Athletics at Harvard do not always take traditional forms, nor are they practiced in traditional ways. Athletics here are what you make them, and personal diversity and choice are the ultimate determinants in what sports, if any, you pursue.
In the beginning there were the traditional jocks who got their kicks sweating out the gruelling contortions of organized athletics. They are still here and the football, hockey, crew and basketball programs are testimony to the continuing influence of this school of thought.
Football here at Harvard is not big time, no matter how you look at it. Sure Joe Restic brought in his pro-set multiple offense that was heralded as the light in the Neanderthal wilderness after over a decade of John Yovicsin's conservative approach.
But Restic's complex system was not immediately successful, as anyone who sat (and yawned) through many an unexciting afternoon at the Stadium could tell. Restic wanted to bring excitement to Harvard football, but he discovered "that you can't revolutionize a tradition" as old and inbred as Yovicsin's. Harvard didn't adjust to the new way of doing things as readily as one might expect, and the resulting 5-4 season was testimony to the mundane rather than to the exciting.
Football was and continues to be a lot of hard work out on the practice field, sweltering through muggy Cambridge afternoons in the early season and performing exercises in self-affliction as the season drags into frigid November. Football is football, and there are no revolutionary changes in store for the gridiron enthusiast who intends to follow up at Harvard his no-doubt fantastic high school career.
A word of warning to the freshman who enters into the freshman football program here: be prepared for a zoo-like maze of bodies and coaches seminiscent of battles in Roman colosseums. A lot of people flirt with the idea of playing football here. Consequently, there are usually over a hundred (a figure that sometimes soars frighteningly close to 150) candidates groveling for positions. There cannot be, and unavoidably is not, enough time to give everyone an equal opportunity to prove himself. There are no cuts in Harvard football, and freshmen find that with their late reporting date and an opening game not more than three weeks away, people get overlooked. The only cuts are of the dropout variety, and there are indeed a lot of them. There is a helluva lot to do in Cambridge, and a lot of candidates (as many as 50 per cent some years) decide to take advantage of the city rather than play ball.
Probably the most gruelling of the traditionalist Harvard sports originates down at and on the Charles River. Harvard crew is a myth in itself, and, for the dedicated and hard-working rower, it can be rewarding. If you want to become a first-rate oarsman, and you have a touch of masochism in you that needs to be fulfilled, the Harvard crew program is what you need. In Harry Parker and Steve Gladstone (with the heavyweight and lightweight squads, respectively) you will encounter two of the finest--if not the finest--crew coaches in the country. Parker, who is in Munich this summer as head crew coach for the U.S. Olympic team, has become a legend in his own time.
Gladstone, since coming from Princeton five years ago, has not lost a regular season race since he took over, and his boats have won five consecutive Eastern Sprint titles. While he doesn't get the publicity that Parker does, Gladstone has built an empire Here at Harvard in lightweight rowing. With Parker and Gladstone in charge, Harvard unquestionably has the best crew program in the East. With such a tradition, it is no accident that eight of the 14 men who make up this year's U.S. Olympic entry are one-time Harvard oarsmen.
Despite the prospects for glory, the Harvard crew program is a year-round operation, and the oarsman who participates can expect nine full months of rowing. It's a brutal trip and anyone who has seen the Charles in late November or early March, just before and just after the river is iced in, will know that it is no fun to row at that time of year. But at Harvard people row as long as there is open water, and when there no longer is any open water they play with ergometers, or they play in the tanks, or they run 20 times up and down the 50-odd steps in Harvard Stadium. The Harvard schedule consists of five regular season races plus the Eastern sprints.
Basketball and hockey are not as physically punishing to the participant here at Harvard as are football and crew, but they demand as much time, beginning in the Fall and extending through March. The programs are trying to push into the big-time with heavier schedules and more active recruitment of front-line high school athletes. Basketball coach Bob Harrison desperately wants the Crimson to be a nationally ranked squad, and he has a tendency to pursue that goal fanatically. Some people find his hyperstrenuous approach to be overbearing and have dropped out of active participation. There are rumored to be internal problems between Harrison and some of his players, although none of these have been documented. Nevertheless, there is unquestionably some skeleton in the closet in the basketball program as each of the last two years' teams has fallen short of pre-season expectations.
For the hockey buff, Harvard is a good place to play. Not only does the College have a strong program (the Crimson stickmen finished high in the NCAA's two years ago, and dominated the ECAC last year), but in Boston-Cambridge, hockey is right up there next to God, and hockey players are revered as near saints. Boston is the hottest of hockey hotbeds in the United States, and this enthusiasm extends to the college level. Harvard rarely plays to a less-than-packed Watson Rink, and the rivalries with Boston University and Cornell are unsurpassed, even in the pro ranks. The only drawback to the Harvard program from the hockey players's point of view, is the fact that Harvard will not observe the NCAA rule that allows freshmen to play at the varsity level. For the hockey player who wants to go far and to go there fast in the hockey world, this could be a drawback.
At Harvard there are also sports for those who don't want to kill themselves and would rather save their limbs for old age. And there are opportunities to learn a new sport if you are so inclined. Track at Harvard is not the machine grinder one finds at Villanova or Penn. It is geared to the individual, and while it requires long, lonely hours, it is not a physical do-or-die situation. Harvard's track team is a pretty hang-loose group of guys who run because they like to run rather than for any other reason. The program respects the individuality of the performer to a great extent. Bill McCurdy has been at Harvard long enough to know that you can't push too hard to get what you want or you'll get the opposite effect. Consequently the track team is not hung up with a produce-or-else philosophy.
Similarly, Edo Marion's fencing squad is a team that allows the individuality of the performer to take precedence over team conformity. Marion is an Old World perfectionist who approaches fencing as an art, rather than as a sport. He refuses to force his sport upon his athletes, preferring to let them find the art of fencing in their own way. He instructs, but he doesn't coerce. Consequently, there is tremendous rapport on the squad that makes participation an extension of your Harvard social-life, rather than an athletic chore.
For the freshman who wants to take up something new, athletically, fencing provides an opportunity for instruction starting at the bottom and working up. There is ample opportunity for the uninitiated person to become a good fencer. Captain for the upcoming season. Terry Valenzuela, for example, had never fenced before coming to Harvard. Under Marion's tutelage, he improved to where he last year led the team in victories.
The program is geared to allow the individual to pursue his fencing interest to whatever he desires.
Marion recognizes that come people want a sport as recreation and that some want to passes it thoroughly. Consequently, there in room both far the occasional attitude and for a person like last year's captain Gezn Tatrallyny who finished second in the Canadian Nationals and earned an invitation to the Olympic tryouts.
Down the line (in terms of pressure exerted on the individual) one finds athletic clubs and House sports which provide an opportunity for frustrated one-time high school stars and newcomers alike to work up a good sweat and have fun. The Rugby Club plays a full schedule, and everyone gets to play. House athletics cover all sports and are informal and noncommittal. You can schedule the House sport around your time, rather than the converse; the individual is committed to nothing except the pursuit of a good time.
For the person who doesn't want to commit himself to any team endeavor there are also sports for those who would rather play alone. There is sculling on the Charles (Harvard provides shells); swimming, either at the IAB or at Adams House (for those who prefer the natural approach--suits are optional); there is frisbee in the Yard, or tennis or subway riding or getting wrecked and bicycling to Fresh Pond; dodging traffic and Hare Krisna dancers in the Square or going to the ball park, running from muggers, sitting-in or marching when you get tired of sitting.
Athletics at Harvard then, are ambiguously defined and, as such, are pretty much what you make them.