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Master recruiter George Birger put Brandon University on the map long before his efforts culminated in the school’s first national men’s basketball championship.
While the 1987 Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union title was the end of his time in Brandon, the impact of the former BU athletic director’s work lives on through his death on Saturday at the age of 91.
Simply put, the Fairfax, S.D., native was much more than an athletic director to many in Bobcat Nation.
"In a lot of ways he was like a father figure to me," said Jerry Hemmings, former BU men’s basketball coach.
"He basically brought me to Canada and my life in a lot of ways has been shaped by him in terms of being involved in playing, on into coaching and having the opportunity to work for him."
Birger recruited Hemmings to Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., from Mount Airy, N.C., in 1969 during his coaching tenure, which followed a remarkable high school sports career as an all-state football star in South Dakota and three-sport letterman.
He moved to Arizona for a job as assistant general manager of the Tucson Mavericks in the Central Hockey League in 1975, then volunteering in the SouthWest Hockey League in the southern United States before it folded in 1977.
He applied for the head men’s basketball coach job at the University of Prince Edward Island in 1977, coincidentally competing for the job with Hemmings, who took over as BU bench boss in 1974. It would have been a perfect transition after Hemmings was informed his contract would not be renewed the following year.
But Hemmings asked the UPEI athletic director one question that ultimately changed the course of his and Birger’s lives.
"I said if you don’t hire me, who would you hire for his job? He said I’d offer the job to George Birger," Hemmings said.
"He shared that with me and at that time I had a job. I thought ‘Golly, there’s no way I want to knock George out of getting this job."
Hemmings stayed at Brandon, ultimately receiving a new contract before becoming one of the winningest coaches in U Sports history (736 victories). UPEI hired Birger, and that paid dividends for BU soon enough.
Birger brought top recruits including Jude Kelly and Keith Strieter to the Island before he landed in Brandon at age 48, following the resignation of BU hockey coach and athletic director Trevor Fahey in 1978. The duo followed him.
"George was the reason why I came to Brandon," said Kelly, a future four-time Great Plains Athletic Conference all-star from Hamilton.
"I had been recruited by a number of schools and spoke to coach Hemmings a few times the summer of 1979. I told him I was going to St. (Francis Xavier) and had already committed there. George Birger called me up early August and laid out another pitch on how great the school was. He basically sold me on the university and came with this spectacular pitch. I couldn’t say no."
Kelly came to Brandon after one year at UPEI and made an immediate impact. Off the court, Birger certainly made him feel like the trip west was the right call.
"George was genuine. He cared for the players," Kelly said.
"He had the curiosity of a kid and was always interested in what you were doing and how he could help. He was always telling jokes or pulling practical jokes and was a fun guy to be around."
When the Bobcats captured their first GPAC title in 1980, Kelly’s first season with the team, the AD had a surprise Kelly wouldn’t soon forget.
"George, he was really really happy, you could tell. Rumour had it he won a major bet off the athletic director at the University of Winnipeg but that was never confirmed. He comes down and sees me in the change room. He pulls me over … and says ‘Hey Jude, after you shower take my car keys. I got something for you in the trunk,’" Kelly said.
"He had this beautiful red Cadillac … I took a couple of the guys with me and opened the trunk of the car and there were 10 cases of beer in there of varying varieties. We grabbed … six cases, left four down there and came back. I saw George in the office room and he said ‘Did you leave me some? I said ‘Yeah, four cases.’ He said ‘Thank you very much.’ That was it.
"That was a really nice treat because he knew we were going to be celebrating and bought that in advance. He was just a really great man."
Lew Worrell, who played five seasons for BU from 1975 to 1980, saw Birger’s impact on both the Bobcats and Lakehead Thunderwolves.
"Thunder Bay had a great program and were a formidable opponent. It’s like a house George built and I think Brandon is the second," Worrell said.
"(He was) very successful at both places, which is a testament to his influence."
