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Our Rich History: Men’s basketball through history of Villa Madonna, Thomas More College/University

By Raymond G. Hebert, PhD
Thomas More University

Part 81 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971–2021

In the 1950s, just after Villa Madonna College (VMC) became a coeducational institution after World War II, its Men’s Basketball program grew impressively. By 1960, the VMC Rebels won the championship of the Kentucky Independent Athletic Conference (KIAC), and soon afterwards, sent two of its most outstanding players, Larry Staverman and Dan Tieman, to the professional ranks as members of the Cincinnati Royals, then a team in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Coach Charles ‘Charley’ Wolf (TMU Sports Information Office.

Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s history noted that, in 1945–1946, “the ratio of men to women was 1 to 4 but this changed rapidly within the next several years. In 1970–1971, the ratio was 3 men to 2 women.” (Saelinger, p. 27). With the growing number of male students, a need for more extracurriculars arose, including multiple competitive sports and intramurals. In 1947, for example, with the availability of the G.I. Bill for Veterans, “twenty-nine veterans enrolled at Villa Madonna College as freshmen.” (Saelinger, p. 28)

VMC’s first athletic “hire” was Gerald Orosz, a graduate of Notre Dame University, who not only could teach Biology but also Physical Education. “The first year he organized basketball and trained the men for intramural and intercollegiate games. A basketball program was inaugurated in 1947 but was dropped in 1951 as a result of the Korean War. The sport was resumed in 1954 (along with Golf)” (Saelinger, p. 29). This coincides with an unofficial “History of Thomas More College Men’s Basketball Team from 1950 to 1996,” that states in its Preface—while listing Jerry Orosz as the Coach from 1947 to 1951—that there are no extant records for those very early years: “There are records of a team existing, but no hard facts involving schedules or rosters seem to have been preserved” (Athletic Department compilation: “Thomas More Men’s Basketball 1950 to 1996, p. 1, TMU Archives). One interesting, related observation can be found in the first Press Guide ever, by Coach Orosz for the 1950–1951 season, where the players are referred to as “The Villains.” The Athletic Director that year was actually a History and Economics Professor named Rev. Anthony Deye, who later spent two terms as the Academic Dean (“Villa Madonna College/The Villains/ 1950–51 Basketball-for press and radio,” TMU Archives).

In the spring of 1948, Dean Rev. Thomas R. McCarty (1945–1949 was able to convince “the Dominican Fathers of Providence College in Rhode Island . . . to send Rev. Dennis C. Kane, O.P. to serve as a Counsellor.” It was noted that soon “his influence on the student body was remarkable (as) all found in him a friend, guide and counsellor.” Among other contributions, he accompanied the basketball team to the games in the early years of their ventures” (Saelinger, p. 30).

1955, the return to intercollegiate basketball after a three-year hiatus due to the Korean War. Front row (left to right): Stan Gish; Jim Weyer; Ralph Carr; Jim Wissman; Dick Hehman; Tom Bohmer. Standing (left to right): Coach Wolf; J. G. Thelen; Larry Staverman; Tom Dickman; Charlie Osterman; and Don Hamburg (Student Manager). (TMU Archives)

Conveniently for the college, the Rev. Joseph Z. Aud also arrived about the same time as Moderator of Student Activities and worked closely with Rev. Kane. While Rev. McCarty had been an excellent Dean and Chief Executive Administrator during a difficult time of transition, his general health was failing in the late 1940s. Bishop Mulloy “granted him a leave of absence in February 1949, and, without hesitation, appointed Rev. Joseph Z. Aud Acting Dean” (Saelinger, p. 31). In 1951, both Rev. Dennis Kane and Rev. Joseph Aud left VMC to enlist “in the Armed Forces for the Korean War” (Saelinger, p. 33). This was a great loss to VMC, as both men had made positive contributions to the extracurricular aspects of the campus, including athletics. As a result, “the college did not sponsor a team from 1951 to 1954 due to the Korean War” (Unofficial History 1950–1996, p. 1).

In 1954, VMC’s intercollegiate athletic program was revived. In that year, Charles Wolf assumed the position of Head Coach. The VMC Men’s Basketball Team soon began to assert itself. On April 30, 1954, the Kentucky Post reported that VMC’s three-year basketball hiatus due to the Korean War (1951–1954) had ended. President Rev. John Murphy announced that the college was ready to resume its athletic programs, beginning with Men’s Basketball—“with limited participation planned for 1954–1955 and a full-time program back in 1955–1956.” He added that this was at the recommendation of the faculty, the lay Board of Trustees and the Alumni Association and “it hardly need be said that the student council (led by Thomas Ries that year) has never ceased since 1951 to represent to the administration the desire of the students for renewing intercollegiate sports” (“Villa Madonna Plans Return to College Basketball Wars,” Kentucky Post, Friday, April 30, 1954, p. 10). It was this decision that would providentially bring Coach Charles Wolf to Villa Madonna College. He would have a lasting legacy.

