Sports, too, has lost friend with passing of Father Sellinger

Bill Tanton

April 21, 1993|By Bill Tanton

A giant died here Monday. He was the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger, 72, president of Loyola College.

If you're wondering what this has to do with sports the answer is: a lot. It especially has a lot to do with a sports event to be played tonight, a lacrosse game between Loyola and Johns Hopkins at Homewood.

Father Sellinger, in his 29th year as head of Loyola, was the longest tenured president at any Jesuit college or university in America.

I knew him for all that time and I can assure you he was active, involved, hands on. He was a presence.

During his presidency, Loyola's enrollment grew from 2,000 to 6,100. The college went coed and today has more women than men. Where once the all-male student body came mainly from Loyola High, Calvert Hall and Mount St. Joe, it now attracts students nationally.

Father Sellinger liked sports. He was aware of the impact they had on Loyola's image.

Four years ago, Loyola hired a basketball coach and I asked the then-athletic director, Dr. Thomas Brennan, if he had hired the man.

"Nothing gets done around this place," he said, "until it's OK'd by the man on the corner."

That was Father Sellinger, who lived and worked in the stone house on the northeast corner of Cold Spring Lane and Millbrook Road. That's where he died Monday of pancreatic cancer.

I saw him at Loyola games, of course, the last one a basketball game here with Fordham in February. He was so weak he could hardly hold his head up, but he was there, showing his support for the team.

I can picture him, tanned and happy and smiling, at Rutgers on Memorial Day, 1990, when Loyola played Syracuse for the NCAA Division I lacrosse championship, and lost, 21-9. He gave the team its pre-game pep talk.

Last spring, when Loyola's women's lacrosse team played No. 1 ranked Harvard, the Loyola coach, Diane Aikens, saw Father Sellinger approaching during the pre-game warmups.

"Diane, call the players over so I can talk to them," the president said. They gathered around and he told them:

"I don't ask you for much, but today I'm asking you for something. I want you to win this game for me."

And they did. They beat Harvard, 10-9, in overtime, the only time Loyola has ever beaten the No. 1 team.

Once in a great while I'd drop in on Father Sellinger. He would sit at his desk with his dog beside him and we'd chat. His perspective was wonderful.

"Our coaches tell me we have to admit exceptions," he told me when Loyola's men's basketball fortunes were sinking low about five years ago.

"I won't do anything to damage the academic integrity of the college, but the coaches say we have to admit exceptions if we're going to win because everybody else does.

"Well, we admitted one this year, a nice young man from the inner city. A Catholic boy, too. But he just didn't have the academic background to pass at Loyola College.

"This whole experience has been so frustrating for him. He's not passing his courses, although he's trying. He's not playing good basketball. He's not even going to Mass any more. And it's our fault. We put him through this."

A few years ago I asked him how long he intended to work. "Until we beat Johns Hopkins in lacrosse," he said.

When Loyola beat Hopkins in a fall tournament in 1989, I told him he could retire. "No," he said. "We have to do it in the spring."

Loyola and Hopkins haven't even met in lacrosse in the regular season since 1969. At that time, Hopkins was a power, Loyola an also-ran, and the series was discontinued.

But Dave Cottle, in 10 years as coach at Loyola, has built a top 10 program. Hopkins this week is No. 4 in The Baltimore Sun poll, Loyola No. 8. Toss a coin to pick tonight's winner.

Playing Hopkins and beating the Blue Jays was a big thing to Father Sellinger. As recently as a week ago people at Loyola talked of somehow getting him to the game.

Instead, there will be a moment of silence for him just before these two schools meet on the athletic field.

There was talk of postponing the game out of respect for his memory. But this is the way he would have wanted it. Play the game. He of all people knew that life had to go on.

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