Three of the four finalists in the NCAA basketball championship last season were Roman Catholic colleges, and for the second year in a row a Catholic school won. Villanova, that champion, was also in the Final Four in 1939, the first year of the NCAAs, and since then 17 different Catholic institutions have achieved that level. In 1947 Holy Cross became the first Catholic college to win the NCAAs, and five more have also triumphed. Eleven other Catholic colleges won the NIT back in the quarter-century when it was still a genuine national championship. Thirty-nine of this year's 283 Division I basketball schools are Catholic; 12 of the 237 colleges with Phi Beta Kappa chapters are Catholic.
This is an article from the March 3, 1986 issue
What do Duquesne, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Catholic U., Santa Clara, Fordham, St. Mary's and Marquette all have in common? They are Catholic schools whose teams once played in major bowls but have long since given up big-time football. (The undefeated University of San Francisco team of 1951, with Ollie Matson and Gino Marchetti, didn't go to a bowl, but legend has it that it may have been as good a college team as there ever was; USF has also given up football.) Among Catholic colleges today only Notre Dame, which is really something of an aberration, being a national institution, and Boston College, which experienced a recent divine intervention in the form of an avatar named Doug Flutie, field Division I-A football squads. Otherwise basketball has become the sport for Catholic colleges.
For many Americans college basketball is the outward and visible sign of Catholicism in the United States. And because private schools of any stripe tend to be smaller and more focused than the sprawling public mega-universities that they play games against, basketball has become even more the cynosure on the Catholic campus.
The perception that education has become the token white at the end of the Catholic basketball bench may be all the more damaging because, historically, Catholic universities have never been accepted as intellectual company, neither with the private nondenominational elite nor with the great state schools. Some of this snubbing has come, reflexively, from cynical Protestants, but even many American Catholics themselves have long questioned whether the term Catholic education is an oxymoron, like military justice. At many Catholic schools, as one Catholic historian has written, "Original research became original sin."
Moreover, as Catholic school basketball has thrived, it has seemed all the more contradictory—hypocritical?—that the standard-bearers for white Catholic schools are, in the main, black Protestants. Most people who watched a nearly all-black Villanova team upset a totally black Georgetown squad in the championship game last spring would probably be startled to learn that, notwithstanding what appeared on the court, Villanova is so white (98%), so Catholic (86%) and so suburban preppie upper middle class that it is known in its own bailiwick as Vanilla-nova.
Of course, much of this Catholics can't help. Abroad in the land, the image of almost all American universities is related to athletics. Basketball and football—programs—attract more attention than chemistry and Romance languages—departments. The question is whether religious schools can really afford to strike this deal with...well, with the devil, the same as secular institutions. In other words, can the Catholic colleges pursue the almighty dollar and answer to the Almighty at the same time? What price prime time?
In 1971, the last year before 1985 that Villanova made the Final Four, the Wildcats had to forfeit their second-place finish when their star player was found to be a pro. The only fix disqualification in the history of the Final Four was leveled against another Philadelphia-area Catholic school, St. Joseph's, in 1961. Boston College was caught in the fix trap four years ago. In 1982 San Francisco gave up basketball for three years after a succession of tawdry scandals that would have sorely tested even Jesus's inclinations toward forgiveness. The damage done to Creighton when one of its players had to go back to an elementary school to learn how to read after several years at the Omaha school remains incalculable. A scholar-athlete at Providence was charged with assaulting a teammate with a tire iron. Holy Cross's team took to racial skirmishing last year. Georgetown's reputation for fighting—at least half a dozen brawls in the last four years—is well established.
Now none of this is the peculiar province of Catholic higher education. Indeed, anybody even remotely familiar with football at Texas Christian and Southern Methodist can only draw the conclusion that the inherent problem with big-time college sports and religion is that the former is so pervasive, so rotten, so—let's say it—sinful that it is bound to soil any of the latter that lies down with it. Does religion need this?
