October 15, 2018

The Sportsaholic: Reflecting on the past, future of WU Athletics

Webster University Athletics has made tremendous strides in the past 20 years. For a school that did not possess an official NCAA sport until 1984, the growth of the athletic department is truly impressive. And there is no better example of that growth than the baseball team.

This weekend, the baseball team had the opportunity to claim the No. 1 NCAA Division III ranking, after the current No. 1, Linfield College, Ore., lost on April 18. Despite that the Gorloks dispatched of Spalding University in three straight games, the Gorloks remain number two in the nation.

Nevertheless, how far the baseball team, and Webster Athletics as a whole have come is something to be commended.

For context, consider the state of Webster Athletics in 1992, the first year of former Athletic Director Tom Hart’s tenure at Webster. There were only eight sports and only 72 student athletes in the entire school. At the time, Webster had never won a St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC) championship. The baseball team went 2-26. Professor Larry Furrer, long-time Webster sports enthusiast, recalled the struggles the athletic department faced.

“If you go back 21 years, we hired Tom Hart, and at that time, there were coaches coaching multiple sports,” Furrer said. “We weren’t that good. Tom Hart built that program up very strong.”

Indeed, he did. Though Webster did not win a SLIAC conference championship until 1994, Webster has won 54 SLIAC championships since then, the second highest total in conference history. Webster has also won the SLIAC All-Sports award nine years in a row and expanded to 14 sports during Hart’s time at Webster.

“The athletics program in many ways has mirrored the institution’s growth. I mean, Webster itself is a different place today than it was in 1992,” Hart said.

The new athletic director (AD) as of June 20, Scott Kilgallon, has some big shoes to fill.

Kilgallon’s résumé is certainly impressive. In his time at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC), the Blugolds took home three national championships and perhaps more impressively, UWEC student athletes achieved an average GPA of 3.0 or better in every year of Kilgallon’s tenure.

Kilgallon spoke about his three-point plan for Webster Athletics, or what he refers to as “the total package.”

“Success for me is making sure your student athletes have academic success,” Kilgallon said. “Secondly, you want to go after the athletic success as well. You really want to support your coaches and your student athletes as much as possible. And thirdly, the last thing that is really important, is to continue to have your student-athletes involved in giving back to the community.”

The challenge for Kilgallon and the athletics department will be to take Webster to the next level. Though the Gorloks have often performed well in the SLIAC, no Webster athletic team has ever won a national championship.

Furrer was a member of the search committee for the new AD and spoke about the challenges Kilgallon will face.

“I think we’ve done really well with the new AD. I think it (the hire) is going to do the things to bring us to that next level of competition, to bring the other sports up to the level of the baseball team –- I think baseball is there. I think that’s one of the jobs for the new athletic director,” Furrer said.

Kilgallon has been a very capable athletic director in the past, and the accomplishments of the athletics department, especially in the past 10 years have been remarkable. However, it’s possible that Webster athletics will reach something of a glass ceiling.

In a Journal article from May 2012, Webster Chief Financial Officer Greg Gunderson said the new recreational facility in the lower level of the University Center wasn’t the first building on the university’s list to rebuild as a part of their Master Plan.

Kilgallon addressed Webster’s potential facility issues.

“I still need to go in and see what I’m looking at. I know that Webster faces some of the same challenges that we face here in Wisconsin, in that a lot of it is shared use of facilities with the city. I think it’s really important to get folks from upper-administration involved in it, along with your alumni base and corporate folks to help us out,” Kilgallon said.

The next few years should show how the athletics department plans to move forward, whether they will decide to add new sports (which Webster hasn’t done since 2009) and how the university will change or improve the current facilities.

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