A later article in the Kentucky Post that year gives us a glimpse of the future. In the first game after its three-year absence from the basketball scene, Charles Wolf’s “Rebels” (previously called the Villains) came within two points of the powerful Georgetown College Tigers before losing 74-72 (“Villa Five Shines in Losing Opener,” Kentucky Post, November 29, 1954, p. 2). This had not been anticipated but was prophetic of the later successes under Coach Wolf, leading up to the college’s membership in the Kentucky Independent College Association (KICA) in 1957, and championship in the 1959–1960 season. It was in the first full season of 1955–1956 that Coach Charles Wolf was also named Athletic Director and Head Baseball Coach, having played both sports at Notre Dame University and professional baseball in the minor leagues for several previous summers (“Wolf to Direct Sports at Villa,” Kentucky Post, June 16, 1955, p. 29). While at Villa Madonna College, Coach Wolf’s overall record was 81-67 (1954–1960).

Coach Wolf and his team, 1956. (TMU Archives)

Charles Wolf coached at VMC from 1954 until 1960. He deserves special recognition for not only being the first “real” Coach in the institution’s history but also because of what else he accomplished in the sport of basketball. His record was “81 wins and 67 losses over six seasons” but he had “two 19-win seasons in 1957 and 1960,” with that number of wins in a season remaining as a record until 1980–1981 when later Coach Jim Connor “led Thomas More to a record of 21-13.” In 1959–1960, Coach Wolf’s team won the KIAC Championship and advanced to the NAIA tournament in Kansas City, Missouri. That success became a steppingstone to his becoming the Head Coach of the Cincinnati Royals of the NBA in 1960 (Thomas More Hall of Fame Biography provided by Michael Pagano, Co-Sports Information Director, Thomas More University; hereafter to be referred to by the name of the player and “TMU Hall of Fame Bio”).

Les Stewart, an African-American student from Covington was the first minority athlete on an intercollegiate team at Villa Madonna College. He played basketball from 1959–1963, being one of the star players on Charley Wolf’s 1960 KIAC Championship Team. Les Stewart played in 32 games that year, and over his career, in 108 games averaging just under 12 points per game with 652 rebounds, a significant number for a 6-0 guard at 160 pounds. Sadly, when the VMC team traveled south, they sometimes experienced racism. For example, many restaurants would not serve Blacks at that time. So, in solidarity with their teammate, the players and Coach Wolf chose instead to eat ham sandwiches on their bus. Les Stewart graduated in 1963, the first Black student to earn a degree from VMC.

1960 KAIC championship trophy. Left to right: Rev. John Murphy, Ray Albrinck, Dave Kriege, and Coach Charley Wolf.(TMU Archives)

With the Cincinnati Royals, Coach Wolf inherited one of his greatest VMC stars (Larry Staverman) and wisely drafted Oscar Robertson to the Royals. Robertson (“the Big O”) is still regarded as one of the greatest to have ever played the game. After three seasons, Wolf left the Royals to coach the Detroit Pistons for three seasons before returning home to Northern Kentucky, where he will always be remembered as one of the “legends” of our university’s Men’s Basketball History. As an example of his character, his Press Guide biography for the 1958–1959 year concluded: “Charley Wolf is well known for his gentlemanly qualities both on the floor and off. He believes that character formation is essential in every athletic endeavor, and he conducts the team at all times with this objective” (“Press-Radio -TV-Guide, 1958–1959 Rebels”).

Meanwhile, two of the greatest players of the Wolf years were Larry Staverman and Jim Weyer. Staverman was the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the 1954–1955 season and Jim Weyer in the 1955–1956 season (Villa Madonna College Press Guide – Rebels 1956–1957, p. 15). Each was MVP twice in their four years together and, as noted by Joann Weyer, were inseparable on and off the court (Ray Hebert, conversation with Joann Weyer, the late Coach Jim Weyer’s wife, January 26, 2023).

Larry Staverman played basketball (and baseball) for VMC from 1954 to 1958 and, when he graduated, was the all-time leader in points with 1673 and rebounds with 1114. Through the years, he has been “one of only two players in school history with at least 1000 points and 1000 rebounds.” Beyond Villa Madonna College, he was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals and had a five–year playing career “with the Royals, Kansas City Steers, Chicago Zephyrs, Baltimore Bullets and Detroit Pistons, averaging 4.7 points and 3.8 rebounds.” Afterwards, his first coaching position was with the Indiana Pacers of the American Basketball Association (ABA) and later he also added a coaching stint with the New York Knicks in 1977–1978, posting an 18-27 season” (TMU Hall of Fame Bio, “Larry Staverman”).

