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Body-hunting at Harvard

By Francis J. Connolly

The news from Providence last month was not good. Among the freshman hopefuls for next year's Brown football team are more than 20 would be linemen of the 6-ft. 3-in. 230-lb. variety, the Brown Daily Herald reported. For a Crimson football squad looking to rebound from last season's so-so third-place finish, the prospect of doing battle in the pits with even a pair of those behemoths isn't very encouraging. And around the Ivy League, in many sports, the story is the same: Blue-chip athletes are being vigorously courted, and often successfully wooed, by Harvard's athletic rivals. Yet Harvard continues to stand by its policy of low-level recruiting, with results that have been, at least so far, fairly good.

Of course, what distinguishes Harvard recruiting from the rest of the Ivy League are only a few minor differences compared to the differences between the Ivy League and the real world of Notre Dame and Ohio. The most important difference is money: the Ivies have placed strict limits on athletic scholarships and grants-in-aid, which means the average Ivy League athlete can't make a living out of going to school. This restriction places all the Ivies in a bind--they simply cannot compete with Midwestern athletic mills on a financial basis. Yet Harvard, despite these handicaps, continues to place itself at a further disadvantage by strictly limiting the recruiting activities of its coaching staffs.

By far the heaviest burden for the coaches is the University's ban on recruiting trips by athletic personnel. Admissions Office rules prohibit Harvard coaches from visiting the homes of prospective students without special permission from the dean of admissions; in fact, no coach can even "initiate contact" with a high school athlete. The theory is that the athlete is not a special quantity, that he or she must seek out Harvard rather than vice versa--an interesting fiction the athletic staff has perpetuated by delegating its responsibility for finding promising athletes to a national network of alumni.

As one varsity coach noted, "If there's somebody out there who's good, then I'm sure to know his coach, or else I know somebody else who does. And if we can get an alumnus to talk to him and he still doesn't have the desire to send in a goddamn letter of application, then for Pete's sake, who wants him?"

In some cases the alumni operation is formal, such as football coach Joe Restic's practice of assigning each of his assistant coaches to coordinate the alumni efforts in a different section of the country. Other coaches, including baseball mentor Loyal Park, tend to rely more on a few individuals they know personally, and even on the advice of an occasional professional scout. But regardless of the sport, it is the alumni and other interested volunteers who bear the burden of finding and approaching high school prospects.

Alan O. Dann '55, an active recruiter in Connecticut, says the alumni's athletic recruting efforts blend in with its attempts to attract high-caliber high school students with different talents. Much of the recruiting drive is channeled through the National Student Scholarships Committee and the Schools Committees established by each of the 80 Harvard Clubs around the country. A total of about 3000 alumni are active in recruting students, with about 400 to 800 primarily involved in athletic recruiting, Dann says. "We just keep our eyes out for names--National Merit lists, science fair winners--and we also read the sports pages. It's a way to keep in touch with Cambridge, with something that meant a great deal to us when we were young," he adds.

Combined with the activities of "booster groups" such as the Friends of Harvard Football, which search for students and frequently sponsor dinners and outings for prospective Harvard athletes in a given area, the alumni network provides what Harvard coaches agree is an essential tool for digging up needed talent. Throw in the efforts of recruiting "superstars" such as F. Philip Locke '33, who scours California for the likes of All-American Pat McInally '75, and the Harvard athletic program is clearly at no loss for talent scouts.

But finding a prospective student is the easy part. Getting him or her into Harvard--leading the prospect carefully through the maze of tempting scholarship offers from Big Ten schools, and then seeing if he or she will be accepted by an admissions committee that doesn't roll over and play dead for every all-state linebacker that comes along--often creates problems. Pure athletic scholarships and submissive admissions committees, the two weapons that have built many an NCAA champion, are not in the Ivy League arsenal. But Harvard has disarmed itself even further by stripping its coaches of the ability to bring their sales pitches into the living rooms of their prospective charges.

