The scene is too perfect.
That's because the Amherst College campus is too collegiate, the ambience too New England, the whole picture too Norman Rockwell. The grass is cut, and the flower beds are weeded. There is no trash. The sky is true blue.
And insofar as sports are concerned, things are perfect, or pretty close to it. "Sports fulfill the natural drive to test oneself against others," says Amherst president Tom Gerety. "It's our greatest ritual, short of war. I don't have much trouble justifying them, but that's only in this kind of setting. It seems everywhere else, sports are a distorting force."
This gloomy assessment about what Gerety calls an "uneasy alliance" between athletics and academics may be correct overall. But things look different for Amherst and its 10 Division III brethren—Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Connecticut College, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, Tufts, Wesleyan and Williams—that make up the New England Small College Athletic-Conference (NESCAC).
October 31, 1994
NESCAC, founded 23 years ago, is as pure as college athletics get.
NESCAC firmly believes that athletics must be brought in line with academics, and not the other way around.
NESCAC stands above the fray.
Of course, NESCAC schools aren't very good in most sports.
But they are not very good only if you measure the Colby football team, for example, against Miami's; the Bates basketball team against Arkansas's. And such comparisons miss the point. As Bowdoin president Robert H. Edwards says, "If it's a choice between watching Division III athletics or turning on a television game, the question is, What are you looking for? You either want to experience the event and watch students giving their all, or you want to watch the game played at the very limits of human performance. Those are totally different things."
Claire Gaudiani, president of Connecticut College, is on the NCAA Presidents Commission. She stares out of the window onto her similarly too-perfect campus in New London and vows that her purpose on the commission is "to help bring our values to Division I." Gaudiani has been bloodied in her three years on the commission, but she still maintains her resolve. "The formula for what needs to be done in college sports lies in NESCAC," she says. "We have sports suffering and causing suffering on so many campuses. When you ask why the hell we are doing this, the answer is, It pays."
Philosophically, Gaudiani insists that "we are showing that young adults can live their lives in a way that's closer to what many people think is the right way. We are making the right thing the normal thing." If you don't think that's true, listen to what Kasia Sullivan, a Williams lacrosse and field hockey player, has to say about her collegiate experience: "I'll graduate with a Williams degree, and you can't do much better than that."
That's an example of what NESCAC has that is sorely lacking in big-time college sports: perspective.
Matt Whitcomb, 22, a former Middlebury running back from Acton, Mass., spent many a fall afternoon looking out over Vermont's Green Mountains, resplendent in the fall red produced by sugar maples, and pondering the Middlebury experience. "I played purely for the love of the game," he says. "Did I ever long to look up and see 75,000 screaming fans? Not really. To be honest, it was a better feeling to see 3,500 screaming fans and to know they were part of the community and that you belonged to that community and that most of the people up there were your friends. I consider my football experience to be a real valuable asset in my life. The discipline, hard work and competitive nature I learned playing at Middlebury is something I'll carry with me the rest of my life."
Middlebury athletes, like other NESCAC athletes, have a firm knowledge of where sports lit in the college experience—which is to say second at best.
A woman basketball player, Sladja Kovijanic, who recently graduated from Middlebury, suggests that "the only reason to play basketball here is because we like to play." However quaint, that's not a bad justification for the college game.
NESCAC schools have never lost sight of why the buildings were erected. Last month U.S. News & World Report called Amherst the best liberal arts college in the country and rated Williams second. In the list of the Top 25, NESCAC members claimed eight places, the other schools named being Bowdoin (sixth), Wesleyan (ninth), Middlebury (11th), Bates (21st), Trinity (22nd) and Colby (23rd).
But this is not to say that these schools don't care about sports. Each, in varying ways, cares enormously. "We yearn for winning as badly here as they do at Ole Miss or UNLV," Gerety says. "The experience of winning is joyous and valuable, and we crave it." Even in NESCAC, as Bowdoin's Edwards attests. "I remember rowing hundreds of miles as an oarsman without ever winning a race," Edwards says. "Then in my third year, we won, and I thought. My god, why didn't people tell me you could actually win? I loved rowing, but, my gracious, when you win, it's a totally different game."
