When you think of Sports Dynasties, you think of the old Yankees and Canadiens, the UCLA Bruins of John Wooden's era, and the 1959-66 Boston Celtics, right? Well, stretch out a little and get a handle on some current dynasties that rank right up there, in their own lilliputian way. A splendid example is the Hobart College lacrosse team, which has brought 10 straight NCAA Division III championships home to Geneva, N.Y. If the Statesmen win title number 11 on May 19, they will tie Kenyon College, which last weekend won its 11th straight Division III men's swimming crown, for most consecutive national championships in the history of intercollegiate sports. The previous record for consecutive national titles was nine, shared by Iowa wrestling (1978-86), Southern California track (1935-43) and Yale golf (1905-13).
And, of course, nobody comes close to the record set by the men's swim team at Indian River (Fla.) Community College, whose Pioneers have won 16 straight National Junior College Athletic Association titles.
Although parity may now reign in big-time college athletics—e.g., no Division I basketball team has repeated as national champion in 17 years—these are heady times for minor sports dynasties. Take the men's golf team at California's Stanislaus State in Turlock. The Warriors have won 12 of the last 14 Division III championships, including the last six. And the University of North Carolina's women's soccer team has an unbeaten streak of 95 games, and counting. Then there's the men's indoor track team at the University of Arkansas, which has won seven Division I titles in a row. Not to be outdone, the NAIA has a few win streaks of its own. The Prairie View (Texas) A&M women's outdoor track team, for instance, has racked up eight straight titles, and the Azusa Pacific men's outdoor track team has won seven straight.
Let's lift a glass to the Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo women's cross-country team, which has won eight straight Division II crowns, and tip our hats to the men's cross-country team at tiny Adams State of Alamosa, Colo., 7,540 feet up in the Rockies, which last fall won its seventh straight NAIA championship, its 11th in 13 years.
Unfortunately, not many people know of or even care about these teams. Their victory streaks have either been ignored or, at best, taken for granted. Says Stanislaus State's coach Jim Hanny, "We're bigger news when we lose."
Should we take these feats less seriously because they involve minor sports? "Not at all," says best-known dynasty builder Wooden, whose Bruins won seven NCAA titles in a row (1967-73) and 10 in 12 years. "They are all major to those involved. No sport is inferior and no sport is superior."
Likewise, it's unfair to put down a dynastic team because it competes below the Division I level or because it's female. A dynasty is a dynasty is a dynasty, and the only requirement is that a team dominate its own level of competition. All of Wooden's great UCLA teams would have lost to every team in the NBA, but that doesn't devalue the Bruins' accomplishments.
Still, no one is exactly sure what constitutes a dynasty. The San Francisco 49ers? Please. The Lakers? Get serious. But Kenyon junior Eric Chambers has a definition that's as good as any: "A dynasty is when you own a sport, when you define a sport." Here are five teams that own and define.
"What am I going to say when we lose?" asks Hobart's first-year lacrosse coach, William (B.J.) O'Hara. "How will I put it in perspective? How will I use the loss to move us ahead?"
These are good questions, because the one factor these five dynasties have in common besides winning is that in every case, each has had just one coach. And that guy, for seemingly mystical reasons, is a perfect match with his team. At Hobart, the man who guided the lacrosse team to those 10 championships was Dave Urick, who last August left to become the coach at Georgetown.
Historically, the reins to dynasties are often fumbled or dropped upon transfer. To wit: UCLA, post-Wooden. Says Urick, "If B.J. is going to be measured by whether he wins a national championship, that's a little unrealistic." Well, he will be. And, yes, it is.
When Urick was named head coach in 1980, after having been a Hobart assistant for eight years, he had reason to believe a dynasty was possible. That's because the Statesmen finished either first or second in the Division II—III finals in four of the six years before he took over as head coach. Even so, Urick says, "Players win games, not coaches."
Senior midfielder Matt Kerwick thinks Urick was successful because he made the game fun. "He let you play," he says. "And he didn't rant and rave. He would say things like, 'Try this. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't.' "
Still, if anyone can keep the dynasty going, the 36-year-old O'Hara can. He was an All-America midfielder at Hobart in 1975 before apprenticing as Urick's assistant during five national championship seasons and then leaving to coach Dartmouth the past four years. "Things will be different," says O'Hara. "Maybe not better, but different. The scary part is following Dave Urick."
Midfielder Jacques Monte says, "In some people's minds, the win streak is in jeopardy." Senior midfielder Mike DeMaria agrees. "B.J. will take some getting used to," he says. What the fans want, of course, is for everything to remain the same. Already, O'Hara is philosophical: "It's not so much the titles as seeing the players grow, start careers and then come back and tell us how important Hobart lacrosse was to them." But O'Hara isn't making his excuses in advance. "Expectations enhance athletic performance," he says. "It's nothing to be afraid of."
