The Knox-Lombard Hall of Fame welcomed three new individuals and two of the winningest teams in Knox history as a part of 2013 Homecoming festivities. The 1956 football team, the 1957-58 men’s basketball team, Jim Smith ’78, Victor Garcia ’03 and football coach Albert Reilly were the recipients of the honor.
Coming off a string of four consecutive losing seasons, expectations were not especially high for the 1956 football team, especially because they had a comparably minute roster of 25 players total. Fullback and linebacker Mondo Lopez ’56 said to the Sports Information Department that “Because of academic requirements, illness and injuries, often there weren’t enough players to hold meaningful practice sessions. Many of the players played offense and defense, unlike the current practice of being a specialist in a particular position. Because many on the ’56 team played defense and offense and had no chance to rest, they were totally physically and mentally exhausted at the end of each game.”
Nonetheless, the team powered through their exhaustion and was able to post a 6-2 record, good enough to top the conference and earn six individual all-MWC spots. The Prairie Fire recorded two shutouts and allowed only one score in three more games, while still averaging 240 rushing yards a game.
The 1957-58 men’s basketball team was one that employed a trio of starting lineups over the course of the year. The team burst out of the gate at 10-1, good enough to earn the team a berth in the Midwest Regional contest despite a shaky end to the regular season. The Prairie Fire were able to make it to the quarterfinals of the MWC Tournament, though they were halted there by ultimate champion South Dakota. The team had four All-MWC performers and their 17 regular season victories are still tied for second most men’s basketball wins in Knox history.
Look in the football record books, and you’ll see Jim Smith’s name plastered all over every possible running category. By the time he left Knox, Smith was top five in 24 separate rushing categories. Eight of his records remain in the top five today, and 13 more are in the top 10. The numbers are especially impressive considering that Smith missed time his sophomore year and did not return to Knox for his senior season. Smith was an All-MWC first team selection in 1976.
His accomplishments, however, did not end there: Smith also became Knox’s first All-American in track. His time in the 400 intermediate hurdles was the school’s best for nearly 20 years, and is still the third fastest time in Prairie Fire history.
“He was a hard worker, he didn’t complain, and he was a fierce competitor,” former teammate Phil Singer ’76 said. “He represented the school and the sports teams with a pride and competitiveness seldom seen. ‘Smitty’ was a dominant athlete in both sports at Knox. He was clearly one of the best running backs and hurdlers/sprinters Knox has ever seen.”
One of the highest scorers to ever attend Knox, Victor Garcia was a four-year letterwinner and a three-time Academic All-MWC award recipient. By the time he left the court, he had amassed 1,687 career points, which remains good enough for second best in Knox history and 21st all-time in the MWC. Knox was predicted to finish last in the conference when Garcia first arrived, but he led the Prairie Fire to 15 wins and a tournament berth that same season. Despite the extra attention that came his way over the course of his career, Garcia continued to rack up career numbers and earn awards, as he was named All-MWC several times. Further, Garcia was named the “Offensive Most Valuable Player” after averaging a team-high 14.9 points per game during the 1999-2000 season, his first year on the court.
Head Coach Albert Reilly led one of the most prolific football teams in Knox history, including a 1976 team that earned a MWC championship, an easy playoff win and a number 10 slot in the national rankings. Reilly won more than 55 percent of his games, and since his departure, coaches have gone a woeful 141-315-8 for a winning percentage of 31.3.
Larry Kusch ’71 said of Reilly that, “In one year we went from 1-8 to 6-3 thanks largely to Albert’s commitment to excellence and his passion for innovative teaching techniques. He was the main reason for Knox’s Golden Era of football from 1970 to 1976.”
Coach Reilly is tied for second among all Knox coaches in the number of winning seasons with four, and he’s also tied for second in the number of consecutive winning seasons with three. Coach Reilly has the highest percentage of winning seasons of any coach in the last century.
The new class is just further reminder of the capacity for greatness that all Knox athletes possess; their successes are all the more impressive given the daily rigors a student athlete has to put up with. Let Smith, Garcia, Reilly and all the other unnamed athletes serve as a model of excellence, and may their memories linger in Knox history for a long, long time.