During one of those chatty interludes in a televised college football game the other season (no matter which), Sportscaster Chris Schenkel cut rather merrily to the subject of intercollegiate athletics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and how—wow!—Old Brainy had more teams (22) competing in NCAA sports than any other school. There are 697 participating colleges and universities in the three divisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Some of them are named Southern Cal and Ohio State. Schenkel's discovery was smugly noted in the MIT student newspaper, The Tech, with the comment that this was actually better publicity for the NCAA than for MIT because association with such a "well-known academic institution" was "obviously good for the NCAA's image."
On the premise that it is hardly news once it is intoned by Chris Schenkel, the fact that MIT sends 22 squads of geniuses out to slay the opposition with fastballs, hook shots and backhand volleys instead of coefficients and logarithms is not in itself a revelation here. However, 22 is a goodly number regardless of whose image is served or how good the teams are. MIT's, mostly, are patsies.
What you may not know is that:
•MIT equips and fields all these teams without offering or granting a single athletic scholarship; without recruiting a single athlete, be he blue, red or white chip; without charging a nickel for admission to any event; without caring, really, if anybody shows up to watch, which is always a possibility. Some of its teams do very well, and some merit the inattention.
May 25, 1975
•MIT will spend $820,000 this year on its athletic program—$345,000 for the 22 intercollegiate sports, featuring this spring baseball, lacrosse, tennis and so forth; the rest for five women's varsity sports, physical education, intramurals and club sports, and a modestly priced stray special or two such as Hatha yoga and Frisbee—with nary a discouraging word from faculty or administration about "how much all this is costing." The expenditure is, in fact, quite modest compared, say, with Michigan's $4.1 million budget or UCLA's $3.3 million, but it should be remembered that there is no hope whatsoever of breaking even at MIT. In the economic pinch, "break even" has become the rallying caterwaul of college athletic programs across the country. At MIT you don't even hear a groan.
•Not a penny of the $820,000 is derived from or expended for the MIT football team. There is no MIT football team. Nor is there evidence that anyone wants one. Athletic Director Ross H. (Jim) Smith says that the subject is broached "in cycles, every five years or so," usually by fiery-eyed stars of the Class A intramural football league (the ones who are coordinated) itching to get their mitts on the likes of Colby and Bates. At MIT, this cyclic phenomenon is treated as if it were an open jar of smallpox virus, and soon routed. Peter Close, the sports information director, notes that the school fielded a football team from 1882 to 1893. In 13 games with Harvard it was out-scored 555-5.
•Twenty-six of MIT's 132 hallowed acres, a vertical slash of oak-lined real estate hard by Memorial Drive on the Charles River in Cambridge, are devoted exclusively to athletics. The complex includes two baseball fields, a lacrosse-soccer-track stadium, 10 tennis courts, a tennis bubble, a rugby field, a gymnasium, a field house, an indoor track-basketball "cage" made of two former U.S. Navy airplane hangars, a swimming pool, a boathouse, a sailing pavilion and various spaces in between for intramurals. They are in constant use. The light in the tennis bubble burns nightly past midnight. It is not unusual for a squash match to start at 2 a.m. Eight intramural softball diamonds are filled in three daily shifts and six football fields are lined off to accommodate 68 intramural teams. Howard W. Johnson, chairman of the MIT Corporation, the school's governing body, says woe unto the department head who tries to lay a finger on a square inch of those 26 acres.
As part of a recently unveiled plan for new development, $6.1 million more has been earmarked for a double-decker indoor ice rink-track facility to be completed in two years. Clint Murchison Jr. (class of '44), the Texas sports mahout, will be the funding ramrod. One might assume that such a grand addition was a proud response to the success of the MIT ice hockey team, which now labors on a junky, well-scarred, 20-year-old "temporary" outdoor rink next to Kresge Auditorium. Games there have been called off when the snow piled up. Toes freeze as does the wooden ball in the referee's whistle. During one varsity game played at 7° below zero the referee dropped the frozen puck on the ice and it broke in two.
This assumption, however, would be wrong. The hockey team has lost a record 33 straight games, including the last four of the 1975 season by a combined score of 44-3. Assume, rather, that the love of sport at MIT, though not new, has nothing to do with traditional American won-lost values. Winning is not everything, and it is certainly not the only thing, and coming in second is not considered so bad. When the women's rowing team finished third in a three-team race with Princeton and Yale recently the coach was elated. "You don't realize how good Princeton and Yale are," he said.
