George Birger had an outsized impact on the history of Lakehead University athletics. He was a beloved mentor, father figure, coach, and athletics director who inspired strong loyalty.
When George passed away from COVID-19 on October 10, 2020, in Tucson, Arizona, at the age of 91, the University mourned the death of one of our early leaders. So did former athletes like Jerry Hemmings who played on Lakehead’s championship 1969-70 Nor’Westers basketball team.
“From a players’ perspective, Coach Birger was outstanding,” Jerry says.
He knew how to motivate with intensity, humour and compassion.
“Coach was very focused on the bench and if the score got close, he got nervous and started chewing on his towel,” Jerry adds.
Fittingly, George was born in Winner, South Dakota, in 1929, where he excelled as athlete during his school years. During this period, he began to see sports as a way to build character and cultivate the values of good citizenship.
This insight became the catalyst for a distinguished 50-year career in athletic programs in high schools and universities throughout the United States and Canada.
George’s coaching skills brought him and his wife Lorine to schools in Canada and the United States, including Ontario, Manitoba, South Dakota, Idaho, Prince Edward Island, and Arizona.
He began his career as an assistant basketball coach with the University of South Dakota in the early 1960s and then, in 1967, Lakehead University had the good fortune to hire George as our athletics director and men’s basketball coach.
In a 2015 Lakehead Thunderwolves podcast, George recalled those early years.
“When I came, we were a very small department. We only had four people in the department – Henry Akervall who was the hockey coach, Bill Shannon who was our coordinator, and Chris Siciliano and myself.”
The small size of the athletics staff didn’t limit the basketball coach’s ambitions.
“We had the new gym that could hold quite a few people,” George explained in 2015, “And I said, ‘I’m going to fill that gym’ and most people thought it was a big laugh that we’d ever fill that for basketball. Maybe hockey, but not basketball. Well, it didn’t take very long and that place was plumb full all the way, all the time standing room only.”
Part of Coach Birger’s strategy was to cast his net wide in his search for talented basketball players.
“George was relentless in his efforts to recruit student athletes. He recruited me to Lakehead in 1969,” explains Jerry, who is originally from North Carolina. “It was the start of a 50-year friendship.”
By George’s third year of coaching, Lakehead was accepted into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
George was quoted in the Argus student newspaper as saying of NAIA, “The main point is that our top athletes will now receive the recognition they deserve and the door is wide open for Lakehead University to build an international reputation, particularly in sports such as hockey and basketball.”
Success came quickly and by the 1969-70 season, Lakehead’s basketball team, including Jerry Hemmings, had slam dunked their way to the NAIA District 13 championship playoffs in Minneapolis.
“It was a great year,” George said in the 2015 podcast, “we kept winning and winning until we finished the season with 23 wins and one loss. We beat some very good American and Canadian teams. We were the best men’s basketball team in Lakehead’s history.”
The basketball court wasn’t the only place George expected his players to shine. He always stressed the importance of a good education.
“That’s one thing I can say,” George said about the 1969-70 team, “all these guys got a degree because I pounded it into them, ‘You’ve got to study, you’ve got to be in class every day, and you’ve got to put your best efforts forward each time.’”
George’s influence continued to grow when he served as Lakehead's athletic director from 1971 to1974. According to Jerry, “George was instrumental in starting summer basketball camps and hosting Christmas basketball tournaments along with coaching clinics for high school and rural-area coaches.”
His mentorship allowed student athletes like Jerry Hemmings to fulfil their potential. Jerry was Brandon University’s head men’s basketball coach from 1974 to 2004 as well as a Physical Education and Recreational Services instructor. George, incidentally, was Brandon University’s athletics director from 1978 until 1987.
The accomplishments of George Birger will always be remembered. He and the 1969-70 basketball team were honoured at Lakehead’s 2015 Athletics Wall of Fame ceremony and his legacy lives on in the hearts of our alumni.
Listen to the 2015 podcast interview with George Birger and former Lakehead basketball players Louis Vaughn and Jerry Hemmings.
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