Any campus rebellion should be pleased to have an undergraduate like William Alfred Skinner in its front line. Skinner stands 6'6½", weighs 235, is awesomely tattooed, knows how to use his fists and can throw a spear almost 300 feet. In other respects his credentials as a militant seem less emphatic. Now 31, Skinner has been married, divorced and is a father. He did a hitch in the Navy. He is a certified welder and sheet-metal worker, as were his father and his grandfather. If Skinner took any interest in politics it would be as a conservative Democrat. He believes it is sheer laziness to go on unemployment, that everyone should be drafted, that the American flag should be dipped to no authority or symbol on earth.
This is a student revolutionary? You'd sooner expect to find Skinner, like Horatius at the bridge, barring the door to the dean's office. And yet, because he refuses to shave off his mustache, Skinner has challenged the authority of the University of Tennessee's powerful and profitable athletic department and caused a great deal of embarrassment to the administration.
Last year, as a 30-year-old junior, Skinner won three national javelin titles and defeated the Olympic champion in the U.S.A.-U.S.S.R. dual meet. This year he has been barred from the training table, suspended from the track squad and will not be defending his title next week at the NCAA track and field championships in Seattle, although he is the cover boy of the NCAA's 1971 Track and Field Guide—clean-shaven, wearing a big T on his chest.
As at many another university, the coaches in what is known as Big Orange Country sincerely believe that short hair and clean-shaven faces may be the last rampart protecting their boys from the tidal wave of drugs, promiscuity, anarchy and cooties that has engulfed other campuses. And rules are rules, even if you're 31.
June 13, 1971
The rule that Skinner has chosen to disregard is No. 5 on a list of seven parietal regulations posted in Bill Gibbs Hall, the quaintly named athletic dormitory at Tennessee. Rule No. 5 must also be observed by all team members whether they reside in Bill Gibbs or not. It reads: "Appearance—No mustaches, goatees, etc. allowed. Extremely long hair will not be tolerated."
Athletic Director Bob (Coach) Woodruff, a gruff, portly former Vol lineman and line coach who, from behind an immense desk and a bright orange telephone, presides over one of the most successful athletic programs in the country, defends the code.
"These things are something the staff gets together and works out each year," says Woodruff, who picks his way carefully through each sentence he utters, as if a word might suddenly explode in his face. "We advise the boys by mail in advance about the rules. It's a voluntary program. If a boy decides that he can't go according to the rules it's his choice whether or not he's going to continue to participate on a team and keep his athletic grant. These rules are not made to restrict the individual, but to help the team, to help guys to work together. Our fans and our student body look up to and respect our athletes. We have to stay away from any possible image of drug taking."
Skinner's image is that of a serious, thoughtful, stubborn man, aware of the hypocrisy, if not the humor, involved in giving an athletic scholarship to a man in his 30s and then treating him like a teen-ager.
"Don't take me for a radical or a hippie," Skinner pleads. "I'm just an athlete, trying to get along. This all started over what I considered an invasion of privacy. Now it's more than that. In a small way I'm challenging the department's false standards and misrepresentations, protesting against the fact that all athletes outside of the football team are treated as second-class citizens."
Organized athletics aren't Skinner's bag. At high school in Wilmington, Del. Skinner didn't go out for sports. Instead, he set pins in a bowling alley for seven to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
"The family didn't need the money," he says. "I just wanted to be my own person and to earn my own way."
In January 1957, during his senior year, Skinner went completely his own way. He dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy. He served as a metalsmith on a guided-missile cruiser, took up boxing to stay in shape and lost only two of 17 shipboard matches. He left the Navy in the spring of 1961 with a high school equivalency diploma and returned to Wilmington, where he worked with the Delaware State Police for nine months. He decided not to make it a career because "it didn't pay enough money," and so in early 1962 he became a welder and sheet-metal worker. In his free time he boxed and lifted weights at the Wilmington YMCA. At the end of 1962 Skinner got married and apparently settled into a niche as a blue-collar wage earner, family man and casual athlete.