Be assured before going further that this is the same MIT you have always imagined it to be: 110 years of feeding a hungry world (and its laboratories, industries and space agencies) prize-winning scientists and engineers, their feet not quite touching the ground as they emerge from the famed architectural hodgepodge just across the river from Back Bay Boston. MIT is as independent, richly endowed and cocky as ever. The names Aristotle and Copernicus are engraved in stone below the great dome of the engineering library. It is said that students think this to be "the center of the universe"—a place "for men to work, and not for boys to play," quoth MIT President Francis Walker in 1892. Noses at MIT are grindstone oriented. Labs sometimes drag on for seven hours, and a male student averages 1.3 dates a year.
But a center of athletic excellence? Yes, in a way, and not hardly. All the hoary jokes about "hearing their brains ticking" are revived when MIT boys come out to play. As well they should. Says a student adviser who divides his time with the Apollo program at nearby Draper Laboratories, "There are those who, when they come out to play basketball, cannot turn the ball loose to dribble it. A lot of them are just terribly smart young men who have developed no physical dexterity or practical sense. I had one who sheared the bolts off his muffler unscrewing them the wrong way. I had another who could make nitroglycerin in the eighth grade. In his senior year in high school he was able to formulate plastic explosives, the most complicated kind. One weekend he blew up the high school cafeteria."
But come out to play they do. In multiples. In increasing, staggering droves, spurred on by an energetic, yes, even enlightened athletic department and by their own logical quest for grindstone respite. Beyond the standard physical education requirement (a dose of eight credits in two years), 68% of the students compete in some form of organized athletics, including those on the 800 teams in 19 intramural sports. One thousand of the total undergraduate enrollment of 4,000 make up the 22 intercollegiate teams, an astounding one in four. These squads usually are larger than the opposition's because players are not cut at MIT—for practical as well as humanitarian reasons. An MIT varsity coach, traditionally, is ignorant of his material. His unsung, unrecruited athletes sign in as total strangers on registration day. A coach cannot be too careful under those conditions. When John Barry, now assistant athletic director, was basketball coach, he said he "lived with the single nagging fear that someday no one would show up for practice."
In such an insulated, catch-all environment, many who reach varsity status—the upper crust—"think they're better than they are," says Peter Close, an angular, goateed, lyric, ex-Olympic distance runner from St. John's who doubles as the assistant track coach. A conscientious SID, he enjoys telling the whimsical anecdotes about his charges. As a coach he is not so sure. "I had a boy collapse near the finish of a two-mile relay. I said, 'You run out of gas?' He said, 'No, I fainted.' What's the difference?
"Coaches at MIT go bananas answering 'why.' I go bananas. They ask, 'Why four laps? Why not five? Or three?' We practice till 7:30, then I have to stand around an hour explaining the workout we just had.
"It's the MIT way. When the basketball team refused to stand for the national anthem a few years ago, MIT quit playing it. Most of them are great kids, strong Middle America types. I had one mother in Skokie, Ill. send a walnut tray of caviar and cheese, she was so grateful to the department. But some of these kids—face it—are snobs. Especially the younger ones. They had a job getting here, and they're proud of it. They walk around with their noses up, making fun of people. I took a team to Columbia, into Spanish Harlem, and I was scared to let them out of their rooms. I was afraid they would get killed with their attitudes.
"We never have trouble getting opponents. Everybody wants to beat MIT. They think when they beat us they're beating us in the classroom. It ain't so. They beat us because we're bad."
But, ah, says Close, the dawn comes up like thunder over the Charles River. Encouraged to leave their intellectual cocoons, given time and opportunity, the true scholar-athletes emerge at MIT. Except that the order is reversed from the way you may have remembered it at your neighborhood football factory. "The professionals," as MIT athletes call those on scholarship at big-time football schools, ride in on the best deal a recruiter can buy them and, it is to be hoped, eventually discover the classroom. At MIT a straight-A student stumbles, blinking, into the sunlight—and discovers athletics. And this, says Close, is really the fun of it: some of them actually get good.
