A Proud Tradition
Over 100 years ago, three Rutgers University students organized the first men’s lacrosse team and unknowingly initiated a Rutgers sports program that would consistently be among the nation’s best.
It was the year 1887. The first squad, which went 0-4 that season, would be the only squad in school history to suffer through a season without a victory.
Rutgers’ first team captain was Charles Devine, class of 1890; John Polack, class of 1889, served as the first business manager of the 1887 and 1888 teams. In 1889, player-coach Samuel Lockett paced the Scarlet to the squads’ first winning season as the team went 2-1.
Three decades would pass before the game would be witnessed at Rutgers again.
Through the efforts of Harland W. “Tots” Meistrell, lacrosse was reinstated at the University in 1920. In his first and only season as head coach, Frank Graham led the newly re-established Scarlet Knights squad to a 1-5 record.
Over the next five years, Albert Brisotti would occupy the helm of the Rutgers lacrosse program and lead the Scarlet to a 16-21-2 record. He unfortunately has been immortalized in Rutgers lacrosse history as the only coach to hold the reins for more than one season and come away with a career losing record. Regardless of this fact, many noted and successful Rutgers alumni wore the Scarlet on the lacrosse field during the Brisotti years, including the late United States Senator Clifford Case (Class of 1925) and Ozzie Nelson (Class of 1927).
Rutgers’ proud winning lacrosse tradition began when former Syracuse All-American Fred Fitch took over the coaching reins in 1926. Since the Fitch years and leading up to the present day, the Rutgers lacrosse program has only suffered 18 losing campaigns in more than 70 seasons of competition.
While under Fitch’s direction, the Scarlet Knights joined the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (USILA). During the late 1920’s and 30’s, Fitch transformed Rutgers into a national men’s lacrosse powerhouse. In 1928, Rutgers was named co-national champions along with Johns Hopkins, Maryland and Navy. In 1927 and 1932, Rutgers finished fourth in the USILA rankings. The 1932 Scarlet Knights, who netted a 7-2-1 season, were selected to participate in the Olympic tryouts, securing a win over Syracuse in the first round, but losing by one goal (5-4) to Maryland in the second round. A tandem termed “the best attack pair in the country,” George Latimer and Joseph “Frenchy” Julien led that squad to national prominence. Both men were eventually inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame along with their coach, Fred Fitch.
Fitch, who has the honor of being the second all-time winningest coach “On the Banks”, recorded 106-71-8 record during his 22-year career which was interrupted by World War II in 1943. He resumed coaching the Scarlet at the conclusion of the war in 1946, and ended his tenure in 1949.
The program reached an even higher level with the arrival of head coach Al Twitchell in 1950. The Scarlet squad only underwent two losing seasons during his campaign, but reached a number of milestones that far outshone those records.
Twitchell’s 1955 team won the Laurie Cox Division Championship, a national division championship, which it shared with Hofstra.
The 1955 season was also significant for several other reasons. That year, the Scarlet Knights battled Princeton to a 14-14 tie in an epic, double-overtime war. Rutgers, who went 8-1-1 that year, also defeated Syracuse on the road, 23-19. That Orangemen team featured All-American Jim Brown who, historians recall, was outplayed by RU’s Hall of Famer, Bob Kelley.
The 1956 Scarlet Knights, captained by Bob Andrews and Kelley, went 9-1, losing their lone contest to Syracuse but finishing third in the nation. Between 1950 and 1961, Twitchell led Rutgers to an impressive 86-39-1 record, including a fourth-ranked finish in 1958. Twitchell was honored by being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967.
Three-time Scarlet All-American Bob Naso, who played under Twitchell from 1956-1959, took over the program from his mentor in 1962. In his 13 seasons, which spanned 1962 to 1974, Naso led the squad to 10 winning campaigns. He recovered from an inaugural 3-7 season and completed his coaching career with an impressive 95-59-1 record. The highlight of Naso’s career came in 1972 as he directed Rutgers to its first-ever NCAA playoff appearance. The NCAA playoff system was instituted in 1971. He repeated the feat with his 1974 squad.
Tom Hayes moved into the leadership role in 1975. Hayes led the Scarlet Knights to 21 winning seasons and to final Top 20 rankings for 24 straight years.
Under Hayes, Rutgers lacrosse teams established a 194-156 record, including five NCAA appearances, two of which occurred in back-to-back seasons. Three of Hayes’ teams earned national rankings of seven, occurring in 1975, 1982, and 1986. During the Hayes era, 55 All-Americans were selected from Rutgers and 30 North-South All-Star game participants, as well as an international player in Brody Bush, who played with the United States team that won the international championship in 1996. Scarlet Knight firsts which occurred under Hayes include the first team to win 11 games in a season (1986), the first victory in an NCAA tournament game (1986), and the longest winning streak of nine (1982).
Hayes brought international distinction to the Scarlet Knight lacrosse program by traveling his squads around the world. In addition to bringing teams to British Columbia and Australia for exhibition tournaments, Hayes took his 1992 squad to Bermuda for the first-ever Bermuda Lacrosse Invitational, and his 1996 squad to England for a two-week round of games, camps, and clinics.
In 2001, Jim Stagnitta took over as head coach. In just his second year, he guided RU to an NCAA Tournament appearance, as Rutgers improved from 2-12 in 2002 to 10-5 and hosted Georgetown in the first round of the tournament. Stagnitta was named the ECAC and USILA National Coach of the Year. Stagnitta came to RU from Washington and Lee University, where he led the Generals to 12 consecutive winning seasons and five appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
On June 16, 2011 Brian Brecht was named the the 11thhead coach in the history of the Rutgers men’s lacrosse program. Brecht led Siena to 57 victories (57-28) over five seasons as the Saints earned four MAAC regular season championships and two MAAC tournament crowns, while also making the first two NCAA Tournament appearances in program history. He was named the MAAC Coach of the Year in 2005, 2007 and 2009, while being cited as the Siena College Coach of the Year in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Ten men who have been associated with the Rutgers University lacrosse program have had the distinction being named to the United States International Lacrosse Association Hall of Fame. Four coaches have been honored, including former coaches Al Brisotti in 1958, Fred Fitch in 1961, Tom Hayes in 1990, as well as former player and later coach Albert Twitchell (‘32) in 1967. Former Rutgers players include Joseph Julien (‘32) in 1965, George Latimer (‘32) in 1972, Willis Bilderback (‘30) in 1973, Robert Kelley (‘56) in 1985, and most recently, John Valestra (‘64) in 1996. In addition, the man responsible for reinstating the Rutgers lacrosse program in 1920, Harland Meistrell, in 1962.
Since its inception, the lacrosse program at the State University of New Jersey has produced 560 victories and 197 All-Americans. In keeping the university in the national spotlight for almost three-quarters of a century, the Scarlet Knight laxmen truly have established a proud tradition, and Brian Brecht is looking to build upon the winning lacrosse tradition at Rutgers University.