“If you see charity, you see the Trinity.” - Augustine, De trinitate ('On The Trinity' VIII. 8. 12.
If I were to use the word ‘overwhelming’ to describe my initial reaction to seeing, and experiencing, the cavernous and never-ending interior of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in downtown Providence that unusually lukewarm Tuesday evening, I would not be deceiving the reader. As I explored the confines of the Center, I astutely observed the bold, commercialized promotion of the ‘hometown’ team, the hosting Providence College Friars, who were to play the Crusaders of the College of the Holy Cross that same evening. Being my first adventure into the Center, I spent a sizable number of minutes meandering from the entrance to my ticketed seat, which provided a thankful view of the court. The host team’s band played a surprisingly nice piece as I nestled into my spot.
What caught my attention once I began to curiously scan the court - the phrase, ‘Dave Gavitt Court’ - caused me to ponder some thoughts.
The early fifth-century Holy Church produced arguably the most influential patristical writer it has known as of yet. Augustine, sometimes called the ‘Doctor of the Church,’ is deemed as such for his generously-detailed expositions on such theological topics as free will, predestination, and polemics. In the early half of the 390s, while Augustine was still the bishop of his hometown church in Hippo (modern-day Annaba, in Algeria), he wrote a concise exposition of the Nicaean Creed called ‘Faith and the Creed.’ In short, he addresses, line-by-line, the Creed, which covers such topics as the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of Christ, and the omnipotence of God. Towards the end of the text, he essentially calls for his Christian brothers to look to their common faith to bind them, no matter their differences in doctrine, so long as their views are orthodox.
The recollection of the patristic father Augustine could be seen as relevant when one considers one of the most profound differences between the rival colleges I saw play the game of basketball that night. While Holy Cross was founded by the Society of Jesus Order of the Catholic Church, Providence was established by the Dominican Order. While the former was founded to rejuvenate the missionary of the Catholic church in light of the ‘medieval’ age of exploration, the latter was founded by a theologian as a way to enhance the faith of the believer with a profound and strong foundation in academia to defend Christianity against heretics. One could also see a similar contrast between the former coaches Joe Mullaney, a basketball traditionalist, and Dave Gavitt, a basketball progressive.
Mr. Mullaney was on the roster of the 1947 Holy Cross team, which was rightly crowned by the N.C.A.A. as the national champion. Mr. Mullaney would play for the Crusaders for two more seasons, then be drafted by the Boston Celtics in the 1949 N.B.A. draft. Even after Mr. Mullaney left, and throughout the 1950s, Holy Cross was seen as a national powerhouse in the sport. Meanwhile, Providence had yet to emerge onto the national scene as its purple-clad New England rival had done.
Although the first ten minutes of the first half of the game was closely contested, with no team clearly distinguishing itself with a surmountable lead that could not be doubted, the Crusaders held the lead more often than not. With twelve minutes yet to be played before the half-time, Holy Cross held a three-point lead after guard Justin Burrell hit a three-point shot to cap a 5-0 Crusaders run.
Then, the host team turned on its engines, so to speak.
Mr. Mullaney took over as the head coach of the Providence Friars for the 1956 season. Under the tutelage of the Holy Cross alumnus, the Friars won National Invitational Titles and he subsequently coached ranked Friars teams. Yet, the series with Holy Cross during this time was even, with Providence holding an eight-to-six edge in head-to-head wins.
Even though the Crusaders were still very much in the match, the Friars limited their mistakes, began to block shots, and relied on their athleticism to at least keep the rival Crusaders from taking the game away. The increased intensity of the Friars could most obviously be seen at the under-five-minute mark of the first half, when Providence began to defend with a full-court press in an attempt to intimidate the able back-court of the boys of Worcester. By half-time, the tally was Providence 47, Holy Cross 38. Although one could be tempted to conclude that the hosting Friars were in the midst of a run that would permanently prevent the Crusaders from having a chance to win the game, another half of a game in which absolutely anything may ensue had yet to unfold.
The protégé of Mr. Mullaney, Mr. Dave Gavitt, who was an alumnus of Dartmouth College, assumed the head coaching job of the Friars for the 1970 season. The man from Hanover oversaw a number of editions of Friars that temporarily turned the rivalry with the Crusaders upside-down; during Mr. Gavitt’s tenure, Providence finished with ten victories to six by the Crusaders, and the momentum definitely favored the Friars. The 1973 N.C.A.A. national semi-final berth by the Friars seemed to be the final nail hit into the coffin that was, and is, the classic New England rivalry.
The onset of the second half of the match was bleak for my outlook on the anticipated game. The Friars would lead the Crusaders by as many as thirteen points by the under-ten-minutes mark of the second and final half. Although the majority of the crowd salivated at the sight of the flashiness of the occasional dunk by a member of the Providence Friars, I frankly kept contemplating whether the Friars had a sense of humility within them at all.
Unfortunately for the satisfied home crowd, the game, and the rivalry, certainly was far from certain.
