The Harding Era 1926-1940
The Aquinas in a "history of sports at the college" article written in 1939 states that "Although they played basketball many years before, the first organized basketball team took the court in 1926." Jack Harding had been hired to revamp the school's athletic programs. He assumed coaching duties for both football and basketball. Most notably he eliminated high school teams from the schedule and had St. Thomas play comparably sized colleges. St. Thomas now truly had a collegiate sports program.
The 1926-1927 season started with a convincing St. Thomas defeat of Alfred University by the score of 42 to 22. St. Thomas followed that with three more victories and little opposition, out scoring their opponents 172 to 97. The Aquinas acclaimed the team as developing into the "Fastest team ever produced in Northeastern Pennsylvania...." St. Thomas Next Defeated Manhattan College by the score of 37-21. Manhattan had previously defeated Fordham, NYU, and Holy Cross and the Aquinas noted that this made St. Thomas one of the best teams in the East. Unfortunately, the Tommies lost a squeaker to St. Bonaventure 36-34 but rebounded with an even closer 34-33 victory over Villanova, in spite of a lack of enthusiasm on part of the St. Thomas fans. They ended the season with three more victories and finished the year with a record of nine victories and one defeat with that defeat occurring by only two points, and after losing two starters to injury in the previous game. St. Thomas outscored their opponents 420-284.
The 1927-1928 season started with two regulars being temporarily removed from the lineup because of health reasons before the season and an opening loss to Western Maryland, followed by a victory against Bloomsburg State Teachers College. The Tommies then lost the next two games, including a rematch against Bloomsburg where the Aquinas hinted that the referee might have ended the game a second too early before a St. Thomas player scored the winning shot. St. Thomas then went on to win all but one of the remainder of its games for a 10-4 record. The Tommies did have another strange experience on the court. During a return match against Schuylkill College, who the Tommies had defeated decisively at home, the local Reading referee apparently did his best to throw the game to the "Pretzeltowners." According to the Aquinas, "His officiating throughout the struggle was so rank that at times it appeared as though you had to bleed from the mouth to draw a foul."
After the game, Schuylkill canceled athletic relations with St. Thomas claiming a lack of sportsmanship by the Tommies. The Aquinas labeled this "perhaps the biggest farce ever to occur in intercollegiate circles...." St. Thomas outscored their opponents 604-416.
There were 16 scheduled games in the 1928-1929 season, which opened on 15 December with a victory against Dartmouth. Harding had quickly established St. Thomas as a college who would face nationally ranked competition. The Aquinas believed that his policy would "cause the home team to enter the fray with a determination and spirit that will be difficult to dominate" and that this has "elevated the standard of St. Thomas College athletics to heights hitherto unknown." The Tommies then defeated Providence College, Alfred University, Mount St. Mary's, Seton Hall, and the United States Coast Guard, before losing to Canisius, St. Bonaventure, St. John's of Brooklyn, Fordham, and St. Bonaventure again, with only a victory over East Stroudsburg in the midst of the losing streak. Harding revamped the team's lineup which helped win a rematch against Canisius. Unfortunately, the good luck failed to hold and the Tommies lost two more games before ending the season with a victory against Villanova for a 9-7 record. The Tommies outscored their opponents 491-482. The Tommies played, and lost, a courtesy postseason game to Rider College, 26-21. The game was arranged because one of the Rider players, Lou Zara of Old Forge was trailing Charlie Hyatt of the University Pittsburgh for individual scoring honors in the East. Consequently, local fans wanted a chance to see the local hero. Unfortunately for the local fans, the Tommies held Zara to only four points. Sports reporting for the Aquinas was handled by Joseph Polakoff who went on to build a lengthy career as a prominent Washington based journalist.
Harding set up a 19 game schedule for the 1930 season starting with a game against Georgia Tech. The Tommies defeated the visiting squad 39-36 and won their next two games before losing a low scoring contest to Mount St. Mary's 19-14. The team recovered with five victories in a row before losing another close low scoring game to St. John's Brooklyn 26-25. From there on the Tommies would win a game and then lose a game for the next few weeks. Unfortunately the Tommies then went into a losing streak which lasted until the last game of the season. St. Thomas finished the season with 12 wins and seven losses and outscored their opponents 605-518.
The 1931-1932 season featured 15 games, but with only three games scheduled away. The Aquinas looked forward to a season of "unparalleled success" because the St. Thomas team was a veteran squad and even though they lost four starters, they were replaced by mostly experienced men. Unfortunately, the expectations were dashed. The Tommies totally destroyed the South Jersey Law School by a score of 50-15 but then the Tommies were convincingly defeated by Geneva College 40-18 and then lost to an American Legion All-Star Collegiate team. But the Tommies turned the season around by winning their next six games before losing a match to St. John's Brooklyn. But the Tommies came back to defeat Temple and finished the season with two more wins to complete a 14-3 season.
In November 1932, St. Thomas College announced that Joe Zinder, a Nanticoke resident and former Tommie basketball guard and captain of the 1931 team, had been appointed head coach, succeeding Jack Harding. Harding was still coaching the football team and supervising the athletic program, however. The 18 game schedule featured 13 home games. The season opened with an away loss against powerful City College of New York. The Tommies beat Muhlenberg in the opening home game. The gain also featured post game dancing furnished by the St. Thomas orchestra. The Aquinas opined that "a great number of students are expected to take advantage of the special rates for the female sex." Furthermore, the Tommies won their next four games before losing to East Stroudsburg away, beating Canisius away, and losing to Seton Hall at home. The Aquinas complained that "student support of the team has been almost entirely lacking" even though the Tommies were having a successful season and were playing competitively, even when they lost. The team continued winning more games than they lost but dropped a couple games late in the season and finished with an 11-7 season. The Tomcats outscored their opponents 649-585.
