Becoming Regis

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How Regis lost its Sacred Heart but got its name



A common misconception is that the college of Sacred Heart became Regis College 100 years ago to avoid the wrath of the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, a rising political force in Denver at the time. The real reason, however, had to do with a president’s optimistic goals — and athletic trash talk. 

The Very Rev. Robert M. Kelley, S.J, was very much the proverbial young man in a hurry when he arrived at the College of the Sacred Heart in Denver in late summer 1920.  

He was born the same year as the college itself, which had relocated and renamed itself twice since its formation in 1877 in New Mexico. The campus on the outskirts of Denver had one substantial building, Main Hall, surrounded by acres of bare dirt due to a depleted spring, and a ledger that bled red chronically. 

A speech Kelley made two years later was titled “Idealism and the College President.” The text has been lost, but it certainly reflected his audacious agenda. 

One of his first acts: Changing the college’s name.  

It was all precipitated when Sacred Heart began to compete in intercollegiate sports in the 1910s. The Jesuit fathers became so alarmed by opponents’ fans yelling things like “Kill Sacred Heart” they placed in the college catalogs warnings to not use the college name in conjunction with athletic events without express permission. They also lamented that the college’s initials, S.H.C, inspired students to refer to it as “The Shack.” 

Enter the new president with the ambitious goal of raising $1 million. He saw a revived alumni association and robust athletics as keys to generating enthusiasm. And restrictions on uttering the college’s name stood in his way.  

So, five months into his presidency, he convinced the board to change the name and asked faculty for suggestions. The leading candidates were Newman and Regis, but when it was reported the Jesuit Provincial in St. Louis preferred Regis, the board quickly agreed, making the new name effective July 1, 1921.  

“The reasons for the change are evident,” the school newspaper reported on page 2 that May. “Our old name was too sacred for the sport yells and athletic columns [in the newspaper].”  

“... the very reluctance with which the students abandon the title ‘Sacred Heart College,’ is our very best assurance that the same genuine loyalty and college spirit will be ours again and remain ever unchanged,” the students editorialized. 

The name did not have the intended firepower. Kelley’s goal — seeking the equivalent of $15.5 million in today’s dollars — was to build new facilities and enroll 1,000 students by 1930. He envisioned a gymnasium, chapel, power and light plant, infirmary, science hall, more residence halls and athletic fields for the high school and college. The effort fell short at $250,000, but resulted in Carroll Hall, the northeast addition to Main Hall (briefly called Gonzaga Hall), and a football stadium. Kelley also acquired 39 acres east to Federal Boulevard, nearly doubling the size of campus, while leaving the college deep in debt. 

While not the goal, the name change did not deter the KKK from attempting to burn a cross on campus a few years later. When Kelley arrived in 1920, Colorado’s governor had attended a reception to welcome him. But four years later, the state elected Gov. Clarence Morley, a Klansman so vehemently anti-Catholic that, with Prohibition already in place, he tried to also outlaw sacramental wine. In 1926, Kelley left Regis to become president of Loyola Chicago.  

He returned for a second stint as president in 1935 and once again confronted meager finances. Among his first acts then was to restore intercollegiate football, suspended since the beginning of the Great Depression.

 A Hundred Years of Rangers

For years the College of the Sacred Heart’s athletic teams had competed against Tigers, Cowboys and Orediggers without a nickname of their own. When the college was renamed “Regis College” in 1921, the opportunity to change that presented itself.  

The student newspaper, The Brown and Gold, announced a contest that October to choose “a name by which they may be known on the sporting pages and around which new yells will be built.”  

The next month the paper reported that “Rangers” was the overwhelming favorite, chosen from among hundreds of entries, including Mustangs, Greyhounds, Bob Cats, Crusaders, Regals, Plainsmen and Hillmen. “Besides being a name at once racy, aggressive and full of meaning to a Westerner, when linked with Regis, it possesses the music of alliteration and readily lends itself to yells.”  

The alumnus behind the winning name remained anonymous and donated the $10 prize to the athletics association.



College of the Sacred Heart varsity baseball players pose in their uniforms in the spring of 1921, before the Regis College name change. 



Photos courtesy of Regis University Archives and Special Collections.