While the presidency of Donald Cowan profoundly shaped the academic and social culture of the University of Dallas, it also changed the character of another aspect of campus life: athletics.
Prior to Cowan’s decision to devote more resources to academic and campus improvements around 1965, UD enjoyed an esteemed reputation among southwest schools, being labelled as not only the academic “Notre Dame of the Southwest”, but even the athletic “Notre Dame of the Southwest,” as an alumnus from that era remarked to Athletic Director Dick Strockbine.
While it is well known that UD’s athletes are here primarily to receive an education, the way in which Cowan’s decision was implemented caused a fundamental shift in the direction of the athletic department.
“The effect was, at that time, pretty devastating,” Strockbine said. “We had two very well known and respected coaches. The baseball program was moving well ahead and the rug was sort of pulled out from under us. Basketball was dropped. Baseball was cut back to such a small schedule that the coach said, ‘I’m out of here.’ So did a lot of players. Really I am not sure that we ever fully recovered, but we are now secure at being NCAA Division III.”
Regardless of the administrative changes, UD still has its share of athletic legends.
“Smitty Duke. There’s a guy who was affected by the cutting of baseball because his senior year was the first year they only got to play 13 or 14 games,” Strockbine said. “He had been an all-American and a great baseball player. For a guy with his athletic ability, when he left here he got into volleyball and was named by ‘Sports Illustrated’ after the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games as one of the six best volleyball players in the world. He is the only Olympian we’ve ever had.”
In terms of coaching, UD baseball and basketball has been guided by two legends in Texas collegiate athletics.
“Al Ogletree was the baseball coach, hired only a couple years out of college,” Strockbine said. “He left here to coach at Sul Ross University. He then left for Pan-American University, a Division I school. They went to the College World Series and at the time he retired he was the winningest coach in college baseball history.”
Ogletree is now in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
“Ed Messbarger was hired to coach basketball here, and when he left he went to St. Mary’s [University] in San Antonio and then eventually [to] Angelo State. He won over 600 games,” Strockbine said.
Messbarger would win NAIA Coach of the Year honors in 1974 before winning two Lone Star State titles at Angelo State University.
Shortly after Strockbine arrived in 1995, the state of UD athletics was not ideal but perhaps anecdotally telling of the state of the department.
“My office and the office next door used to be the weight room,” Strockbine said. “The cardio machines used to be in the hallway. The roof used to leak in the Maher center.Facilities used to put a bucket hanging from a crossbeam. Every couple days they went up and dumped the bucket. That was indicative of the state of UD athletics in 1996.”
Since then the situation has improved and Strockbine is confident the department is moving forward and is building off the success of the early 2000s.