Call it the unconference. The NCAA's new basketball league this season, the University Athletic Association, gladly spends more money than it makes. Its student-athletes are just that, and in that order. Valedictorians, national merit scholars and academic All-Americas are as common on its rosters as slam dunks will be rare on its courts. In the Unconference the coaches don't have to repeat themselves much.
Maybe you've seen the women of the Ivy League; now meet the men of the UAA. But the introductions must be brief. These guys all have seminars or labs or student senate meetings—not to mention practice—and miles to go before they sleep. What they don't have are athletic scholarships, this being Division III. "They earn their scholarships with their heads," says William Danforth. Uncle Bill, as he is known to his students, has a sage and venerable look, like a senator, but he's the chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis. (It's his brother, John Danforth, who's a U.S. senator from Missouri.)
The UAA's eight other members are Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, the University of Chicago, Emory, Johns Hopkins, NYU and the University of Rochester. All are high-level research universities, excruciatingly selective and extravagantly well-off—six are among the country's 18 most richly endowed schools. Three words sum up their curricula: nowhere to hide.
When the coats and ties sat down to name this band of eggheaded gym rats, they weighed such options as the Gaslight League and the Holly League. But to avoid coming off as some Wal-Mart brand of Ivy, they settled on the bland UAA. They might have considered calling the conference the OAA, for Over-achievers Athletic Association. A sampler of the league's hard workers:
•Mike Latimore, 6'5", junior forward at Johns Hopkins. Scored 13 a game last season while leading the Blue Jays in blocked shots and working for a congressman. Is now interning at a Baltimore law firm, double-majoring in poli sci and humanistic studies. Next year he will start work on his Juris Doctor-MBA, a combined business and law degree. An all-Centennial Football Conference tight end last year, he led Hopkins in receiving. Tutored inner-city youngsters one day a week. "It's all part of the liberal arts experience," he says. Can perform a 360-degree dunk.
•Michael Swell, 6'6", senior forward at Brandeis. Averaged 5.3 points, 5.2 rebounds in 1985-86. Spent last year studying at the London School of Economics. Has since been accepted into Brandeis's international economics and finance masters program. Double major with 3.5 grade point average. Also worked for a congressman last year. President of Brandeis Students for Gephardt. Is considering entering politics himself. "I have to make a lot of tough decisions here," says Swell. "It's not easy to say, 'Coach, Senator Albert Gore is speaking on campus today, so I'm not going to stick around for extra shooting practice.' "
•Jeff Unterreiner, 6'6", senior center at Washington U. Business major and the Bears' top rebounder among their holdovers. Works three days a week as an assistant in the p.r. office of the NHL Blues. With an assist from a trust fund, he started a retail clothing store in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Mo., called Coast 2 Coast, specializing in bi-coastal beachwear. "The town was ready for it," says Unterreiner, who visited Chicago, Dallas and Long Beach, Calif., over the summer to do his fall and spring buying.
These are the kind of guys who still raise their hands after committing fouls. The idea of pitting them against one another on a regular basis crystallized three years ago at an American Association of Universities convention in Minneapolis. Rochester president Dennis O'Brien and Danforth were seated together on a bus, touring the 45,000-student University of Minnesota campus. On their left they noticed a hangar-sized building. "What is that?" O'Brien asked the driver. "Oh, it's our indoor football practice field," he said. O'Brien and Danforth looked at one another in mild shock as the contrast between Division I and Divison III athletics became clearer to them. They got to talking: Wouldn't it be nice if there were a conference of Division III schools based on academic as well as athletic similarities?
Danforth posed the same question to Washington's dean of students, Harry Kisker, a man of boundless energy and minimal sleep requirements. Kisker visited other schools, pitching the notion of "an Ivy-style national conference of academically reputable" universities. A philosophy was hammered out; costs were estimated and approved.
So far-flung are these schools that travel from one to another is the most expensive item on their athletic budgets. These schools will spend more on their basketball teams than the teams will take in. Washington, for example, doesn't even charge for tickets to games. Hasn't Division III learned anything from Oklahoma football? UAA officials respond: 1) We can afford it, and 2) for the $15,000-plus a year it costs the player to go to school, doesn't he deserve more plane trips, fewer seven-hour bus rides? "Division III does not have to be synonymous with vans and box lunches," says Rochester coach Mike Neer. Says Kisker, "It's worth the expense. Athletic departments do not have to be these freestanding. TV-revenue-driven enterprises only nominally connected to the university. Every week some new mess is unearthed [in Division I], yet there's this pervading myth that the way they do things is the way they should be done."
To a man, the players agree they're worth the expense. Says Emory sophomore forward Tim Garrett, who was raised in a housing project in East Rome, Ga., "I've always wanted to travel to real cities." The UAA circuit will take him to Chicago, Cleveland, New York, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Waltham, Mass., and Washington. D.C. Garrett intends to major in biology. On a typical day he might have classes from 10:00 to 2:00, practice from 3:45 until 6:00 and, after that, dinner. Then he's off to work for two or three hours at the microbiology lab. He wraps up the day by studying until two or three in the morning. "I don't have much time to waste," he says.
Varsity basketball is only two years old at Emory, yet league insiders see coach Lloyd Winston's team as a sleeper this season. Winston thinks conference games will put fannies in the seats at Emory's Woodruff P.E. Center. "Say we've got NYU at home Friday night," he says. "If I'm a student, maybe I've applied to NYU's law school, or I have a friend who goes there. It's not like coming out to see Kennesaw."
