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A History of Washington and Lee Athletics

Washington and Lee University has a rich athletics tradition.  Athletic competition at W&L dates back to the late 1800’s with a pair of firsts.  In November of 1873, Washington and Lee met neighboring Virginia Military Institute in the first intercollegiate football game in the South.  The Generals emerged victorious, 4-2, on VMI’s parade ground.  However, today, the game is not recognized as an official athletic contest because there were no other teams on the schedule and each team featured 25 or so players on the field.  The University officially recognizes games only from 1890.

Washington and Lee is credited with an intercollegiate first in baseball. On May 20, 1878, George Augustus Sykes of W&L used the first curveball thrown in intercollegiate baseball to defeat the University of Virginia by a score of 12-0.  Stunned by the new pitch, 16 Cavaliers struck out and Virginia refused to play the Generals the next year.  The series resumed in 1880.  This time, Virginia had a curveball pitcher of their own.  However, baseball is also only officially recognized since the 1907 season as is men’s basketball.

On February 25, 1921, Washington and Lee became a charter member of the Southern Conference along with Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Tennessee, Virginia and Virginia Tech.  The conference competed in the University Division of the NCAA which is now known as Division I and each of the other charter members still compete as BCS football institutions. 

Competition began in the fall of 1921 and Washington and Lee held its own against the much larger schools, winning two Southern Conference football championships (1934, 1950) and finishing as the regular-season champs on three other occasions.   The Generals sent several players into the NFL including Bill Chipley, Brian Bell, Mike Boyda and Walt Michaels.  Michaels went on to coach the New York Jets.

W&L also claimed the first Southern Conference indoor track championship in 1930 and took home two SoCon championships in Golf (1934, 1955), two in basketball (1934, 1937), four in swimming (1935-1938), and seven in wrestling (1933, 1934, 1936, 1941, 1948, 1949, 1950).  Individually, W&L athletes won 12 SoCon indoor track championships, eight outdoor track championships, 37 wrestling championships, 29 swimming championships and one golf championship.

Perhaps the best team in the history of Washington and Lee’s athletic history was the 1950 football team that amassed an 8-3 overall record, and won the Southern Conference with a perfect 6-0 mark in league play. The Generals were led by quarterback Gil Bocetti and fullback Walt Michaels and posted regular seasson wins over such teams as West Virginia (26-7), Virginia Tech (25-7), Louisville (33-28), and Richmond (67-7).  W&L's regular season losses were to Virginia (21-26) and Tennessee (20-27). The Generals advanced to the 1951 Gator Bowl to play Wyoming on New Year’s Day -- the first school from Virginia to compete in a New Year's Day Bowl Game.    W&L would fall to Wyoming in the Gator Bowl by a score of 20-7 as Michaels sat out of the game after having an appendectomy. 

The next season, W&L finished with a 6-4 record, but defeated 13th-ranked Virginia (42-14) and rolled over West Virginia (34-0), Virginia Tech (60-0) and Richmond (39-7).  W&L has posted an all-time record of 13-21-1 against Virginia, while sporting a 20-23-5 ledger against Virginia Tech.

Basketball was also a major player in the world of “Big Time” college athletics.  The Generals competed in the SoCon finals five times, winning two championships.  In 1934, W&L defeated Duke 30-29 for its first title and the Generals appeared in the finals each of the next three years.  In 1935, NC State prevailed 35-37 and North Carolina downed W&L, 50-45 in 1936.  The Generals would get revenge over the Tar Heels the following year, winning the title 44-33.  W&L's final title appearance was in 1957 as West Virginia, led by Hot Rod Hundley’s 24 points, defeated the Generals 67-52. W&L finished the season with a 20-7 overall record and twice defeated Virginia (74-62 and 73-61).  It marked the first time a W&L squad won 20 or more games.

History was made by a W&L cager on February 17, 1951, as Jay Handlan set an NCAA record with 71 field goal attempts in the Generals 97-82 win over Furman.  Handlan made 30 of his attempts and scored 66 points against the Paladins.  His number of field-goal attempts is the NCAA’s oldest existing individual basketball record.  Handlan scored 2,002 career points, at the time, only the third player in NCAA history to break the 2,000-point barrier.