Exhibit A: John Wesley Pearson, class of '74, mechanical engineering. Six three, 220 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes. A graduate student with a research grant in nuclear thermo design. President of the MIT Varsity Club. Two-time All-America hammer thrower, Division III, NCAA. Personal best, 175'6".
This is John Pearson talking: "I weighed 250 pounds when I came here. Not fat, but overweight. My size, you play football in high school. I wasn't good at football. I didn't play anything, I was into music, I sang. And I was smart, so nobody hassled me. I came to MIT to study, period. I thought that's what everybody did. How was I to know?
"There are three well-defined groups at MIT. First, the ones who study all the time. They wind up hating it. And griping. A lot of chronic complainers are intellectuals. They need to gripe. The second group coasts through, never really getting involved, skimming over studies and barely trying the activities. The third group jumps into everything. Really gets involved. You won't believe this, but some guys here have more activities than they do studies.
"Anyway, I was a fairly big guy. I must have stood out. When I went in for PE the trainer asked me to come out for track. He said, 'You can throw the hammer.' I didn't know what a hammer was, much less how to throw it. You never see one in high school. But Coach [Gordon] Kelly is an unbelievable teacher. For the next four years the hammer was a big thing in my life. I threw three hours every day, and lifted weights. When I won the NCAAs in 1974 it was a first for MIT.
"I believe I'd never have made it here without athletics. If I'd gone to Cal Tech, say, or Stanford, where the varsity sports program is limited or the athletes are handpicked, I'd have studied, period. And probably flunked out. I didn't do well as a freshman and sophomore. I still don't know why I wasn't put on notice, except that MIT bends over backward to keep you in school. They're so meticulous about admissions they feel the ones they choose should make it.
"Athletics gave me a reason to stay. A commitment. And a release from the academic crunch. In athletics you make your own pressure. The coaches here don't come around dragging you out of bed to practice. But if you want attention, they'll go with you every step.
"I found that athletes at MIT actually become the better students. They make better grades. They organize their time better. They have to. Most of them get their best grades during the season of their sport. Sounds crazy, right?
"It's not just sports at MIT, it's everything. There's something like 170 activities on campus. The rule is, if a group of kids wants something, it's made available. We had the world Frisbee champion here giving classes. A couple years ago somebody wanted to start a tiddly-winks team. They went to the student government. They got the money for it."
(When asked about the latter, Publicist Close looked as though he had been hit with a cream pie. "Oh, don't mention that," he said, grinning sheepishly. Why not? "It's embarrassing. Tiddly-winks." What prompted it? "The world championships. In London. Please don't mention it." The team went to London? "Yes." How'd it do? Subdued voice: "They won." How'd they get the money to go? "MIT is very soft shouldered. Get a guy who wants to enter a Ping-Pong tournament in Hong Kong, and Jim Smith will scrape up the money. Get two guys and he'll find a coach.")
Exhibits B, C, et al.
Al Dopfel, class of '72, marketing major, baseball pitcher. Dopfel pitched the first no-hitter in MIT history. In 1972 he led the nation with 15.4 strikeouts a game. He was voted the Most Valuable Player in the Greater Boston League. He signed, for a bonus estimated at $15,000, with the California Angels. "I think it will be easier to get a job in baseball than in the business world," he said. Dopfel dropped out of baseball this spring rather than be assigned to the Angels' AA farm team in El Paso. He was convinced that he was not going to make the big leagues, though at MIT he is still proudly referred to as "the only guy in our history who could have."
Bill Young, class of '74, aeronautics and astronautics. Tennis captain. The 1973 New England singles and doubles champion. Coach Ed Crocker, who has been at MIT 19 years (MIT coaches do not discourage easily and are usually given every opportunity to die with their boots on), says Young was "the best we ever had, good enough to make the pro league right now if he wanted." Young has entered the Air Force instead. "I have a thing about height," he said. He once took a special mountain climbing course at MIT.
George Braun, class of '75, oceanography. MIT's current lacrosse captain and a consistent winner in the 600-yard run. He was the lacrosse team's leading scorer the last three years, though the team went 0-11 and 0-14 the first two. It was 3-9 this year. Braun is the first MIT man in anyone's memory who came right out and said that he would like to chuck engineering and become a coach. Blasphemy. To that end he plans to do graduate work at Springfield. "Engineering," he says, "isn't much fun."