Father William Sullivan, an ardent sports fan, is the president of Seattle University, which made it to the NCAA tournament 11 times with the likes of the O'Brien twins, Elgin Baylor, Eddie Miles and John Tresvant. Seattle even reached the finals in 1958 and no doubt would have won had Adolph Rupp of Kentucky not figured out how to get Baylor into foul trouble. Six years ago Seattle University gave up big-time basketball cold turkey, opting for a team in the NAIA. Says Father Sullivan now:
"In the last two years, schools that are led by two good friends of mine have won the NCAA. When that happens, you can't help but say to yourself, 'Wouldn't that be nice?' Then, after you've said that, you need to say, 'What about the hundreds of schools across the country that are pursuing that great mythical championship and spending millions and millions of dollars doing it and endangering their own educational ideals and integrity and never making it?'
"There was a widespread perception that Seattle U. was a basketball school. That image is fading, and I think people are getting a truer image now than when 99% of what one read about Seattle U. was on the sports pages."
Monsignor John Tracy Ellis sits in his apartment at the Catholic University of America in Washington under an autographed portrait of the Pope. He is a gentle little man who, on Sept. 25, reached his golden anniversary as a teacher. Still, for all his achievements, he remains most famous for a speech he delivered some 30 years ago, which rattled the cage of Catholic education as never before. Essentially, Ellis not only declared that the Church's educational presence in America wasn't very distinguished, but (what hurt even more) he charged that these failings were largely internal. Catholics could no longer go on blaming their early immigrant status and the lingering prejudice on the part of Protestants for their current academic shortcomings.
"Intellectualism is still the weakest aspect of the American Catholic community," Ellis says. "And nobody denies that, either. And we don't have any more excuses. This country is teeming with Catholic millionaires now. I've seen figures that only the Jews are richer than the Catholics are now." He chuckled. "Why, we've even passed the Episcopalians. We're wealthy. Unfortunately, thinking is not really important among Catholics.
"And our Catholic identity—it's almost accidental in most universities now. Our universities are more and more secularized. We suffer from a herd instinct. Why are we into business administration and engineering when so many other institutions can offer those courses—and do it better than we? We were better off when we concentrated on the humanities and liberal arts.
"I know, I know. It's an effort to remain solvent. But it's not just looking for tuition. You must fight society. When most Catholic colleges began, the United States was operating on the Protestant ethic—and that is a very moral system. But today, morality is unfashionable. And we certainly see that in athletics, don't we?" Ellis sighed. "It's wrong in America now to say that anything is a sin. What was once morally wrong is today merely unfair."
Sports was always safe territory for Catholics—especially at a time when the intellectual or social pursuits of Protestant colleges were seen as too liberal, even libertine. At first, too, many Catholic colleges were barely more than extended high schools. Whereas Harvard and most of the other early Protestant-oriented colleges had been started in order to educate the clergy and thereby keep its religious leaders on top, Catholic colleges only presumed to play catch-up ball. Academic inquiry was rare and, as Edward Henry, the former lay president of St. Michael's College in Vermont puts it, the modest purpose of higher Catholic education was only "to serve the children and grandchildren of relatively unlettered and religiously docile immigrants." Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Testem Benevolentiae, which excoriated boat-rocking "Americanism" in 1899, pricked the searching intellectual confidence that was bubbling in some Catholic colleges. While Britain produced id. imaginative Catholic writers before World War II on the order of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, the vastly larger American Catholic community threw up little more than Joyce Kilmer.
Ah then, but trees—like tackles and rebounds—could offer a comfortable retreat from a complicated world. Besides, suspicion of the mind was matched by fear of the libido. Athletics was the perfect alternative—to keep wandering eyes from patent-leather shoes, to keep wandering tongues and fingers to themselves, to keep, perhaps, hair from sprouting on indulgent palms. Compared with free thinking and loose living, fun and games was one area in which Catholic education could compete straight-up with anybody. Bob Capone, the alumni director at Villanova—he had been a football player there, graduating in 1962—recalls the old days: "It was a different time, when just about every boy played a contact sport." It is surely no coincidence that the first Catholic college to be awarded a Phi Beta Kappa chapter (in 1938) did not have a football or basketball team; it was the College of St. Catherine, a women's school in St. Paul.
