By Brian Bennett
The SUNY Geneseo Sports Hall of Fame dates from 1972, but its early years saw the organization struggle to establish a strong foothold within the culture of a college that was just beginning to experience consistent team success and individual athletic excellence. It was not until 1985 that selections were made on an annual basis and some 16 years from its inception before a Hall of Fame induction ceremony was instituted as a separate event.
But from the beginning, when the committee faced the challenge of gathering nominations and evaluating potential honorees, until today, when statistics are readily available and performances more recent in our collective memories, its guiding purpose has remained the same: “To honor those athletes, coaches and others who have significantly contributed to the Intercollegiate Athletic Program at Geneseo.”
The Hall of Fame is now a well-established part of the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreation and the college, with the most recent class, added in October 2015, bringing the number of members to 134. Over the years, the Hall has also expanded its ability to acknowledge and recognize contributions and performances: in 2000, the “Legend of the Knights” category was established to “celebrate and honor pioneers of athletics who made significant contributions to the athletic program” with 14 people being recognized under that banner. In addition, starting in 1988 when the induction ceremony became a separate event, acknowledgement of specific teams from particular years have been part of the occasion.
The number of inductees has outgrown the space available in Merritt Athletic Center and with the athletic department in the process of updating and reconfiguring the Hall of Fame displays, it’s an opportune time to take a look at the establishment of the Hall and the interesting stories of some of its early inductees.
The SUNY Geneseo Sports Hall of Fame was initiated by Director of Athletics Robert Riedel in 1972. The previous decade had been a period of considerable growth for the college’s intercollegiate athletic program, spurred by the construction of the Schrader Health and Physical Education Building in 1962, along with the addition of baseball, soccer and tennis outdoor facilities. This represented a significant step up, as a good number of Geneseo’s intercollegiate athletic contests in the past were played at village or high school facilities.
As student enrollment expanded, more sports were added beyond the long-time men’s offerings of soccer, basketball and baseball. The implementation of Title IX legislation brought forth the creation and expansion of women’s teams, spurring the further construction of an addition to Schrader (what it is now known as Merritt Athletic Center), completed in 1973.
Riedel, along with Dan Mullin, the chairman of the Department of Health and Physical Education and James Allan ’61, the college’s placement director and former Geneseo athlete, met to draft guidelines for the selection of honorees. A committee of nine members would review nominations to be submitted by faculty, alumni, students or affiliates of the college. Alumni at least three years removed from college, coaches who served at least three years and others who “assisted in the support and promotion of the athletic program over a period of time” were eligible for nomination, with a vote of 80% required for selection.
The inaugural member of the Hall of Fame was a unanimous selection: legendary coach and professor Ira S. Wilson. Both the creation of the Hall and Wilson’s selection were announced on May 6, 1972, at the annual on-campus Alumni Day.
Although guidelines called for a Nov. 1 announcement each year, there was no provision that additions to the Hall be made on an annual basis. The second group of inductees was not announced until early 1974, when two more were honored, one a coach and administrator, the other a local businessman and longtime financial supporter. Their ceremony was at halftime of a men’s basketball game on Feb. 23, and since Wilson had never been formally inducted, he was included in the occasion.
Momentum stalled, however, primarily because nominations were sparse, in particular for athletes. Efforts were rejuvenated in 1979 when the addition to Schrader was officially dedicated as the Alumni Fieldhouse, the new name meant to recognize and honor all of the college’s graduates. With that, a new effort was made to expand the Hall, specifically with alumni.
It was additionally felt that attention should be focused on those who made contributions prior to 1960 and so two of the three inductees of the Class of 1980 fit that description. Their induction occurred on Dec. 13 at Geneseo’s Annual Tip-Off Basketball Tournament, and the occasion was additionally marked by the decision to honor past, present and future members by placing appropriate plaques in the lobby of the Alumni Fieldhouse (Merritt Athletic Center).
It was noted at the time that members of the coaching staff had a healthy number of potential honorees to be considered for induction, but it was another three-and-a-half years before the Hall again expanded. The Class of 1984 made up for the delay by being the largest class ever, with eight members added in April of that year.
