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Playing Hard to Get:

Recruiting the Harvard Athlete

By Laurence S. Grafstein

This is the second of two articles.

"There's a fine line between interesting and pressuring a prospective athlete. We try to avoid the tendency to overstep that line." James W. Stoeckel '74,   admissions athletics liaison

"Harvard has its back against the wall recruiting. But I was heavily influenced by recruiting visits."   David Burke '82,   Crimson varsity hockey player

Harvard has the Location and the Reputation. As the intensity of recruiting competition increases, however, the University must wrestle with the issues raised last week by A. Bartlett Giamatti, Yale's president, who called for reduced emphasis on athletics in the Lvy League with specific reference to recruiting.

Despite the lure of Cambridge and the mystique, the admissions committee has found recruitment of high-caliber athletes increasingly difficult. Coaches, admissions officials and athletes agree that much of the problem stems from selling the University's financial aid package to middle-income applicants who qualify for full scholarships elsewhere. To counteract the obstacle of relatively unattractive financial perquisites, alumni and admissions officials stress what Stoeckel calls "the long-term benefits of a Harvard education," the high rate of acceptance at graduate schools, and the University's resources. But Stoeckel admits that when faced with a choice between Harvard and a full scholarship at a highly-regarded school like Stanford, persuading a prospective to come to Cambridge "is most difficult."

Given the economic constraint, the admissions committee and athletic department focus their energy on finding qualified student-athletes while alumni provide the University with a network of contacts, often playing the role of matchmaker. "I don't think alumni can judge athletic talent," Stoeckel says, "but they help relay information and establish crucial follow-up contact." Stoeckel serves as liaison between the admissions committee and the athletic department, a position created to improve and ferret out as many viable candidates as possible. "We don't want to force a choice between a good athletic program and a good education on applicants we feel we can offer both," Stoeckel says, adding, "If we have serious doubts about capability or contribution, we won't admit an applicant."

Harvard athletes tell varied stories about recruitment. Several varsity team members reflect that the approach to recruiting used by coaches and alumni, when compared to that of other colleges, influenced their decision.

"It did make a difference that I was recruited. I particularly liked the way coaches based their approach on personal relations and whether the school was good for the student," Sarah Mleczko '80, who has accumulated ten letters in field hockey, squash and lacrosse, says.

The Phillips Andover graduate says recruiting of women athletes has become more intense since she entered Harvard: "The attitude when I applied was 'Here you could make a difference--we have a new program.' That appealed to me because I didn't just want to be another preppie beefing up Princeton's program." Now that women's sports has grown at Harvard. Mleczko says the University's recruiting is "less minimal," but still more low-key than at Princeton or Yale, where "potential top athletes get called weekly."

But if the admissions committee, alumni, and the coaches have tried to develop a method in the face of the swelling madness, experiences of Harvard varsity athletes furnish a patchwork of no particular pattern. Crimson soccer forward Mauro K. Sarmiento '82 of Buenos Aires, for instances, one of the squad's leading goal scorers the last two seasons, says he had no idea about what sort of athletic program Harvard offered. "In fact, I wrote to the athletic department after I was accepted and received no response," he adds.

Such stories of not being recruited abound among successful women athletes, including two-year squash captain and varsity heavyweight stroke Jennifer Stone '80, and organization governing women's collegiate athletics, the AIAW, has designed its tight regulations with the intention of eluding the recruiting excesses that have beset men's sports under the auspices of the NCAA. And while women's coaches concede that loopholes exist, Stoeckel says only time will reveal whether women's athletics avoid the pitfalls prevalent among big-time recruitment of men.

Other athletes do not decide to apply until the eleventh hour. Crimson squash captain Michael Desaulniers '80, one of North America's premier racquetment who turned pro three weeks ago, says he applied at the last minute, after a chat with former Crimson squash mentor John M. Barnaby '34 at a tournament just before the deadline. "I didn't have any contact with recruiters," Desaulniers says. But since he carved a name for himself in the annals of collegiate squash, his younger brother has been hotly sought after.

