Two years ago, when Dr. Thomas N. Bonner, the 53-year-old president of Union College (enrollment 2,152) in Schenectady, N.Y., offered Ned Harkness the job as Union's hockey coach, Bonner confessed that the position had a number of drawbacks. For one, the school didn't have an ice rink. Also, there was no team—not a single player. And there was no schedule—not a single opponent. Union College, in fact, hadn't played hockey since 1939, the year when an early thaw melted the team's pond and all home games had to be canceled.
Harkness had to laugh. He had heard the same thing before. His first coaching job, as an unemployed bombardier out of the RCAF in 1945, was at RPI, the small engineering college in Troy, N.Y., just a few slap shots north of Albany. He started the hockey program from zero, and in 14 seasons his RPI teams had a 187-90-7 record. In 1954, using just 10 skaters, RPI won the NCAA championship.
Harkness had heard the same thing again in 1963, when he moved on to Cornell, where hockey was looked upon as an upgraded club sport. In his seven years at Ithaca, Harkness' teams had 163 victories against just 27 losses and two ties. National champion Cornell's 29-0 record in 1970 still stands as the greatest single season in college hockey history. Combine that with the three previous seasons and the total isn't too bad, either: 110-5-1, plus four Ivy League titles, four ECAC championships and two NCAA championships.
"Well, sir," Harkness growled to Dr. Bonner, "under the circumstances I don't think I can promise a national championship the first year. But if you can wait a few years...when do I start?"
Union College, the oldest non-denominational college in the country, is situated on 100 picturesque acres sprawled across a slight rise overlooking the older section of Schenectady. In its 179-year history it has turned out one President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur, class of 1848—two if you count the months Jimmy Carter spent there in a naval V-8 program during World War II—16 U.S. Senators, 13 governors and 102 college presidents.
Into this bastion of athletic dormancy arrived Harkness, a broken-nosed warrior invading an ancient world of wisdom. A soft word here, a barked command there, bustling, building, seemingly tireless at the age of 55, Harkness, once labeled the Poison Ivy of the Ivy League, broke ground for the building of his third dynasty in April 1975. When he wasn't overseeing the construction of the $1.5 million rink—a gift to Union by H. Laurence Achilles, a 90-year-old professor emeritus of religious education—he was charming local businessmen into sponsoring such necessities as 3,000 seats, a scoreboard, a carpeted and stereoed locker room that would be welcome in the NHL, and a modest press box. "If you can't go first class," says Harkness, "don't make the trip."
At the same time, Harkness scheduled 24 varsity games for the 1975-76 season. But he still needed one more thing. "Let's get a team," he growled at his three main scouts: John Carroll, a young Boston restaurateur who played under Harkness at Cornell; Toronto fireman Billy Purcell; and Bobby Brinkworth, a Detroit computer salesman who played for Harkness at RPI. Harkness always growls, even when he is happy. It's the price his vocal cords have paid for a half-century of bristling competitiveness.
"The first thing I had to do was tell prospects where Union is," says Carroll. "But when I mentioned Harkness, the school could have been on Mars. They all just wanted to play for him."
Typical of those who applied was Denis Gazzola, a 6'2", 211-pound right wing who was voted the most valuable hockey player and the finest all-round athlete at his high school in Thorold, Ontario. "I was all set to go to Cornell and it would have cost me a lot less money," Gazzola says. "Tuition is less at Cornell and they offered me more of a scholarship. But then I got this letter from Union. Union? I thought: What is that? But I knew this guy at home, Dan Lodboa, who was an All-America for Harkness at Cornell. He told me: wherever Ned goes, if he wants you, you go. If he goes west, you go west. If he goes south, you go south."
Harkness said come to Union, and Gazzola came.