The Class of 1985 was inducted 12 months later and that group was notable in that it included the first female member. It was also the first time selections had been made in back-to-back years and since that time, new members to the Hall of Fame have been announced on an annual basis, with classes ranging from three-to-five inductees per year.
Despite the fits and starts of its first 13 years, the 18 athletes, coaches, administrators and supporters inducted in those first five classes are all worthy members of the Geneseo Sports Hall of Fame and have some interesting individual stories to tell.
Ira Wilson was unanimously chosen as the inaugural member of the Hall and was afforded additional distinction by being the sole member of the first class. His was a face and name synonymous with Geneseo—the college, town and village—for over a half century. Wilson came to the Geneseo Normal School in 1925 as its physical education director. He ran recreational programs for students of the Normal School and the village’s schools and likewise coached for both: baseball, track and basketball at the college (as well as golf in later years) and baseball and track at the high school. He also pitched and played first base for the Geneseo town baseball team in the 1920s and subsequently coached the same squad, as well as Livingston County’s American Legion team.
Wilson had a myriad of other administrative duties over his long career, including director of physical education, dean of men and director of extension, director of recruitment and director of air cadet training during World War II. After the war he became a member of the history faculty, teaching full-time until his official retirement in 1969 and continuing part-time until 1971.
In retirement, Wilson was an annual and generous financial contributor to the college’s athletic programs. He was frequently seen in the stands at Geneseo basketball games, in the dugout of Knights’ baseball contests or purposefully striding across the river flats on one of the 15-20 mile walks he claimed to be the secret of his remarkable physical condition. In 1975, Wilson was further honored by having the ice arena named for him.
Frank Akers was cut from the same cloth as Wilson, likewise serving in an era when athletic department members performed a variety of administrative duties and coached a number of different sports. Akers was inducted in 1974 and was fittingly the second Hall of Fame member. He served as director of men’s athletics for 17 years through the ’50s and ’60s, and coached the three major sports of his time: basketball, baseball and soccer. He also saw to the expansion of Geneseo’s athletic offerings, initiating programs in swimming, lacrosse, golf, tennis and cross country.
Akers had interesting professional activities outside his duties at Geneseo. While a member of the college’s staff, he also served as a professional baseball scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates and was an instructor at the team’s Spring Training camp from 1957-60. He had played professionally in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organization from 1940-42 and 1947-48, sandwiched around a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, during which he was stationed in Libya and Kurachi, Guyana.
The third set of honorees, the Class of 1980, saw the first inductees who were student-athletes at Geneseo, notably Fred Brown ’55 and Don Checho ’60. Brown and Checho were from the time of multiple-sport participants. Brown was a top competitor in all three of the sports in which he played, earning 11 of a possible 12 letters in soccer, basketball and baseball. His career scoring average for basketball was in double figures and in baseball, he was the team leader in most offensive categories in his junior and senior years, earning a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates after graduation (one can envision Coach Akers having a role in his signing).
Brown was the MVP of the 1954 undefeated soccer team (7-0-1) and also earned votes for All-America honors. (That team, the first unbeaten team of any kind at Geneseo, was coached by Akers. Perhaps the foundation for that success was set the year before, when he terminated the 1953 season early after dismissing 12 of the team’s 17 players for an infraction of training regulations during a road trip to Plattsburgh.)
While also participating in soccer and golf, Checho was primarily known for his basketball talent. And had Geneseo offered more sports during his time, he no doubt would have garnered more honors. At East Rochester High School he was an all-county quarterback in football and a track and field county champion in high jump and pole vault. Even then, however, basketball was his main sport and it earned him a scholarship to Syracuse University, where he played on the freshman team with future football legend Jim Brown.
Unhappy with his playing time, Checho left Syracuse after his first year and enlisted in the Army. While stationed in Washington, D.C., he played on a highly-competitive squad with and against top college players. Upon his discharge, he was offered a scholarship at Marquette University, but he had decided to become a teacher and enrolled at Geneseo.