The Catholic colleges were small and unprepossessing and (of course) single-sex. The Catholic presence was always clear because most of the teachers were priests—"the living endowment," it was called, which was apt enough, because there was precious little of the other kind. Few of the alumni, struggling to work their way up the American ladder, could contribute great gifts.
While Georgetown, founded in 1789 by the Jesuits, was one of the first two dozen American universities, the Catholic college did not really begin to flourish until the 1840s, as the great immigrant waves from Ireland and Germany rolled in. Both Villanova and Notre Dame were founded in 1842, and soon to follow were such schools as St. Joseph's and La Salle in Philadelphia; Manhattan and St. Francis in New York and Brooklyn; Seton Hall in New Jersey; Loyola in Baltimore: Niagara and St. Bonaventure in the Buffalo area; Boston College; and Dayton. The Jesuits, of course, set the pace, but almost every order wanted a flagship, and one can almost chart the flow west of the American immigration by the founding dates of new Catholic colleges across the country. Barely had the 49ers picked their first nuggets than both Santa Clara and USF opened their doors—more than a decade before the state gave its citizens the University of California.
Most of the Roman Catholic schools were in the cities, where the immigrants were, where the parishes were—a fact that would eventually have a great deal to do with the demise of Catholic football a century later. Many of the downtown schools had no campuses to speak of, and certainly no rustic ivied walkways and Gothic dormitories. Father John Lo Schiavo, the president of USF, recalls that when he was a student there after the war, when the place was jammed with all the boys back from the fighting, by the time the 2 p.m. chapel bells chimed, the Hilltop was all but deserted, as the students took streetcars home or to work. In 1951, immediately after it fielded a football juggernaut the envy of Frank Leahy or Earl Blaik, USF gave up football. It was two-platoon, all these hordes of boys to outfit. They had no proper place to play on campus. And there was this new thing in town called the 49ers.
But then, shortly thereafter, Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, two black non-Catholics, set the pattern, leading the Dons to back-to-back national titles in the mid-'50s. For basketball, you needed only a few sneakers; the Dons of that era practiced and played in a nearby high school gym. And if Catholic schools today use non-Catholic black players, that's nothing new. As Lo Schiavo points out, the Catholic schools, often as not, took on black students before the taxpayers' schools did. Some Georgetown people make the rather telling point that Georgetown, with an all-black basketball team today, is a more appropriate place than it was in 1969-70 when the team was all white, because the community all about the college has long been predominantly black. They needed each other, the poor blacks and the poor Catholic colleges. Even before Russell and Jones, the first black man to sign to play in the NBA came out of a Catholic college: Chuck Cooper from Duquesne.
It is generally agreed that the GI Bill of Rights helped save many Catholic schools, subsidizing enrollment. After the war Villanova had little but its living endowment to till its 240 acres and the minds of the 800 or so young men who inhabited the lovely real estate. Villanova is not necessarily typical of Catholic colleges—it's Augustinian, not Jesuit; suburban, not urban; more homogeneous, more "Catholic" than the downtown melting pots—but it has endured many of the same experiences. For the students, for many years there were bed checks and curfew, compulsory chapel, and coats and ties for classes and dining. Everyone was obliged to take large chunks of theology and philosophy, and the hale and hearty were encouraged to play football. Villanova fielded its first team in 1894. On New Year's Day, 1937, the Wildcats went to Havana to play a game. The Bacardi Bowl.
After the war, with the influx of veterans, the school grew so fast that surplus Army barracks had to be thrown up. John Murphy, Villanova '51, the president of Philip Morris Inc., remembers that his best friends were M's and N's and lots of Irish O's because students were just bunked down in dormitories alphabetically. Already, too, the number of priests was beginning to decline (they now compose a scant 6% of the faculty), but in those days the boys had many friendly relationships with the priests. Occasionally, the students would bump into some of the Augustinians—the "Augies"—wearing "civvies" in bars down the Main Line, but on campus there was no monkey business. And there was an Augie on every floor.
"I remember there was a Father Kropp in our hall," Murphy says. "He had the 5:30 Mass, and if you made any noise—O.K., 5:30 for you. And the worst part wasn't that you had to get up at five; the worst was that Father Kropp had got it down so he could do a Mass in 11 minutes flat. So now it's quarter of six in the morning, and what are you going to do?"