Handlan’s mark would not stand as the all-time high at W&L for very long, however, as Dom Flora (1954-58) would end his career with 2,310 points to top the charts.  Flora was named the SoCon Player of the Year and All-American for the 1957-58 season.  The Southern Conference Player of the Year selection for Flora was sandwiched between Hot Rod Hundley (1956-57) and Jerry West (1958-59), both of West Virginia.  Overall, the Generals were 37-41 all-time vs. Virginia, 53-32 vs. Virginia Tech, 28-24 vs. Richmond, 26-23 vs. William and Mary, and 97-122 against the current members of the ACC.

The 1954 football season would forever change Washington and Lee athletics.  That season, W&L made the decision to cease with granting athletic scholarships.  The decision was made by the board of trustees and was fueled by a cheating scandal.  It was decided that athletic scholarships were not consistent with the academic excellence of the school and the size of the school.

Then, in 1958, Washington and Lee decided to cease competition at the University level and left the Southern Conference to compete against schools similar in size and academic stature.  W&L was the last charter member of the Southern Conference to dissolve its association with the league.  The Generals moved on to the College Division or what is now known as Division III.  All of Washington and Lee's sports, with the exception of men’s lacrosse, made the move.

Following a few years of mostly unsuccessful athletic play, the 1960’s proved to be the comeback of Washington and Lee athletics.  The 1960 football team finished with an 8-0-1 mark and the 1961 team went 9-0 and was named the outstanding small college football team in the country by the Washington, D.C. Touchdown Club.  The team was also featured in a lead article in Sports Illustrated entitled “A Sport for Gentlemen”. 

In 1962, W&L began competition in the College Athletic Conference and the football team finished with an 8-1 overall record and claimed the College Athletic Conference title.

The basketball team also had several competitive seasons while participating in the CAC.  Beginning with the 1966-67 season, W&L won four of five CAC championships between 1966-67 and 1970-71 under Head Coach Verne Canfield.  In 1975, the Generals’ basketball team competed in the first-ever NCAA Division III tournament and would play in four others. All told, W&L won 15 CAC Championships during its association with the league.

The early 1970’s also marked the high point of W&L men’s lacrosse.  Still competing at the Division I level, Washington and Lee, led by Head Coach Jack Emmer, earned seven NCAA Division I playoff appearances during the decade.  During this time, W&L captured five straight wins over Virginia and advanced to the Final Four in 1973, 1974, and 1975.  The 1973 team finished with a 14-1 overall record, losing only to Maryland (18-6) in the national semifinals.  The 1974 squad went 15-1 and fell to eventual champion Johns Hopkins, 11-10, in the semis.  The 1975 team finished 11-7, but avenged its loss to Johns Hopkins the prior season by defeating the top-seeded Blue Jays, 11-7, ending Hopkins' 27-game home winning streak.  Maryland would bounce W&L by a 15-5 count in the semis.  Emmer also led W&L to Tournament bids in 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1980.  In 1987, men’s lacrosse also moved to Division III and since then has spent time as the top-ranked team in Division III.

The 1976 season would again hold change for W&L athletics as the Generals moved on to the newly created Old Dominion Athletic Conference, the conference they still call home for a vast majority of their sports.

A school for males for much of its history, Washington and Lee ushered in a new era in 1985 with the decision to coeducate.  Along with it came the addition of women's athletics.  There were four original sports (tennis, swimming, cross country, golf) that began competition in 1985-86 and, although golf was dropped a year later, the women's athletic program at W&L has grown to include 11 sports as of the 2009-10 school year.  A member of the first women's class at W&L, Elizabeth Miles Mitzlaff ‘89 became the first female member of the W&L Athletic Hall of Fame when she was inducted in 1999 following an All-America career with the swimming team.

In the years since coeducation, the women's program at W&L has become incredibly successful and has won countless conference championship titles.  Today, Washington and Lee's 23 athletic teams regularly win better than 65 percent of their contests and the school has received the ODAC's Dan Wooldridge Overall Sports Champion Cup as the conference's top athletic program 13 times in the 15 years that it has been awarded.

The Generals have also been a fixture in the NCAA Division III postseason in a number of sports over the years.  W&L has claimed two NCAA Division III National Championships, the first occuring in 1988 when the men's tennis team knocked off UC Santa Cruz for the title.  The W&L women's team also won the team title in 2007 when it defeated Amherst College in the finals.