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Upstairs Downstairs

Oct. 14, 1991
Oct. 14, 1991

Table of Contents
Oct. 14, 1991

Books
Reporter-At-large
Washington Redskins
Bobby Bonilla
Cal-UCLA
NHL Anniversary
Jock Dorms
Eric Green
Baseball
Murray Pezim
Yesterday
Point After

Upstairs Downstairs

Athletic dorms have been legislated out of existence—they must close their doors by 1996—but many coaches, especially in the South, believe that the dorms are the best way to supervise players and produce winning teams.

If football dorms really are some perverse combination of Plato's Retreat (see Oklahoma, University of, circa 1989), cocaine den (ibid.) and munitions dump (ibid.), then a well-adjusted, God-fearing, middle-aged couple would be nutso to move into one. Before last season, University of Mississippi coach Billy Brewer and his wife, Kay, did just that. After selling their house in Oxford and not finding another suitable one, the Brewers rounded up their two dogs and took up residence on the first floor of Kinard Hall. "I do know where our players are at night," Brewer said shortly after settling into his new digs. "That's because I'm the guy who has to ask them to turn the music down sometimes."

This is an article from the Oct. 14, 1991 issue Original Layout

At least one denizen of the Ole Miss campus has been known not to comply. One evening Brewer began hearing the strains of a mockingbird in a tree outside his window. The serenade persisted through the night until, at about four in the morning, the coach could bear it no longer. There ensued a wee-hours scene Harper Lee could have written: Brewer rolling out of bed, grabbing a broom and lighting out the door to flail away at the offending mockingbird, at which point a car pulled into a nearby parking space. "They were fraternity guys," Brewer recalls, "coming back from doing whatever fraternity guys do when they're out all night. I could hear them after they saw me beating on that tree: 'Hey, that's him! That's that football coach! He's done lost it all!' "

Please indulge the Brewers their opinion, but they believe that the woolly-headed social engineers among the NCAA membership have done lost it all. At last January's NCAA convention, the delegates passed Proposal No. 30 on Athletics Housing, which calls for the phasing out of all athletic dorms by 1996. By that time Alabama's Paul W. Bryant Hall, a.k.a. the Bryant Hilton, will have checked out its final football-playing guest. The evening shade will have crept for the last time over Burt Reynolds Hall at Florida State. And dorks with plastic pocket-liners will have the run of Florida's Yon Hall, the dorm that—oh, sacred space!—is built right into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

To the Brewers, indeed to almost everyone in the Deep South, where football dorms have been a way of life for the better part of four decades, the delegates' vote was kind of like telling a southern hostess that her hospitality hasn't been gracious enough. Yet unless the proposal is amended substantially—and that's not likely in the current climate for reform, not with NCAA executive director Dick Schultz stoutly behind the measure-long-standing same-sex, same-sport structures from Gaines-to Knox-to Stark-to Fayetteville will be left to the paleontologists.

In the meantime, if there's a case to be made for football dorms, Ole Miss is proud to make it. During Brewer's eight years at the school his players have painted Kinard Hall three times. Once a week the rooms are checked for tidiness by Brewer and his assistants. Even Pete, the pet python of former Rebel defensive lineman and current Green Bay Packer linebacker Tony Bennett, observed the Kinard rules, confining himself to a heating pad in the corner of Bennett's room—except on those special occasions when he was allowed to slither around the downstairs pool table to feast on rodents his keeper had bought at the local Wal-Mart.

"It's the only dorm on campus where women aren't allowed," Kay Brewer points out. Present company excepted, of course.

"And we have quiet time, which the regular student dorms don't," her husband adds. "Our kids say, 'Do anything to me. Just don't send me to one of those other dorms, where they're pulling fire alarms at all hours of the night.' "

To those who believe that football dorms are antieducational, Rebel sophomore linebacker Abdul Jackson says, "Our tutors and academic advisers are right in the basement. We don't have to go across campus to the library."