Jim Steen, the men's and women's swimming coach at Kenyon, shook his head and looked baffled the other evening in his office in Gambier, Ohio, when the subject of dynasties was broached. "I have never mentioned the word dynasty," he says. "The way you really measure success is by the uncharted territory you delve into." Now that his men's team has won its 11th straight championship—to go along with the seven consecutive titles of the women's team—Steen has a record 18 NCAA championships to his credit. The previous record holder for most national titles was UTEP's Ted Banks, whose cross-country and track and field teams won 17 championships between 1974 and '81. "Winning all these national titles is very abnormal," says Steen. "No human being in his right mind takes a job and even hopes this will happen. It will be interesting to lose, then come back and win another national championship. That captures my imagination. That intrigues me."
Among the coaches of these five dynasties, Steen, 41, is the one most nearly a guru to his athletes. Says Missi Nelson, a senior, "If he says it, it's true. Flat out, it's true. If there was a person I could listen to for an entire day, it would be Coach Steen." Adds senior Nate Llerandi, "He knows how to get the best out of us without being tyrannical."
Steen thrives on change. "It's not enjoyable doing the same thing every year," he says. "It gets boring. And what we have done every year is win. It can leave you spiritually bankrupt." For several years he was very big on computer analysis—testing blood samples for lactic acid levels. This year it's plyometrics, a form of exercise that develops power and explosive strength. He gives each swimmer a hefty book he has put together, chock-full of performance analyses, practice schedules, NCAA split times and records.
The atmosphere at Kenyon practices is charged with electricity as Steen prowls the perimeter of the pool, watching everyone at once. His presence is so powerful that even words he says softly have the effect of being screamed. "I provoke my swimmers to think beyond swimming," says Steen. "I'm the voice that keeps them going in the direction they want to be moving."
Kenyon has long been a force in swimming—37 straight conference championships—but the Lords didn't win a national title until 1980, four years after Steen took over. He dismisses the concept of dynasty as applied to Kenyon swimming. "The word just doesn't fit us," he says. "What we think about is topping ourselves, going one better. I put a lot of energy and passion into coaching, but I feel guilty that I never expect to win. Basically, Kenyon swimmers are a group of ordinary swimmers who are great one weekend in March. That's when the Kenyon magic takes over."
Jim Hanny sits on a bench outside his office at Stanislaus State and talks about how national championships are won. "You fight, scratch, don't give up, execute," he says, emphasizing each point by banging a fist into his hand. Hanny is 64 years old and in his 18th year as golf coach. A former Army sergeant—he served in Patton's 3rd Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge—who taught public school for 16 years before coming to Turlock, he's an old-style, hard-line, no-nonsense type.
"I tell my players when to go to bed and when to get up," he says. "I make all the decisions. Somebody asked how I had the captains chosen. I said, 'I don't have captains. I'm the captain.' Golf is like life. You just have to get out there and grind. Plus it gives you the opportunity to play foul balls."
If anyone asked Hanny how he has kept up with the times, his quick answer would have to be that he hasn't. No plyometrics or computers for him. "The reason I win is that I am a good recruiter," says Hanny, a 17 handicapper. "I tell every recruit that if there are any changes to be made, they will have to make them, not me. Most kids want discipline, and they are disappointed when you don't give it to them. But I can't save them all. I'm not Oral Roberts. Ambition, desire and heart will win a lot of matches that talent won't."
The proof is in the numbers. In all of their Division III tournaments since 1976, the Warriors have failed to finish first only two times. Even more impressive, over the same span they have gone 412-113-3 against Division II schools and a stunning 514-509-3 against Division I teams, with victories over the likes of Southern Cal and Stanford. Their overall record is 1,225-626-6.
Alas, Stanislaus State's dynasty may end this spring. The entire athletic program moved up to Division II at the beginning of the school year, and the Warriors will be facing stiffer competition at the national championships. However, not surprisingly, Hanny says, "I think we can win it [the Division II title, from May 22 to 25 in Abilene, Texas]. And since we keep score, my objective, is to win 100 percent of the time." When doubt is expressed that the Warriors can triumph, Hanny juts his jaw and says, "We will work as hard as we need to be successful."
The school wishes Hanny would get out and raise money, but he's having none of it. "My job is to coach," he says. "If the institution doesn't have the money to support golf, then drop it."
Overseeing the women's soccer team at North Carolina is a controversial but charming rogue coach named Anson Dorrance, who last fall coached the Tar Heels to their eighth national championship in nine years. Dorrance, 38, is one of those rare people who can voice outrageous truths and still keep a job. "Women have to learn to be ambitious," he says. "One of them will be doing fine in soccer, but then she will sacrifice her whole life for some undergraduate jerk. Soccer is just a game, of course, but I have to fool 'em long enough to get them to stay and play. It's only a part of life. So I try to get them to understand that a boyfriend should also be just a part. I keep saying, 'Please make him just a part of your life, because I can assure you you're only part of his.' "
Pausing only momentarily to catch his breath, Dorrance continues: "Men and women are different. What you have to do is lead women and drive men. With men, you go in at halftime, kick a trash can, scream a few obscenities, tell them how embarrassed you are even to be associated with them and storm out. With women, when they play just as horribly, I walk in calmly and say, 'Things are O.K., just fine. However, there are things we can do a little better, and I would like to discuss them with you.' Women want encouragement. Women base their decisions on relationships; they would rather quit playing than endanger a relationship. Men base their decisions on objective criteria."