But NESCAC schools will not do everything to achieve athletic success. Or even, in some ways, anything. If it happens, fine. If not, that's also fine. Only a handful of NESCAC players have ever made it in the NFL, most notably former Cincinnati Bengal defensive back Scott Perry from Williams and three Amherst grads—Miami Dolphin linebacker Doug Swift, Dallas Cowboy and Washington Redskin tight end Jean Fugett and Detroit Lion and Baltimore Colt receiver Freddie Scott (all retired). Bill Belichick, a Wesleyan grad, is coach of the Cleveland Browns. No NESCAC player has ever made it in the NBA. So what?
But lest you get the impression that no NESCAC alum puts a real premium on winning, it should be pointed out that George Steinbrenner is a Williams graduate ('52, English). And, believe it or not, the New York Yankee owner is a firm supporter of the NESCAC philosophy. "What Williams and the other schools understand is that you learn just as much on the line of scrimmage as you do in the library stacks," Steinbrenner says. "But the point is, a student shouldn't just drink from the gymnasium fountain but from all the fountains."
And it's not just NESCAC family members who have such good things to say. Ask someone in the Ivy League; ask Harvard athletic director Bill Cleary. "We're restrictive. They're a little more restrictive," he says, comparing the conferences. "Maybe they're right and we're wrong. They certainly keep it where college athletics were meant to be."
What makes NESCAC so special?
Simply, it is that the members put things academic ahead of things athletic. Eva Cahalan, a former soccer and lacrosse player at Connecticut College who now works for Prudential Securities, says, "You come to college to get an education, not to play sports. Here is a perfect example of the two working together."
But the NESCAC philosophy is to consider sports a part of that education, and in keeping with that, there are occasional special admissions considerations for an athlete, just as there are for a musician. "The sweatiest of the liberal arts" is how Amherst's Gerety describes athletics. "Be it poetry, acting, philosophy or athletics, any youngster has more to give than what is called for in a traditional class," he says. So justifying sports is not a problem.
Given that credo, NESCAC schools adhere to some basic guidelines. They follow the letter of Division III rules and give no athletic scholarships. Then they go the spirit of the rules one better and do not try to slip a few desired athletes in with academic or need-based scholarships. Of course, NESCAC athletes are free to apply for financial aid along with every other student, but with no help from the athletic department. Says Bowdoin AD Sid Watson, "We can't tell a kid how much financial aid he's going to get, because we don't know ourselves." No wonder Don Miller, Trinity's football coach since 1967, says, "We play the only amateur football left."
The Williams football team gathers in the locker room before playing Bowdoin. The ambience of the locker room is perfect testimony to the NESCAC philosophy, which puts academics on a lofty perch and makes athletics an adjunct.
In other words, the place is a dump.
It's way too small for all these bodies. The tile ceiling is ringed with water damage caused by a leaky roof; nine ceiling tiles are missing, and four more are hanging on in acts of faith. The walls are painted a sickly green.
But that doesn't matter. The players act like players anywhere. The quarterback coach, Dave Caputi, reminds the team that Williams has lost only five times over the last six years. "That's a legacy passed on to you," he says. "You've got to step up and rise to tradition. We don't make mistakes when we wear this uniform." Coach Dick Farley—who in moments of despair informs his charges, "If you can't play here, you can't play, because there is no Division IV"—hollers, "Our family can beat their team."
He got that right. Williams triumphs 42-6. Immediately Farley gathers his players at midfield—and rips them: "O.K., go out tonight and pretend you had a good game. Then come back and be ready to work. You play like this next week, and you'll be embarrassed." Brian Gugliotta, who rushed for 128 yards, shrugs, saying, "Everybody takes what he says with a grain of salt."
NESCAC members have all agreed to do no off-campus recruiting. That's by far the most stringent recruiting rule in the land. Coaches can make phone calls and write letters and ask prospective student-athletes to visit the campus—the way any other student would look over a college. But there are no home visits, no recruiting trips to high schools, no recruiting calls. "All colleges should do this." says Middlebury basketball coach Russell Reilly. "It eliminates the opportunity for indiscretion." Generally, NESCAC schools give prospective athletes a ticket good for lunch in the school cafeteria, just as they do all prospective students.