Besides, it is argued, the Rebels have business to tend to—business that is grimly serious in the Southeastern Conference. "If you're living somewhere else," says junior offensive tackle Scott Jerome, "your mind kind of veers from football."

"They like it that someone's there that cares about them and tells them what to do," Brewer says. "Not a day passes that I don't talk to them about going to class or staying off drugs. I'm going to see them at practice and I'm going to see them on film. I'm going to see them walking across campus and I'm going to see them in the dorm. There won't be a day I haven't seen every one of them."

The Ole Miss argument stands up pretty well until it encounters the people who carried the day in Nashville—people who believe that a college football player should go across campus to the library, should allow his mind to veer off the game and should occasionally do things without being told.

At their best, when the accommodations are spartan and curfews and parietals are enforced, football dorms are salutary way stations, places where an academic or behavioral risk can be eased into the demanding world of the university. At their worst—and there have been abundant examples of this of late—football dorms are a sort of cross between Animal House and Animal Farm, monuments to the twin propositions that Anything Goes, and Some Students Are More Equal than Others.

In either case, jock dorms warp one of the fundamental premises of college life. "My feeling is that you become a lot more responsible living outside an athletic dorm," says Georgia Tech coach Bobby Ross, who got rid of the football dorm at Maryland in 1982. "You relate better to the student body. And the students get to know you as more than a number."

Tech didn't need a dorm to go 11-0-1 and earn a share of the national championship last season. Nor did the Yellow Jackets' co-claimant for the No. 1 spot, 11-1-1 Colorado, or such perennial Top 10 programs as Notre Dame, Penn State, Nebraska—or, indeed, any of the schools in the Big Ten and Pac-10, which ban athletic dorms by a gentleman's agreement. (Some schools—among them Penn State, where many of the team's upperclassmen live in the Nittany Apartments near the practice field—have de facto football dorms.) Still, coaches and athletic directors in both situations agree that it's easier to win with a dorm than without one. Again and again, they cite the ease with which their players can be controlled. In the process they ignore the question: How come putative students need to be controlled in the first place?

Poor Bud Wilkinson. The former Oklahoma coach never bought the concept of athletic dorms, despite their presence in Norman, going back to the mid-'40s. "I totally believed that an all-athletic dormitory was out of place," he says now. "I felt that way all the time I was at Oklahoma, and I still do. It is not a good concept—for the student body, the school or the football player." Yet the Sooners honored Wilkinson a quarter century later by naming a new football dorm after him. Now Wilkinson's name gets dragged through the ink on the police blotter every time a story breaks in Norman: Woman raped in Bud Wilkinson House; Cocaine trafficked through Bud Wilkinson House; Man shot in Bud Wilkinson House. To rid the place of its image as the O.K. Corral, third-year coach Gary Gibbs has imposed a midnight curfew on Bud House during the season and stationed a 24-hour sentry to log all comings and goings.

Oklahoma created the football dorm, but Bear Bryant perfected it at Alabama in 1965 by opening a palace named in his honor. The Bear ruled his building like a potentate. "He used to prowl the halls at all hours," says Larry (Dude) Hennessey, the former concierge at the Bryant Hilton. "You could hear one floor after another grow quiet as he went upstairs."

Had the Crimson Tide not won national titles in 1961, '64 and '65, the football dorm might have enjoyed a brief vogue before passing from the scene, like the Corvair. But Bryant's success led every school in the southeast to assume that there had to be a connection. Soon each had introduced its own posh football-only hostelry or upgraded the amenities in a preexisting athletic dorm.