For some reason, senior midfielder Tracey Bates says, "Anson knows how to treat women." Adds sweeper Carla Werden, another senior, "Winning national championships here is a tradition, but the reason we play is that it's fun. If it was too stressful, we wouldn't play."
Some of Dorrance's peers don't agree with his approach to motivating women. Yale soccer coach Felice Duffy has called Dorrance "narrow-minded and nonprogressive." She could be right. But the facts are incontrovertible: Chapel Hill has a soccer dynasty. New Haven doesn't.
"What we have is a dynasty of hard work," says Dorrance. But he doesn't hold up a mirror to see the reason for this success. He says that the Tar Heels got a jump on everyone else 11 years ago, when they became the first major Southern school to field a women's soccer team. That allowed him to get almost all the best players. Last season North Carolina outscored its opposition 99-9 to finish 24-0-1.
Except for the fact that he's six courses shy of a law degree, Dorrance has a typical coach's rèsumè. An All-ACC midfielder for the Heels in the early '70s, he coached the men's team from 1976 to '88 before giving that up to concentrate on the women's team. Dorrance concentrates on instilling a killer instinct in his charges. During a game last fall, he praised one player by telling her, "You about ripped her face off. Hove it."
To commemorate championships, Dorrance gives his players flowers instead of rings. "Flowers symbolize the feeling you have at that moment, and they die before the feeling does," he says. "That's good. Rings are meaningless. All they do is cover you in the glitter of former glory."
Joe Vigil drives his pickup truck into the San Juan Mountains west of Alamosa, heading toward the area where his Adams State cross-country team is training. At the top of a rise, he is confronted by the sight of several hundred sheep being herded along the road. He comes to a stop and then eases his truck through the herd.
The delay gives Vigil a chance to think about the reasons for his team's success. "I don't point to win anything," he says. "Who cares if we win or lose? My relationships are with the kids. What I try to do is get the most I can out of each athlete. All I am is a trainer of men. I can't assume responsibility for what has transpired."
But he can and should. Vigil (pronounced VEE-hill) came to Adams State from the local high school in 1965 and has made the area synonymous with running. Alamosa's sometimes hostile environment does not deter the collegians, postcollegians and international runners who come to sit at Vigil's knee and soak up his wisdom. There is a lot to soak up. Vigil has an undergraduate degree in biology and physical education and a master's degree in life sciences, both from Adams State, as well as a doctorate in exercise physiology from the University of New Mexico.
Yet Vigil, 60, says, "I consider myself a coach with a lot to learn. I've only been at it 30 years. I look forward to the future. But there are coaches in my business who have never had a science course. That's tragic."
Vigil's background is not lost on his charges. Says sophomore Jesse Taylor, "He's always pushing himself and us. If we don't listen to him, it's our loss. The truth is, we can't afford not to listen." Adds eight-time U.S. men's cross-country champ Pat Porter, "He makes you believe in yourself because you know he knows what he's doing."
Vigil, seven times the head coach of a U.S. national team, rises at 4 a.m. to write in his journal and to run. He routinely puts in a 15-hour day at the office. "The main thing to being successful," he says, "is to be at peace with yourself."
Vigil uses Alamosa's high altitude to his team's advantage. As he steers his truck around the turn of a dirt road his runners train on—a steady 12-mile climb from 7,500 feet to a breathtaking 11,000—a spectacular panorama of yellow aspen and towering mountains comes into view. "A coach's job," he says, "is to figure out how to use what you have."
So when winds whip through the San Luis Valley, Vigil puts it at the backs of his runners, which helps to lengthen their strides. Vigil once wrote, "Strength of mind and character is perhaps best seen in those men and women who do essentially solitary deeds, or who carry out solitary responsibilities." Running in the wind and snow of Alamosa is a challenge to both mind and character.
Says 1988 NAIA cross-country champ Craig Dickson, "Sometimes he expects more from us than we can give." But Vigil understands, and says, "For most athletes, there is one step back for every two forward."
At a team meeting, Vigil says, "These miles give you your strength. You've got to learn to love it. You shouldn't be scared of anything. The only way to find out about yourself is to give of yourself."
Two hours later, Vigil is back in his truck. Before heading home, he pauses to reflect on his good fortune and to admire the beauty of his workplace. "I don't know that I coach to maintain a dynasty," he says. "Mostly I look forward to seeing these guys every day."