We all know the Golden Hawks and the purple and gold. But over the years, the face of sports at Laurier has changed dramatically. The school’s athletic teams have gone from being part of a Lutheran seminary, to being known as the Mules, to one of the most respected university athletic programs in the nation.
Despite all the changes, something has remained constant. Whether it was Waterloo College, Waterloo Lutheran University or Wilfrid Laurier University, this institution has always been “the little school that could.”
And when it came to athletics this little school made a habit of knocking off the big guys.
The early years, 1911-1950
In its infantile stages, sports at the university weren’t much more expansive than the single building that made up the campus. Representing the Evangelical Lutheran Seminary of Canada, the earliest sports teams on campus were an eight-man hockey team, which played on outdoor rinks as early as 1917, and a men’s rugby team, which was created in 1922.
After the school became Waterloo College in 1924, new teams that joined in wearing the institution’s maroon and gold colours included men’s hockey, men’s basketball, track and field and men’s football.
These teams would play other colleges, but there were no real leagues or organization, it was merely students representing their school, whether it be playing hockey on an outdoor rink or football on the only on campus facility at the time, Seagram Field, which was located where Alumni Field is today.
While most aspects of these early sports teams are unrecognizable to the way they are today, one thing has remained the same since 1927. Two years after Waterloo College began its affiliation with the University of Western Ontario, the school decided to pick new colours. And to pay homage to the link with Western, purple replaced maroon to make purple and gold the official colours of Waterloo College, the one thing that would remain unchanged even to this day.
Underscoring the simple nature of sports during this era is the fact that the school teams didn’t even have a name. The teams were simply known as Waterloo College and wore purple and gold jerseys with a “W” in the middle. The school’s sports teams would remain nameless until 1951.
‘From Jackass to Bird of Prey,’ 1951-1962
After over 40 years of rooting for teams simply known as “Waterloo College,” in 1950 the students began to lobby for a real team name. Just as it was when the colours were decided, the school’s link to Western played a large role in the naming of Waterloo College’s sports teams.
In 1951, as a nod to Western’s Mustangs, Waterloo College’s sports officially became known as the Mules.
Initially the name only applied to the basketball team, but over the course of the decade it expanded to all the school’s teams, with the women’s volleyball team going by “Mulettes” and the hockey team taking on the name “Ice Mules.”
“We were called the mules because we were part of Western,” said current director of athletics and recreation Peter Baxter. “But a lot of people didn’t like the name because it was condescending. Some people used to call us the jackasses.”
The name would last until 1960, when the school became known as Waterloo Lutheran University. Prompted by an editorial in The Cord, the students began a campaign to change the name, partly because it was seen as derogatory, partly due to the argument that the school was no longer affiliated with Western, so the team name shouldn’t be either.
Amidst suggestions that included the Mongooses, the Astronauts and the Nomads, the favourite turned out to be “the Hawks,” with “Golden” being added to recognize the school’s colours.
On Jan. 16,1961, The Cord’s headline read: ‘From jackass to bird of prey’ and from then on, all sports at WLU were known as the Golden Hawks.
This time also saw changes for WLU sports, beyond the team name. In 1959, the Ontario Intercollegiate Athletics Association (OIAA) was formed and the Waterloo Lutheran found itself in a league competing against the likes of Ryerson, Laurentian and Osgoode Hall, a law school affiliated with York.
This period also saw the construction of Seagram Stadium – now known as University Stadium – in 1958. Though the Mules and later the Golden Hawks played at the stadium, they did not own it, thanks to then president of Waterloo College Dr. Gerry Hagey’s leaving to form the University of Waterloo (UW).
“The story is that when Dr. Hagey left to form the University of Waterloo, he took the keys to Seagram Stadium with him,” laughed David “Tuffy” Knight, who served as athletic director and a football and basketball coach during his time at WLU.
The stadium would trade hands between UW and the City of Waterloo until it became WLU property in 1992.
The Four West Virginians, 1963-1971
Between 1963 and 1970, WLU athletics would receive four of its most influential figures from one of the least likely places imaginable. In 1963, Fred Nichols came to the school as director of student services and two years later he hired Knight, his fraternity brother from tiny Fairmont State University in Fairmount, West Virginia.
“Tuffy agreed to come up in 1965 and that was when sports became sports at Waterloo Lutheran University,” said Nichols. “My part in all this was simply getting the right guys here to do it. Tuffy was the guy who was really instrumental in getting everything started and then two years later Rich Newbrough came up and as a team they really made things happen.”
Newbrough would join Knight’s staff in 1968, before basketball coach Don Smith rounded out the group in 1970.
Knight started at WLU as athletic director and basketball coach before taking over the football team in 1966. With Knight in charge, WLU’s sports teams enjoyed almost immediate success as 1966 saw the football team play in the College Bowl – which was equivalent to the Vanier Cup – and the basketball team win the first national championship in school history.
It was also during this time that Laurier’s now storied rivalry with Western really began to take shape.
Until 1971, Western, Queen’s, McGill and Toronto were known as the “Big Four” when it came to university football in Ontario. They played in their own league and it was generally considered that a small school like Waterloo Lutheran University didn’t belong amongst the likes of the lauded Western Mustangs.
