When John Silber took over as president of Boston University in February 1971, the men’s hockey team was readying to be on top of the college hockey world. Under the tutelage of then-head coach Jack Kelley and then-assistant coach Jack Parker, the Terriers won the national championship during Silber’s first year on campus and repeated the feat in 1972 – an accomplishment that didn’t go unnoticed by Silber.
“He came to our [end-of-the-season] banquet in ’72, and he said at the banquet that his job was to make Boston University worthy of its hockey team,” Parker said. “And his job really was to save Boston University. Boston University was on the ropes financially, was on the ropes reputation-wise. It had a lot of positive things going for it, but from a financial point of view, it was in rough shape.
“[Silber said,] ‘first thing we have to do is save this place. The next thing we have to do is make it great,’” Parker said.
With Silber’s passing Thursday at his home in Brookline at the age of 86, the widespread sentiment was that he accomplished all of those things – and much, much more.
Many have attested to how important, albeit often controversial, the Silber era was for BU. But few have been around long enough to witness first-hand the school’s transformation the way Parker has.
Parker played hockey at BU before graduating in 1968 and re-joining the program as an assistant coach shortly thereafter. He has been the team’s head coach since 1973.
“If you took a guy who was my teammate [in the 1960s] who just left school and never came back until now, they wouldn’t recognize the place. They would recognize Myles Standish Hall. Other than that, they wouldn’t even recognize Fenway Park,” Parker said. “[Silber] was the architect of all that. He forced that issue and had the vision that this was going to be different.
“And it certainly is unbelievably different now.”
Parker credited Silber with carrying BU through an “arms race” with universities around the country, as each attempted to raise their standards and convince students to live on campus.
The president recognized a need to upgrade the school’s facilities – everything from dorms to dining halls to classroom buildings – all essential in upping BU’s reputation.
Silber had a bit of an anti-athletics reputation, Parker said, but that was mostly unfounded. Silber supported BU athletics by, well, mostly staying out of it.
Everyone seemed to be OK with that.
“I guess he thought we [the athletics department] were doing a real good job,” Parker said. “His philosophy around here was we wanted excellence in whatever we were doing … If there were things going wrong, he would’ve fixed it. If we weren’t successful, if we weren’t graduating players – and I mean for all sports, not just ice hockey – he would’ve been more involved with it.”
Things on Babcock Street indeed went smoothly, so Silber abided by his “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy, as Parker put it.
BU sacked its football team in October 1997 while Silber was the school’s chancellor, but Parker said that was mostly an economic decision.
“We killed football because it wasn’t earning money,” Parker said frankly. “There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for the sport on campus as far as attendance is concerned, by both students and alums … We were spending $2-$3 million per year on football, and there wasn’t any return on that investment.”
Silber’s real legacy, of course, involves the entire BU community, not one subsection of it, and many will likely remember him for his intimidating, tell-it-how-it-is personality that was integral in BU’s transformation.
Parker is no different.
“He had such a reputation as a tough guy,” Parker said. “He was a presence, that’s for sure – and not just in the president’s office. He was a presence everywhere. And because of that, people would ask me, ‘How do you get along with John Silber? What do you think of John Silber?’
“And I used to tell people … when I see John Silber coming, I go the other way. I always thought the closer you got to him, the closer you got to getting fired.”
That said, the veteran hockey coach was far from getting down on Silber’s lasting effect. Silber may not have been very popular during his time at the school, but it is safe to count Parker among his fans.
“[Silber] was a philosopher and he knew how to run a university, get things going right. This place would’ve been UMass-Boston if it wasn’t for him,” Parker said.
“A lot of people knew what they saw on TV once in a while or read a remark he might’ve made in the newspaper and got the feeling that, ‘Jeez, this guy is a pretty cold guy,’” Parker continued. “He ran [BU] the way it had to be run. He was far from a cold guy.
“If you got to know John Silber, you’d recognize and you’d really know what a good guy he was and what a loyal guy he was. He was really a fabulous guy in so many ways, and a lot of people didn’t know it.”