When Bellarmine announced in June that it would move to Division I athletics, it was a thrill for Knights Nation and a publicity bonanza for the school. Social media went wild, and actual media did too, with national coverage by ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post and USA Today. Across the country, millions of people were talking about Bellarmine—and many of them were even pronouncing it right.
For an athletics program that’s the talk of the land, it’s hard to imagine humbler beginnings. When Bellarmine College opened for business in the autumn of 1950, officials had their hands full keeping the school going, let alone worrying about athletics. The Korean War had broken out in June and the draft reduced Bellarmine’s total student population from 115 to 65. That very first semester, the school’s coffers were down to $200. But hey, this is Kentucky, and sports are sports.
When the nascent college fielded its first athletic team on Dec. 28, 1950, the Bellarmine Pioneers basketball team (soon to become the “Knights”) lost to the St. Mary Seminarians, 79-66. It’s impressive that either the basketball or baseball teams—the only sports that first year—won any games at all.
Consider these obstacles: Because Bellarmine enrolled first-year students only, all the athletes were freshmen. The tallest player was Bart Brown, at 6’1”. Even the weather seemed to be against the idea, as an ice storm had forced the cancellation of the previous game, scheduled for two weeks earlier.
I picked up these fun facts from a couple of Bellarmine history books: High Upon a Hill by Wade Hall and In Veritatis Amore, edited by Fr. Clyde Crews. The latter book includes a chapter on Bellarmine Athletics, written by history professor Bob Pfaadt, which includes this nugget describing how recruiting worked in 1950: “Coach Norb Raque put a notice on the bulletin board inviting students to try out for the team.” Note that Pfaadt wrote “the” bulletin board. Times have certainly changed: Who reads bulletin boards anymore?
After that first loss to St. Mary’s, the team suffered two more losses before finally notching its first win, a 67-36 shellacking of the Louisville Municipal College Bantams. Perhaps the Bellarmine lads, after starting the season 0-3, were taking out some frustration on the hapless Bantams.
Despite the rough start and the daunting challenges, the Knights gradually found their mojo. In 1953, athletics director Eddie Weber introduced tennis and golf and coached both sports (presumably not at once). In 1954, Bellarmine dedicated its new athletics fields and hosted a baseball game, a track meet and a tennis match on the same day. In 1955, Weber added cross country and track, and, just five years after that challenging start, Bellarmine was well on its way to building a complete athletics program.
In 1968, the school took arguably its most important step in athletics (and everything else) when it merged with Ursuline College. For many years, the women’s teams—the Bellarmine Belles—had the distinction of being the only women’s program in the country with a different mascot than the men’s. In the ’90s, the Belles became the Lady Knights and, later, the Knights.
Over the years, Bellarmine’s student-athletes have made impressive achievements, including national championships and numerous conference championships. Bellarmine has produced scores of All-American athletes. For a long time now, the Knights have fielded a premier athletics program. Starting in 2020, they will have the Roman numeral I to go with it.
Bellarmine athletes have done this while consistently meeting high academic expectations. For example, last year’s 416 student-athletes had a cumulative GPA of 3.28, with 48 of them earning perfect 4.0s in the spring semester. So, BU will fit right in alongside other DI powerhouses, like, you know, Stanford, Yale and Princeton.
As Bellarmine basketball player Ron Belton said in 1968, “Bellarmine expects you to give 100% on the court and 100% in class.”
As we go bravely into Division I, all Knights can take pride in this timeless quote from Fr. Henry B. Schuhmann, Bellarmine’s athletic director in 1954: “You know, there’s a lot of chicanery in collegiate sports, but we’ll have none of it. We could go out and buy a team right now, but we haven’t chiseled yet and we never will. The education of the athlete must come first.”
Maybe it’s not so much what Bellarmine can gain from Division I as what Division I can gain from Bellarmine.
Want to learn more about Bellarmine history? Fr. Crews’ Bellarmine history book, In Veritatis Amore, is available for purchase here: www.bellarmine.edu/in-veritatis-amore.
Jim Welp ’81 | firstname.lastname@example.org