Paul Arizin, the All-America, was Murphy's contemporary. He was the first great Villanova basketball player. In the same era, as the NBA got on its feet, there was also Bobby Davies from Seton Hall; Bob Feerick from Santa Clara; George Mikan from DePaul; Fat Freddy Scolari and then Don Lofgran from San Francisco; Larry Foust and then Tom Gola from La Salle; Easy Ed Macauley from St. Louis; Max Zaslofsky and the McGuires from St. John's; George Kaftan, Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn from The Cross; Richie Guerin from Iona. And the first blacks: Cooper and then Sihugo Green from Duquesne; Walter Dukes from Seton Hall; Maurice Stokes from St. Francis of Pa.; Russell and Jones. Meanwhile, almost overnight. Catholic college football was closing up shop. It couldn't compete. Marquette hung on in Milwaukee till '60, but by then old Vince Lombardi, from Fordham, had started the renaissance at Green Bay. The University of Detroit quit football in 1964, and in 1982 Holy Cross gave up big-time football as more and more old Catholics shifted their devotions to Notre Dame or to their local pro team...or to basketball.
The sustained postwar power of Catholic college basketball was interrupted only by the cultural upheaval and general turmoil of the '60s. No Catholic school won the NCAAs from 1963, when Loyola of Chicago did, until '77, when Marquette triumphed, and during this period there was a commensurate drop-off in contenders as well. The Catholic schools—citadels of discipline as much as morality—were out of touch and increasingly defensive. "We were almost apologizing for what we were," says Lo Schiavo. A good New York Catholic parochial schoolboy named Lew Alcindor passed up the local church options and hied to hedonistic Los Angeles, to UCLA and, ultimately, to a new faith.
When, at last, the national agonies of Vietnam and Watergate were behind us, people began to find a comforting appeal in Catholic education again. Would the unchallenged autocracy of John Thompson have worked 15 years ago at some state school when the kids were locking up the dean? Dr. Charles Jenkins, the Villanova track coach, was the school's first black scholarship athlete, in 1953, a middle-distance man who won two gold medals in the '56 Olympics. Jenkins is non-Catholic as well as black, and he says that Villanova's denominational status is seldom an impediment in recruiting non-Catholics. On the contrary, it tends to help in recruiting boys from a certain kind of family—those that prize order and discipline. There are coed dorms these days at Villanova, but there are strict rules governing visitation across gender lines, as well as for on-campus drinking. Some 8% of the 11,000-strong student body is on varsity teams, and more than 50% find an outlet in intramural sports. The ROTC contingent is so visible that it comes as no surprise to learn that Villanova is also known as Annapolis North.
And, despite some cuts in the philosophy and theology requirements, the traditional curriculum remains a bedrock. As is not the case at certain large public institutions, there is no place for an athlete to hide a diminished mental capacity. "We don't have Pound Sand One and Pound Sand Two here," says Dan Regan, a philosophy professor who is in charge of tutoring varsity athletes. Players are expected to go to class, and they do, and they are expected to graduate, and they do—even if all baccalaureate candidates must overcome a language, a science and math, as well as philosophy.
"And we don't just study the philosophy of St. Augustine and St. Thomas," Regan says. "We study Plato and Aristotle here. And everybody must take a course in Western civilization. I think we can be especially proud of that. At too many other universities, you can avoid philosophy and history, which are merely the thought and course of mankind. But then, as an alternative, you're allowed to take social studies. As a consequence of that, some colleges are teaching students what Chinese eat for lunch on Tuesdays, but they graduate having no idea what happened in 1066."
It is incumbent on Villanova basketball players that they also be Villanova students. There are no athletic dorms, no special privileges. Says Capone, the alumni director: "Some alumni argue we should do more for the players because they brought in a million dollars last year. My response is, yeah, but the students brought in $70 million."
Harold Jensen, a junior who came off the bench to shoot five-for-five in last season's 66-64 championship game win over Georgetown, says, "I like it and everyone on the team likes it—blending in with the students. Basically, most of us here have the same ambitions, whether or not we're playing basketball."