Les Stewart, 1963. (TMU Archives)

Jim Weyer, meanwhile, ended his playing career with 1104 points (25th); 326 free throws (out of 528 attempts) (9th); 435 assists (3rd). As strong a player as he was, though, he is better known for having “coached the men’s basketball team for 19 years and the baseball team for 19 years, compiling 208 wins in basketball . . . and 144 in baseball – 348 combined wins in all (TMU Hall of Fame Bio, “Jim Weyer”). According to the 1959–1960 Press Guide, when Weyer was in his second season as Assistant Coach, it was added that he had “twice been named to the All-KIAC team and “held the team record for assists in a single game, season and career” (Villa Madonna College Basketball Press Guide 1959–1960, p. 4). Another leader on those late 1950s teams who later played a key role at Thomas More was Dave Kriege, who, after earning advanced degrees in Chemistry, helped to establish the Cooperative Education Program at Thomas More with Sr. Casimira Mueller, S.N.D.

Several years later, another Villa Madonna “Rebel” to have great success was Dan Tieman who, with 1454 points, was 8th in career scoring; 5th in career field goals made with 608; and in the top eight in every significant single season category. He earned the Most Valuable Player Award in 1959–1960, the year the team won the KIAC Championship. After college, Dan played for one season with the Cincinnati Royals before returning to VMC where he served as Assistant Coach under Jim Weyer for more than a decade. At the end of Tieman’s rookie year with the Royals, they decided to trim their numbers to 10 players and simultaneously to add Oscar Robertson’s former teammate, Ralph Davis, to the team’s roster, apparently leaving Tieman as the last player cut from the team (“Royal Rookie is Put on Waivers,” El Paso Herald-Post, January 15, 1963, p. 19). The Villa Madonna College Press Guide for 1968–1969 added that, after his four-year career at Villa Madonna College, Tieman still held “the record for most field goals in one season and in a career . . . was elected MVP twice” and, at that time, still “ranked as the second most prolific scorer in school history” (Thomas More College Press Guide, 1968–1969, p. 2).

In addition to Dan Tieman, the 1960 championship VMC team included Gerry Thelen, a 6-09 star, who upon graduation in 1961, was drafted in the 8th round (70th pick) in the NBA Draft by the Cincinnati Royals. However, Gerry Thelen chose another path, becoming a successful business owner and a multi-term member of the Board of Trustees at Thomas More.

Larry Staverman. (TMU Sports Information Office)

For many of the years in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, that followed until the Convocation Center was built on campus, it was not easy for Coach Jim Weyer with a 208-259 record in his 19 years (1960–1978) as Head Coach of Men’s Basketball nor for Coach Jim Connor (who coached from 1978–1990) with a career record in basketball of 133-235. In the late 1960s/early 1970s, for example, after withdrawing from the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (KIAC), the building of a schedule meant competing against major basketball powers nationally such as the University of Notre Dame, St. Bonaventure, Niagara and Xavier, among others. In one momentous Christmas Break Week, as an example, the game against Notre Dame was—for the Irish—sandwiched in between games against UCLA, coached by John Wooten and the University of Kentucky coached by Adolph Rupp, two of college basketball’s most legendary coaches. It is noteworthy that in two of those years, 1968–1969 and 1972–1973, the Rebels defeated Xavier University. The first of those teams won by 21 points and was led by John Wenderfer, Mike Ryan, Tom Saalfeld and Mike Dacey. In the December 8, 1971 game, the Thomas More team rallied in the second half to win a close game by only two points, 56-54. Ted Volpenhein, Bob Beck, and Craig Rishenberger led that team. For the first of those two games, the Cincinnati Post headline read “Thomas More Stuns” (All statistics and player information provided by Michael Pagano, Co-Sports Information Director, Thomas More University, and other information gleaned from conversations on January 26, 2023, with members of two teams, 1968–1969 and 1972–1973, being honored on campus).