The admissions office ban on coaches' recruiting trips has, in the eyes of a few coaches, put Harvard at a major disadvantage in its attempts to woo scholar-athletes away from other Ivy League schools. Restic says that each year, the football team loses prospects to the personal appeals of rival coaches, and adds that "'the competition is getting heavier." Baseball coach Park agrees. "There's nothing like personal contact as far as I'm concerned. We feel we still get the good student-athletes, we get great athletes. But when a guy's in the kid's house, talking to him, talking to his parents--it makes it tougher on us." The familiar idea that Harvard is good enough to "sell itself" to prospective students fades a bit when a Brown or Yale recruiter is around to give the opposition a hard sell, and to clear up misconceptions a high school student may have about Ivy League life.

As John Lee, varsity wrestling coach, notes, "The biggest barrier is often the feeling that they can't make it. The reputation is too scary." It is often necessary to talk Harvard down, to humanize the place by making it clear that people other than Roosevelts and Cabots go to the school, to make the apprehensive athlete realize he can survive in Cambridge. Yet the Harvard myth, the Crimson tradition that is supposed to "sell itself," runs counter to such a self-effacing approach.

The possible misconceptions about Harvard life may also explain why Harvard enjoys more recruiting success in some sports than others. Some sports, coaches note, need less of a hardsell than others, and therefore Harvard is able to get by with its low-key approach. Kevin Mackey, basketball coach at Don Bosco Technical High School in Boston, says "suburban sports" such as football and tennis are more likely to attract students who are interested in the long-term benefits of an Ivy League education. Other athletes need to be sold harder, he says: "Basketball, for instance, with few exceptions, is a game that the economically deprived now dominate. It springs from an inner-city situation. These are people that don't have the money for ice skates to play hockey, they don't often have someone to take a great deal of interest in them--they are less interested in being a scholar-athlete, they want the instant gratification playing right away."

Royce N. Flippin Jr., athletic director at Princeton, disagrees with Mackey. "The real key is not what sport it is, or whether it's Ivy League or not, it's the quality of the program. If the student thinks he or she can excel he'll come, hardnosed inner-city kid or not." But Flippin admits that personal contact between coaches and players is often necessary to remove misconceptions about Ivy League athletics--especially in sports such as basketball and wrestling, two "inner-city" sports in which Princeton is the Ivy League champion.

Harvard realizes that athletic recruiting is a necessary part of maintaining a good athletic program, and part of keeping up the good image that helps the school "sell itself." Robert B. Watson '37, retiring athletic director and former dean of students, credits the College's active recruitment program with helping Harvard adapt to the post-World War II generation of students. "You've just got to have a varied student body, and that includes athletes, if you're going to continue to attract the right kind of students, he says. As a result, the ancient taboo against recruiting in any form does not blind the admissions office to the practical needs of the athletic staff.

One sign of the co-operation between coaches and admissions office is the current loosening of the once-rigid attitude against coaches' travel. While Harvard still enforces the ban, the protests of a number of coaches may have had some impact. L. Fred Jewett '57, dean of admissions and financial aid, who has the final decision on the issue of coaches' travel, says he does not think such a form of recruitment is necessarily wrong. "I'm not so hung up on the philosophical issue of whether coaches should travel," Jewett says, adding, "I simply would not argue that this is a necessary item of expense." The cost of financing a typical year's worth of recruiting trips--which Ivy League athletic officials estimate could run from $10,000 to $20,000--is the main barrier to opening up the Harvard travel restriction, he says. Jewett does not rule out the possibility of lifting the travel ban if recruiting trips could be financied in a way that would not add to the University's current expenses.

The biggest barrier to Harvard recruiters, however, remains the fact that the ultimate decision to accept a student-athlete still rests with the admissions committee. Because a coach cannot guarantee admission to a good athletic prospect, he or she runs the risk of wasting effort to promote an unsuccessful candidate. "You don't get a kid interested who's not in the ballpark," Lee says, but even then there is a danger of misjudging badly. Lee recounts the story of a how he courted one wrestler--who has since gone on to post a phenomenal NCAA tournament record--with hopes of Harvard admission, only to see the committee reject him. The rejection soured the wrestler's family on Harvard so much that his younger brothers--who probably could have made the school--never considered coming to Cambridge.