Each school will retain its longstanding rivalries wherever possible, but some traditional games will fall by the wayside. Chicago, for instance, will forsake its annual seven-hour bus trip to Grinnell, Iowa, during which the players would always sing the Goin' to Grinnell Blues. "I won't exactly miss that trip," says Maroons coach John Angelus.
On a recent morning Angelus was poring over Dave Bone's Cage Scope, a rating of the 50 or 60 top Chicago-area high school prospects. Of that group Angelus earmarked all of two as potential recruits. "Our standards are impregnable," says Angelus. He puts the Scope aside and bemoans a terrific prospect that got away: "Six-ten, nice touch from inside 12 feet, beautiful test scores. But he went to Harvard."
Chicago won a small measure of renown in 1979 with its Doctors of Dunk—a starting five that included four premed students. Doubts linger about whether all of them could dunk, or if it was just a clever promotion. "With a trampoline they could," says Angelus. Last year, Angelus had his ear operated on by one of his former players, Jimmy Stankowicz. Scalpel poised, Stankowicz stood over his old mentor and said, "You know, Coach, I never was happy with my playing time."
In the UAA travel time may be more meaningful than playing time. Says Rochester's Neer, "With all the frequent-flier miles, we can have the team banquet in Hawaii next year." More important, such traveling will make Rochester easier to sell to recruits. "Gifted basketball players don't simply walk in these doors," says Neer. "You've got to go find them."
Neer's star player is 6'6" forward Tyler Zachem. When he was a high school senior in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Zachem says, he was looking for three things in a college: "A scholarship, travel and tons of free sneakers." Zachem visited Rochester on a whim, fell in love with the place and rejected numerous Division I offers. Today he is a poli sci-economics double major with a 3.53 grade point average, a member of the school's senior academic honor society and a Rhodes scholar candidate. He has no regrets, even though he only gets one pair of sneakers per season.
He does, however, have a gripe or two over what he calls the "widespread misperceptions" about Division III, as does almost everyone in the UAA—a conference with a (micro)chip on its shoulder. "Since there is no Division IV," Neer says, "people think anyone can play for Division III." Says Zachem, "I've played against guys who think multiple Roman numerals mean I'm going to just fall down in front of them. Guys like that, I love to kick their butts."
Three years ago Chicago even put a scare into Northwestern of the Big Ten, leading 18-8 before eventually succumbing. Angelus recently reviewed video from that game. "See that kid?" he says, pointing at a figure on the Northwestern bench. "I tried to tell him about our program. He wouldn't give me the time of day. So he goes there and sits on the bench. You may as well come here, get a nice degree and play. These kids know what the odds are to make it to the NBA. Nobody's going pro."
Says Carnegie Mellon coach Larry Anderson, "To us, going pro means going to PPG, Westinghouse, Gulf Oil...." "That's Chevron, Coach," says Hart Coleman, a senior forward and a managerial economics major. Anderson ignores him. It's tough enough keeping up on the latest defensive innovations, let alone corporate acquisitions.
Do classroom smarts translate into on-court smarts? Is the relationship between backboards and college boards direct or inverse? "The other guy doesn't care what your IQ is," says Angelus. "But sure, when I tell my players to go out to 22 feet on a guy and play him to his left, I don't have to tell them twice. There's no cerebral fallout."
"We do have the type of player that lets me experiment," says Washington coach Mark Edwards. "We can do a lot of things on court."
The problem, each UAA coach agrees, is getting bodies on the floor at the same time. "Right now I'm looking at Jedan Phillips's schedule," says Hopkins coach Bill Nelson, "I honestly don't know what we're going to do." Phillips, a forward, is a third-year natural sciences major. "There are three days a week when we don't expect to see him at practice for more than 30 minutes—if at all," moans Nelson. To avoid conflicts with classes and labs, conference coaches hold morning practices, evening practices, sometimes no practices. For nine years Neer gave his players Wednesday off and told them to schedule labs for that day.
"You try to keep a time slot free," says Zachem, "but if that's the period a course is offered and you need it to complete your major, something's got to give." In the UAA the extracurricular bows to the curricular. The key, everyone agrees, is managing one's time.
Perhaps the best in the conference at doing that is business major Kevin Suiter, a senior guard at Washington U, a Division III All-America and the most dangerous player in the UAA. Suiter made 75 of 156 three-pointers last season. Here was how a recent Thursday went for Suiter: classes, 9:30-12:30 and 1:00-2:30; job preparation seminar, 2:30-4:00; conditioning, 4:00-6:00; class, 6:00-8:00—"Wait, I'm not done yet," he says—work-study, 8:00-11:00; studying, 11:00 to well into Friday.
"There's already a bond between the players in this conference," says Suiter. "Playing hard to win a game, showering up afterwards, then coming back and staring down two or three hours of homework, that's what college basketball is all about."
It's also about a recent afternoon in Chicago. Angelus is leafing through his binder of prospects—"I got 10, 12 valedictorians in here, easy," he says—when graduate assistant Tom Lepp pokes his head into the office to report on that day's informal practice, which had just ended. Everything had gone well, especially during warmups. Freshman Valentin Gheorghe had begun counting off calisthenics in his native Romanian. Sophomore center Bert Vaux, who scored a 34 (of a possible 35) on his ACTs, chimed in in Japanese. Igal Litovsky, a trilingual, Israeli-born sophomore guard who wants to play pro ball in his homeland after college, sounded off in Hebrew.
Angelus smiles and says, "I think it's going to be an interesting year."