The players, in fact, seem at least psychologically seamless with other students, a majority of whom prepped at private schools and are neat, polite and well-mannered—ideal accoutrements for the lush, rolling Main Line turf they inhabit. "They are," Dan Regan says (and not unkindly), "very satisfied with themselves." Dianne Sugg, the editor of the student newspaper, The Villanovan, says Villanova students possess "a certain mind-set." What? "They're looking to make it big."
The paradox in this is that while most of the students at Villanova are playing it safe by choosing the college, the basketball player who selects 'Nova must, in coach Rollie Massimino's words, "be a little bit of a maverick." After all, for the most part the players are outsiders—blacks in a white school, and for the most part non-Catholics among Catholics. Harold Pressley, a black Catholic from Mystic, Conn., who is the team's leading scorer this year, acknowledges that he was "a little uncomfortable at first" when he came to Villanova, but he was soon enough at ease. "You're able to get the feel about what people are like here," he says. Pressley obviously found the right crowd, for his stated ambition is "to be rich." Jensen wants to work on Wall Street this coming summer. Gary McLain, the team's little playmaker last year, who wasn't quite big enough or good enough for the NBA, didn't mess around with going to Spain or Italy to play ball for a few years. He tucked his degree under his arm and took a job in finance in New York.
If this makes it sound as if Villanova is influenced more by a search for profit than by a search for truth, it's fair to keep in mind that these acquisitive values are to be found to some degree in all segments of youthful American society today. As in the late, lamented '50s, apathy and greed rule again. Then, too, the college years of any era are traditionally downtime for religion, and at Villanova, as at most other Catholic schools, Catholicism appears to be more a way of life than a set of religious beliefs.
At Villanova you can look up and see the autumn sun glinting off the gold crosses of the twin steeples that adorn the chapel the Augies built. But there is no longer any requirement to attend services, although because so many of the kids come from a shared Catholic background, it is still not uncommon for them to pull one another along. Capone observes, "As someone once said, as long as we have finals, we'll have prayer in the classroom." The Masses are always better attended during finals.
Coach Massimino demands that his players—Catholic and otherwise—go to Sunday services when the team is on the road and to a special team Mass before each game. Pressley admits that he groused about the requirement as a freshman, but now he has become one of the veterans who advise newcomers not to bitch. Generally, most complaints in American colleges from athletes about having religion forced on them have centered upon born-again fundamentalist Protestant coaches. What few priests are left on Catholic campuses have all they can do to teach and administer.
Nevertheless, religious schools, whatever the denomination, are forever torn about what sort of moral guidance they are mandated to provide. And, of course, there is also the perennial question: Where does house theology become propaganda and squeeze out open inquiry? Villanova's mission statement attempts to draw a line: "Although Villanova functions as an independent institution in the conduct of its own affairs, in matters theological it recognizes its obligation to the Magisterium of the Church."
Thus, last year the editor of The Villanovan, John Marusak, was censured for running a paid advertisement for a birth control device. More recently, the Villanova president. Father John Driscoll, rescinded the invitation of a pro-choice speaker who was to appear on campus for a theological symposium. "Within the framework of academic freedom," Driscoll says, drawing on his pipe, "anyone identified with a Catholic university has a right to teach the students the doctrine of its ruling body."
As suggested by the raging debates on many campuses over institutional investment in South Africa, universities must often make moral choices for themselves—and this is especially true if they feel their "explicit reason for existence," as Driscoll says is the case with Catholic schools, "is value orientation." But while big-time basketball is indisputably a rotten borough, Catholic schools have hardly been shy about residing there. When it comes to morality, they often seem to ask more of their students than of themselves. Of course, maybe they believe they haven't got any choice. Maybe they think if they want to compete in basketball, they've got to wink at the sinners. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. The one person at a Catholic institution who comes easily to mind for having spoken out courageously against the system is not a cleric, but Digger Phelps, the basketball coach at Notre Dame. And when he was derided, then, by both his coaching colleagues and the press for being a tattletale, who in Catholic education came to his side?
