Once upon a time, tucked in the hills of the Hudson River Valley about 90 miles above New York City, there was a women's college called Vassar. It was an exclusive little school, well known for turning rich, bright young girls into rich, bright young ladies ready to seek fame, fortune and husbands in the outside world. The college at Poughkeepsie remained that way for well over 100 years, until, in 1969, it decided to admit male students. Now, two years later, campus life has changed radically with the influx of more than 600 men, almost one-third the total enrollment. Vassar even has a football team nicknamed the Big Pink, complete with a bearded coach who stalks the sidelines in his shirtsleeves and shouts, "Look alive out there, you guys. We came here to win." Can this be for real?
Well, sort of. The Big Pink—school colors are a feminine pink and gray—is really a touch-football team, but it does play with considerable gusto, as it did the other day in winning its first road game of the season, 33-24 over Sarah Lawrence, another women's bastille gone coed.
"We're No. 1," Big Pink fans shouted as the game ended, although a Sarah Lawrence girl sniffed, "I don't see how you can be No. 1 when you've only played one game."
Luckily, Butch Hirsch, a stocky economics major from Glencoe, Ill. who is student coach of the Vassar team and has a full Vince Lombardi act to inspire his players, did not hear her. Butch doesn't take such things lightly. In fact, Butch is one of the few Vassar students who takes sport—any sport—very seriously, and all fall he had wanted his Noyes House team to be the one to represent Vassar against mighty Sarah Lawrence. He even penciled Lombardi dictums ("There's only one place and that's first place" and "The harder you fight, the harder it gets to surrender") on the ceiling above his bed.
November 29, 1971
Butch, the self-appointed coach and manager, and his team from Noyes had played intramural football—the six-man-touch variety—against 11 other dorm teams since September. Noyes already had built its reputation last year as the jock dorm on campus, winning titles in intramural football, softball, soccer and basketball. The current Noyes boys beat Raymond House 15-0 before the Sarah Lawrence game, thus finishing the interdorm competition with a 4-0 record and the title. "They're very gung-ho in Noyes," says John Humphrey, a geography lecturer at Vassar. "I think a couple of the guys take it all too seriously."
Janet Griffith, a freshman from New York, agrees. "It's very uncool to be in sports up here. If a guy plays football or wears madras shorts around the dorm, forget it."
Perhaps no one on campus is more aware of the overall low-key sports feeling than Ray Streit, the organizer of the college's team sports, and the only man among six women in the school's phys-ed department. Streit, a lacrosse player at Syracuse for four years, came to Vassar in 1969 when it went coed and needed a man on the P.E. staff. "When I first arrived I came on like a ton of bricks," he says. "The students told me to go sit down." Streit now organizes the touch-football program in the fall, but leaves the boys "pretty much on their own" after that. He coaches the three other team sports—lacrosse, soccer and basketball—and teaches both men and women golf, turf skiing and tennis.
Butch Hirsch amazes Streit, and so does the rousing interest in football he and the Noyes team create. After hearing that Noyes drew a crowd of more than 100 at its final interdorm game, Streit said, "I can't get 20 people out to look at a soccer game." Last year Streit officiated all the football games himself, but this season he hired six student referees to remove that burden from his hectic schedule. "The guys play for real, too," says Bill Tisano, one of the student refs who broke a couple of toes playing for his own dorm a few weeks ago. "They are always arguing with the refs and hollering every other play." For their trouble, Tisano and the other officials each earn $1.65 an hour, the only expense incurred by Vassar for its football program, slightly less than that of, say, Ohio State. That bit of money comes out of the phys-ed budget, supervised by Betty Richey, chairman of the department and a teacher at Vassar since 1937. "I love football but it is stupid to get into it too much," says Miss Richey. "The men's schools have made so many errors, and we just don't intend to do the same."
Miss Richey has been disappointed in the small number of men students who enroll in phys ed, especially since Vassar stopped requiring P.E. for its students and substituted academic credits last year for some of the phys-ed courses taken. "I think women are much more interested in being in classes than men," she says. "Men always like to compete."
