- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

Back in the mid-1960s, a standing gag at the Catholic University of America was that basketball coach Tom Young occasionally fibbed when recruiting players from out of town.

Young was much too smart to let prospects eyeball the school’s dilapidated Memorial Gym, built in the ‘20s and seating perhaps a thousand thin people. As the story goes, he drove them instead past the magnificent, blue-domed Shrine of the Immaculate Conception next door and solemnly intoned, “That’s where we play.”

The point is that Catholic U., located off Michigan Avenue in the Brookland area of Northeast, was and is strictly small-time athletically speaking. Local guy Bob Talbot, who has filled various athletic and academic roles during nearly half a century at his alma mater, knows all the frustrations and rewards of competing at the NCAA’s Division III level. But when he retires as a full-time employee this week, Talbot can and should take pride in his accomplishments.

“You come to accept the limitations of a Division III program,” Talbot, 67, said over lunch last week. “We can’t give [athletic] scholarships, and we know we aren’t going to get much attention unless maybe we win an NCAA championship. Very few of our people play beyond college, but I still think small-college athletics are the purest athletics. That’s where you find the true student-athlete philosophy — the way all college sports were 50 years ago.”

Well, maybe 100 years ago, when Yale, Harvard and Princeton were football powers and nobody really cared much about college hoops except those pitching leather balls at peach baskets.

Revenue from football and men’s basketball support many other activities at Division I schools. And as everybody this side of Bob Huggins knows, abuses abound no matter how carefully the universities themselves and the NCAA try to police matters. Often it appears doubtful that some jocks who can dash across goal lines or dunk basketballs with the greatest of ease could pass courses in elementary school, much less college, no matter how many “academic advisers” are on the job.

The operative word here is “hypocrisy” — one Bob Talbot refuses to use “because I’ve never worked at the Division I level.” Yet in his own area, he’s as knowledgeable as anyone after laboring in a D-III vineyard since moving from the District’s St. John’s High School to Catholic in 1956.

Captain of the Cardinals’ basketball and baseball teams. Freshman basketball coach (under the aforementioned Tom Young, among others). Head baseball coach. Dean of admissions. Athletic director. Director of the Capital Campaign to raise funds for athletic improvements — a job he plans to continue indefinitely on a part-time basis.

No wonder more than a few people think Bob Talbot is Catholic University, or at least co-holder of that distinction with legendary equipment manager Fran Murray.

At least one of Talbot’s career moves qualifies as startling. Dean of admissions to athletic director? Wasn’t that a step backward in the pecking order in the only national university established and maintained by the U.S. Catholic bishops.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Talbot said, “but the provost, Sister Rosemary Donley, came to me [in 1992] and said, ‘The athletic department is a mess — could you go over there and straighten things out?’ My university needed me, so what could I do?”

What he did was indeed straighten things out, just as Sister requested. His coaching hires included Mike Lonergan, who directed the Cardinals to eight straight NCAA basketball tournaments and a Division III national championship in 2001, and Tom Clark, who got the football team into three consecutive NCAA Division III playoffs.

“Those accomplishments were really great for the school, but they belonged to Mike [now basketball coach at Division I Vermont] and Tom,” Talbot said. “I guess the one I remember most is when my first baseball team made the Eastern Region tournament in 1977. That was a hands-on thrill for me — and the team that finally beat us in the quarterfinals, Temple, went on to the College World Series.”

Though he has never gotten rich or famous in college sports, Talbot has been amply rewarded by those who have seen his work up close. He’s already a member of the St. John’s High and Catholic U. halls of fame, and this fall the university will bestow its highest honor, the President’s Medal.

That’s not a bad resume for a guy who never sampled the glory and fame of so-called “big-time” college athletics. Come to think of it, maybe Bob Talbot is fortunate in more ways than one.

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