“I really got sick of people saying ‘yeah you’re winning, but you’re not in the big league,’” said Knight. “They used to say, ‘well they’re the big schools, you can’t compete with Western and Queen’s and Toronto and McGill.’”
So in 1967, Knight wrote a letter to all of the “Big Four” asking to play an exhibition game against his Golden Hawks. Only Western head coach and athletics director J.P. Metras responded with a “yes” and the Golden Hawks travelled to London and beat the Mustangs, planting the seeds of the rivalry.
Four years later, those seeds would be cultivated as the leagues were re-arranged and Western, Queen’s and Toronto were moved into the same league as the rest of Ontario. The Hawks lost their first regular season meeting with the Mustangs 13-3, but the players and coaches could tell it was more than just a game.
“No one expected us to be able to compete with them, they were the Western Mustangs, and we almost got them,” said current manager of football operations and head coach Gary Jeffries, who was a player on that WLU team. “They were the big guy on the block and we were certainly the little guy and we’ll always want to knock them off. That’s how it started and it’s evolved and I think it’ll always be a really strong rivalry.”
Bringing WLU sports into the modern era, 1972-1997
Under Knight’s leadership, WLU’s sports teams began to thrive. The men’s basketball team won seven straight provincial championships from 1966-72, the men’s football team won three Yates Cups and the school that most had never even heard of was making a name for itself.
Despite all the improvements in the teams themselves, the facilities on campus left a lot to be desired.
Basketball and volleyball were played in the tiny, dim Theatre Auditorium, with students packed in, sitting on step ladders and metal chairs. The football team, meanwhile, practised on Willison Field (which was where Alumni Field is now) with their locker room being located in the basement of Willison Hall.
“It was hard as concrete, there was barely any grass on it,” said Jeffries of Willison Field. “On game days, we’d dress in the basement of Willison and we’d walk single file through campus, across Albert Street and over to the stadium.”
With athletic facilities lacking, in 1970 then-president Dr. Frank Peters asked Knight to sit on a committee that was to decide what the next building on campus would be. The three options were a business building, an athletic complex and a fine arts centre. It looked as though the fine arts centre would be built because it already had financial backing, however, according to Newbrough, then student union president Bill Ballard pledged to personally match the financing in favour of an athletic complex.
In order to sway things in favour of the athletic complex, Knight did a survey through The Cord, and the results spoke for themselves.
“I think it was something like 96 per cent wanted an athletic complex,” said Knight. “It wasn’t even a contest.”
The student survey combined with a report written by psychology professor Don Morgenson was enough to convince the board of governors and in 1973, the Laurier Athletic Complex was opened.
With their new, state-of-the-art facility, the now Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks continued to evolve. And in 1984, Newbrough continued that evolution when he took over as athletic director, particularly in women’s sports.
“Right at the outset I knew that we had to get serious about women’s athletics,” said Newbrough. “So the first thing I did was found $10,000 in the budget and turned it over to women’s athletics because they were severely under funded.”
Just a year later, the women’s curling team would win the first championship in the history of female sports at Laurier, taking the provincial title.
The women’s soccer team would then go on to win four straight provincial titles from 1989-93, bringing Laurier its first women’s national championship in school history in 1992.
When Newbrough took over as athletic director, he also became head football coach and in 1991 he would lead the Hawks to the first football national championship in school history, winning the Vanier Cup.
‘More than a football school’ 1998-2011
“When I was hired, we really were known as a football school,” said Baxter, who started at Laurier in 1998. “My mandate was to build the overall program. We wanted to raise the bar, not just in football, but in athletics overall.”
So Baxter, working with alumni, former president Bob Rosehart and then dean of students David MacMurray, went about building the overall athletic program, from intramurals to varsity sports. During this time, the Athletic Complex has seen two renovations, University Stadium was revitalized and Alumni Field was created to replace a decaying Willison Field.
As far as varsity sports, many of Laurier’s teams have exploded in recent years as 25 of the school’s 55 provincial championships and seven of its 11 national championships have been won in the past 12 years. This includes the dynasty that was the women’s lacrosse team, winning the six straight provincial titles and the perennially dominant women’s hockey team’s nine provincial wins as well as their 2005 national title.
Perhaps the highlight of the recent era was the 2005 Vanier Cup win, when Laurier – which is still the smallest football-playing school in Ontario – upset the Saskatchewan Huskies to claim the national championship.
What 100 years of athletics has meant
“Nobody around the country had ever heard of Waterloo Lutheran University or Waterloo College until Tuffy started playing the big teams,” was how Nichols described the role athletics has played in the development of the university.
Both in the athletic world and outside of it, the success of this school’s sports teams has raised its profile. From the time it was known as Waterloo College to the ’05 Vanier Cup win, athletics has given the university publicity it wouldn’t have been able to get any other way.
“We had a lot to do with putting the university on the map,” said Smith. “Look at it today, if you look at TV time, [the football team is] on for two or three hours, for a few games a year, you can’t purchase that amount of advertising.”
Whether it’s giving the school publicity or giving the students something to cheer for, athletics has been integral in the development of Laurier. The evolution of such a strong athletic program has given a constant to a school that has experienced so much change. And the result has become an athletic tradition that is among the best in Canada.
Justin Fauteux, The Cord Weekly (originally published January 7, 2011)