Most highly-recruited high school athletes who eventually come to Harvard cite education as the factor that tipped the scales. Ronald Cuccia '82, shunned a host of attractive scholarships to further his football career at Soldiers Field. "It was pretty tempting to accept a full scholarship. I might have had more fun somewhere else, but I figured I'd learn the most here," Cuccia, who shattered several passing records as a high school quarterback in southern California, explains. Robert Hackett '82, a prominent Crimson swimmer and Olympic silver medallist, list a full scholarship, money, a car, prearranged dates, and special treatment among the incentives offered him to perform at other colleges. Harvard, however, afforded the opportunity to combine swimming with education, "the best of both worlds," Hackett says.

Mleczko, Desaulniers, Hackett and Cuccia all piqued the admission committee's interest because they possess unusual talent and conform to academic standards. They all--in one manner or another--were recruited. But they constitute exceptions. The varsity athletes who compose the bulk of Crimson squads had a bare minimum of contact with the athletic department prior to admission. Even alumni "scouting" is for the most part random and informal. Sometimes, the casual approach proves advantageous for Harvard. As one Crimson athlete says, "Princeton turned me off because the coach was so insistent it bothered me. It felt nice to be wanted, but I began to think twice about the relative importance of athletics."

Sometimes, however, the informational process fails to overcome the preconceived notions evoked by the University's image. One highly-qualified Brown athlete applied to all the Lvy schools except Harvard because he thought it was "full of geniuses. Although he enjoys Brown, he regrets not having looked into Harvard--"I know I was wrong"--but is glad he did not go to Yale, where high-powered tactics nearly convinced him to spend four years in New Haven. "I cried when I turned the Yale coach down, after he flew me in--but now I realize he put undue pressure on me."

Coaches carp about the haphazardness built into Harvard's limited recruiting procedure. "We do less recruiting than any Lvy school," football coach Joseph Restic says, adding, "There's a number of schools we can no longer compete with." Restic senses that the problem of competition is growing more acute, particularly with worsening economic conditions, and sees "no easy solution."

Even the lack of an athletic scholarship occasionally works in Harvard's favor. Darlene Beckford '83, who runs cross country and track, received full scholarship offers from UCLA, Berkeley, and Tennessee. "The scholarships made me think twice--but in some ways I don't like that feeling of dependence. Once you accept a scholarship, they have you by the neck; if I decided for whatever reason to stop running, they'd probably take the money away so fast it wouldn't be funny," she says.

Crimson hockey player David Burke '82 expresses similar sentiments. "I had pretty much decided I wanted a full scholarship, with money on the side, the big man on campus scene, and all that. But as time wound down, I realized I didn't want everything handed to me, and that I could get the same things by working for them," Burke says. Which is not to say Harvard did not recruit Burke: "I kept getting calls from the presidents of all these companies who went to Harvard telling me to stay East and go to Harvard." But, Burke adds, Crimson coach William Cleary kept things in perspective. "He was the only coach who never said I'd definitely play." And Burke chose Harvard because of the students he stayed with when he visited the campus. "I found out they all weren't a bunch of preppies," Burke, who attended Belmont Hill, says.

Between the athletes who do not apply because of a lack of information and the Burkes who change their minds on the basis of recruiting, fall most of the athletes who eventually represent the University in intercollegiate play, and others who decide to take their talents elsewhere. As recruiting competition warms, Harvard is caught treading what Stoeckel terms "the fine line." The admissions committee must increase the efficiency of its recruiting process without compromising its standards--and this goal, as those involved selecting a given freshman class concede, is not readily or easily achieved.

Rather than grappling with the conflicts produced by Lvy recruiting, Yale's Giamatti would constrict it. President Bok said last week that although he acknowledges the need for a limited amount of recruiting in the Lvy League, he "would prefer none." To the admissions committee, recruiting and its concomitant problems is a fact of life; to coaches, it is a grim reality; and to athletes, it is appreciated but sometimes bothersome. And although the University is still compiling statistics to determine whether the current policy has improved the applicant pool and Harvard's athletic success, recruiting is clearly here to stay, at least for a while.

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