Checho’s performance on the court earned him the nickname of “Wizard of the Genesee Valley” and by his graduation in 1960 he had laid claim to all of Geneseo’s major basketball scoring records. He was also the first recipient of the Ira S. Wilson award, given annually to the graduating male student-athlete who is judged to have had the most outstanding playing career at Geneseo.
The fourth set of Hall of Fame inductees—the Class of 1984—is notable not only for its size (eight, the largest set of inductees ever) but also for its variety. The sports of cross country, wrestling and swimming are among those represented for the first time, exemplifying the expansion of the athletic programs over the ‘60s and ’70s. And more typical of those to be selected in the coming years, the honorees were all one-sport participants.
Among those honored was wrestler Alan Solomon ’74, a sport no longer offered at Geneseo. Even had the program continued, future participants would have been challenged to match Solomon’s career record of 70-17-1. He was a force at the state level from his first year, when he finished fourth in the state. He climbed to third as a sophomore, then second as a junior and the natural progression to state champion seemed inevitable until an injury sidelined him for most of his senior year. Solomon also competed on the national stage, qualifying for the NCAA Championships in his sophomore and junior years, with the injury again impacting his senior campaign. Two years after graduating, he competed in the 1976 Olympic trials, finishing 12th in his weight class.
Also notable in the Class of 1984 was the induction of William “Bud” Dietsch ’33, the only posthumous selection ever in the Hall of Fame. Dietsche was an outstanding competitor in football, basketball and baseball at Geneseo High School and applied his talents in the latter two sports at Geneseo Normal. He led the basketball team to one of its first winning seasons in 1933 and on the diamond, played first base and catcher.
He excelled in baseball and “was easily the outstanding first baseman of the [local] amateur teams,” noted a local newspaper, and his skill earned him a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals’ top minor-league team, the Rochester Red Wings. Over the span of two weeks in the summer of 1933 he traveled on a daily basis to practice with the team in Rochester and a contract offer was expected. On Aug. 23, 1933, Dietsche and a friend, James McGuire, were returning from watching a night game in the city when their car, driven by McGuire, collided with a truck. McGuire died on impact while Dietsche was pulled from the flaming wreck by the passengers in the truck. Unfortunately his burns and injuries were too severe and he passed away the next morning at the age of 20.
Fittingly, William’s brother James, a 1933 Geneseo graduate, represented him at the Hall of Fame induction.
As mentioned above, the Class of 1985 was notable in that it represented the beginning of an unbroken string of annual inductees, as well as being the first class with a female honoree.
Linda Piccirillo Hinckley ’72 was also unique other ways. She was the first honoree who was both an athlete and coach at Geneseo, as well as the Knights’ first state champion in any sport. She captured New York State titles in the 50- and 100-yard breaststroke at the 1972 championships, setting state records and qualifying for the NCAA meet in both events. As the head coach of Geneseo’s women’s swimming and diving team, she compiled a 54-9-1 record in five seasons, including two state championships (1979-80 & 1980-81) and an undefeated season (15-0 in 1979-80).
Hinckley’s class also expanded the sports represented in the hall, as its inductees included the first members of hockey and lacrosse teams.
Further stories will be shared in future issues of the RAA Newsletter, but in the meantime, click here to view all the members of the SUNY Geneseo Sports Hall of Fame or to find information about making a nomination.
It is worth noting that three of the primary original movers behind the Hall—Robert Riedel, Dan Mullin and Jim Allan—have all been honored by subsequent induction into the organization they helped found. Each has their own interesting stories for future telling, but Allan’s career, in particular, has a singular detail that serves as a reminder of the differences across the multiple eras of Geneseo athletics and is worthy of retelling here. He was a 1961 graduate and accomplished three-sport athlete (soccer, basketball and baseball). Yet his credentials for the Hall of Fame had to be established in his first three seasons—he didn’t play sports in his senior year due to student-teaching responsibilities.
Brian Bennett is director of design and publications and is part of the Athletic Communications and Media Relations staff.