Struggling Varsity Teams Should Get More Assistance

Blame It on the Al-koe-hol

“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” –Ricky Bobby.

Eight of Harvard’s 41 varsity teams have waited more than 20 years since their last league title. Before men’s basketball’s triumphs these last two years, that number was nine.

Much has been written about what the athletic department and Friends of Harvard Basketball did to ignite Harvard’s previously moribund basketball program. But where is the similar movement for other struggling programs across the river?

Granted, the eight teams—men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s and women’s outdoor track and field, men’s indoor track and field, and men’s golf—are not as high profile as men’s basketball, but shouldn’t the goal of each program be the same? The first lesson that the Harvard athletic department’s mission statement highlights is “the pursuit of excellence.” Though it qualifies that “winning is not an end in itself,” the statement goes on to claim that “we believe that the efforts by our intercollegiate teams to be their best will lead them to succeed.”

In an eight-team conference, a 40 year gap between championships—which is what men’s cross country will have suffered if they do not conquer the ancient eight next fall—is, to put it bluntly, a failure in that pursuit. (If there’s any silver lining, Yale hasn’t won since 1960, and even then they shared the title with Army, which used to compete in the Ivy League in certain sports).

The very same thing could have been written about men’s basketball just a few years ago. The last 40 years of men’s cross country have been dominated by Princeton and Dartmouth, much the same way men’s basketball has traditionally been dominated by Princeton and Penn. Harvard’s coaches, athletes and alums should take inspiration from the basketball program as an example of what is possible when there is a concerted effort to break the status quo.

This is not to say I am an advocate of increasing athletic department spending or lowering admissions standards. Rather, I’m suggesting that coaches and athletes should have as much support as needed in attempting to actually put their best possible team on the field, track, or course.

Men’s volleyball had not beaten conference-rival Princeton since 1993 before defeating them last spring. This year, they were nationally ranked for the first time in program history en route to an 18-6 record—all of this happening despite, according to the Equity in Athletics program run by the Department of Education, Harvard’s spending on volleyball remaining virtually the same. Whether it was recruiting more heavily from the west coast—half of the team hails from California or Hawaii—or scheduling tougher competition—the team has traveled to California the past two spring breaks—there is clearly something that head Coach Brian Baise, now in his fourth season at the helm, is doing right.

Similar success stories abound across the athletic department, and yet some sports appear to remain content with their mediocrity. Athletics provide benefits to the campus community beyond the win-loss column, but as former NFL head coach Herm Edwards famously declared, “You play to win the game.”

Harvard’s sports are not competing against the Ohio States and Texas’s of the world, where it cannot match its opponents’ athletic spending or cultural relevance, in order to win the Ivy League. Triumph over similarly academically-oriented, relatively small, private universities in the northeast is a realistic and attainable goal. There is no universal formula for success, but if a course or program of study within an academic department were consistently underperforming for upwards of four decades, I’m guessing said department would do all that it could to assess its shortcomings and attempt to reverse the trend.

A prime example of this transition resides within what the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has gone through in the past decade or so. While I allow that training highly capable engineers serves a greater social good than beating Penn on the golf course, the motivations behind it are the same. Harvard saw itself at a competitive disadvantage, assessed the reasons behind this, and made all necessary efforts to mitigate that.

What has worked for basketball, volleyball, and engineering can and should work for track and lacrosse. The athletic department claims to work towards the growth and self-betterment of all individuals associated with it. If part of that betterment involves winning, then the athletic department should truly get behind all of its programs in their pursuit of victory. Athletics are often cited as a virtue of a well-rounded individual. It should stand to reason that the athletic department should similarly aim to be well-rounded.

—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at akoenig@college.harvard.edu.

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