Cardinals became reindeer and 'best team in the east' in 1920s

By Chris McManes

"Historic" is an adjective that is probably used too loosely. But in the case of the 2011-12 Catholic University men's basketball team, it is fitting.

The Cardinals have begun the season 10-0 for only the second time in school history. You have to go back nearly 85 years to find such success out of the blocks. CUA's 1927-28 team also conquered its first 10 opponents. They were known as the "Reindeer."

Former Cardinal Athletic Director Bob Talbot has read about how the players acquired the nickname, but he can't recall exactly. He thinks it's because they were especially fast at the time.

"I think they ran and jumped more than teams in that era," Talbot said.

Led by Fred Rice, the school's first basketball coach, the Reindeer from 1925-28 went 38-17 (.691). Forward Johnny Long, guard Ray Foley, center Jim Carney and guard Bill Harvey formed the nucleus of the team. The "Big Four" played together for four seasons, including their first year on the freshman team. In 1977 they became charter members of the CUA Athletic Hall of Fame.

Foley earned nine varsity letters in football, baseball and basketball and was a captain in each sport. After graduation, he played part of the 1928 baseball season with the National League's New York Giants. Hall of Famer Mel Ott was one of his teammates.

Renowned Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich wrote of Foley: "He is an argument in the flesh to prove that many an athlete has blossomed to bloom unseen by All-American experts."

Long, nicknamed "Bear," was the Cardinals' leading scorer as a sophomore in 1925-26 with 160 points on 67 field goals and 26 free throws. He tallied 21 points in a 51-26 win over West Virginia, 14 in a 47-27 loss at Penn State and 14 in a 49-23 victory over Gallaudet. The team finished 11-8. Long would later coach the Cards to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1944.

The Reindeer began the following season 6-1 when an 11-0 Fordham team arrived in Brookland. The Rams, one of the nation's top teams, were riding a 15-game winning streak. Behind Harvey's game-high 13 points, CUA handed the powerful New Yorkers a 31-23 defeat. The Rams finished 19-2. The 1926-27 Cardinals also ended American's 11-game win streak and handed CCNY its only home loss of the season, 13-12.

The Cards started 10-1 but lost four of their final seven – including a 37-21 loss at Fordham – to finish 13-5. In a 65-19 pounding of William & Mary, Foley collected 21 points and Long 20. The duo tied for season scoring honors with 173 points each, and Harvey tallied 151. Carney only scored 47 points, but his greatest asset was on defense. CUA's student newspaper, The Tower, on March 9, 1927, referred to him as "… the best defensive player in the district."

Reindeer's Final Ride

Carney was elected captain for the 1927-28 campaign and, as one of four senior starters returning, filled Rice with optimism. The Cardinals broke fast and won their first six games, all at home. They then went on the road and won at American and Davis & Elkins. Prior to its next game, with Duquesne, a Pittsburgh newspaper called the Cards, "… a team rated by an Eastern critic as the best college team in the east, if not the best in the country."

The visiting Dukes came in with a 5-2 ledger, would end 15-7 and had won four straight. The game was close throughout. Foley scored the final two baskets of the first 20 minutes to give CUA a 15-10 lead at halftime, an advantage it would not relinquish. Duquesne got to within two, 27-25, late in the contest before Harvey "sank a free try to ice the verdict," 28-25. Foley paced the victors with 12 points.

In the early days of basketball, a jump ball was held at center court after each made basket. It wasn't until 1938 that the non-scoring team took the ball out of bounds. Carney jumped center for the Cardinals and, despite not scoring against the Dukes, played a key role in the win.

"The defensive play and floor game of Captain Jim Carney was brilliant," according to The Tower's Feb. 1, 1928 edition. "Time and time again Carney broke up or blocked passes, and put his team on the offense during most of the game with his fine work on the tap off."

CUA made it 10 in a row by downing George Washington, 22-18. Its attempt to make it 11 straight ended at the hands of visiting Virginia, 29-28. The win was a payback of sorts for the Cavaliers, who 12 years earlier saw their 22-game unbeaten streak fall at home to the Cardinals.

The Cards prevailed in their next two games, at American and Navy, before losing all three tilts on their annual trip to New York. CUA (14-4) punctuated the season – and the Reindeer's career – with a 54-28 victory over Mount St. Mary's and a 52-19 demolition of host George Washington. The Cardinals played a "postseason" game in Long's hometown of Cumberland, Md., that did not count in the final standings. His 11 points paced the Cards to a 25-24 win over the Cumberland Knights of Columbus.

A pair of three-win seasons followed before Rice relinquished the reins of his program. In 19 years at the helm (1911-1930), he guided the Cardinals to 15 winning seasons. He had an overall record of 177-139 (.560) and was the winningest coach in CUA basketball history until Mike Lonergan passed him in 2001.

Rice posted his highest winning percentage in 1913-14 (.789) and won three South Atlantic championships. The program he built was one of the most successful and respected in all of college basketball.

Chris McManes is Catholic University's basketball historian. He wishes to acknowledge the CUA Archives staff for their valuable assistance.