NEW LONDON -- Coast Guard Academy athletic director Tim Fitzpatrick was describing the typical Coast Guardsman early Thursday afternoon: understated, demure.
"They're not going to throw their chest out for things they did," Fitzpatrick said. "We're throwing their chest out for them."
The academy celebrated the ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday night for the Otto Graham Hall of Athletic Excellence, a $2.4 million dollar project unfurled at the school's existing Billard Hall, across from the football stadium. The festivities coincided with Coast Guard's Athletic Hall of Fame and Alumni Association Awards Dinner, which kicked off Homecoming Weekend.
The Hall of Athletic Excellence, named for former Coast Guard athletic director and football coach Otto Graham -- a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame -- was a gift to the academy from the Alumni Association, which relied on private donations.
Among the Graham centerpieces are a bust of the former Cleveland Browns quarterback, presented to the academy by the Class of 1964 at its recent 50th reunion, and a Cleveland Browns Ring of Honor mural donated by Graham's family.
The Coast Guard Athletic Hall of Fame was relocated to the building and there are shadow boxes depicting the history of each of the school's varsity sports. There is also a spot for historic teams at the academy, as well as "Famous Coasties," including golfer Arnold Palmer, boxer Jack Dempsey and astronaut Bruce Melnick.
"It's time," Fitzpatrick said. "This place has a storied past, a vibrant present and a progressive, strong future. Our aspiration was to pull all that together. ... There's a lot of blue and orange in here.
"It shows we're an institution with an indelible commitment to athletics ... an institution that wants to tell its story. I'm very proud of this night."
Fitzpatrick said that as he often wonders about building bridges, this project was a case of "where do you start?"
In this instance, the concept originated with former Coast Guard offensive lineman/linebacker Bill Thompson, who played for Graham during the 1963 season when the Bears finished the regular season 8-0 and went on to play Western Kentucky in the Tangerine Bowl.
Thompson established the Otto Graham Athletic Legacy Fund within the Alumni Association in 2004 to honor Graham. The fund was designed to benefit and support the athletic program, while also raising funds through the annual Otto Graham Golf Classic to create the Hall of Athletic Excellence.
Fitzpatrick, named Coast Guard's AD in 2011, had a visit from Thompson soon after. Fitzpatrick later enlisted help from the athletic department's media relations director, Jason Southard, to come up with ideas for honoring the Bears' greatest moments.
"This concept evolved over time. It was Bill's vision," Fitzpatrick said. He found me to be a susceptible and willing partner."
"I did all this (thinking) at 3'clock in the morning when I rolled over," Southard said Thursday. "They asked us to come up with the three major accomplishments for each team and sometimes 10 would come to me right away."
Coast Guard softball coach Donna Koczajowski, in her 20th season, called the display of historic teams her "favorite wall." And not just for her own teams' success (the softball team qualified for four straight NCAA tournaments from 2009-2012).
"It evokes positive memories of my teams and my colleague's teams," Koczajowski said. "... It's good to see a tribute to all the athletes in all the sports. It's a indication of how much athletics means to the academy."
"I think it's awesome," head baseball coach and assistant football coach C.C. Grant said. "It kind of blends the past and where we are right now. They put in a lot of hard work and a lot of research; I never knew Jack Dempsey was in the Coast Guard. It certainly gives the place a different feel and look."
Billard Hall, which houses the coaches' offices, including a renovated football suite -- the football offices were phase one of the building project, Fitzpatrick said -- will continue to be used as a recreation space, serving, for instance, as the home site of wrestling matches.
Fitzpatrick has seen Coast Guard officers touring the new space with tears in their eyes.
"And you should see the reaction of the cadets because they haven't known what's going on in here," Fitzpatrick said. "One said to me, 'Mr. Fitzpatrick, I'm just an (intramural) warrior, but I've got to tell you, this place is awesome.'"