Overall, however, the coaches and admissions officers tend to lean on each other for information and advice. Each year the coaches submit to the committee a list of students they would like to have in their programs, and the committee in turn asks the athletic department for an evaluation of the applicant's athletic capabilities. Calvin N. Mosley, associate director of admissions, says the process is similar to the committee's practice of asking member of special departments to rate the ability of an applicant who is an artist or musician. "'You measure excellence in a variety of ways, and athletics is just one," Mosley says. The committee still reviews the athlete-applicant by the same criteria it applies to other students, he says; there is no formula to weight athletic ability, and the fact that Harvard does not award athletic scholarships makes it imperative that each student be able to make it through on his or her own ability. "They're not about to fold up their tents because they're married to the Athletic Department," Mosley notes.

Coaches have come to accept the fact that they will not get their entire list accepted every year, he says. Lee, like most of the coaches, says the committee does a good job. Still, some coaches seem to be able to get a higher percentage of their lists accepted than others. No coach will admit to bureaucratic politicking to gain favor with the committee; in fact, Restic notes, "I don't sense any of that--the committee has always been very fair." But as Lee says, "The sports that get more publicity, you expect to have more clout with admissions." When one coach has an especially successful year--whether he has picked well, or perhaps because he strategically pushed the right students by putting them on his list while allowing stronger applicants to fend for themselves in the admissions process--other coaches are bound to notice.

Some coaches take a while a get used to the Harvard system, while others fit in right away. Don Gambril, who coached the Crimson's swimming team from 1971-1973 and now coaches at the University of Alabama, says he spent his first season bucking the admissions process. "The first year I just didn't understand it--how they accept a certain number of applicants from geographical areas when everybody I wanted was from one or two places. Then I realized there was never any way I was ever going to be able to push the people I wanted into Harvard, so I just had to adjust." By the time Gambril had adjusted he had decided the picking were better at Alabama, and was off to Tuscaloosa.

But Harvard's latest swimming coach seems already adjusted to the Harvard way of life. Joe Bernal, who is coming to Harvard from Fordham next year, says he realizes recruiting is not his job. "The committee made it quite clear it's their responsibility to do that end of it," he notes. Bernal, however, has already had a stroke of luck: the admissions committee last month accepted his star pupil, Robert W. Hackett '81--an Olympic silver medalist--a month after notifying the rest of the incoming freshmen.

Though coaches may say they find the admissions process frustrating, Jewett says it still aims to attract talented athletes as well as others with exceptional extracurricular talents. The different, he points out, is that Harvard does not distinguish between athletic skills and other talents when considering its applicant pool. Other Ivy League schools are more explicit in their consideration--ranging from Penn, which is reported to reserve a certain number of spots in its freshman class especially for "athletes," to Princeton, which only considers athletes as a separate group when judging the applications its admissions committee considers marginal. Jewett maintains that athletes do not need special consideration: "We consider them like future members of the glee club or orchestra--with an eye toward making Harvard a more attractive society."

Jewett adds, however, that athletics play an important role in attracting not only new students but alumni dollars. He says he has never felt "any inordinate alumni pressure" to take more athletes, but says this might result from the fact that Harvard has "never had a big string of losing teams." If Crimson athletes were suddenly to falter, if the lure of Harvard were suddenly to fade, Jewett concedes the future might bring more pressure.

In fact, the pressure may already be starting to build. The NCAA recently reduced the amount of scholarship money that each Division I school can award by 40 per cent--a move that will make other Ivy League schools that much more competitive for the truly "blue-chip" athletes. With rivals stepping up their recruiting, and with the "Harvard mystique" inevitably fading as the school drifts further away from the Roosevelt-Cabot era, Harvard may decide it has to change its admissions process.

As Princeton's Flippin notes, "Everybody wants the same people, and in the long run the recruiting school is going to have a big advantage." Whether Harvard will be able to respond to the competitive athletic pressure off the field as well as on and still maintain its current admissions standards remains to be seen.

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