Most dorms featured forerunners of Hennessey: Chaplinesque characters with a dash of s.o.b. in them. These dorm fathers enforced discipline by maintaining back channels to the coaching staff, and fostered camaraderie among the players by becoming mascots of sorts. They included men such as Isaac (Brother Ike) Mayeaux, the dorm supervisor at LSU's Broussard Hall from the late '40s to the mid-'60s. ("I pledged I-K-E," a Bayou Bengal used to answer those who asked what fraternity he belonged to.) During the '50s, Jim Thompson at Tennessee's old East Stadium Dorm supervised the training table, too; when hamburger was on the menu, you could be sure that Mr. Jim had ground up the beef himself. And J.W. (Wobble) Davidson, the short-tempered man who ruled Mississippi's old Miller Hall in the '50s, became so enraged at an offending radio one night that he tossed it out a window. (Brewer should have called on Wobble, who still lives in Oxford, to help shush that stentorian mockingbird.)

Today's football dorms come out of no classic, cookie-cutter mold. Some, like those at Oklahoma and Mississippi, house players on either side of long hallways, two to a suite. Others, like those at Tennessee and Arkansas, give many of the players a room of their own, with a bathroom for every two men to share. Still others, like McWhorter Hall at Georgia, are of the Tom Bodett School of Architecture, with breezeways overlooking a Motel 6-style courtyard parking lot. Most have training tables and rec rooms on the premises. North Carolina State assistant athletic director Jeff Compher says "an Olympic Village atmosphere" prevails at the Wolfpack Stroud Center he oversees. But at most jock dorms you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who looks even vaguely like a gymnast or a taekwondo master, save the odd field goal kicker. Nor are you likely to find any women athletes; most schools have either banned women from the dorms altogether or limited the hours during which they may visit.

Thanks to NCAA legislation passed a decade ago that puts some limits on their luxury, football dorms are now rarely used as recruiting tools. Today's recruiting showpieces are instead mammoth training complexes, combination indoor practice facilities and weight rooms situated a few steps from the dorms, allowing football players to exist in a sort of hermetic theme park. Georgia attracted much attention in 1987 by opening $12 million Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall—the Dawg Mahal—which is still widely believed to be the Bulldogs' dormitory. It's not; Butts-Mehre is Georgia's training center cum weight room cum sports museum, in which you'll find an elevator with buttons reading HUNKER UP and HUNKER DOWN. The football team lives and eats in nearby McWhorter Hall. Yet Georgia doesn't have an indoor practice field, and for that a recruit is likely to dock the Dawgs a point. "You don't have an indoor field to show the kids these days," one assistant athletic director in the SEC said recently, "they go somewhere that does."

Perhaps no school has a recruiting gemstone that sparkles more brightly than Tennessee's athletic complex. A Volunteer eats and sleeps in newly renovated Gibbs Hall. If he's baffled by a quadratic equation, he goes across a breeze-way to Academic Support, located in Stokeley Auditorium. The weight room, indoor practice field, medical facilities and coaches are across the street, in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center, a $10 million, state-of-the-art gridplex. Gibbs itself features suites with private bathrooms, wall-to-wall carpeting, even cable TV outlets. (A $20,000 surveillance system was added last May, six months after a woman accused three football players of assaulting her in the dorm. She later declined to press charges.)

Even if the school had not just spent $6 million in privately raised funds to gussy Gibbs up, coach Johnny Majors and assistant athletic director Gene Moeller, the man in charge of the athletic dorm, would subscribe to orthodox southern thinking on the value of the sportsplex. "You can control the athlete's environment, and that's what a lot of young people need," says Moeller. "I don't want to pass judgment on the discipline they've gotten before they get here. But if I'm a parent and I see that my boy cats, studies, lives and practices right here, I'm going to say, 'That's a home.' "

"They [the NCAA] are telling us how to sleep and telling us how to eat," says Majors, referring to another reform measure passed in January, one that calls for the elimination of the three-meal-a-day training table. "But they haven't told us how to pay off the debt service."

You would expect the Volunteer players to roundly resent having their fiefdom legislated out of existence. But many of them don't, and there's a reason for that. During the 1987-88 school year, while Gibbs was undergoing renovation, members of the football team were parceled out to the regular student dorms. As a result, the players got to see how the other half lives, and a lot of them didn't particularly dislike it.

