On May 30, Jim Tressel, one of the most successful coaches in the history of Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State, resigned in the wake of an NCAA rules violations investigation. It was big news everywhere, but especially in Ohio, where college football couldn’t possibly be any bigger. The Tressel episode is only the most recent case study on the perils of big-time sports at American universities. Storied football programs and the immense funding they both generate and require have put universities like Ohio State on the national map. Yet Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, argued in a book titled “Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education” that college sports, long expected to boost alumni giving, are not in fact good money-makers, especially at universities not near the top of the national football rankings. Instead, Bok says, they exploit students who are often admitted with low grades and test scores and are then given too little time to study. Still, he adds, competition among universities and colleges has kept up the pressure for more aggressive athletic programs, often undermining their educational values.
Until three years ago when I came to U.Va., I was a Michigan fan, so I can’t deny feeling a bit of schadenfreude at Tressel’s demise. Under Tressel, the Buckeyes amassed a 9-1 record against their archrivals, the Wolverines, a better winning percentage than even the legendary Woody Hayes, who beat Michigan 16 times, but also lost 11 times, something that Buckeye fans somehow tend to forget.
On the same day that Tressel resigned, Virginia’s men’s lacrosse team won the national championship in Baltimore, defeating the University of Maryland. It was a beastly hot day, and the heat, rising from the artificial turf, turned the stadium into an inferno, with reported temperatures of 120 degrees on the field. The lacrosse championship was a great triumph, considering all the pain the team has had to endure this past year. For most of our fourth-year student-athletes, this was the last competitive lacrosse game they will play. They will go on to graduate school, law school, business school, and other professional careers. They all have had superb guidance under veteran coach Dom Starsia, who has won four national championships at Virginia and was national coach of the year twice at Brown.
Meanwhile, the Virginia baseball team was beating North Carolina and then Florida State to win the ACC championship. At this writing, the team is on to this weekend’s NCAA Super Regional, seeded number one in the nation.
My good friend Hugh Evans (College ’88) played baseball during his time at U.Va. He told me that Wahoo baseball, like lacrosse, is a study in leadership. He recalled that U.Va. endured many sub-.500 seasons while he was here and in the years after he graduated. And then came 2004, when then 32-year-old Brian O’Connor took the team to a 44-15 record in his first year as its coach, winning ACC coach of the year in the process. Hugh Evans’ point: “Who says a single person can’t make a difference?” O’Connor has led the Cavaliers to eight consecutive NCAA tournaments, including the College World Series in 2009 when he earned two national coach of the year awards. Coach O’Connor and Coach Starsia believe in the importance of academic excellence. They also believe that good academics help us recruit better: but to believe that, it helps to know what it means to be a good student.
I taught political science at Northwestern for 12 years. One of my fondest memories was teaching “Introduction to World Politics” to Pat Fitzgerald, now Northwestern’s 36-year-old head football coach, who recently signed another contract extension, this time for 10 years. Back then, Pat was an All-American linebacker for the Wildcats. He had broken his leg late in the 1995 season when Northwestern went to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1949—losing to USC, in part because Pat couldn’t play. He showed up for class on crutches, never late, and never missed a class. I only knew him as this handsome kid who always sat smack in the middle of the large lecture hall, and always (and mercifully) laughed at my jokes. When I passed out final papers, I called out his name and he came hobbling forward. I thought his name was vaguely familiar. So I said, “Pat Fitzgerald: where have I heard that name before?” The class roared with laughter at the fact that I did not know one of the most decorated athletes in school history. All I knew was that he worked very hard in my class, and earned the “A” that he received.
With the advent of “big time” college sports, it is perhaps inevitable that athletic coaches are often paid so much more than professors or academic administrators. They are increasingly the public faces of their universities, symbolizing their values, for good or for ill. That’s why it’s a good thing that Northwestern has someone of Pat Fitzgerald’s intelligence and integrity, and that U.Va. has Dom Starsia, Brian O’Connor, Tony Bennett, Mike London and any number of very fine coaches of our 25 athletic teams. Last year, for the 24th time since the Academic-Achievement Award was instituted in 1981, U.Va. was again recognized for its football graduation rates; the team won the national award in 1985 and 1986. Virginia is one of just 12 programs to win this prestigious award and one of only six to win it twice.
No one at Virginia can excel both in the classroom and on the field without stringent discipline, close attention to time management, the talent that we seek to find and bring to Charlottesville from across the country and around the world, and perhaps most importantly, the burning desire to do your best, and be your best, at whatever you do.
In an earlier post, I referred to the brilliant symmetry of the baseball field, the uncanny distances between the mound and home plate or between the bases that perfectly match and test the athletic ability of human beings. On a lovely day last Friday (June 3), I sat at Davenport Field, amid a large crowd, watching Will Roberts retire one Navy Midshipman after another. He pitched a shutout, while striking out 14 and walking none. Will got all the support he needed from teammate Danny Hultzen, who went 3-for-4 with three RBIs. On Saturday night, Danny pitched U.Va. to a 10-2 win over St. John’s in the second game of the regionals. Tyler Wilson gave Virginia its third straight stellar outing by a starting pitcher in a 13-1 win over East Carolina on Sunday. On Monday night, Danny was selected by the Seattle Mariners with the second overall pick in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft—the highest draft selection in U.Va. baseball history. Will, Tyler and three other Virginia players—John Hicks, Steven Proscia and Kenny Swab—were chosen in rounds two through 30 of the draft on Tuesday.
In March, Will threw a perfect game against George Washington, only the second time it’s happened in ACC history. It’s only happened eight times in NCAA Division I baseball since 1957. Watching Will, Danny and Tyler pitch reminds us of the kind of excellence that is rarely attained in sports or other human endeavors. How hard is it to throw a baseball from 60 feet, six inches at over 90 miles an hour, and not allow a single batter to reach base over nine innings? How tough do you have to be to play lacrosse in 120-degree heat? Better still, how hard was it for our men’s and women’s cross country teams to go to the 2010 NCAA championships last fall while maintaining a 3.0 or better cumulative GPA? It seems that our student-athletes are striving for “perfect games” all the time.
This weekend, we will all follow the Cavaliers in the NCAA baseball tournament. Coach O’Connor said in an interview in March that at Virginia, “We’re not one of those programs that have gotten to Omaha (site of the College World Series) year in and out. So that allows us to still have a feeling that we’re still proving ourselves. It keeps an edge. I kind of like it.” So do I, and I hope we go to Omaha this year. I know I’ll be there—rooting for perfection.