With the end of the men’s basketball season comes the completion of the 75th year of the varsity program at Bowdoin College. However, the first team that came together in 1941 is notably different from the team that runs the court of Morrell Gymnasium today.
When a squad of 18 Bowdoin students tried out for Coach George “Dinny” Shay in December of 1941, they played in Sargent Gymnasium on a non-regulation-sized court, with old backboards and only a few weeks to prepare for their first game against the University of Maine. Without any funding from the College, Shay and his team of rookies were forced to play all away games and the players had to provide their own trunks and shoes.
Despite these setbacks, the program started and stuck, in large part due to the persistence of Malcolm Morrell, the College’s director of athletics at the time. Morrell advocated strongly for the creation of a team since Bowdoin was one of the only colleges in New England that did not sponsor a college basketball team. In addition, the NCAA was pushing many colleges at the time to continue adding new teams despite the wartime efforts that took students and resources from the programs.
The College already had in place fraternity leagues as well as a freshman team that competed against local high schools, which gave Shay a solid pool of interested athletes when it came to building his roster.
The first varsity squad played six away games over the course of the season against fellow Maine schools Colby, Bates and the University of Maine. Though the team lost all six matches, a few close games and a high degree of demonstrated interest solidified the existence of the program for the years to come.
A few years later, the program had developed significantly. The team began its first formal campaign after the war years led by captain Edward “Packy” McFarland ’48, while his infant son Edward “Bo” McFarland Jr. ’69, now a volunteer coach with Bowdoin’s men’s basketball team, crawled around the floors of Sargent Gymnasium.
While the creation of the team and the facilities available lagged behind many of Bowdoin’s peer schools in the program’s early years, in 1965 Polar Bear basketball leapt ahead of the rest of the league with the unveiling of the “new gym”—Morrell Gymnasium.
Bo McFarland came to Bowdoin in the fall of 1965 in time for the unveiling of the new gym and remembers the standard it set across the league.
“It was a big deal,” he said. “When Morrell Gym opened up, I remember as a freshman going in there and every afternoon you could see hundreds of guys playing pick-up games—I mean hundreds. It was state-of-the-art and it’s still one of the more enjoyable places to go watch a game.”
Building the new gym was a leap of faith by the College since the basketball team had gone 23 years without a winning season. Yet only two years later the 1967-68 team achieved Bowdoin’s first winning season with a record of 15-6.
“From that moment on, [basketball] teams began to win at Bowdoin,” said McFarland ’69. “Just picture the Morrell Gym with standing room only and people lining the sidelines watching games. We used to pack the place in and it was a lot of fun.”
Bo McFarland became captain the following year, improving the team’s season to a record of 16-5 and entrenching himself in the Bowdoin record books. He was the first Polar Bear to reach the 1,300 career points benchmark and his career points per game average of 21.9 remains the best in Bowdoin history today.
Since 1969, the program has been relatively consistent in performance and staff. The team has only had two head coaches in the last 55 years—Ray Bicknell and current Head Coach Tim Gilbride.
However, as Bo McFarland has seen over his lifetime, the game played in Morrell Gym today is very different from that of his father’s era.
“I remained close to the program because of my father’s experience there,” said Bo McFarland. “You get to know a lot of the people over the years. They would come to our house and reminisce about the days of basketball, how basketball was changing so much. If they were alive today they would be astonished as to what basketball looks like today versus what it looked like in the 40s and 50s.”
And today’s team is still different in a number of ways, the most visible being the size of the players.
“Even in 1965 and when I graduated in ’69, we only had one guy who was 6’5” and he was our only tall guy,” said Bo McFarland. “Whereas this year’s roster, I think we had seven, maybe eight guys who were 6’5” and over. So that’s a huge difference in terms of the style of play, because the speed of the game has increased and the size of the players has increased, and the athletic ability of the players is better, quite frankly.”
Changes in style of play have been accompanied by rule changes that have drastically impacted the game. Major shifts include the addition of the three-point line, which was implemented by the NCAA in 1986, and the establishment of a 45-second shot clock in the mid-1980s.
The program’s recruiting process has developed and changed significantly over its history as well.
“The biggest shift has been in the amount of time that you have to spend out of season recruiting,” said Gilbride. “When I started, a lot of coaches—most coaches—were doing two sports and you had to recruit for both sports, but it wasn’t to the amount of time and energy and effort that you have to put into it now. You don’t have enough time to be recruiting all year for one sport and recruiting for another sport.”
Across the nation, the timeline of recruiting has shifted to earlier in students’ high school careers and has become more intensive during summers. This year-round commitment aligns with another national trend in collegiate athletics: specialization.
“It’s becoming harder and harder for men and women to do two sports in college, and even in high school,” said Bo McFarland. “If you’re going to be a basketball player, you’re playing basketball all year long, you’re on a team and you’re playing in the summer months.”
This present-day practice is drastically different from the 1970s and earlier, when playing more than one varsity sport was so common it dictated the College’s participation, or lack thereof, in postseason tournaments.
During Bo McFarland’s time on the varsity basketball and baseball teams, the programs were not permitted to compete in any sort of postseason play even though the team’s performance was strong enough to qualify. It was seen as dangerous to the students’ academics and a disadvantage to the subsequent season’s teams.
“The concern was that dragging these seasons on was going to affect our performance in the classroom,” said Bo McFarland. “For instance, the nine starters on the baseball team all played another sport—every one of us—and the feeling was, if you were in a tournament, like a basketball tournament, and your baseball season was getting ready to begin, that [it] would be unfair to the academic side of the house.”
While there are no limitations on Bowdoin teams participating in postseason tournaments today, maintaining a balance between athletics and academics is a task that has challenged Bowdoin athletes of all eras.
Although the facilities, rules and recruiting have evolved over time, there are some aspects of the sport that have stayed the same.
“Watching college basketball is still a favorite pastime of mine,” said Bo McFarland. “I love it, and to this day I believe [Morrell Gym] ranks way up there in terms of a good place to watch a game and to play a game.”