Harlan Davis, a receiver and defensive back who completed his eligibility last spring, missed the freedom of the student dorms after moving back into Gibbs, and chafed under the bad rap the entire athletic dorm received for the actions of a few. "Before I started to date my current girlfriend, she didn't want to come by Gibbs," he says. "I had to say, 'You've got to give us a chance. There are some great guys over here—guys with character.' "

Davis is a big-city kid, from greater New Orleans, but his feelings are shared by a couple of players who grew up in small Tennessee towns. "My freshman year I lived in a regular dorm and made friends I'd probably have never made if I lived in Gibbs," says senior center John Fisher. "During the season it might help, being around each other all the time, but personally I get tired of seeing the same people every day. You can only take so much of football. They pay for our school and everything, but it would be nice if they weren't always breathing down our necks."

Charles McRae, an All-America tackle who was Tampa Bay's first-round draft pick last spring, agrees. "We really were kind of isolated from the rest of the campus, and that's how stereotypes get started," he says. "Yes, my grades suffered [in 1988 while he lived in a regular dorm], but not for a lack of supervision. It was because sometimes I'd stay up and watch Letterman till 1:30 in the morning with the rest of the students."

Here the issue wends its way back again to control. Watching the David Letter-man show till 1:30 is not what a football coach would consider constructive entertainment. Watch too much Letterman and a football player might get...cynical. And a cynical football player is going to resist the coaching staff's efforts to whip him into a frenzy that gathers force through the week and peaks at kickoff on Saturday afternoon.

The athletic dorm is like a reactor core. Intensity, emotion and single-mindedness feed on themselves until they've grown into the hellish contagion that wins football games. And if some of that energy happens to spill out earlier in the week-well, as former LSU coach Charlie McClendon says, "You're going to get some complaints. If you don't, you haven't recruited a football team."

Thus the reaction of so many coaches to the NCAA's decision to abolish athletic dorms. "It's a smash to the mouth of the southern schools," Majors declared after hearing of the January vote. Jim Walden, the Mississippian who coaches at Iowa State, predicts that with the demise of the training table, starving scholarship linemen will start stealing steaks out of grocery stores. "Don't we all believe in states' rights and local control?" he wonders.

Ohio State coach John Cooper would be defending the barricades with Majors and Walden if he were still at Tulsa, where he had a dorm. Now he's in the Big Ten and can't have one. So he just shrugs. "It's one of those things," he says. "If you've got one, you sell it. If you don't, obviously you sell student life. It's like AstroTurf. If you have turf, you tell everybody it's the only way to go. If you don't have it, you tell them how safe it is."

In September 1986, 14 police units were summoned to Foster Hall, the nondescript stucco building that served as the University of Miami football dorm, because about 40 players had gathered outside to participate in what an officer's report would later describe as "a brawl." On seven different occasions during 1985, police had arrested Hurricane players at the dorm on charges ranging from trespassing to arson.

"It was like being the caretaker of an Old West bordello," says Alan Beals, who lived in Foster as an academic counselor during that time. "What a stew those bungalows were. Saturday nights were ugly. You'd see girls rolling around outside your window, fighting over [former wide receiver] Michael Irvin. [The players] would just trade around."

Miami's president is a lanky, patrician attorney and former journalist named Edward (Tad) Foote II. He arrived in Coral Gables in 1982 with grand designs to turn a lightly regarded private university into a tropical Stanford, a place whose academics would match the school's lofty football tradition. Under Foote's leadership the combined mean SAT score of entering freshmen has soared from 984 to over 1,100. And he has introduced a system of residential colleges, each with its own social calendar, arts events and resident master, a professor who actually lives among the students. The colleges are modeled after those at Yale, where Foote went to school.