Hirsch probably is the most competitive man on Vassar's campus. After a few beers at Pizza Town, a college hangout, he admitted he really believes "all this stuff about winning—in everything, not just football." He rambled on, wishing Vassar could play football in some kind of small conference ("for guys like us who couldn't play at a big-time school"), for uniforms ("or at least matching shirts") and finally for a bus that would take the team and any fans who wanted to journey to Bronxville and Sarah Lawrence on Sunday. His enthusiasm was catching. Bill Kamer Jr., Noyes House's vice-president in charge of publicity, talked about the letter he had written to Howard Co-sell, hoping the sportscaster could come to Sarah Lawrence to see the game. "Besides, his daughter goes there anyhow," Kamer said. Jeff Wishik, a bio-chem major who plays safety for Noyes, recalled a press release he had sent to the Vassar newspaper, The Misc. The notice was supposed to say "if Noyes wins," and instead said "when." "Humph," he said. "If."
The Vassar quarterback, Mark Cohen, a classics student, said his knees are as bad as Joe Namath's, and everyone insisted that Eddie Schock, a 204-pound philosophy student who plays both offense and defense, was the Big Pink's secret weapon. Eddie, the team's quietest member and Hirsch's roommate, is a weight lifter who had won three trophies at a Germantown, Pa. meet just a few weeks earlier.
After classes on Friday, the team went over its game plans for Sarah Lawrence and watched movies of some of its previous intramural games. This was two nights before the game, since there was a dorm party on Saturday and the team members would be too busy dancing and drinking beer to pay any attention. "Oh, sure, we drink beer before a game," said a lineman, "but we don't smoke pot before or during a game like some of the guys do. We play straight."
By game time on Sunday, Sarah Lawrence wondered if the Big Pink intended to play at all. The Green Machine, as the SL footballers like to call themselves, was on the field, but no pink and grays appeared. Jeff Wishik arrived ahead of the rest of the Vassar team and assured everyone the Big Pink was on its way. Butch had gotten a team bus after all, through some fast talking to the college vice-president, he said, but buses are not allowed on the parkways, so the team would be late.
Some Sarah Lawrence girls practiced a cheer: "We say green. We say white. We say Sarah's outta sight." The coach of the Green Machine, W. O. (Wo) Edwards, a graduate student in psychology, cautioned his players not to wear themselves out practicing and not to drink any of the beer the college phys-ed department had provided for the students. "You can drink beer or cider after the game," he said.
Forty minutes later, an aging silver and blue bus sputtered down the hill to Marshall Field (actually a sloping lawn outside the Marshall Field Music Building), and the Big Pink hopped off. A raggedy group, some in pink and gray sweatshirts, others in assorted sweaters and T shirts, they adjusted their headbands to keep the hair from their eyes, threw a few passes, ran a pattern or two and pronounced themselves ready to play.
Somebody pointed out to Hirsch that Sarah Lawrence had a girl starting at middle linebacker. "Oh, my God," cried Butch. "Does she know we play hard?" When assured the petite girl, a freshman from North Haven, Conn. named Cathy Buckley, had held her own in practice, Hirsch told his team, "O.K., you guys. If she wants to play, O.K. But today she's a guy. Remember that."
Cathy stayed in for only three plays before the going got really rough. John Kregenow, a Vassar lineman, had his shirt ripped off on the first play; Charlie Barasch, Sarah Lawrence's safety, took a resounding thump to the ground on the second. "This is touch football?" asked a Sarah Lawrence faculty member.
Sarah Lawrence scored the first touchdown on a pass from Steve Weinstein, the team captain, to Steve Malsin, the barefoot kicker and left end, and for a while it looked black for the Big Pink. Coach Hirsch, in his best Lombardi form, steamed up and down the sidelines, yelling plays and cursing the narrow uphill field that kept his players from running their best patterns, the end sweeps. By the middle of the second quarter it was Sarah Lawrence 12, Vassar 6. But minutes later Steve Ganster intercepted a pass and went 30 yards for a touchdown. The extra-point pass from Mark Cohen to John Kregenow put the Big Pink ahead 13-12, and it never gave up the lead again. When the final whistle blew, it was 33 Pink, 24 Green.
Hirsch jumped up and down and slapped some of his boys on the back. He shook hands with Wo Edwards and promised, "You'll see better football next time. More spectacular, I guarantee." Then he climbed in his bus and went back to the hills of the Hudson for a beer with the Noyes boys of Vassar. Big Pink, you've come a long way, baby.