Then one afternoon the following spring he picked up a javelin and his life began to change. It all started as a lighthearted challenge from Bill Reader, a Middle Atlantic AAU javelin champion who also worked out at the Wilmington Y. Could Skinner beat him in the state meet two weeks hence? Skinner accepted the challenge, rounded up another javelin-throwing friend to teach him the rudiments and a couple of days later, using a broken javelin he had welded together, threw it over 200 feet. At the state meet, wearing a pair of baseball shoes onto which he had welded cement nails to serve as spikes, he tossed the javelin 179 feet, losing to Reader by a foot. Two days later, in Philadelphia, Skinner improved his distance to 208'10", defeating Reader and winning the Middle Atlantic AAU title. He was hooked. For the rest of the summer Skinner traveled everywhere there was a meet to throw in. The next year his best throw was 222 feet. In 1965 he raised his record to 256'1". By 1967, when he was 27, Skinner had a throw of 268'7", fifth best in the U.S. that year.
"I'd say I had my choice of a scholarship at just about any college in the country," he says, "but I wasn't ready to make that decision. My wife Rachel and I had a house, we had a young daughter, Stacy. I was getting plenty of work and we always had spending money in our pockets."
By March 1968 Skinner had finally made up his mind to go to college. He accepted a full scholarship at the University of Tennessee primarily because two of his closest friends in the javelin-throwing fraternity were there. In addition, the weight room, training room and practice facilities were excellent, and the track coach, Chuck Rohe, a cheerful, persuasive, energetic man, had built the Vols into a Southeastern track power since coming to Big Orange Country in 1962.
"It was a big change for me and Rachel," says Skinner. "We traded a $20,000 house for a married-students apartment. We gave up my income of about $13,000 a year for an athletic scholarship and a GI Bill allowance of $175 a month. But I didn't want to be a welder all my life and I saw this as a way to better myself."
What Skinner found out almost immediately was that it was also going to be difficult for a track-and-field man to adjust to the reality of life in an athletic program dominated by the football team. As an older man, a married man, a father, a Navy veteran, Skinner found himself serving as big brother to the rest of the track squad. As unofficial advisor and spokesman he was therefore privy to a great many gripes and problems that might not otherwise have caused him much concern. During the winter football players swarmed into the weight room in such numbers that other athletes were forced to reschedule their workouts. Football players were given top priority in the training room. When Skinner informed the head trainer that he had strained his back, he was told to stretch under a hot shower. The football and basketball players, who occupied the first three floors in Bill Gibbs Hall, were for a year the only athletes to have carpeting in their halls and lounge and telephones in their rooms. The football and basketball players were the only athletes to receive free passes to the movie theaters in town. Further inspiring any feelings of persecution and paranoia that might have existed on the track squad was the fact that its own coach, Rohe, was also the head recruiter for the football team.
A perquisite that particularly galled Skinner, who had a wife and young daughter to support, was the arrangement regarding the distribution of tickets to home football games. Each football player at Tennessee receives four seats to each home game as well as an option to buy four more seats at their face value. With each game a sellout and the float price for tickets often exceeding $100 a pair, it isn't hard for an enterprising player to clear $3,000 a season. The only restriction is that a player must get a friend to sell his tickets. It might cause talk if he were seen hawking them himself.
Skinner's naive suggestion was that a similar arrangement be made for members of other teams: two complimentary football tickets to each game.
"About all I could possibly offer him," says Rohe, who recently left Tennessee for Virginia Tech, where he is chief football recruiter and administrative assistant in the athletic department, "was four seats to each track meet, and he could have picked up as many of those as he wanted for two bucks apiece."
Skinner, meanwhile, was brooding over a growing list of personal gripes: having to arrange for his own medical treatment on a couple of occasions because the training department refused to provide it; having to spend a long, dreary day as an airport standby on his way to the 1968 NCAA championships because the athletic department refused to cough up a few dollars to upgrade his seat to an available class; having to scrounge expense money from the New York Athletic Club because the Tennessee athletic department had reneged on a promise to send him to a major open meet for which he was qualified.
At the 1970 NCAA championships in Des Moines, the source of his dissatisfaction was food. All the competitors were housed in the Drake University dormitories and provided with food vouchers for use in the student cafeteria. On the reasonable assumption that 260-pound weight men need more nourishment than 120-pound distance runners, Skinner led a delegation of Tennessee heavyweights to request that Rohe supplement their food vouchers with a cash allowance. The request was denied. So after dinner each night Skinner and his heavyweight buddies gorged themselves at a nearby McDonald's.
