Seattle University has a long and rich NCAA Division I athletics history that first flourished during the 1950’s with its men’s basketball teams and All-American’s Johnny and Eddie O’Brien, who lead Seattle U in becoming the only team in history to have defeated the world famous Harlem Globetrotters. Johnny O'Brien was the first collegiate player to score 1,000 in a season in 1952. In 1958, Hall of Fame inductee, Elgin Baylor, paced a men’s basketball team that advanced to the Final Four and defeated number one ranked (at that time) Kansas State University. In the national title game, with Baylor limited by a broken rib, Seattle U fell short to an Adolph Rupp led University of Kentucky squad. During this decade, Seattle University was a leader in the area of racial integration and diversity, commonly referred to at the “United Nations of college basketball.”
The success of men’s basketball, continued into to the 1960’s with outstanding players such as Eddie Miles, John Tresvant, Rod Derline, Clint Richardson, and Tom Workman, all of whom went on to successful NBA careers. In fact, during a period of time during the 1960’s no other NCAA institution produced more NBA players than did Seattle University. As depicted in the 2005 Disney Films movie, Glory Road, Seattle University handed the 1966 Don Haskins led Texas Western University squad its only defeat in an otherwise stellar championship season.
Seattle University certainly excelled in more than the hard-court during the 1950 and 1960’s as women’s tennis star Janet Hopps was the first female to be the no. 1 ranked player – for both the men’s and women’s nationally. In women’s golf, Pat Lesser, who was twice named to the Curtis Cup in the mid-1950’s, was inducted into the State of Washington Hall of Fame in 1999. In addition, more than 25 baseball players went on to play professionally in both the minor and major leagues. Men’s golf and a Tom Gorman led tennis team, also were very strong national programs. Gorman went on to lead the US Davis Cup team to unprecedented success – captained a record 18 match wins and one Davis Cup title (1972) as a player and two more Davis Cup championships as a coach (1990 and 1992).
After spending the greater part of three decades as a major Independent, the university joined the West Coast Conference in 1971, as the university athletics programs, particularly among its women’s teams, grew with the enactment of Title IX. During the 1970’s, men’s soccer became a firmly established program. Women’s basketball burst on the scene in 1978 and featured some of the university’s greatest players in Sue Stimac, Sue Turina and LaShanna White, who scored 2,530 career points. While the athletic programs were growing in numbers, the decade was a very turbulent time for the City of Seattle and for entire university; ultimately, these forces proved to be a painful crossroads for athletics.
In the early 1970’s the Boeing Aviation Company, the largest employer in the region at that time, suffered significant financial loses and was forced to lay off tens of thousands of workers. Economist and historians refer to the period as the “Boeing Bust,” and in the wake of its fallout, an astonishing 56,000 people moved out of the region during the mid to later part of the decade. Seattle University, which is in the heart of city in the First Hill and Capital Hill districts, suffered greatly from this dramatic downturn and mass exodus.
Facing local economic depression, declining enrollments, mounting financial pressures for athletics competitiveness and new gender equity legislation, the competing interest for discretionary spending and corporate sponsorship support with emergence of the NBA Seattle Supersonics franchise, and NCAA compliance legislation requirements intensifying, then University President Fr. William Sullivan made the difficult decision to preserve the institution by making several cuts across the academy, including the de-emphasis of all athletics programs. With this de-emphasis came the university’s departure from the West Coast Conference and Division I membership as the university entered the NAIA, where it remained for nearly 20 years. The move marked a new chapter in Seattle U athletics.
Led by long-time coach, Peter Fewing, the men’s soccer team captured the university’s first national title winning the 1997 NAIA championship. Current men’s and women’s swimming coach, Craig Mallery, next led the men’s swimming team in claiming the NAIA national title in 2002. During this time, the university, which had dropped baseball and tennis in 1980, added back men’s and women’s tennis, which went on to win numerous district titles.
In the late 1990’s, current University President, Fr. Stephen Sundborg, restored the university’s NCAA membership by moving most of the programs into Division III for one year and then all programs to Division II in fall of 2002. In short order, another Fewing squad led by All-American and National Player of the Year, Bobby McAllister, claimed a university first NCAA team title by winning the 2004 Division II national championship. In 2005, four-time All-American (as well as Academic All-American), Chris Coley became the first individual NCAA national champion. He captured the Division II men’s swimming 100 butterfly title. Since 2004, Seattle U has had 12 All-Americans, and five Academic All-Americans.
Today, the Seattle economic and media market is one of the strongest in the United States, ranking 13th in 2006. With Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon and Starbucks leading way, the city and region has rebounding in outstanding fashion, and so has the university in terms of enrollment, endowments (ranked 248 out of 760 institutions by the Chronicle of Higher Education 2006) and academic reputation as the university is listed among “America’s Best Colleges” as well as a top ten Master’s Degree granting institution in the west region (US News and World Report 2007 rankings).