War on 54 gone cold over years

By Matt Riedl, news editor

Matt Riedl. Photographer
The Friends University Clock Tower, which adorns Davis Hall, the university’s administrative building, has been a campus staple since the university’s founding in 1898.

At Newman University, the weather outside is not the only thing starting to turn cold. What was once a heated, bitter rivalry between NU and Friends University is practically nonexistent to any current Jet. It never used to be that way; on the contrary, the rivalry was going strong as recently as 2006.

When NU joined the NCAA in the fall of 2006, competition between the university and Friends was not seen as beneficial to either institution, so the “War on 54” was ended.

The War on 54, named after the highway connecting the two universities, dates as far back as the 1960s, Sr. Charlotte Rohrbach, director of archives, said; however, the rivalry was not made official until the 1970s, when Kirk Lester, ’74, and his touch football team decided to buy a traveling trophy for the competition. Their trophy, called the “Flying 54,” still sits in the O’Shaughnessy Hall trophy case today.

“Men’s basketball was the thing back then,” Lester said. “After a big victory every­one would do a walk­out, where they would just get up and walk out of class.”

Over the years, New­man led the series 52-37. Along with the ri­valry came pranking on both sides, he said.

“There was a lot of banter­ing back and forth at the games,” Lester said. “If they won, they would TP our campus and vice versa. It was real intense.”

Current Head Men’s Basketball Coach Mark Pot­ter played for the Jets in the mid-1980s and said he remembers the rivalry between Newman and Friends.

“It was such a big deal that if we beat Friends, we were off school the next day,” Potter said. “You talk about people getting involved – the houses were packed.”

The series had a hiccup in 1987, when NU sus­pended its men’s basketball program. At the time, the Jets played home games at Century II and costs were getting too expensive, Lester said. When the Jets coach left for the University of Central Okla­homa, he took the Flying 54 trophy with him.

“Why he would take it is beyond me,” Lester said. “I never understood why he took it.”

When the men’s team was reinstated in 1998, Potter, who was now serving as head coach, recov­ered the Flying 54 when the Jets played Central Oklahoma.

As the rivalry started to get fiercer and more mean in the 2000s, the universities tried to make it more of a Spirit Week event, Rohrbach said. The schools would put on events like canned food drives and similar things, but the rivalry kept get­ting fiercer, Lester said. Finally, when NU joined the NCAA in 2006, the rivalry was put to an end because Friends was still an NAIA school.

Potter, who both played and coached during the War on 54, said the best thing about it was the in­volvement from the student body.

“I always loved it as a player but hated it as a coach,” Potter said. “There were always incredible crowds.”

Lester said the pranking between the two schools was seen as more appropriate at the time, when things were not so “politically correct” as they are today.

“Back then it wasn’t politically incorrect to be that way,” Lester said. “Back in my day it was stan­dard operating procedure.”

Potter said the rivalry is unlikely to continue unless Friends moves from NAIA to NCAA Division 2 as well, in which case he would be receptive to scheduling the Falcons again.

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