Playing the Game to Win: Understanding the Demands of Campus Athletics

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The following are remarks given by President Sharon Herzberger at the American Council on Education's fall summit, "Advancing as Leaders: Celebrating Achievements, Addressing Challenges." The speech was delivered at the Atlanta, Georgia, meeting, in a session to senior college administrators considering making the move to president.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today about this important topic. I will start by telling you a bit about my journey to this day. Perhaps it will be reassuring to some of you in this room.

I am not an athlete and I have never "played one on TV." The closest I have come to athletic expertise and prowess is that I walk fast. I loved attending every one of my sons' games; however, this activity was the extent of my participation as a fan prior to my becoming president of Whittier College. My husband David and I moved to California after 25 years in Connecticut, and all that time we had season tickets to his beloved UConn women's and men's basketball games. I am sure that many of you will be horrified to hear that I saw these events as great opportunities to grade papers and prepare upcoming tests. Partway through our time there my husband got smart and started inviting other people to take my place.

I also must confess that I know very little about sports; rules for scoring, sports jargon, and sometimes even knowing who has the ball continue to elude me.

So if there are others in this audience who are similarly challenged, I am delighted to tell you that there is hope for you. Knowledge of athletics is not a prerequisite to overseeing an athletic program as president, nor working with expert staff to build a successful one. But let me tell you what you do have to know.

Miles Brand, the former president of Indiana University and now president of the NCAA, has said, "The purpose of higher education is to take teenagers and turn them into people." There are many adults on college and university campuses that play this kind of transformational role; some of them are teachers whom we call "coach." Whittier's athletic director Rob Coleman last year invited one of our most revered alumni, Stan Sanders—a Rhodes Scholar, well-respected attorney, a person profiled in Tom Brokaw's recent book, Boom! Voices of the Sixties—to speak to all of the student athletes who earned GPAs of 3.5 or better at a special luncheon in their honor. He attributed every success he has had as an adult to the fact that his mother made him read and his father made him an athlete. There is a reason why philosophers and presidents have, for millennia, promoted the ideals of sound mind, sound body and have encouraged the teamwork and camaraderie evident in athletics.

On a more practical level, athletics also serves as an important source of revenue, especially on a small college campus. I am not talking about ticket sales, but enrollment management. When I arrived at Whittier three years ago, our athletic programs were in the doldrums. We began to rebuild, and are having astounding success thus far. My first fall I arrived at athletic contests only to see that I was the only person there, with games cancelled because we did not have sufficient players yet to start the season. You can imagine my reaction to learning that coaches stalked the cafeteria, finding students who had played a little during high school or might be tempted to try out a new sport. We had perhaps 100 recruited athletes (for 21 teams!) out of an incoming class of 350. This fall, with Rob Coleman on the job only two years, we have 240 recruited athletes in an incoming class of 420. And we are not at our ideal roster sizes yet. Imagine the support always under-resourced admissions staffs have when each coach is a collaborator in identifying and cultivating great students to enroll.

Working collaboratively with admissions also can help a college's retention rates. Our coaches understand our admission standards and the other qualities we seek in scholar athletes, and they know that each student we recruit must want to be a student at Whittier, not just play on a team. Perhaps this is why our athletes now have higher retention rates than non-athletes, with football leading the pack last year.

You must know that a great athletic program helps with advancing the College in other ways. Alumni care about athletics; they want to see wins and hear good news about the character and quality of the scholar-athletes we enroll. With the onset of our drive to improve athletics, we are bringing back many, many disaffected alumni, and gifts small and large are flowing again. With generous support from alumni, we have not only increased our budgets for certain teams, but we have renovated our tennis courts and our stadium—a boon to all students, not just those who use these facilities for interscholastic competition.

The ripple effects across the campus have been exciting to experience. Winning, or at least putting on a good show, builds spirit. Whittier College is named after the great Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. Although we are proud of this origin, it has meant that we are also called "the Poets," and we are always on the lists of the top ten worst mascot names in America. And when your teams are losing more than winning, to be saddled with this moniker is a sorry thing indeed. But now we say "Poets" with great pride, and we walk around with "Fear the Poet" T-shirts, sweatshirts, and caps that fly out of the bookstore as soon as they come in. Where there used to be empty stands, now more than 100 students congregate in the "Poet Pit," rooting for their classmates; and we have cheerleaders and a dance team and hope soon to have a Poet pep band.

These are just some of the reasons to support and understand college athletics. And because I am speaking to people who are considering the presidency, I should give you three more pieces of advice.

First, just because you may enter the presidency with an understanding of and love for athletics, do not assume that others share your opinion. You must find ways to explain athletics' role and find others to help your effort. Let me suggest some ways of doing this:

Enlist the help of your admissions staff and athletic director in explaining the significance of athletic recruitment on enrollment goals. Show breakdowns of ideal and current team sizes, and the tuition generated versus the budget expended. Calculate the yield in matriculating students who are athletes versus non-athletes, and show the impact of athletics in reducing the gender disparity on your campus. In most cases, I suspect, the benefits will be evident.
Enlist the help of faculty athletic representatives to track and share statistics on retention and on how many athletes make the dean’s list, and use them to counter the typical stereotypes about scholar-athletes.
Ask your advancement staff to report about gifts received from alumni grateful for their own athletic experiences or from parents wanting to support their children's team.

Educate your campus about all the benefits from having an athletic program. And another way to educate is through identifying the wonderful stories associated with athletics throughout your institution's history, and sharing these stories on campus and off.

I love talking about Whittier's storied Southern California past, when we regularly beat USC and UCLA. While these schools will never allow us the opportunity to try this again, talking about this history lets alumni and parents know that we are thinking big and aiming high as we rebuild to those glory days.

I love talking about individual athletes who have accomplished amazing feats, such as those of Helen Garcia Copeland (Class of 1995), who was just inducted into Whittier College's Athletic Hall of Fame. Helen started at the back of the pack in her first year's cross country team; but through determination, hard work, and obviously a bit of natural talent by her senior year participated in the national championship.

And I especially love to talk about Richard Nixon, who almost never left the bench during his years as a basketball and football player at Whittier. In fact, there is a wonderful story of his revered Coach Newman sidling over to the young student and saying something like, "Dick, what would you have done on that last play?" to which he replied that he would have just pulled the blanket a little tighter around his shoulders. President Nixon often spoke about the value of those years on the bench, learning perseverance. But what really inspires me is knowing that Coach Newman, called "Chief" by his players, also introduced them to Native American culture and history, and thus initiated a conversation that shaped a President's domestic policy agenda many years later.

These stories build pride, teach lessons, and inspire. I urge you to find them and use them.

Finally, as president I find it extremely important to others and helpful to myself to just show up at games. I may not always follow the ball or know the rules of the game, but my presence is noticed and appreciated. It makes a difference. And, frankly, in the busy life of a college president, sometimes the only restful moment of the day or night is when you find yourself lost in the joy of rooting for your students and their coach.

So I urge you to remember, as you assume positions of increasing breadth and responsibility, to support athletics. By applauding this program and supporting its vital, integral role in producing whole adults, you are advancing your institution, the impact of which will be felt for generations.