A Rocky, Yet Unforgettable Ride
Small classes, close friendships, and quality, caring professors are just a few of the fond memories enjoyed by thousands of Westminster College alumni. But for a lucky group of graduates, the uniquely Westminster experience included all these things and something most would not expect at this intimate, academically focused institution: football. For more than 60 years, the ragtag, low-budget Fighting Parsons defended Westminster’s honor on the gridiron. “We were the guys who were good in high school, but too small or not fast enough to play big-time college ball,” says Chris “Keeko” Georgelas (’80), Parsons’ football team member from 1976 to 1979. “When I was on the team, I used to complain about how primitive the program was—the bus we’d take to away games was always breaking down, and my high school’s facilities were better than Westminster’s. I look back on that time as some of the best years in my life. I got a great education, was exposed to people from all over the world, and got to play football.”
Westminster’s first collegiate football game was held when the school was still in its adolescence back in 1919. According to the college’s 1920 yearbook, the Etosian, the scrimmage-style game was played between two teams: the first made up of the juniors, the second comprising the freshman, sophomores, and seniors. The “hotly contested affair showed Coach Rankin what he had to build a team with,” read the Etosian. “[Rankin] picked a squad of 15 men and started to practice in earnest.” The so-called Purps (short for the team’s unofficial name, the Purple and Gold) played high school teams from Park City, Tooele, Grantsville, and Lehi during its inaugural season. The football team, in line with the college’s other sports teams, would take on its official moniker—the Parsons (derived from Westminster’s Protestant roots)—the following season.
Westminster’s fledgling football program grew steadily through the 1920s, but continued to compete mostly with area high school teams, including Salt Lake City’s East and West high schools. With the dawn of the 1930s, the Parsons seemed finally to hit their stride as a college-level team, as noted in the 1931 Etosian: “Enabled for the first time in several years to meet opponents on an equal footing of weight and experience, traditional Westminster fight carried the Parsons to victory in most of their games.”
Enrollment dwindled through the Great Depression and into World War II, taking its toll on several extracurricular activities at Westminster, including football. The Etosian summed up the Parsons’ last season before the team was put on hold in 1942: “Organized under considerable handicap, the Fighting Parsons started their football season with five returning letterman and ten greenlings on the squad. Truly, it was a period of doubt and uncertainty, for our new coach arrived the day before school began, and only nine men reported for the first drill. In two weeks, there were 15 men and so Westminster’s ‘suicide squad’ started its first game against Branch Agricultural College [now known as Southern Utah University], losing the game 48-0.”
In 1948, with the war in the history books and the economy on the rebound, the college enthusiastically reinstated football. “This year, for the first time in six years, Westminster’s Parsons pulled their football paraphernalia out of mothballs and played a full six-game schedule,” read the 1949 Etosian.
Westminster football flourished through the 1950s under the tutelage of Alvin Mercer, a skillful former high school football coach from California. According to Westminster College of Salt Lake City by Douglas Brackenridge, over a span of four years, Mercer’s football teams won 29 games, lost five, and tied two. The Parsons’ success, however, failed to bring in the additional donations that college trustees had hoped for and, in 1961, amid rare displays of student and public protest, Westminster trustees voted to discontinue its football program. “…students hanged and burned President Palmer in effigy from a wrought iron gate,” wrote Brackenridge. “Following the conflagration, they went to the student lounge where a dummy football player lay in state beneath a large cross surrounded by flowers … In the midst of the acrimony over athletics, Palmer resigned.”
After a four-year hiatus and installation of a new administration more supportive of athletics, intercollegiate football returned to Westminster in 1965. Athletic Director Howard Richardson hired an aspiring coach who would later rise to Super Bowl fame: George Seifert, who went on to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers during their legendary Super Bowl wins in 1984 and 1989. Richardson charged Seifert, who had been a University of Utah graduate assistant coach, with building a football program from the ground up. “Within only a couple of months I had to hire a coaching staff, recruit players, set up a game schedule, and buy equipment. I very quickly learned all the details of running a football team—knowledge that continued to serve me throughout my career,” says Seifert, who jumped into Westminster life with both feet. He and his wife lived in an apartment in Foster Hall, and while Seifert was busy coaching, his wife worked as a secretary for one of the deans. Though he would spend only one year at Westminster before taking a coaching position at Iowa State University, Seifert stays in touch with many of the players he coached back in ’65. “I was just 25 when I took the job, not that much older than most of the players and the same age as some. They were just a great bunch of guys,” he says.
One of Seifert’s first Westminster recruits was Bob Sparrow (’68), who was a player on the U’s practice team. Seifert offered Sparrow a sweet deal: a full scholarship to play quarterback for the Parsons. Despite this attractive incentive, transferring to Westminster was a difficult decision for Sparrow. “Compared to the U, football at Westminster was pretty primitive,” recalls Sparrow, who now lives in Orange County, California. “There were maybe 30 players, and most played both offense and defense. And I had other scholarship offers. But after I got into it, I realized it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I got a great education; I loved both the city and the school and made friends for life.”
Seifert was not the Parsons’ only brush with football greatness. In 1968, Coach Chuck Banker took the team’s helm for a brief period. Like Seifert, Banker went on to a Super Bowl victory: his in 1987 as a member of the Washington Redskins’ coaching staff that led the team to victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. And then in 1970, Allen Jacobs, a former player with the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, was hired as Parsons’ football head coach. “Coaching was really my first love. I owe a lot to football. It allowed me to get a degree, and Westminster was the perfect place to be a football coach. I wasn’t looking to go to a bigger college, and I got a lot of support from the president, the staff, and the booster club,” Jacobs says.
Not only were the Parsons a team on the field, but they hung out together off the field as well. Favorite off-campus haunts included the nearby Sugar Bowl Tavern, a few blocks from campus at 2100 South and 1100 East. “We’d also hang out a lot at the Tap Room where you could get seven beers for a dollar,” Sparrow says. “But there was always a group of regulars there willing to buy a bunch of college kids a beer, so often you could go there and not have to spend a dime.”
In 1969, the Parsons achieved Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference status, a designation that swelled team numbers and increased fan attendance at games. Through the 1970s the Parsons played Ricks College (now BYU–Idaho), Adams State, New Mexico Highlands, Western State, Montana Tech, and their big rival, the College of Southern Utah (now Southern Utah University). The Parsons’ record was strong but not exemplary. “We did well to break even,” says Jack Gifford, former Westminster history professor and Parsons’ football team statistician.
In 1981, amid long-term financial turmoil, Westminster began a series of budget cuts toward an eventual reorganization. One of the first programs to go was the Parsons football team, a move that veteran faculty member Susan Cottler says notably changed the campus personality. “When we lost that kind of student—the farm boys who came here on scholarship to play football—some of the fun was gone. You lose something with any population that leaves the school, but when the football team left, the school seemed to lose a certain spark,” Cottler says. Today, despite the growth and success of other intercollegiate sports at Westminster—including basketball, lacrosse, soccer, and volleyball—football has remained in mothballs and is not likely to return.
Despite the Fighting Parsons’ many ups, downs, and eventual dissolution, many players look back on time spent playing football for Westminster with no regrets. “Like a lot of kids coming out of high school, I had this vision of playing college football that included television, flying from city to city, and eating buffets,” laughs Georgelas. “There was none of that at Westminster and, looking back, I think that’s why we were all so close and had so much fun. There was none of the cliques or competition among players as there is on the big college football teams where winning is paramount. We simply played football because we loved the game.”