foot from my head,” he wrote in a letter addressed to the Reverend Joseph A. Butt, S.J., for whom the university’s College of Business is named. “I attribute this miraculous escape to my faithful carrying of the rosary.”

Cuccia’s letter expressed a measure of dark humor. “Except for sniper fire and some shellings, things haven’t been too bad for me,” the sergeant wrote.

He also described how the marines’ “ruthless” enemies would “kill civilians and burn their houses” as they retreated. Cuccia’s patrolling had taken him through blazing, smoking Filipino towns. The island’s natives evacuated their neighborhoods with whatever food, clothing and animals they could round up as they tried to flee the perils of the war. Cuccia recounted how the inhabitants of a land that became poorer and more desolate each day the war raged—a land far from New Orleans—were ready to give what little they possessed to American marines hailing from places they probably had never heard of.

“As [we] pass through, we see happy people again,” Cuccia noted. “In this particular area, the people give us eggs, bananas and some fruit. On the way down, Filipinos throw bananas into our trucks.”

While Cuccia was able to share his tales from the war, other Loyola servicemen were not fortunate enough to have that opportunity. Lieutenant Colonel John A. Butler, a 1930 Loyola graduate, spent fifteen days fighting against some of the twenty-two thousand Japanese soldiers defending the Pacific island of Iwo Jima. The fifteenth day took him to the front lines on a matter. As the eleven-year marine veteran headed back toward headquarters, a Japanese mortar shell tore through his Jeep.

The  blast  killed  him  and  two  other  passengers  and wounded the driver, according to a dispatch by Staff Sergeant Henry Giniger obtained by the university. Giniger added, “One of the most courageous and aggressive battalion commanders on the island, Col. Butler…had met and conquered some of the stiffest opposition that the Japanese offered, and all during the battle northward, the colonel had been on the front lines.”

As the 1944–45 basketball season approached, Loyola University celebrated a Mass in memory of thirty university alumni who were killed in the war. A sophomore music student blew the bugle piece “Taps”— traditionally performed at American military funerals—at the consecration and at the end of the Mass. “Loyola men have given their lives to protect our way of life, therefore it is only fitting that the university should honor them with a special service,” the Reverend William Crandall, S.J., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, told The Maroon before the Mass.

Another priest at the university, the Reverend Loyd Hatrel, S.J., added, “It is in accord with [the] Catholic spirit that Loyola, holding dear her sons who have given their all that our way of life may prevail, solemnly and publicly pays patriotic and religious homage to her…alumni who have died in the service of this country.”

Though not slain, other Loyola students suffered wounds during the war. Among them was Maroon sports editor Ed Fricke. After he was hurt in the fierce fighting around the Siegfried Line in Germany, Fricke wrote in a letter to a professor, “Here I am…in England, with my hand all shot up and practically nothing to do. I’m not getting any mail, and when I write, I have to write left-handed. Incidentally, my thumb is gone, and it looks really odd.”

Despite his missing thumb, Fricke managed to write in his letter that the heavy fighting allowed him to see parts of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and “too much of the Siegfried Line,” composed of Nazi forts and tank defenses. “We ran into some forts there that looked as big as Bobet Hall,” an academic hall at Loyola that today houses the university’s philosophy, foreign languages, history and English departments, Fricke wrote. “In one,” he added, “we had to kill 270 Germans to take it.”

One line of Fricke’s missive poignantly illustrated what young men from Loyola and New Orleans faced when they left their loved ones, went overseas and charged into combat. “All my buddies are up there on the First Army front, but I guess a lot of them are gone,” he wrote.

It was obvious that the Loyola community was weathering a time of loss and crisis. A Wolf Pack triumph on the basketball court would enliven and in- spire its fans, its campus and its city. But, as things stood shortly be- fore the 1944–45 season tipped off, there seemed  to  be  little chance that Jack Orsley and his Wolves could actually do that. Besides the unavailability of Trombatore, just two key players were returning from the previous year’s team. Almost everyone else was a freshman.

 

 

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