In the hoopla surrounding the opening of the college basketball season last week, little attention was focused on a game played in a small gym in Lexington, Va. before an audience of only 500. Even the final score excited few people outside the state of Virginia, though probably the longest-odds team anywhere in the nation that night had apparently put on a remarkable performance. The team was Washington and Lee, the first group of "amateur" Generals since the school dropped athletic subsidization in 1954. Last spring, the few remaining holders of athletic scholarships had been graduated, and W&L, rich in traditions going back to 1749, looked apprehensively to its athletic fortunes. As is often the case, an appreciation of the past illuminates these current events.
George Washington still contributes $12 toward the education of every student at Washington and Lee. The money comes from the earnings of 100 shares of stock in the James River Navigation Company, which Washington gave to the school, then called Liberty Hall Academy, in 1796. Grateful trustees promptly changed its name to Washington College. More than half a century later, after General Robert E. Lee had served as president, his name was added and the school became a university.
Today, a statue of Washington, carved out of a single pine log and thickly crusted with layers of white paint, stands atop W&L's oldest building and faces, across campus, the simple, sedate exterior of Lee Chapel, designed and built by the general also as a gift to the school. Inside the chapel, where Lee and his family are buried, is the famous recumbent marble statue of Lee, flanked by Confederate battle flags—still the goal of thousands of tourists.
For these and other visitors there is much else to please the eye on this picture-book campus tucked into a hilly, wooded corner of Virginia's lush Shenandoah Valley. It is a friendly place; the stranger is greeted warmly by students and faculty alike as he strolls the ancient brick walks—a custom which once brought the school a million-dollar endowment and a new gymnasium. In the early 1920s, a tourist from the North was so impressed with the courtesy shown him that he willed this sum and provisions for a fine athletic plant.
MANY SCHOOLS NOW BIGGER
Dr. William M. Hinton, chairman of W&L's athletic committee, professor of psychology and education, a rabid and knowledgeable sports fan, explains the administration's position thus: "I'm a W&L man myself, class of '29, and I've been on the campus practically ever since. No one is prouder of our athletic traditions. But it had been apparent for years that we could no longer compete on our past level, except at serious cost both academically and financially. The competition for good athletes had grown to the point where, if you wanted to play in our league, you had to accept some boys who were poor academic risks. At the same time, you were subsidizing boys who were poor or average students, and were unable to offer help to top-grade students. Each year the cost grew bigger. Football got all the money it needed, and the minor sports had to be content with splitting up the rest, often less than enough for adequate equipment. We can't draw large, paying crowds from the Lexington area, so we were playing away from home, putting on a show for strangers instead of our own people. Some friends of mine say we ought to drop intercollegiate competition altogether. I can't agree. I like to see those good-looking, hard-nose boys who want to play football and basketball and lacrosse walking around our campus. They add something important to your student body. And we'll continue to get them. This year 80 boys turned out for football, more than ever before, even under subsidization. And we darn near beat Sewanee, a good single-wing team. All we need is a few wins in a few sports and this furor will die down. When I was a student, we were already having trouble in football, but we had a fine wrestling team. And our attitude was—if we couldn't beat the Wahoos in football, we could at least wring their necks."
ALUMNI STILL PROTEST
These views have thus far failed to win over a substantial number of influential alumni groups and at least a majority of the undergraduates, all of whom find it hard to accept such names as Sewanee, Wittenberg and Centre on W&L sports schedules. The prevailing view of this opposition is that a limited number of athletic scholarships would still enable the school to compete against the Virginias, VPIs and Richmonds. Probably the trustees are the realists. Today, no school that offers 20 athletic scholarships can compete successfully for long with another that offers 100. This involves no judgment of the morality of athletic scholarships but a recognition of the open-market bidding for athletes of all kinds.
Nevertheless, when the Generals opened their basketball season last week with the very first all-amateur team, still playing a Southern Conference schedule, the overwhelming undergraduate sentiment was that W&L's athletic traditions were being disgraced and that the players, disgruntled themselves, would fail to arouse any school spirit. True enough, the team, to a man, was in favor of some program of athletic scholarships, especially (understandably) for basketball men. On the other hand, their coach—crew-cut, earnest Bob McHenry, only 24 years old and himself an amateur starting his first season—could honestly say he was for the amateur program: "Under subsidization, I wouldn't be the coach."
Well, neither McHenry nor his players disgraced anyone. They faced a strong William and Mary team, composed almost wholly of scholarship men, three of whom were inches taller than W&L's biggest player, and they were conceded little chance to put on even a reasonably close game. But McHenry had scouted William and Mary well and was able to use his boys with maximum strategic effect.
In the final analysis, however, it was the very quality they were supposed neither to have nor evoke—spirit—that proved their greatest asset. They hustled endlessly, actually rebounded on even terms with William and Mary despite the vast difference in height. Under the sure hand of Mal Lassman, their attack was relentless and intelligent, rarely losing the ball through amateurish errors.
At the end of regular time, the score was 52 all. At the end of the first five-minute overtime period, it was 56 all. They lost, finally, 63-60, never having abandoned their poise, and to student cheers such as have seldom greeted winning W&L teams. Rather than disgracing, they surely enhanced a proud tradition.
George Washington, it appears, invested that stock wisely.