Questions about the direction of big-time intercollegiate athletics are regularly brought up by Catholic school presidents when they gather together, but apart from perfunctory nods toward goodness and light, no strong moral protests ever seem to be publicly ventilated. Driscoll shares what seems to be the benign, majority view. "In this country the tradition of athletics runs deep," he says. "And not only that of participating. Observing sports is also a strong part of our culture. Now we all must concern ourselves with overemphasis, and if abuses take place because of indifference on the part of the coaches or the administration, then it's wrong. But if mistakes are made unintentionally, there's no reason to punish athletics. That's just the way human beings operate."
A championship such as that won by Georgetown or Villanova—or even just a nicely publicized winning season—can enlarge for a university what politicians call "the recognition factor." Villanova's applications rose almost 15% last year—although it's a safe guess that these are just more of the same sort of kids.
Villanova's vanillaness is not altogether of its own choosing, though. Like so many private schools just below the top rank, it is caught in a bind. With tuition and costs totaling in excess of $10,000 a year, it obviously is going to attract a high percentage of well-heeled applicants. Yet because Villanova is not generously endowed, it cannot offer the bountiful scholarship assistance that wealthier schools can. (Villanova's endowment totals $15 million as compared with $300 million for Notre Dame and more than $3 billion for Harvard.) The well-endowed Ivies routinely dip down the scale to accept reasonably well-qualified minority scholarship applicants. This leaves Villanova with, as Capone characterizes them, "second-round draft choices" and poses this dilemma: How do you justify offering aid to kids who don't project as graduates?
Contradictory as this may sound, the better academic schools—such as Georgetown among Catholic institutions—also seem more comfortable in practicing a form of noblesse oblige and granting admission to borderline students. East Cupcake State bends the rules; Harvard provides minority opportunity. Charles Deacon, Georgetown's dean of undergraduate admissions, says flatly, "We have no minimum averages or standards." So long as an applicant is projected as capable of graduating, who is to say that a 7-foot basketball player with a minimal SAT score isn't more deserving than a wimpy poet with an SAT score out of sight?
There was grousing on the Georgetown campus when Patrick Ewing was admitted in 1981, complaints that he was taking the place of some more deserving student. But as Father James Redington, a Georgetown theology professor who also serves as scorekeeper for the Hoya team, says, "After a year it was no longer an issue. The main way I see Georgetown—as a Catholic university, but as one with basketball—is in terms of the increased commitment by Catholic universities, and by Jesuits in particular, in support of social justice. Or, specifically, it's what we Jesuits call an option in favor of the poor." Cynics might suggest that the option is more likely to be exercised in favor of those among the poor who excel at basketball, but the fact is, long before Thompson arrived as a coach at Georgetown, the university had begun a "community scholars program" to help students with special educational needs.
Under Georgetown's current president, Father Timothy Healy, esteemed and outspoken (although he declined to be interviewed for this article), the school's minority enrollment has reached almost one-fifth of the student body; almost one-tenth of that total is black. But then, there is a significant black heritage at Georgetown. Not withstanding its founding in the 18th century, Georgetown began to exert some influence only after the Civil War when another Father Healy was president. Patrick Healy, a fascinating man, was referred to behind his back by students as the Spaniard. His mother was a Georgia slave whose freedom had been purchased by the Connecticut sea captain who married her. Healy was the first black president of any major American college. He is described in the school history as possessing "a touch of ruthlessness.... A perfectionist himself, he could be caustic in spurring on the less energetic or the mediocre." That quote might equally describe the controversial black man who today rules Georgetown basketball.
Once upon a time it was thought that enhanced alumni support was one of the byproducts of big-time college sports. Today—especially in private schools—it seems that the very justification for big-time sports is that they attract alumni contributions.
Five years ago Villanova became the last in the line of Catholic schools to give up the ghost and cancel football. At the time only 691 season tickets had been sold for a stadium that seats 13,400. But as soon as the decision was announced, the somnolent alumni rose up in such holy protest—KEEP FOOTBALL, DROP THE TRUSTEES read the bumper stickers—that the board eventually surrendered, and football returned in the fall of '85, on a vastly reduced, lower-division scale.