Erland van Lidth de Jeude, class of '76, computer science. A 6'6", 330-pound wrestler. The Greater Boston champion as a freshman, the year the coach's wife stitched two size-44 uniforms into one for him. He gets a lot of forfeits in wrestling, he says, because 190-pounders take one look and change their minds. De Jeude has a slight Dutch accent, a brown belt in judo and a baritone voice that makes walls tremble. In an MIT production of Man of La Mancha he played Dr. Carrasco because, he told Joe Concannon of The Boston Globe, "I make a very imposing figure in armor." He got rave reviews.
De Jeude says he finds solutions to his engineering problems "in the middle of the night. I wake up and write them down." Though he wants to be an opera singer as well as a computer analyst, he also wants to wrestle as long as he can. "It is a very sportsmanlike pastime. You're not thinking of killing anyone. In football [which he played without distinction in high school], they always said you had to hate the guy in front of you. On what basis?"
The party line in team sports at MIT is "to be competitive," maybe win as many as you lose. In 10 years the baseball and basketball teams have had eight winning seasons. The hockey team has had none, the wrestling team nine. It evens out. This year the 22 teams have a combined 124-144 record to date. Yet, seeking .500 or mediocrity, some manage to rise above it. The 1974 heavyweight crew finished second to Wisconsin in the intercollegiate championships and two weeks ago the heavyweights were second to national champion Harvard in the Eastern Sprints. The 1974 baseball team represented New England in the NCAA championships. Johan Akerman led MIT to the 1974 Intercollegiate Fencing Association Foils title. The 1974 pistol team had two All-Americas in Karl Seeler and Stephen Goldstein and won the NRA collegiate championship. The women's sailing team won the nationals in 1971 and 1973.
But for all these slightly breathtaking feats and the emergence of what could be called legitimate MIT athletes, one might still miss the point here if it were not for...well, if it were not for 6-foot, 170-pound Lawrence D. David, known around the locker rooms and playing fields of MIT as LD.
David—LD—is a senior in organic chemistry, "the one," he says, "with all those funny-colored compounds." He delves daily into the private lives of water molecules, hoping to extract fuel, and the blue blood of crabs. He is a Phi Beta Kappa (4.9 average out of 5.0). "I like school," says LD.
He also likes athletics, but he is not an athlete. In his four years as an undergraduate he went out for the intramural softball team but did not play. "What I'm good at," he says, "is walking. I'm a terrific walker. I'm better than anybody I know at walking."
David is an only child. "In high school in Dover, N.H. I was a turkey. I studied all the time. I shut myself away. The basketball coach knew my parents. He asked if I'd come out and do some statistics. I did statistics for football, basketball and baseball. I got good at it. I developed a system where you could chart an entire football game on two sheets of paper, 80-by-100 grids."
At MIT, LD introduced Head Basketball Coach Fran O'Brien to the advantages of the "assist chart" and the "turnover chart." He became the basketball team manager, and when baseball started, he managed that team, too. He provided O'Brien (also the baseball coach) with an "on-base percentage chart," the "best way," he said, "to structure your lineup, though in college the reference frame is too short because there aren't enough games."
LD managed the baseball and basketball teams four seasons. "Athletes aren't pieces of meat at MIT," he says. "Coaches aren't dictators. Coach O'Brien and I practically lived together nine months a year, so we had to get along. He's a great guy. But we had our moments. Mostly he'd argue over my scoring of base hits. I tried to score on a major league level. Did the ball hit the fence before the guy dropped it or after? Sometimes I suggested who should hit in what position. I don't say he always listened, but he never said, 'You're just the manager. Managers should be seen and not heard.' "
LD calls the athletic program at MIT "a great catalyst. I know I wouldn't have the depth of education without it. I learned to love the guys on the teams. Adversity is a great leveler."
Peter Close says he believes David would rewrite the Ten Commandments if he thought them lacking. "LD doesn't look at you when he's talking," Close says, "but his eyes roll behind those glasses, and when he's onto something and whipping himself into a frenzy, he gets very satisfied with what he's saying. His eyes really roll then."
David says he does indeed get exercised when the cause is right. For example, he says he got very upset about the caliber of opposition the basketball team faced. "Way out of our league—teams like Howard, for crying out loud. It was ridiculous." He wrote a two-page "prospect for change," recommending that MIT coaches have more to say about scheduling. Athletic Director Smith made copies and filed it away.
