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They still tell the story around the Harvard tennis courts about the day President Bok ventured down to view a Crimson match and what Harvard's top dog said about Harvard's then top-seeded tennis jock.
"Not very big, not very strong," Bok said. "But smart as hell."
Meet the Harvard athlete, whose brain is invariably bigger than his--or her--brawn.
But don't underestimate the Harvard athlete or, for that matter, the Harvard athletic program, which, ironically, is very big and is very strong. Despite your high school friends' claims to the contrary, Harvard's brains have been holding their own on the playing field with the nation's brawn.
Just ask your old high school chum how many of his classmates were first-round National Hockey League draft choices who are passing up the pros to spend four years on the ice for their schools. The Class of '89's Chris Biotti was the first American player chosen in the June draft (17th overall, by the Calgary Flames), but he'll be settling in Cambridge, rather than Calgary, in September.
And Harvard's athletic success isn't confined to the exploits of its high-flying men's hockey team. During the past three years, Crimson teams have garnered almost 10 national championships and a handful of second place national finishes. And in the Ivy League, during the same two years, the Cantabs have won almost one-third of the league titles. Last year alone, more than 75 percent of the school's 40 varsity teams recorded winning seasons and 12 of them soared to Ivy crowns, wreaking havoc on the league like only two sets of teams before them. And they were the two previous years' Harvard teams.
The Crimson program that in 1982-83 set an Ivy record with 12 league crowns, and the one that in 1983-84 won 11 Ancient Eight crowns, last year hit the dozen mark again, tying the Crimson's own mark for Ivy championships in a single year.
Such success in the Ivies--in which chemistry labs often take place before practice laps--breeds suspicion, and concern that the scholar-athlete ideal is slipping. Harvard is no exception.
Two years ago, just one year after the men's ice hockey team finished second in the nation, a highly touted freshman hockey star was asked to leave the school after a series of academic and disciplinary problems. Certainly, Harvard's practice of admitting athletes of questionable academic ability remains a proposition of uncertain merits.
To be sure, this is not Oklahoma or Ohio State; there are no athletic scholarships, or at least none that anyone is willing to speak of. But almost all will admit there are some students in Cambridge who have better athletic skills than math skills. Bok will always find more athletes who are "smart as hell," but he'll also find some who aren't.
The argument at the Department of Athletics and the admissions office is that these big-time athletes enhance Harvard's esteemed diversity, and they're right. In an atmosphere that prides itself as one of the most diverse in the world, football stars are as important as math stars.
Hence, recruiting. To find that diversity, coaches spend years looking for that next star who would be willing to give up very much in exchange for Veritas. Often, they're successful.
The lustre of a Harvard degree brings some of the nation's finest athletes to Harvard every year. So if a Harvard coach doesn't know your name by now, it's likely he won't.
Two years ago, a slew of Crimson performers spent time on either Olympic qualifying teams or Olympic teams themselves. Last year, many spent time on a variety of national teams.
Others are now dispersed in professional football, baseball and hockey.
You've probably never heard of most of them--though Pat McInally of the Cincinnati Bengals, Mike Stenhouse of the Minnesota Twins and Mark Fusco of the Hartford Whalers come to the mind of some--and you've probably never heard of most of Harvard's successes on the athletic fields either.
There are a few reasons for this. First, though every other Harvard varsity team participates in Division I-A (which includes all the major teams in the country), the Harvard football team plays in Division I-AA. That means smaller teams, smaller crowds, and smaller exposure.
Second, college athletics' main attraction these days seems to be men's basketball. And though most Harvard teams achieve considerable success almost every year, the Harvard men's basketball team has, in its long and undistinguished presence in Cambridge, achieved a record that rivals only the Titanic's.
But perhaps the most important reason why few people hear of Harvard's Herculean heroes is because the Harvard Department of Athletics likes it that way. Remember, Harvard builds character, not professionals. (Or so they say.) Just as national championships bring the wary eyes, so, too, do too many stories on the Hulks of Harvard.
Perhaps the biggest paradox in this all is that the program is one of the finest in the nation. From the first varsity sport to the last recreational class, the Harvard Department of Athletics provides some of the best facilities found anywhere. And that does include Oklahoma and Ohio State.
The facilities that line the banks of the Charles River are arguably some of the best around. In recent years, the long-awaited completion of a brand-new ice hockey arena, a brand-new indoor swimming pool, a brand-new basketball arena, a brand-new track and tennis center, a brand-new outdoor track, a brand-new outdoor tennis complex and a brand-new all-purpose indoor athletic building have given birth to a brand-new program.
Though the school's 40 varsity teams--21 men's and 19 women's--have first priority, the facilities are set aside for intramural and recreational use as well. Before you're through, you'll, in all likelihood, have explored some part of Harvard's extensive program. It's the same bet that before you're through, you'll explore at least some area of the program on some level.
Maybe even as a fan, although that might be pushing things. The football team enjoys a decent following, though crowds hardly ever exceed 10,000. The hockey team, with recent national successes, also draws several thousand fans.
Aside from that, though, large fan support is as common a site as construction-free days in Harvard Square.
Fan attendance could rise this year, however, as the Crimson squads should remain the dominant forces they've been the last few years. The men's hockey squad is one of the favorites to wrest what would be its first NCAA crown.
The men's soccer team also could develop a new fan following, considering the fact that it made it to the NCAA quarterfinals last year and lost just one player to graduation.
Elsewhere on the men's side, the heavyweight crew this year claimed the Eastern Sprints, Nationals and the Henley Regatta in England against the world's best crews. And the baseball, sailing, squash, tennis and track teams are all perennial contenders.
The women's program also looks strong--again. The lacrosse team has won every Ivy title it's ever competed for. The soccer team has consistently advanced to the national playoffs. The sailing, squash, and track squads look to be favorites to cop Ivy crowns, as usual. And the lightweight crew is so far ahead of the rest of the pack that it can't find a competitor capable of testing it.
If the varsity spotlight isn't to your liking, the club scene might be. The men's and women's rugby clubs have become two of the most popular teams on campus.
If none of this is to your liking at least one thing's for certain. You'll be there--with everyone else--at the biggest even (sporting or otherwise), when Harvard visits Yale in The Game in November.
Harvard's won The Game two of the last three years, and will hold one very big advantage over its football cousins from New Haven.
At least we're smart as hell.
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