The Old Cap Comes Back!

By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

During an afternoon reverie, he began kicking around his own version of a Bucket List ... things one wants to do before he or she, well, kicks the bucket.

When you're going on 90, thought Vin Holland (Class of 1941), there is nothing wrong with making a few self-motivating plans.

"Number one on my to-do list, Holland told his daughter Trissie, "is getting to one more Holy Cross basketball game.''

Trissie, married to her 1981 Holy Cross classmate Jeff Forts, had been visiting her dad last summer in Palm City, Fla. He began talking about his wish list after seeing the popular movie The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson.

"Maybe they could introduce me at halftime up at the Hart Center,'' mused Holland. "You know, as the `Oldest Living Holy Cross Basketball Captain.'"

Nothing would be more fitting. Holland had captained a 1941 team that stirred a rebirth of basketball atop Mount St. James. Over seven decades, he had been a devout follower of Crusader basketball, football and everything else with even a tinge of purple. In recent times, Holland could often be found glued to his computer monitor, checking out Holy Cross stories online and watching and/or listening to taped and live feeds of games.

*****

Captain Holland remains a central character in an overlooked chapter of Holy Cross sports history. Born in 1900, basketball had been dropped twice from the college athletic program: the first time, between 1910 and 1920; the second time, during the Great Depression, from 1935 until late 1939.

Enter Edward "Moose" Krause, the immortal "Mr. Notre Dame," who had earned All-America honors as a football and basketball star for the Fighting Irish.

In 1939 he came to Holy Cross to serve as a football assistant. Rev. Joseph Maxwell, the new progressive Holy Cross president, hired Krause to reinstitute basketball at the dawning of the NCAA hoop tournament. Few took notice of upstart Crusader basketball, tagging along the headlined glories of Holy Cross football, baseball and track.

For season one, Krause hurriedly slapped together a team of stray athletes and intramural standouts like Holland whom he had watched perform in the barn behind St. Joseph Memorial Chapel. He scurried to arrange five games that year (2-3 record).

"I think I scored 19 points in the opening game (a 50-29 win over Assumption) -- and, for a few days, was listed in the papers as the number one scorer in New England. That didn't last long,'' Holland recalls.

Krause, later the revered Notre Dame athletics director and a basketball Hall of Fame inductee, lined up 10 games for the 1940-1941 squad, led by Holland, a former All Hollows High star from the Bronx.

"We weren't even allowed to practice in Father (Francis) Hart's sacred barn, reserved for his intramural program," he explains. "We had to pack into Moose's station wagon, drive to St. John's High gym on Temple Street and try to muster enough players for a scrimmage.

"We were given the track team's old warm-up suits, which had faded to a light lavender," Holland continues. "I remember the Dartmouth crowd hooting at us while those tall Dartmouth players flashed by us wearing green satin warm-ups.''

The Tomahawk, the campus newspaper, and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, did allow some space to the Holy Cross hoopsters: "Ed Krause has a few sure-fire scoring formations up his sleeve and you can bet your best Latin dictionary he'll employ them against Brown,'' gushed the Tomahawk before the season's opener.

Brown slipped by the Crusaders, 40-26, as star center Richard "Bones" Hamilton fouled out. Holy Cross followed up with a string of narrow losses: to Clark University (34-29), led by the Worcester immortal Ziggy Strzelecki, the nation's second leading scorer for three years; to American International (41-36), as Holland scored nine points, but poor foul-shooting (6-25) did in Holy Cross; to Becker College (46-41), as "Bones" Hamilton battled 6-foot-5-inch Eddie "Skinny" Flynn at center. Observed the Tomahawk: "Becker was stingier with the lead than a Scotchman with a new nickel."

Then came the long "auto ride" to Dartmouth and a 65-32 blowout before a packed house. The Big Green would go to the NCAA's Elite Eight, losing by a point to mighty Wisconsin, the eventual national champs. While up north, the Crusaders bowed to Vermont, 47-37.

On Lincoln's Birthday, Holy Cross posted its first victory against Amherst before a sellout crowd of 1,800 fans. Hamilton flipped in 13, while Holland and Billy Connelly chipped in with six each. Jim Scondras, a three-sport sensation later elected to the Holy Cross Hall of Fame, scored 14. A Greek-American, Scondras had been nicknamed "The Chief" back in his hometown of Lowell, Mass., because of his rugged good looks and chiseled features. His good-humored Crusader teammates promoted Scondras as a true Native American. (Just a few years later, 1st Lt. Scondras was killed in action fighting with the Marines at Iwo Jima; he received a Silver Star posthumously.)