In a week when the Associated Press was running a series of articles on the athletic dilemma of such schools as the University of Wisconsin, where Athletic Director Elroy (Crazylegs) Hirsch was portrayed as a modern Jacob wrestling a killer $3 million budget, MIT's Smith tended his unthreatened $820,000 program without a hitch. From hour to hour he tooled around the facilities, usually on foot, sometimes in his ancient yellow Volkswagen, through the rusted front fender of which an inspired auto dealer had stuck a key in an attempt to impress on Smith his need for a new car. Smith resisted the pitch.
MIT that week was alive with goings-on. On Tuesday the baseball team lost its annual big game with Harvard 9-2. Julia Child came to speak in Kresge Auditorium, rocking gently in a sea of mushrooms and bell peppers as she sliced and sautéed. There was a flea market in the student center and a science fair at the Rockwell Cage where, during fall registration, MIT coaches are allowed to set up booths to entice prospects. In the wrestling and fencing rooms, faculty and students submitted themselves to Maggie Lettvin for overhauls. Maggie is svelte, black-haired and 48, "The Beautiful Machine" of Boston educational television. Her roly-poly husband is an MIT biology and electrical engineering professor.
Jim Smith is 60, no longer svelte, a wide-lipped, round-faced man with dark eyebrows and light, almost stoic good humor. He uses the latter to convert minimums to maximums in his athletic budget.
He has been MIT athletic director 14 years, coming from Cornell, where he coached lacrosse, soccer and freshman basketball. He is his department's only full professor. He says that the 68 people on his current payroll actually boil down to 41.2 positions (the Frisbee instructor was on campus, and got $250 for a short-term deal), and only 20 of the staff are full-time varsity coaches. Smith juggles. He is inventive and very opportunistic.
"How, you might ask, does MIT justify having a skiing coach?" he said as he slipped the Volkswagen behind the fence near the outdoor rink and stepped onto the spongy grass. It had been raining on Greater Boston, a bleak spring day. MIT was seen in a curiously depressing perspective, like the heaths in a Constable oil. "Well, we found a guy who was a certified ski professional and an All-America soccer player at Springfield. He coached both. Unfortunately, he hasn't worked out. The new skiing coach will probably be a graduate student from Harvard Business School. We'll probably wind up hiring a combination rink operator-hockey coach when the new rink is completed. See? It's a constant juggle. The current hockey coach is a part-time civil engineering instructor. Sometimes you get lucky. The rugby club team doesn't even want a coach."
The MIT athletic program was student controlled until 1947. A student committee had full power to fire coaches and buy equipment. The students themselves asked for the change. Smith is only MIT's third athletic director.
"When President [Julius] Stratton hired me," Smith said, "he told me he wanted a program for the students, not for the glory of the school or financial gain. Athletics were never intended to make money here. Our intercollegiate sports were never intended to be dependent on gate receipts. It's the root of most problems at other schools.
"The only reason we go beyond the intramural level and field all those teams is that there are young men and women who want to compete at a higher level, as high as we can provide. That's the way intercollegiate competition began years ago. It's not that way anymore, of course."
Smith watched the track team's progress against Bowdoin for a while, then moved downfield, pulling his rain jacket around him and letting his uncovered balding head take its chances.
"We try to treat everybody the same. Our most expensive program is crew, which costs about $14,000 a year exclusive of salaries and overhead. Our full-time coaches make $15,000 to $20,000. The important thing is that we create no jealousies. That's how you get cooperation. If nobody or no team is getting a free ride, they're all willing to help. When a school gives one sport, say football, the lion's share, and that sport subsidizes all the others, you're bound to have jealousies. I'm not knocking college football you understand. I love it and love to watch it. I wish we could have a team. It's a game people are naturally drawn to. If you can handle it, it's certainly worthwhile. But what we have is an alternative. Another way to go. I think there's room for both."
Smith walked past the empty baseball field (the varsity was down at Wesleyan losing for the eighth time in 16 games) to where, under the looming presence of a giant Cain's mayonnaise sign, the rugby team was being cheered on by a vest-pocket crowd, most of them wielding bumbershoots. The ruggers were holding their own in a game with Dartmouth, but their red-and-white uniforms were losing to the muck. An occasional ball popped loose from the scrum and floated dreamlike over the chain-link fence, bouncing into the front of the Chaffin Optical Company across the street.