Nobody makes any bones that football was brought back to appease the alumni. Villanova is in the midst of a major fund drive. Covenant II. The goal is $25 million, with almost half that earmarked to build a splendid new field house—although as Capone hastens to say, "It is an intramural building where we can also play varsity basketball." Still, it is clear that at Villanova, as at so many schools, the alumni hold athletics hostage.
Driscoll draws on his pipe again. "One of the values of athletics is that it maintains a line of communication with the alumni." he says. "That communication reinforces the values that the whole institution stands for." Pause. Another deep draw. "One would hope."
Faith is required in the matter because nobody has ever proved that a large-scale sports program does indeed result in improved alumni support. The examples of both Seattle and San Francisco are certainly instructive. At USF, under Lo Schiavo's aegis, the trustees heaved basketball off the campus three years ago after a staggering succession of abuses. Some of the president's advisers were petrified by the decision; they expected "a firestorm." In fact, just the opposite occurred. Apart from a handful of angry letters, the USF decision was widely hailed for its courage and morality.
But there is the other side, and Lo Schiavo admits that without a big-time sport, he "sensed a void on campus." Unlike Villanova, USF is a city school, and it isn't bound as much by religion, with barely 46% of the student body listing itself as Roman Catholic. And so, Lo Schiavo set up a task force that studied the situation and voted to bring Division I basketball back this season, but with strict qualifications.
Lo Schiavo appointed a new athletic director, a fellow priest. Father Bob Sunderland. He chose a new coach, a former Don player he knew well, Jim Brovelli. While the president allowed a new booster club to be set up, its donations had to be channeled directly to the university. "Before, the boosters had been setting priorities for us," Lo Schiavo says ruefully. Moreover, USF is in the middle of its own $12 million capital campaign to build a new recreation center that could be used by all students; none of the money will go to varsity basketball.
Almost everyone is happy at USF now that the school has its basketball back, but life on the Hilltop went on quite well without it—and so did the capital campaign. "The premise that sports raises funds for a university is accepted almost everywhere, but I can't see that it is proved," Lo Schiavo says. Indeed, he rather suspects that those who give money to a university because of its sports success are probably inclined to give most or all directly to the athletic program and not to the educational side.
Seattle University presents, in many respects, an even more compelling case. The basketball tradition there was almost as great as that at USF. There were no other major sports. There was no pressure, no terrible scandal that prompted the school to deemphasize basketball. When Sullivan announced the university's decision in 1980, he made it plain that Seattle had the finances to continue. Only one issue animated the decision: "Should an institution like Seattle be placing such large amounts of money into subsidizing a program for a handful of students—one that in many ways contaminates the educational ideals of a university?"
And since Seattle abandoned NCAA Division I in favor of the NAIA, the following things have happened at the school:
•Enrollment is up nearly 15%.
•Money used for athletic scholarships has been shifted over to academic awards, with $70,000 directly earmarked for minorities—so now if there are fewer blacks on the basketball court, there are more black students in the classrooms.
•Other funds used for varsity basketball have been given over to intramural athletics, exponentially increasing the physical activity and morale on campus. Sullivan says, "I don't think there's any question that school spirit is enhanced."
•Where there had been four sports clubs on campus when big-time basketball was abolished, now there are a dozen, involving many more students in athletics.
•Alumni have actually been donating more dollars to the school, in significant increments, every year since the decision was made. "We were told there wouldn't be any more alumni support," Sullivan says. "But it's clear that with a few exceptions, alumni support their universities because of their education—and not because of the fact that for a few times during the course of their undergraduate years they sat in the bleachers and watched somebody else dribble up and down the court or run across a field."
The Seattle experience certainly does not suggest that Villanova ought to abolish basketball or that Notre Dame should quit football. Almost all Catholic schools keep sports in better perspective than do their secular counterparts. At the same time, it is clear that in a period when Catholic universities are struggling for identity, even for justification, they are often mainly visible as accomplices in the big-time basketball mob. Even Georgetown, generally regarded as the finest academic Catholic institution, and with a perception of itself as being in competition with such colleges as Duke and Northwestern, acknowledges that abroad in the land it is viewed as "the Southern California of basketball." The fact is that Catholic colleges are playing somebody else's game, and even when they win, it is not clear that they do.