The one full-blown athletic scandal that has ever hit NESCAC involved recruiting. But unlike other conferences, in which schools go on and off probation, NESCAC promptly parted ways with Union College when the school was accused of off-campus recruiting in its quest for hockey players in 1977. Current Union athletic director Richard Sakala insists the school withdrew from the league and that the issue was Union's desire to play Division I hockey, but Wesleyan's Russell issues a sharp rebuke: "They were kicked out for cheating at hockey." Sakala does admit that there were recruiting irregularities but says it all worked out because Union is now happily playing Division I hockey. Still, he does say wistfully, "I think NESCAC represents the true spirit of college athletics."
NESCAC's manual consists of 19 pages; the NCAA's has 512. Says Gaudiani, "If you agree on a philosophy, you don't need a big rule book." There is further evidence of what can happen when institutions agree on a philosophy: Fourteen Williams varsity athletes have become Rhodes scholars; Bowdoin has had 10. (Northwestern has had none, Notre Dame and Rice one each and Stanford nine.)
Another difference between NESCAC and other conferences is the length of the football season. Other college football teams play as many as 13 games; NESCAC schools play only eight. "Eight is enough, honestly," says Middlebury football coach Mickey Heinecken. And the season has to be shorter because it doesn't start for NESCAC schools until classes are in session. No Kickoff Classics and the like in the dog days of August.
It shouldn't be surprising then that NESCAC also bans spring football. And speaking of spring, in baseball the limit is 20 games a season. "Why are some schools playing 70 baseball games a year?" asks Tufts coach John Casey. "I don't know. But I do know the players are not going to class."
But even NESCAC has its hint of controversy, and here it is: In a break with tradition. NESCAC teams are now being allowed to compete in NCAA Division III postseason championships. School presidents voted on April 7, 1993, to have a three-year trial period for such competition in all sports except football. Williams football co-captain Bobby Walker says he thinks excluding football is "very unfair to us. but I know they are concerned football will grow into what they fear most."
No NESCAC team has ever won an NCAA title, but last season 18 teams from eight NESCAC schools qualified for Division III postseason play. The men's tennis and golf teams at Williams qualified but were unable to compete because of conflicts with final exams. But once in a while, even in NESCAC, the competitive spirit gets the upper hand: Last year Wesleyan's baseball team missed graduation to play in the NCAA tournament.
Not a single NESCAC team makes money, but they all make sense.
Take, for example, Connecticut College. It has 25 sports and last year took in around $1,100 in athletic ticket revenue. The sports budget at the school is $830,000 out of a total school budget of $52.5 million.
Or consider Bates, with 27 intercollegiate and 12 club sports, activities that last year involved 61% of the student body. Bates charges admission to none of the games.
Contrast this with the typical big-college philosophy, under which football—with occasional help from basketball—must pay a hefty share of the bills. That raises the question: If sports support themselves, how can university administrators have control? The obvious answer: They can't.
Proof positive that NESCAC is not your normal, everyday college athletic conference can be found very easily. Try these for team nicknames: the Colby White Mules, the Connecticut College Camels, the Trinity Bantams, the Tufts Jumbos, the Williams Purple Cows and the Bowdoin Polar Bears.
More proof positive: Says Harry Sheehy, basketball coach at Williams, "All my game is, is five guys in underwear trying to throw a rubber ball through an orange ring. Sometimes it goes in. Sometimes it doesn't. That's it. Basically, I don't believe that if a player shows up at 4:30 p.m. for a 4 p.m. practice that that will cause us to lose."
Lose? It happens constantly. No problem. In life, everyone loses a lot. At Connecticut College, men's lacrosse coach Fran Shields says his 14-year record is 89-85—"nothing to write home about." Gaudiani considers lacrosse a resounding success. Nobody can think of a coach's being fired for losing in NESCAC.
Is the NESCAC way the wave of the future? Probably not. Robert Kirkpatrick, a retired vice president of Wesleyan. shakes his head. "I'm skeptical of the ability of large institutions to control the abuses." he says. "They just can't seem to control the mentality of winning that comes from alumni." Back at Amherst. Gerety says. "There are so few of us and so many of them."
Yet NESCAC keeps tilting at the windmills. Or are those windmills? "Could it be," suggests Kirkpatrick, "that Division I-A is the voice in the wilderness and we are reality?"