Coach Jim Weyer. (TMU Sports Information Office)

From the late 1950s through the next 25+ years without a Convocation Center/Gymnasium on campus, the team practiced at an elementary school gymnasium (St. Benedict’s in Covington) and played its games mostly at Covington Catholic High School (with some games in other “neutral” gyms around Northern Kentucky). Undaunted, however, were the efforts of the Coaches and the Athletic Boosters, led by Roy and Pat Romes, Millie Faust, the Connor family, Marge and Dr. Robert O’Conner, and Don and Anita Schneider, who staffed the Friday Night Bingo games that raised funds for the building of a Convocation Center. Appropriately, it was named the Connor Convocation Center in honor of Coach Jim Connor. It was not until the early 1980s under Coach Connor (1980–1981) that his 21-13 season finally surpassed the two, 19-win seasons under Coach Charley Wolf in 1957 and 1960. That Connor-coached team (1980–1981) was led by Brian O’Conner, one of the leading scorers in Villa Madonna/Thomas More history, who was given strong consideration, after graduation, by the New York Knicks of the National Basketball Association. O’Conner, with 22.4 points per game and 11.4 rebounds per game averaged what would be a double/double in today’s vernacular, one of the most outstanding seasons in our university’s history. Other leaders of that team were Jim Fox, Dave Faust, Kurt Pohlgeers and Jim Nestheide.

Dan Tieman (TMU Sports Information Office)

Other Jim Connor players of note were Brian Clapp (1985–1989), the 6th all-time leading scorer, Dave Faust, who later became a well-known and successful Northern Kentucky high school coach (largely at St. Henry’s High School), and David Justice, who later had a successful Major League Baseball career with the Atlanta Braves (NL Rookie of the Year) and New York Yankees (Raymond Hebert, personal recollections). It was in 1967 that Villa Madonna College, soon to be Thomas More College, had “announced that it was withdrawing formally from membership in the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (KIAC). The reason given “after long and careful considerations” was that “it was not in the best interest of the college to be under the continuing obligation of playing a great majority of its athletic contests in one restricted geographical area” (Letter from Villa Madonna College Athletic Director [Jim Weyer] and Chairman, Faculty Athletic Committee [Rev. Louis B. Brinker] to the President of the KIAC, March 2, 1967, TMU Archives). Several letters from other KIAC Presidents to President Rev. John Murphy indicated that Villa Madonna/Thomas More would be missed.

Coach Jim Weyer and Assistant Coach Dan Tieman (TMU Archives)

Ironically, as an opposite development, later in the 2005–2006 school year, Thomas More College, as a Division III institution, joined the competitive President’s Athletic Conference which necessitated lengthy road trips into Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Also, of note just prior to those years, during the Presidency of Rev. William Cleves (1990s), there was a concern brought forward about the nickname “Rebels.” It had been firmly in place since the late 1950s. having followed “Villains” (1947–1951); and “Rampaging Rebels” in the early 1950s. President Cleves solicited suggestions internally and among the Alumni, some satisfied with the “Blue Rebels” used for a few short years in the early 1990s, but the clear favorite was the “Saints” which was accepted and has been in place ever since (TMU Archives and personal recollections).

Once returning to the NAIA ranks recently, however, there was a full circle move back into a conference that included many of the former KIAC institutions like Georgetown and Pikeville, among others. Coaches since the legendary Jim Connor’s retirement in 1990 have included: Larry Cox, 96-95 (1990–1998); Terry Connor, now Athletic Director, 64-146 (1998–2006); John Ellenwood, 33-48 (2006–2009); Jeff Rogers, 77-34 (2009–2013); Drew Cooper, 94-47 (2013–2018); and Justin Ray, 90-31 (excluding the current season) (2018–present). The all-time leading scorer in Villa Madonna College/Thomas More College/University history, by over 500 points (with 2605 points to Brian O’Conner’s 2078) was Rick Hughes who played under Coach Larry Cox (1992–1996) and later had a successful professional career for several teams abroad) (All statistics and player information provided by Michael Pagano, Co-Sports Information Director, Thomas More University).

Coach Jim Connor. (TMU Archives)

More recently, under current Head Coach Justin Ray, there has been an even greater rejuvenation of the men’s basketball program including a Fab Four finish in 2021–2022, with a one-point loss in those semifinals and a period during 2022–2023 when both the Lady Saints and the Men were simultaneously ranked #1 in the country (NAIA).

In what may be a surprise to many after the scoring legends Hughes and O’Conner, the third and fourth leading scorers have come recently in the Coach Ray years: Ryan Batte (2018–2022) at #3 with 1805 points and Reid Jolly (2019–present), still active and counting in 2023 with 1705 points at the end of 2022 (All statistics and player information provided by Michael Pagano, Co-Sports Information Director, Thomas More University). It is important to note that the success of both teams—and many other positive developments relating to geographical balance, as well as success in other sports—resulted in an institutional decision to move up to Division II for all intercollegiate sports, effective in 2023–2024 (All statistics and player information provided by Michael Pagano, Co-Sports Information Director, Thomas More University).

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu.

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If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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