Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What If: Liver's Dream

1944: Livingston Houston becomes RPI's first alum to be named school president

Louis Jordan - G.I. Jive

The modern era of RPI hockey began in 1950, when the Engineers returned after 12 years of dormancy caused by the Great Depression and World War II to a brand new facility, then known as the RPI Field House. "Liver" Houston, a 1913 graduate of RPI who had played on the hockey team when he had been a student, was one of the major forces behind the construction of an indoor arena to allow the school to restart its program.

Houston was very closely associated with the school for much of his life. After starting out with Mobil shortly after graduating, he was back in Troy by 1919, and was elected a life trustee at the age of 34 in 1925, just 12 years after he graduated - by comparison, the most recent alums currently serving as trustees graduated in 1982. So by the time William O. Hotchkiss retired as RPI president in 1943, Houston had nearly 20 years of service as a trustee, and was by that time the chairman of the board of the Ludlow Valve Company in Troy.

Houston's selection as president made a great deal of sense, given his lengthy service to the school. When he took the presidency, America was in the midst of the Second World War. D-Day had not yet occurred, but he immediately began working toward the school's post-war future. Enrollment was down due to enlistments in the military, but once the war ended, RPI was ready to receive returning veterans in great number, due in large part to Houston's preparations, which included the construction of "Tin Town" where the Rensselaer Apartment Housing Project (RAHPs to students) are now located next to the Field House. Later, he spearheaded dormitory development at what is today called Freshman Hill.

As far as hockey is concerned, the Field House is Houston's rightful legacy, and the building now bears his name. A surplus Navy warehouse was brought in from Rhode Island, modified and reassembled, and after a year and a half, the school had a place not just to play hockey but for all sorts of public events, including commencement ceremonies.

But what if Houston had not been the school's choice to replace Hotchkiss? What if a less ambitious man had taken the office, one without a personal link to hockey or a desire to push for a project like the Field House? RPI as we know it today would be a very different place, and athletics would undoubtedly be part of that difference.

It's almost certain that hockey would not have flourished at the school as it did. Among schools that comprised the early Tri-State League which started in 1951, Clarkson had already been playing at Walker Arena since 1938, St. Lawrence and Middlebury were preparing to move indoors themselves. Meanwhile, Colgate and Williams dropped their programs after the first and second seasons of the Tri-State League respectively, due to their inability to compete with the schools that had indoor rinks.

Could RPI hockey have been restarted without the RPI Field House? It's possible, but it's likely that it would have suffered the same fate as Colgate and Williams, even if Ned Harkness had been at the helm. That would likely have left RPI, today, closer to the state of hockey at Williams - a Division III program without a great deal of distinction. Colgate, at least, can fall back on being a Division I school in all sports, which is why their current program exists at the top level (and eventually, became very competitive).

Ned Harkness, however, was at RPI as early as 1941 - predating Houston's ascension to the presidency - as the volunteer coach of the school's lacrosse team. In fact, he found wild success with the lacrosse team before the Field House had even been completed, completing an undefeated season in 1948 which culminated in a demonstration game at the 1948 Olympics in London where the Engineers represented the United States in a match against a British all-star team. He also led RPI to a de facto national championship in lacrosse in 1952, two years ahead of winning a de jure national crown in hockey.

Without the competition from a highly successful hockey program in the mid-1950s (including the fact that Harkness left the team in 1958 to focus on hockey), perhaps the Harkness-led lacrosse team would have gained the lion's share of the school's attention moving forward. Although the NCAA lacrosse championship was not established until 1971, it's possible RPI would today be known athletically as a lacrosse school similar to Johns Hopkins (a Division III school "playing up" in lacrosse), though the pedigree probably would not be on the level of the Blue Jays, who 35 de facto national crowns before the institution of the NCAA championship.

Meanwhile, the hockey program, if it still existed, would probably be playing in a smaller rink more suited for a D-III program. Union, without the impetus from Harkness to build its own rink, would either still be without hockey or would be in D-III alongside the Engineers, perhaps as part of NESCAC. St. Lawrence and Clarkson (and possibly Colgate), more outnumbered by the Ivies in the ECAC at the time of the league's split in 1984, would likely be in Hockey East today - if they were even still playing Division I hockey.

RPI's 1954 national championship represented not only a watershed moment for the sport at RPI, it also helped show that smaller schools could run with the big dogs in hockey. Without varsity hockey at RPI, Colorado College's two national championships in the 1950s could easily be written off as a bit of home cooking with the tournament taking place on their home ice for the first 10 years of its existence. Without the legacy of RPI's title, it's possible small schools in general would have opted to play small school hockey when the NCAA began making that distinction in the 1970s. No sure thing, of course, since the North Country schools are probably even more linked to the sport than RPI, and the relatively small number of schools playing hockey in the 1960s and 1970s probably would have favored keeping small schools even if they weren't as competitive... but a possibility nonetheless.

So it could be said that RPI's decision to make "Liver" Houston its post-war president had a lasting effect not only on RPI today, but its athletic department and perhaps even college hockey itself.

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