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The Little Team that Could

By Lou Buttell '48

It has been 60 years since the magical season when the Holy Cross basketball team captured the NCAA championship. In 1947, as the basketball reporter for the College's student newspaper, The Tomahawk, Lou Buttell witnessed that legendary victory "up close and personal." Six decades later, he recalls the road to glory.

Sixty years ago, the Holy Cross basketball team was only one game over .500 after its first seven contests. Yet, the players managed to reel off 19 straight victories and, improbably, go on to win the NCAA championship, defeating an opponent that seemed bigger and better.

How did they do it?

After the end of World War II, the athletic department at Holy Cross caught the basketball fever that was then sweeping the Northeast. New York-area high schools were producing some of the best players in hoop history, and it was there that Holy Cross athletic director, Gene Flynn, and his newly hired coach, Alvin "Doggie" Julian, went looking for the players that would put a small Jesuit school on the basketball map.

Julian, who had been basketball coach at Muhlenberg College, was a keen student of talent. He sought not only New York City high-schoolers but local Worcester stars — as well as players from other colleges who had been in the military during the War. Soon his roster of recruits included: George Kaftan, Dermie O'Connell, Joe Mullaney, Bob McMullan, Matt Formon and Frank Oftring from New York City and Charlie Bollinger from New Jersey. Ken Haggerty arrived on the Hill after some starring years at Fordham and Cornell. Then there were Bob Curran and Andy Laska from Worcester. And the World War II vets Jim Riley and Charlie Graver rounded out the 1945-46 group.

When the team assembled in the fall of 1945, Julian wasn't quite sure what he had. It wasn't a tall team — George Kaftan, the center, was the biggest at only 6 feet, three inches. But it soon became clear that this unseasoned squad was going to be something special. With many of their opponents underestimating them, the Crusaders won 12 games and lost just 3.

With a record like that, Holy Cross was predicted to be a regional power during the 1946-47 season. Expectations were heightened dramatically when Julian recruited one of the top high school stars in the nation, Bob Cousy — an All-American who had played for Andrew Jackson High School in the New York City area. Cousy had been sought by many prominent schools but chose Holy Cross. He was the final piece in the intricate puzzle that Julian hoped would bring national recognition.

The Little Team that Could, continued >>



1947 Champions
1947 NCAA Champions

Front row: Dermott O'Connell, Bob Cousy, Frank Oftring, Andy Laska.Middle row : Bob Curran, Ken Haggerty, Head Coach, Alvin Julian, Joe Mullane, George Kaftan.
Back row : Assistant Coach Albert Riopel, Jim Riley, Charlie Bolinger, Bob McMullen, Charlie Graver, Manager Frank Dooley.

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