On the edge of the University of Scranton campus is the disused terminal of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, the oldest and most important of the five roads that once carried everything from anthracite to mother-of-pearl buttons from Scranton, Pa., across the Moosic Mountains to markets in New York and Philadelphia.
The ornate old station is maintained as a monument to a time when the Lackawanna Valley produced 18 million tons of coal a year, and Scranton, "preeminently the first coal mining city of the world," employed 14,500 people in 33 mines and 27 collieries, all within the city limits.
But Scranton fell on hard times some 45 years ago, when the 12 veins of coal that had made it rich began to peter out. As mining declined, so did the city's fortunes. Unemployment rose and the population fell—from 140,000 in 1940 to 103,000 in 1970.
As the 1950s began, the city of Scranton and the University of Scranton found themselves bound together in a mutual struggle to survive. The university, originally a small Catholic college named St. Thomas, had been founded in 1888 by the bishop of Scranton and for many years was located in a large stone building downtown. In 1942, with debts of $150,000 and only 72 students, the school was turned over to the Society of Jesus.
The Jesuits' greatest asset, aside from sublime optimism, was a 21-acre estate that had been left to them by Worthington Scranton, the grandson of one of the city's founders. As the city fathers put up factories to attract industry, the Jesuit fathers began to build a campus. In 12 years, beginning in 1956, they built 15 structures on the estate. The buildings were utilitarian in style, a far cry from the Lackawanna station, but they served the dual purpose of pumping several million dollars into the local economy and creating a reason for youth to stay in Scranton.
That done, the Jesuits took five, and a long, lanky sad-eyed man named Bob Bessoir entered from the wings. Bessoir, a 6'7" former basketball center from Jersey City, N.J., had played for Scranton from 1951 to 1955, when the players lived on the second and third floors of Coach Pete Carlesimo's house on Vine Street, because there were no dormitories. After graduation and a few years in the Army in the Far East, Bessoir returned to settle in Scranton. He went to work for "The U"—or "Duh U," as it is pronounced by the locals. He coached several sports, taught phys ed and was for a while the sports information director. In 1971 he was appointed head basketball coach, which, of course, was what he had been waiting for. He immediately hired a vigorous young assistant, Michael Strong, to handle the x's and o's, and four years later Bessoir and Scranton won the NCAA Division III title by beating small college power Wittenberg, 60-57, in overtime.
A national championship, even in Division III, the NCAA's 4-year-old bracket for schools—most of them small—that have agreed to abolish athletic scholarships, does wonders for the civic psyche of any town. For Scranton it was as if a miracle had occurred. The championship team of 1975-76, the "Rock 'n' Roll" Royals, who ran onto the floor to the beat of Jumpin' Jack Flash and warmed up to Sympathy For The Devil, refueled a fire in Scranton that had almost died. When they returned from the championships in Reading, Pa., they were feted in Courthouse Square by a thousand cheering people—businessmen on their lunch hour, the Scranton Central High School band and students who had marched down the hill from Duh U—while a light plane flew overhead, towing a banner that read U OF SCRANTON ROYALS, NO. 1. It was a great day for Scranton, as the president of the Chamber of Commerce, the chairman of the county commission and the mayor all pointed out.
"It gave people pride, something they've been lacking for a long time," says Bessoir, who had enlivened an evening during the tournament by wearing a fire-engine-red leisure suit. His team called him The Towering Inferno.
"I cultivate the aura of a maverick," says Bessoir, "mainly because it's fun."
Indeed, the atmosphere during practices in the Scranton gym is happy and loose. Mike Strong is the fundamentals man and the stricter disciplinarian of the two coaches, but even at his end of the court there is no screaming. "With the music playing, it's hard to yell, anyhow," says Bessoir.