On the whole, the Miami faculty said boola boola to Foote's changes. But a number of professors didn't think the changes went far enough. How could Foote stump passionately for residential colleges on the one hand, and on the other hand tolerate an island of homogeneity like a football dorm? One professor tells of a football player whose notion of diversity had been so distorted that he actually said, "I really like athletic dorms. It really helps you see what life's like for others in college—swimmers, and baseball players, and...."

Another faculty member, Jane Connolly, an assistant professor of Spanish, remembers sitting in the lounge of a residential college, watching a Miami game on television with several students. She was startled to hear them screaming at Hurricane players who missed a block or fumbled the ball away. "Do you realize these are your classmates?" she asked the students. "That they're 18, 19, 20 years old, just like you?"

Of course, she said to herself. They had no reason to consider anyone on the team a peer, to consider the Hurricanes as anything but a band of mercenaries.

Connolly soon joined with a number of like-minded colleagues to launch the Student Integration Project. In the spring of 1989 they collected 381 faculty signatures—those of nearly 17% of all faculty members—and petitioned Foote to disband Miami's athletic dorms.

"I heard arguments [from other faculty members] like, 'Well, they're animals. What if they throw a 130-pound freshman out a window?' " says Connolly. "But there's no evidence of it, just this perception of it. And so many of the perceptions bother me: 'Dumb jock.' 'Animal.' "

The following fall, Foote announced that he had decided to retain athletic dorms for the time being. Then, in a switch that caught the campus by surprise, Foote reversed himself last October.

Most of the faculty was delighted. On the other hand, you could read the displeasure of Sam Jankovich, the athletic director at the time, in his "No comment." And almost to a man, the Hurricanes themselves decried the decision to take away the system that—in contrast to that of their counterparts at Tennessee-was all they had known. "Nothing against the regular students or anything," said fullback Stephen McGuire. "It's just, we're like brothers."

Foote points out that he made his original decision to retain the dorms because of a housing shortage on campus, and concedes that he probably should have acted sooner. "Part of being a college student is learning how to manage the treasure of freedom," he says. "It's true, there is more control if you have them all in one place. But the point of education is not to control but rather to create an environment that is rich in the opportunity for personal growth. Part of that is to make mistakes, to stay up too late or to fail an examination. And to face the consequences."

Jankovich and coach Jimmy Johnson, the two figures on whose watch the aforementioned excesses occurred, are now both in the NFL, where the business at hand is not to provide an environment rich in the opportunity for personal growth but to win football games.

Billy and Kay Brewer want it understood that their decision to move out of Kinard Hall over the summer doesn't mean that they've wavered in their belief in the value of a football dorm. It has to do, rather, with Billy's light sleeping habits, to which a carload of frat boys and a certain mockingbird can attest, and with the realization that there is such a thing as knowing too much. "I hear them when they roll over," the coach says. "I hear them in their rooms. Sometimes I hear more than I want to hear."

We are happy to report that, after several months of looking, the Brewers have found a four-bedroom, ranch-style house on seven acres on the south side of town. After all, 1996 will be here sooner than we think. And with all the problems facing college sports, it would have been a shame to have to add a homeless coach to the list.

TWO PHOTOSBRIAN SMITHThe Brewers (opposite) felt at home in their first-floor digs, though they learned the disadvantages of being too close to Billy's players.PHOTOPAUL W. BRYANT MUSEUMNo sooner did Bryant open his "Hilton" than foes followed suit.TWO PHOTOSBRIAN SMITHAll of a Mississippi player's routine activities, from studying to roughhousing, can be accomplished within the confines of Kinard Hall.PHOTOBRIAN SMITHTennessee athletes are confronted with a hearty, down-home meal at Gibbs Hall...PHOTOBRIAN SMITH...where coaches can control what food football players consume at the training table.PHOTOBRIAN SMITHAfter a tantalizing taste of normal campus life, the Volunteers had to return to Gibbs.