"When the meet was over, Woodruff came by to congratulate me for winning the javelin," Skinner reports. "He said he'd heard I'd been hungry and so he'd brought me a sandwich. You know what he handed me? A plain roll." At that moment Athletic Director Woodruff came as close to being skewered and spitted on a javelin and served up to an angry collection of behemoths as any man is ever likely to get.
It was about at this time that Skinner's mustache made its first timid appearance. In early June he had returned to Knoxville from two track meets in California with a modest 10-day growth. Skinner had gone through a rocky period in his personal life that spring. A younger brother, just back from Vietnam, had been killed in an automobile crash. Skinner had been divorced from his wife. For relief and distraction, he decided to grow a mustache to see what it would look like. Rohe saw what Skinner looked like and said he was sorry but, according to departmental rules, Skinner would have to shave or he would be unable to compete in either the USTFF meet or the NCAA. And like, please, Bill, we need the points worse than you need a mustache.
"I'm perfectly capable of making my own decisions," says Skinner. "If I'd wanted a wet nurse I would have hired one. Once we were debating the issue in the hall and Bill Battle, the football coach, came by. Woodruff and Rohe asked him what he thought. 'I don't like it,' Battle told them. 'Shave it off.' Why should Battle have anything to say about it, was what I wanted to know. Was Rohe my head coach or not? I also pointed out that school was over, final exams were over and under the terms of my scholarship I wasn't even obligated to throw in the NCAA. But I wanted to win it, for myself and for the university, and so I shaved. Joe Namath got $10,000 for shaving off his mustache. All I got was a chance to throw in the NCAA and then I couldn't even get a decent meal."
Skinner won just about everything there was to win with a javelin last summer. He took his event at the USTFF, NCAA and national AAU meets. In a dual meet with West Germany at Stuttgart he had a winning toss of 291'9½", the third-best throw ever made by an American. He beat Russia's Olympic champion, Janis Lusis, at Leningrad. Then he returned home with a new handlebar mustache and a memorable impression of the thousands of people who pack stadiums to watch track meets in Europe—to thundering silence on the Tennessee campus.
"I counted the number of times Coach Woodruff passed me on the campus or in the hall before he first said hello or even nodded his head," says Skinner. "It was 34 times. The first thing Rohe said to me when he heard I was back was, 'Nice going. Now be sure to shave off that mustache.' Here I'd won three national championships and beaten the Russians and all they could think about was whether or not I was going to shave."
Skinner agreed to shave but countered with a non-negotiable demand of his own. He was going to regrow his mustache in the winter semester and by then the rules had better be changed.
"It had gone beyond just an invasion of privacy," says Skinner. "One thing that particularly annoyed me was being criticized on my appearance by a fat assistant football coach who smoked a cigar. Shouldn't someone who is supposedly teaching fitness and physical education set an example as well?"
The first confrontation took place on February 12, when Skinner showed up for lunch at the Bill Gibbs training cafeteria with a four-day growth. He was promptly blocked off the serving line by the cafeteria manager.
"Sorry, Bill. You know the rules. You can't eat here."
"Are you going to give me the money to eat somewhere else?"
"Are you going to use physical force to eject me?"
"Well, then you'd better just stand aside."
That was the last meal Skinner ate in Bill Gibbs. He was given a meal allowance and has kept his scholarship, but was dropped from the track team. Now he competes for the NYAC, his eligibility based on the fact that he lived in New York while on a construction job for four months in 1967.
Rohe is only seven years older than Skinner and is sympathetic to the problems that face a grown man who is obliged to play games with children. Rohe's father wore a mustache and Rohe himself sported one during his vacation last summer.
"Woodruff would prefer people to believe that all the staff at Tennessee are unanimously behind the decision regarding a clean-shaven appearance," Rohe said recently in his office on the Blacksburg, Va. campus where he sits behind a telephone that is colored VPI maroon and orange. "But if each coach really had his own way there the policy would differ quite a bit from sport to sport. My plan was to put the question to a vote. If the track team agreed unanimously that Skinner should be allowed to compete with his mustache then I would have tried to get him reinstated."