Hemmings had the inside look at how Birger managed to bring athletes in from his experience as a player and coach.
"He was the guy that really set the wheels in motion because when I first started at BU in 1974, we really didn’t have budgets for recruiting. We didn’t have a phone budget and back then telephone calls were expensive. We did things by correspondence, by the postal system," Hemmings said.
"You’d send a recruiting form and the first question was ‘Are you interested in attending Brandon University, yes or no?’ The kids that sent the forms back were the ones you’d try to recruit.
"… I found out once George came here that some kids just don’t get around to completing forms, it doesn’t mean they’re not interested. I learned from him in recruiting that you never take no for an answer."
Ask anyone around university sport in Canada, and Birger’s best skill was his recruiting ability. In fact, he was influencing players to join teams long before crossing the border. Former BU men’s basketball coach Gary Howard, who ran the team from 1968 to 1974 before taking a job at the University of Calgary, experienced it back in 1957 — in his junior year of high school.
Birger convinced him to suit up for the University of South Dakota, where he was a graduate assistant. Howard played four years there after Birger moved on to coach at various high schools in South Dakota and Idaho, then nearly got the Lakehead job in 1968 — if it wasn’t for Birger.
"I was a sacrificial lamb. There was no way I was going to compete with George," Howard said.
"He got the job and more power to him. That same year he contacted me at Sheridan and gave me the heads up on the job available at Brandon and was very supportive of me getting that job."
"Every time my team went to play his team we got an education," he added with a laugh.
Former University of Winnipeg Wesmen head coach and AD Vic Pruden agrees.
"He was a good recruiter, which was very important and he was a good game coach. He got along with his players, which is important," Pruden said.
"He was very supportive of the program and that doesn’t always happen if you’re a coach. All the programs are fighting for money and it depends who the athletic director is. George was obviously biased — he was a basketball coach himself — and he supported the program very successfully."
"… It wasn’t easy for him because there was always a group of academics at Brandon who weren’t always keen on athletics. He didn’t have an easy job there."
Birger also brought in Janet Lumsden — one of the top players in BU women’s basketball history — after watching her play at the 1979 Canada Games in Brandon. Lumsden guided the Bobcats to a top 10 national ranking and within one victory of reaching the national tournament in the early 1980s.
Under Birger, the Bobcats reached the national final in his second season as AD, winning two CIAU bronze medals before another silver in 1983.
Birger’s time at BU wasn’t without controversy, however, as in 1984 the program was placed on probation due to a reported amount of more than $44,000 in overpayments to athletes. He was fired two weeks later and a lengthy arbitration process followed. He took a sabbatical for the 1985-86 season at the University of Arizona and was reinstated to return to BU the following year.
After a few more issues were sorted out, he returned in time to see his Bobcats capture the national title in Halifax in 1987, beating the University of British Columbia in a gold-medal game capped off by a thundering John Carson dunk.
Birger moved on to be the facility and equipment director at the University of Arizona for more than 20 years.
"That was tough. When he left that day I cried like a baby. I was so emotional," Hemmings said. "To play for a coach, then have the opportunity to work for that same coach as an athletic director knowing here’s a guy you’ve played for and now is helping you prepare for your success in sport and is a guy you can always talk to, we maintained that relationship for 51 years."
His death was just a month after his daughter Denise died suddenly on Sept. 9 at age 61. He contracted COVID-19 and succumbed to the virus.
Birger stayed in touch with a number of former BU athletes and coaches through his final days, and those who he spoke with in the past month said he was as sharp as ever.
"Sports meant so much to him," Hemmings said.
"I look back at him at Brandon and he was the guy that in the morning would always have coffee with other personnel across campus, he did community things, he never missed a Wheat Kings hockey game if there wasn’t some conflict with BU sports. He was at every game.
"… If you loved sports, you couldn’t have been around a greater guy."
» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen
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