Holy Cross finished the regular season with a loss (58-47) to Providence and victories over Lowell Textile (47-33) and Assumption (38-26). Wrote Tomahawk columnist Joseph Nolan in his Purple Pennings: "Winning 3 of 4 is a cause of commendation since these victories came at a time when it was looking as though the Crusaders were intent on giving up winning games for Lent."

To sweeten the season, Holy Cross took on Boston College in a March 25 charity exhibition in Brockton, Mass. The Eagles' lineup included football All-American Chuckin' O'Rourke and Chet Gladchuk. The game benefitted the families of 13 firefighters killed during a March 10 fire at the Strand Theater in Brockton, the hometown of Holy Cross football star Frank Saba. The Crusaders prevailed, 35-23, as Holland had 11 points to finish his career.

With all its games played away, born-again Holy Cross, led by Captain Holland, did admirably. Forecasted the Tomahawk: "It will be a short time before the Cross leads the country in another sport, basketball." Prophetic words indeed as the Crusaders, waifs without a gym, captured the NCAA title in 1947.

*****

Holland's storytelling prowess has lost none of its flair or charm. He shares his life story with ease and characteristic good humor.

"My dad was a textile merchant," he says. "When Germans started torpedoing supply ships, his business sank too.

"To save money, my dad wanted me to live at home and transfer to Fordham," Holland continues. "I told this to Fr. Maxwell, but he wouldn't hear of it. `You're going to be captain of the Holy Cross basketball team this season and you're staying,' he told me. I may have become the first guy ever to get a full basketball scholarship.''

Holland weaves a fascinating account about his wartime years. He tells of drinking beers with his buddies at Cosgrove's Grill in Worcester when a Marine recruit walked in. "A dozen of us signed up on the spot," he recalls. "We all received commissions. Eight of us survived and four died."

After graduation, Holland married his sweetheart Helen. "We had met at summer camp when she was 15,'' he recalls.

That fall Holland reported to Quantico. He was doing a stint as a recruiter when he fell deathly ill to a rare muscle and skin disease and lapsed into a coma for nearly nine months. "I had a Jewish doctor and Protestant doctor," he says. "I was a Catholic. So I told the doctors, `I figure you'll cure me ... we have God covered!'"

They did. Holland rose to the rank of Marine captain -- and was in charge of a battalion in Hawaii at war's end.

After working for his dad's fading textile business in the early 1950s, Holland went into a beer-and-soda distributing business on Long Island with his brother John Holland, a former Crusader track star. Helen ran a variety store next door.

Upon retiring in 1985, the couple moved to Florida. After his beloved Helen's death, Vin, then 76, married Ethel. "We met one day when she was looking for a golfing partner," Holland notes. "We were married eight months later. I told her I could not afford a long courtship."

Vin and Helen had two daughters, Kathleen (Holland) Bollerud and Patricia, known as Trissie to family and friends. Both are married with two children. "Every time Holy Cross had a basketball or football game near New York, we were there,'' recalls Trissie. "Dad loves Holy Cross with a passion.''

Upon her return home to Shrewsbury, Mass., last summer, Trissie recounted her dad's daydream to her husband Jeff: Wouldn't it be wonderful if he did come up for a Holy Cross game and took a final bow as the Oldest Crusader Basketball Captain? she mused. Jeff agreed and thought that they should try to arrange it.

Scheduling, however, would be a problem. Holy Cross had planned an early-season special event at the Hart Center, the raising of the numbers of George Kaftan '49, Bob Cousy '50, Togo Palazzi '54 and Tom Heinsohn '56. By the fall, Holland himself was having respiratory problems and traveling to Worcester would be impossible.

Good fortune, however, shone upon all concerned. Holy Cross had a game on Jan. 6 against the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Jeff called head coach Ralph Willard, also a former Holy Cross captain (1966-1967), asking if he and his players would surprise Holland by meeting him in Orlando.

On game day, Jeff drove his father-in-law from Palm City to Orlando for Holy Cross' walk-through practice. Forts artfully recreated the scene in a story that appeared in a recent edition of Crusader Nation.

At high noon, the Crusaders trotted onto the UCF court as Holland stood along the sidelines. From behind, Willard approached him. "Hey Cap, we're glad you made it!" he enthused.

Old Cap was in his glory, chatting with Willard and longtime announcer Bob Fouracre. The Crusader players came over to shake hands. They surrounded him, listening to his old-time basketball stories. He had them roaring with saucy tales about encounters with women at the 1941 Dartmouth Winter Carnival. That night he sat with Jeff and the players' families, cheering on Holy Cross in an unsuccessful matchup against UCF.

Though there was no halftime announcement or honorary bow, the Oldest Captain got to cross one big item off his Bucket List, and create new memories for his family and his team.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.