Smith worked his way back toward the tennis pavilion, which glistened like a huge blister against the seal-gray sky. MIT's match with Williams had been moved indoors. With his own key Smith let himself into the bubble through the back door, bringing with him a giant whoosh of air that stopped play on all four courts and drew stares from a knot of spectators huddled at the far end. Smith apologized to Coach Ed Crocker for the interruption. Crocker was having his own problems. Williams was leading on all four courts.
"We want to be competitive," said Smith, outside again and moving. "We want to win. Too many people think we don't try. We do. We feel in Division III, where there are no scholarships, we've a 50-50 chance in every sport." He smiled, raising his dark eyebrows. "In some our 50-50 chances are better than in others."
He walked past the lacrosse field, where MIT had beaten Holy Cross the day before, and onto the track, where the meet with Bowdoin was winding to an anticlimax. The wet crowd in the bleachers could have been carried home in one car. Peter Close intercepted Smith. "We're getting clobbered," said Close, his head dripping. "It's 95-55."
Smith returned to his office. He took off his raincoat and patted the head of a stuffed beaver near his desk. "That's our mascot," he said. "The idea is we work like beavers around here. The students hate it, just like they hate all those references to slide rules." He looked at the beaver. "It is a pretty goofy-looking thing."
Smith said that every MIT coach is concerned with getting better athletes and more publicity, and this is natural. "A lot of academically qualified athletes don't think they can hack it at MIT what with the grades and the tuition, which is around $6,800 a year, including books and board. They just aren't aware of what's here. Sixty percent of our student body gets some kind of scholarship help. It's available.
"The hard part is that our applicants often overlap with Princeton's and Yale's, and a kid with athletic ability who is accepted by all three will go to Princeton, maybe, because he doesn't think we've got enough sports for him. Just the opposite may be true.
"Enrollment is down everywhere. Ours isn't, but applications are. We're trying something new this year. The admissions office is putting a card in with every form, requesting applicants to advise us if they are interested in an intercollegiate sport. That way a coach can mail some literature to them about our program, let them see what's here before they decide to go elsewhere. It's the closest we've ever come to recruiting."
Smith said he had indeed made budget cuts, doing what Chancellor Paul Gray calls "getting a good deal of bang for the dollar." There are fewer overnight trips; the freshman schedules have been reduced. Equipment Manager John Murphy never throws anything away. Some MIT rugby shoes are 12 years old and still in use. Smith juggles on. He was able to help finance Florida trips for baseball and lacrosse teams mostly out of a zealously guarded reserve fund, which also provided $120,000 for a pistol and rifle range and an automatic timer with electric touch pads for the pool.
Especially gratifying, he said, was the way large donations always seemed to arrive in the nick of time. "A lot of people give a lot of money to MIT because they've had some good feeling about the place—the activities, the athletics," Smith said. George Leness ('26), retired chairman of the board of Merrill Lynch, won 41 medals as an MIT middle-distance runner. The medals glisten on Smith's office wall. Leness' $100,000 endowment fund glows from MIT's balance sheet. David Flett du Pont ('56) left $1 million for athletic development in his will—he was killed in an auto accident after his junior year. Harold Whitworth Pierce's $300,000 gift made completion of the splendid Pierce Boat House possible in 1966. Pierce did not even go to MIT. "In fact," said Smith, "he dropped out of Harvard after his freshman year."
As Smith left his office Close brought news that the tennis team had pulled it out against Williams 5-4. The heavyweight crew race with Northeastern and Boston U had been postponed by high winds. The Charles, said Close, looked as if it had been fed from a crankcase. The MIT team had wanted to race, anyway, but the others had chickened out.
Jim Smith moved 400 pounds of fertilizer in his Volkswagen on Sunday, piling the bags on the floor and seats. Thus encumbered, he volunteered to drive a visitor to the airport. The visitor sat with his legs propped up on the bags.
The crew race was postponed once more. Finally, at 8:30 Monday morning, Peter Close and a few MIT fans stood and cheered as the crew beat Northeastern by four lengths. "It was the biggest clobbering we ever gave them," beamed Close.