As the stint of Mr. Gavitt as the head coach of the Providence Friars was winding down, the Holy Cross Crusaders inexplicably invigorated themselves. The 1977 Crusaders began the season 12-1, but were not ranked by the Associated Press during that season due to losses suffered during inconvenient stretches of the season. On 5 March 1977, the rivals played a crucial game in the Hartford Civic Center. The winner would be granted an automatic berth to the N.C.A.A. Tournament. The unranked Holy Cross Crusaders (22-5) defeated the eighth-ranked Providence Friars by the tally of 68-67. Although Providence would be mercifully granted an at-large berth into the 1977 N.C.A.A. Tournament, the real story was Holy Cross nearly defeating top-ranked Michigan in its first-round match. Holy Cross had shown its rival that it was not irrelevant or dead.
Between the twelve-minute-mark and the six-minute-mark, the Crusaders stunned the crowd - much to my delight - by racing to a nearly unfathomable 16-3 run to tie the game, which appeared to be over, particularly to the Friars fanatics. A one-handed dunk by Crusaders forward R.J. Evans emphatically announced to everyone involved that the game was not over, that the match was far from concluded. His Holy Cross Crusaders were not to be taken lightly, and they had an ancient rivalry to honor. After all, he seemed to proclaim to the hostile crowd, the wings of the Eagles of Chestnut Hill had been clipped by this same team.
The Friars comprehended the message, and responded accordingly.
The 1978 season served as an omen for the rivalry. Fourteenth-ranked Holy Cross, which began the season at 11-1 entering a game at twelfth-ranked Providence on 10 January, would be blasted by the Friars by a unexpectedly lopsided score of 90-64. The rivalry would not be the same after that fatal game. While the Crusaders eventually fell entirely from the poll, the Friars lingered in the poll, daring to ascend it. A re-match later that season, which the Friars also won, merely affirmed what could be seen as inevitable in hindsight, that is the turning state of the rivalry.
A few mistakes by the Crusaders of Holy Cross in the final minutes of the game that night led to enough points scored by the Friars to allow them to unfortunately win the game by a final tally of 82-77. The phrase ‘Friars win!’ beamed from an overhead screen. As the game completed, I arose, then stood still for a moment. Nothing short of offering applause for the valiant Crusaders could be offered by me.
Yet, I still needed closure, pertinently with the stinging loss.
Mr. Gavitt, after coaching the 1979 Providence Friars, helped spearhead the talks that would lead to his being the architect of the Big East Conference. While the Crusaders struggled to find success throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Friars emerged from a few years of adjustment to its new conference to be successful, while dominating its rivalry with Holy Cross during the two decades in question. After Providence helped charter the Big East, and the Friars tried to adjust to the move, Mr. Mullaney again assumed the head coaching job. Despite the diversion between the programs at Holy Cross and Providence, the series was surprisingly even until the 1985 season, when Mr. Mullaney resigned. Although Providence held the edge in wins over Holy Cross, the sum differential was merely five points in favor of the Friars.
Augustine called for his Christian brothers to use charity to look beyond differences in doctrine to find the commonality in their spiritual convictions. For the Holy Cross program, in light of the decision to decline its invitation to help charter the Big East Conference, the doctrinal preference is to ensure that academics are always prioritized over athletics. For the Providence Friars program, perhaps influenced by Mr. Gavitt, the doctrinal preference is to tolerate at least an equating of academic and athletic success, maybe even an allowance of the latter to the former. Mr. Mullaney, the Crusader of old, found great success playing for his alma mater and his first of two occasions coaching the Friars. It is interesting that he struggled to successfully coach the Friars after Providence made the leap to charter the Big East Conference, and that the rivalry with Holy Cross was quite even. But it was Mr. Gavitt, who had no affiliation with Holy Cross, who “understood that the future of college basketball was super-conferences and lucrative national television contracts (Coren 87).”
The traditionalist mindset of Mr. Mullaney, compared to the progressive viewpoint of Mr. Gavitt, are certainly doctrinal differences in the orthodox ‘creed’ of managing an athletics program as an honorable extension of the mission of a given institution. However, neither are heretical, that is both the traditionalist and progressive ways are valid. Likewise, the programs of Holy Cross and Providence could be perceived as doctrinally different in perceiving what ought to be prioritized in light of what exactly ought to be sought for success. Similarly, the Society of Jesus Order has an understanding of its religious faith that differs from the Dominican Order. In all these cases, the charity of Augustine can be looked to for a harmonious and orthodox existence that benefits all involved.
The young adult with the purple tie that paced from the Dunkin’ Donuts Center that evening may use charity to compassionately accept the view of the program represented by the white-clad, home-town team. However, he chooses to accept the traditionalist mindset the purple-donning program of Worcester embraces and promotes. Yet, he knows not who shall gain the ‘upper hand’ in that ancient New England rivalry next. All he can do is wait with anticipation, allow history to continue to unfold as it always has done, and hope the ensuing momentum favors the valiant Crusaders.
“Unless the Christian faith gather men together into a society in which brotherly love can operate, it remains less fruitful. Hence we believe [in] the Holy Church, that is to say, the Catholic Church.... for the Church loves its neighbour, and easily forgives his sins because it prays to be forgiven by him who has reconciled us to himself, blotting out all past transgressions and calling us to new life.” - Augustine, Faith and the Creed x, 21. (LCC, 366.)
Author’s Note: This article is meant to conclude a two-part arc on Holy Cross and its ancient New England rivalries. He promises something quite refreshing with his next submitted piece.