Eric Hamilton ’75 sensed that his players were too uptight as they prepared to take on William Patterson on Sept. 16, 1977. So he used his first pregame speech as head football coach to instill a relaxed mentality. When he swung open the locker room doors, he drew glances of awe and dropped jaws as he walked in donning scuba gear, including goggles, flippers and a snorkel.
“I put the gear on, walked into that locker room, and said, ‘Guys, here we go,’” Hamilton recalled recently. “It broke the ice, broke the tension, and we went out and we won, 14-0.”
When Hamilton, a former All-American center for the Lions, took over the football program, he was just 23 years old and the youngest head football coach in the country. He commented at the time that he wanted to stop the revolving cast of coaches the Lions had had during the previous few seasons. Thirty-five years and 200-plus wins later, it’s safe to say he accomplished that goal.
But back to that first game, which occurred under anything but ideal conditions. Hamilton recalled that the day before and day of the contest, it rained so much, “We were ready to build an ark.” The Lions relied on the legs of junior fullback Tom Hendricks ’79, who rushed for 107 yards, and the defense, which held the Pioneers to 152 yards of total offense. By the end of the game, Hamilton was more concerned with figuring out where his team was on the field and making sure no one drowned than he was about it being his first game at the helm. It wasn’t the way he had pictured his coaching debut, but it was a day that will stay in his mind forever.
“It was a game I’ll never forget because of the rain and what I did before the game, which was crazy. Looking back, some may even say it was stupid, but the fact that we had gone through some hard times (in previous years) and came out and won the first game was really important.”