Battle would have opposed such a move and, coming off a 10-1 record and a Sugar Bowl victory, he has a lot of clout.
"You shouldn't make an exception even for someone as special as Skinner," Battle said recently. "That's what kids are in rebellion against today—inconsistency by established authority."
What's left of the track team, with Rohe gone and Skinner ineligible, has bowed to the inevitable. "I expect we would have voted that Skinner should compete," says Captain Tom Carmichael. "But when Rohe left, Woodruff took over and the vote idea was dropped. We would probably have been overruled by the athletic department in any case. You get the feeling around here that trackmen are second-class athletes. But the football team is what brings in the money, and I guess we have to be realistic. Without a successful football program we wouldn't even have a track team."
Stan Huntsman, a quiet, thorough man who had been coaching track at Ohio University, was rushed in last February to replace Rohe. Recently he sat in the athletic-department lounge at Tennessee and tried to explain what it is like to be the new man in the middle. "We had similar rules regarding appearance at Ohio," he said, then paused for a moment to look at the floor and shake his head. "Well, no. That wouldn't be a completely fair thing to say about my old school. Actually, we had no rules at Ohio regarding appearance. I haven't really been able to think this thing out. But I'm compatible with the University of Tennessee rules."
This compatibility extends to the highest administrative levels. Dr. Earl Ramer, the faculty chairman of athletics and the current NCAA president, told Skinner that while he saw no reason why anyone couldn't wear a mustache he didn't want to interfere with department rules. Noninterference is also the policy being followed by Dr. Charles Weaver, the university's high-spirited and witty chancellor. Not long ago Dr. Weaver seemed positively eager to elucidate his position.
"As an administrator I reject the conventional university pecking orders of Department A looking down their noses at Department B," he commenced, smiling and gesturing and leaning forward over his desk. "I also reject the stigma that might be attached to an athletic program. I think the athletic department does teach. I think that character building does go on. Athletics are a vital part of the university and coaches are part of the teaching faculty.
"After Kent State I made six assumptions about running a university and one of them was that the professor was king of the classroom," Weaver continued, drawing a 3" by 5" file card out of a jacket pocket and holding it in front of him. "I also made a list of things that teachers do to students in their classes. Some count off on grades for late work. Some make students write their reports on special paper. As a student I once had a professor who actually insisted that we write our reports in India ink. Another of my professors locked the door before a lecture. Those of us inside used to hear students actually beating on the door trying to get in. One professor who was fussing at me about Bill Skinner confessed that he finally had to throw a student out of one of his classes for sitting in the front row and loudly popping his bubble gum. A lot of what a teacher does with a class ties in with discipline, the need to run an orderly classroom. As far as mustaches and long hair are concerned, I personally couldn't care less. I think mustaches are attractive. My own children wear long hair. I have a motto that I recite to the balding alumni who visit the campus and complain about the long hair they see: 'If you've got it, flaunt it." The point is that in all these cases the administration has only one choice and that is to back the professor. If I was walking down a corridor, looked through an open door and saw students in a classroom down on their hands and knees pushing peanuts around the floor with their noses I would not automatically assume that this was a bad thing."
Skinner is quite naturally disappointed that he has received no administrative backing, but this week he graduates with honors, a 3.0 grade average in industrial education and a citation from a national honor society, and he has every reason to feel confident about his future once he shakes the dust of Big Orange Country off his feet. He has a steady girl friend, a tall, attractive blonde of 26 named Nelda Dunn, who earns almost as much in her job as a quality-fashion buyer for a chain of Tennessee department stores as Skinner once made as a welder. After a slow start this spring, Skinner is throwing well and he is growing optimistic about surpassing the world record of 304'1½" held by Finland's Jorma Kinnunen.
No radical changes are expected to take place at Tennessee after Skinner leaves, but perhaps there will be a few minor adjustments.
One might be to acknowledge that it is sophistic to make a comparison between asking students to push peanuts around the floor with their noses and demanding that they be clean-shaven. Few would deny that the former, whatever its educational value, is a wholly parietal activity; many would question whether the latter isn't a curtailment of personal liberty.