"We did it because we needed to," athletic director Jack Reardon said this week about sending coaches on the road to recruit.
Until two years ago, Crimson coaches were allowed to recruit only by letter, by phone or on campus. Alumni nationwide, of course, used their power of persuasion. The lure of the name Harvard still attracted a wealth of Jack Armstrongs. Crimson squads flourished; superior coaching proved edge in several sports.
Thirteen out of 14 years, between the 1957-58 academic year and 1970-71, the Crimson copped the overall Ivy won-lost title. After three years of domination by Penn, Harvard again garnered the crown in 1974-75. But since then, Princeton has won four consecutive overall championships.
Which indicates a trend. That does not mean Harvard lacks a host of stellar student-athletes. Much of Princeton's success rests on its early recognition of the importance of women's sports, and its efforts to build accordingly. Crimson women's teams have been bounding the Great Leap Forward recently. And men's sports have experienced impressive rebuilding campaigns. But page 23 of the 1979-80 Ivy League record book has Harvard in fourth place overall last year--the lowest in the 24 years the statistic has existed.
The storm rages over recruiting in the Ivies. Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti evoked inestimable emotion nine days ago when he called for tight restrictions on recruitment. But Harvard response could be characterized as tepid at hottest. President Bok said he sympathized with the the general thrust of Giamatti's proposals. And Fred Jewett, dean of admission and financial aid, said Giamatti's advocacy of limiting recruiting to on-campus visits was Harvard's traditional position--until two years ago.
Two years ago, Harvard recognized the intensification of recruiting competition. It noticed declining athletic results and economic conditions. It feared being left in the wake of Ivy schools which recruited heavily. It sent coaches on the road, albeit for limited periods--and not without reservations.
"I would rather keep it all at home," Reardon said. "But I know some of my coaches would dump on that."
Even with stepped-up recruiting, Harvard has a tough time of it. "It's difficult to find someone who can combine athletics with our academic standards, and pay the bills," Reardon said.
Confronted with schools such as Stanford and Notre Dame which offer full athletic scholarships, athletes show in creasing reluctance to come to Cambridge.
Nevertheless, the University is caught in the swirling vortex of recruiting--and faces the accompanying problems.
Certainly recruiting brings many student-athletes who contribute to Harvard. But is it rally necessary? The morale of the University depends in some measure on the success of its athletic teams. The most direct way to assure good teams is to stock them with talented athletes. Formerly, coaches could hone their squads to a level which would boost them to the top of the Ivies.
Intense recruitment seems to amount to an admission that this ideal no longer holds; it constitutes an admission of defeat.
No one denies the realities involved. How can Joe Restic turn out a presentable squad without showing interest in sought-after high school football players? How can Harvard compete without demonstrating interest comparable to that expressed by other Ivy institutions which don't have the benefit of the Harvard mystique? Even the maverick Giamatti said Sunday he would not take unilateral action at Yale without the agreement of the Ivy group.
The Mother of Invention
The practical necessity to recruit seems extraordinary. After all, the admissions committee, Reardon and Bok, express strong pragmatic and philosophic reservations. So at the root of the matter is the importance of winning--or at least, staying competitive. Obviously, Harvard has made a decision to grapple with the has made a decision to grapple with the complexities and problems associated with recruiting, rather than risk slipping further down the Ivy athletic ladder.
It's more fun to win than to lose at the collegiate level, as anywhere else. But larger games are played. Recruiting excesses are difficult to avoid. In the game of ideals versus practicality, it is best if the score stays tied.