The 1933-1934 schedule opened with City College of New York visiting Scranton for the first time, and defeating the Tommies 40-35 in what the Aquinas called "one of the most bitterly contested games never witnessed...." Harding had resumed coaching duties and his team rebounded with a close victory over Westminster College and then a convincing victory over Geneva College, followed by four more victories before suffering consecutive defeats to East Stroudsburg and Lasalle. The team then concluded the season by winning four of its last five games to end the season 11-4. The Aquinas acclaimed this to be the greatest team in St. Thomas College history.
The Aquinas was pessimistic about the 1934-1935 season. The team would only have two starters returning and there were no outstanding undergraduates ready to take the open places. The Aquinas suggested that the team would be lucky to break even during the season, particularly because the team would be facing "undoubtedly the hardest [schedule] they have ever faced." The team started off the year living down to expectations by being overwhelmed by Long Island 61-22 and then losing to City College. But the Tommies broke the losing streak by defeating Catholic University 34-33 in their home opener. The Tommies then lost to Geneva but defeated Wheaton, St. Peter's College, and the Penn A.C. team twice. But in the meantime, the future of basketball at St. Thomas College became the subject of a debate and a poll. Attendance at the games had been dismal all season. Frank O'Hara stated "that unless the students manifest increased and immediate interest, St. Thomas will have no basketball team next season." Although the student body numbered more than 600, only an average of 83 students attended each home game. The Aquinas included a ballot asking students if they were in favor of intercollegiate basketball, why they did not attend the games, and would they support the games if the sport was continued. The ballot received 281 votes and all were in favor of retaining basketball. But the students complained that the extra fee of 25 cents per game, which was added on top of the yearly athletic assessment of $15.00, was too much money. Furthermore, the games were played far enough off-campus to be inconvenient. The college decided that they would attempt to abolish the extra fee and Frank O'Hara, graduate manager of athletics, stated that "St. Thomas will have a basketball squad again next year." However, he also stated that the team could not operate with financial losses. Apparently, the college hired an orchestra to play dance music after the games and this increased costs. The college already had to rent the hall, furnish police and fire protection, as well as pay for uniforms. O'Hara commented "If enough students with musical talent will interest themselves enough to form an orchestra and play gratis after the games, then and only then, will we be able to drop the quarter charge. Under no circumstances are we considering the abolition of admission prices for girls at these contests; it is not for them that the games are primarily staged." The 1934-1935 season continued with a very strange game. The Tommies were leading John Marshall College 33-29 and a major fight broke out. The game had a number of small fights throughout the first half. According to the Aquinas, the John Marshall squad played rough the entire game and had been called repeatedly for fouls. The Aquinas contended that the John Marshall team was under a great deal of pressure to go undefeated in order to get into a "big money game" at Madison Square Garden against Long Island University. But the referees decided to end the game when the major brawl began and blamed John Marshall. Unfortunately for John Marshall, they had to forfeit the game and St. Thomas officially won 2-0. The Tommies completed their difficult and confusing season with a 9-5 record amassing 514 points against 493 for their opponents.
Harding continued to build the Tommies reputation by designing more challenging schedules every year. He also expanded the team's geographic reach by adding additional out-of-state rivals like Roanoke College, Youngstown of Ohio, and Oglethorpe College of Georgia for the 1935-1936 season. Although St. Thomas College was playing teams from more distant parts of the country, they were usually playing them at home. In keeping with the decision of last year, the college was still hoping to drop the 25 cent fee necessary to hire a local orchestra to play after the games, if the college could provide its own student orchestra. In any case, there was still a month of Advent, during which there would be no dances, for the situation to get decided. The season started with a convincing Purple Tide victory over Roanoke College, 40-21. But the team then lost two consecutive games before rebounding against Davis-Elkins. Attendance had picked up for the early games and a college band had been formed. But then the team went on a six game winning streak before losing an away game to Long Island University for which hundreds of Tommy faithful traveled to the Big Apple. The team finished the season with a victory over Canisius ending the season with 13 victories and five losses.
The 1936-1937 season opened the with resounding 42-23 victory over Seton Hall, who was back on the schedule for the first time since 1932-1933. The "new reorganized" college orchestra entertained after the game with a two-hour program of dance music. Students were charged the "usual" 25 cents, with general admission for non-students costing 50 cents. Unfortunately of the team lost two out of its next three games during the holiday season. The Tommies were defeated by Illinois Wesleyan and Nebraska but defeated Marshall College. Controversy concerning the games continued. The Aquinas wondered why "girls are admitted to basketball games for 10 cents when students are charged 25 cents...." Furthermore, the Aquinas complained that the orchestra was only providing 45 minutes to an hour of dancing, instead of the advertised two hours. The team then began a win one, lose one routine for the next few weeks but then received a major shock. Harding announced that he was leaving St. Thomas to take up coaching duties at Miami University at the end of the season. Harding had taken the St. Thomas athletic program from the days when it played high school and college freshman teams to the point where the Tommies were playing sports teams that were national contenders. Unfortunately, the news was not sufficient to spur the Tommies on to victory against one of their premier rivals, Long Island University. In fact, the Tommies went on a road losing streak being defeated by Penn A.C. and Lasalle. The Tommies then lost the season finale at home to Canisius. The Tommies finished with eight victory and nine loss record. As the school year ended a new basketball coach had not yet been selected.