The Lambda Chi chapter at MIT is housed in a 75-year-old, six-story building on the opposite shore of the Charles from the school. It is within walking distance, via the 85-year-old Harvard Bridge. The Lambda Chis rank just above the SAEs and the Black Student Union as the all-jocks of MIT. They were the winners of the coveted intramural Class A football championship last fall.
The Lambda Chis have gone a long way to establishing campus standards, athletic and otherwise. Some years ago it was decided that a freshman pledge named Oliver Smoot, a 5'5" rugby player, should be used to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge. After a festive day and night in the frat house, he became stiff as a tongue depressor and was hoisted on the shoulders of his brothers and taken to the Charles. The distance was marked off in "Smoots" as he was conveyed end-over-end across the bridge—it being exactly 364.4 lengths of Smoot's body from one side to the other. A Smoot is now an accepted (if unofficial) unit of measure at MIT.
By whatever measure, the Lambda Chis are indeed jock infested, and proud of it. On a recent Friday evening President John Cavolowsky, a tall, handsome, short-haired junior from Dedham, Mass. and a two-sport letterman (baseball and basketball), led members in an informal postdinner discussion on the whys and why nots of the non-existent MIT varsity football team. Dinner had been coat and tie. A polite, to-the-point blessing was said, and a bawdy—though dated—table song sung to enliven the stew. Some of the members brought dates.
A cluster of boys and a few of the girls (none of them MIT coeds) repaired to a large comfortable den with a well-stocked bar and, over it, a plaque that read: "On Thursday, August 16, 1962, at 12 noon, while preparing a dry martini cocktail, the bartender of this establishment succeeded in isolating the vermouth molecule."
It was Cavolowsky's belief (he did not realize, he admitted later, that he was in the throes of the five-year-cycle tremors) that MIT could field a football team. Peter Close, one of the dinner guests, said the wild thing about MIT intramural football players was that they think they can slap on a set of pads and go out and play Harvard.
"What's the difference?" said Cavolowsky. "I practice two hours a day for the intramural team. It might as well be in pads."
"We don't have the size," said a brother. "All the big guys are out for crew."
"Yeah, where will we get our guards and tackles?"
Another brother said the problem was image. MIT had one to live up to. "The other schools have professionals. Like the ones who play for Harvard and Yale. Here there's no way."
"There's always Bowdoin and RPI."
Close said this kind of talk actually produced results in the 1940s. A team called the MIT Non-Vars (for non-varsity) managed to get itself coagulated, almost entirely from 28-year-old veterans of the V-12 program. A kind of club team. "But they couldn't even beat Belmont High," said Close, "and had no chance whatsoever against Exeter."
"The real problem," said one older boy with a beard, "is money. It would throw the whole athletic program out of whack here if you spent the kind of money you need for a football team. And it would be chaos trying to find field time. Nobody wants to give up a minute of their precious field time."
"And we couldn't get on Tufts' or Bates' or anybody's schedule for 10 years," said Close. "They make those things up so far in advance."
"Who'd want to, anyway? We get to watch the good games on Saturday afternoon, then we get to play ourselves."
"You can't compete with the professionals," said the beard. "No gate receipts, no recruiting, no scholarships, no spring practice, no four-hour practice sessions. It would be a disaster."
"I still say it'd be fun to try. There are a hell of a lot of good football players on this campus."
"Good touch football players."
"A football team is great for school spirit."
"Not if it loses. Watch a team lose 26 in a row and see what happens to school spirit. We may lose the spirit we already have. Hell, no. Football would corrupt the entire program."
"And that," said a brother, "would be a shame."
The student adviser was flying down to Miami for a vacation from the Draper labs and from his work at MIT, where he has gotten his Master's. He said he loved it there because he'd become involved in the sports program. He'd actually learned to play squash and was running every day and allowing Maggie Lettvin to streamline him.
He said, too, that the more he got to know the MIT kids, the more he came to realize a remarkable thing, almost a phenomenon about the kids.
"After they've been exposed to MIT a few years," he said, shaking the ice in his empty scotch and soda glass, "and get into activities and athletics, a lot of them really blossom. I mean, the change is remarkable. It seems that they're a lot more normal as seniors than they were as freshmen."