At halftime of my first football game at Elmhurst College, I went for a walk. The Bluejays had already built a big lead on Rockford College; and since I was new to Elmhurst and had heard how handsome the campus was, I wanted to explore it a little. I followed a path from the grandstand between Goebel and Lehmann halls and found myself in the heart of the campus mall. This particular patch of the mall, just down the way from the chapel and under the windows of the president's office, is especially leafy and serene. It's the kind of spot—shaded by maple and oak and ringed with red brick buildings—that colleges like to show off to visitors. The scene was so quintessentially collegiate, in fact, that I half expected to find some group of earnest freshmen gathered in Socratic dialogue with their professor.
What I found instead, on this football Saturday, was an army of about seventy-five young men in shoulder pads and eye black, at rest on the lawn. I was halfway into their ranks before I realized that I was strolling through the middle of the halftime meeting of the football Bluejays. A few heads turned toward me, and I tried to look as apologetic as possible as I hurried on through.
It was only later that I learned that the Bluejays routinely gather on the mall at halftime. It's where they go to escape the close-quarters clamor of the locker room and prepare for the second half.
My encounter on the mall surprised me not only because I was new to Elmhurst, but also because I was new to small-college sports. I had spent enough time around big-time college football programs (and they're always called programs, not just teams, as if to suggest that they're institutions in their own right) to know that you are unlikely to stumble upon the team during a halftime campus stroll. Just the thought of a Northwestern or Notre Dame or Illinois squad settling down for a quiet halftime rest on the lawn was enough to make me laugh. The fact is, those teams would have a hard time finding any lawn amid all the corporate party tents and hard-drinking tailgaters. Moreover, the thought of any Big Ten football coach trying to talk to his team while alumni and fans filed respectfully past...well, that was even more comical.
My experience that Saturday reflects a fundamental fact about today's intercollegiate athletics: it comes in at least two forms, and a world of difference exists between them. Mention college sports to most Americans and they'll think immediately of the Sooners, the Seminoles, the Fighting Irish and Illini, and all the other big-time powerhouses that compete in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). But the fact is that many more colleges—and more than 137,000 student-athletes—compete not in Division I but in Division III, where the lights are dimmer, the crowds smaller, the budgets tighter, and the athletic scholarships strictly forbidden.
Proponents of NCAA Division III like to say that it represents college athletics in its purest form: genuine student-athletes competing for the love of the sport and the educational value of the experience. It's true that Division III strips intercollegiate athletics of much of the ancillary spectacle—the television contracts, the skyboxes, the merchandising deals—that blurs the line between college and professional sports. Yet Division III is not just a more low-key and immaculate version of Division I. In their own way, Division III programs make a stronger impact on small college campuses than Division I programs make on their sprawling university counterparts.
Typically, for one thing, Division III programs reach more deeply into the student body. At many small colleges, fully one in four students competes in intercollegiate athletics. (At Elmhurst last year, 411 students played a varsity sport, out of an undergraduate enrollment of 2,251.) What's more, as my halftime encounter with the football team suggests, Division III athletics tend to be integrated into the campus fiber, not isolated in distant athletic complexes or walled off in sports-specific dining halls. Elmhurst Athletic Director Paul Krohn puts it simply: "We think of ourselves as part of the campus community, not apart from it."
In fact—as just about any coach or administrator at just about any Division III college will tell you—integrating sports into the educational mission of the school is part and parcel of the Division III spirit.
Elmhurst is one of 421 members of Division III, which is by far the largest of the NCAA's three classifications (Division I has 326 members; Division II, which allows but limits scholarships, has 281). The total absence of athletic scholarships is Division III's most prominent distinction, but not the only one. Division III likes to keep the focus on the players, not the fans (alumni or otherwise). Its teams compete in shorter seasons than their Divisions I and II counterparts, and they limit off-season practices. Just last year, Division III added a new ban on red-shirting (holding an athlete out of competition for a season but allowing the athlete to practice, thus saving eligibility for a fifth year). The rules reflect a fundamental difference in practice and philosophy among the divisions. Division III is where student-athletes are really meant to regard them-selves primarily as students, and where coaches are counted on to act as educators. It is where the much-abused ideal of the student-athlete is intended to thrive, free from the expectations inherent in athletic scholarships, television coverage, and the pressures of big-time, big-money sports.
Ironically, the students who play on one of Elmhurst's teams often work as hard as their Division I counterparts. But they work and play in relative obscurity. They do not compete to show off their game on ESPN or because they've been able to trade their talent for a full ride on tuition. They compete as one way to develop their skills and realize their potential. Ideally, at Division III colleges, sports are something other than a financial means to an education, or even a practical mockery of one. They are part of the education itself.
"I think we're pretty clear about it," says Elmhurst President Bryant L. Cureton. "At a college like Elmhurst, you cannot separate athletics from the educational mission."
Justin Hegner knows all about the intersection of academics and athletics. At times last spring, his calendar was such a jumble of tennis meets and classroom obligations that he found himself literally running from one place to another just to stay on schedule. Hegner, who graduated from the College in May, spent his final term student-teaching at York Community High School in Elmhurst. A math major with his eye on a teaching career, he was leading two algebra classes every day at the high school, then hustling back to campus to play tennis for the Bluejays.
It was an arrangement that demanded not just dedication from Hegner but also patience from his teammates and coaches. On the afternoon of the team's meet at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, for example, the Bluejays could be found idling in the team van in front of Faganel Hall, the physical education center. They were waiting for Hegner to finish his student-teaching job at York. Hegner had to dash to meet the van, carrying his tennis gear with him and all the while trying to figure when and where he might manage a quick change into his tennis clothes. Just getting to the meet was an athletic event in itself.
Hegner had to miss a few away meets altogether because of his academic obligations. But he doesn't seem to have missed much else. He finished his Elmhurst career with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average, and was honored by ESPN The Magazine as a second-team Academic All-American. This fall, he started his professional career as a math teacher at Addison Trail High School. Hegner speaks matter-of-factly about mixing academics and athletics. "It's a lot of work sometimes," he says, "but you stay focused and you make it work."
While Hegner's success is remarkable, it is hardly unique. On a campus where so many students play varsity sports and where the chances to learn off campus are so plentiful, it makes sense that a lot of students find ways to combine the two.
Nicole Carlson, a business administration major and volleyball player, spent part of last spring completing an internship at the Chicago accounting firm Virchow Krause. She caught an early Metra train into the city each morning, and hustled back to volleyball practice on an afternoon train. She also found time to work in a campus mentoring program and to serve on the Student Athletic Advisory Council.
Carlson speaks highly of her coach, Julie Hall. "Julie encourages us to get out and learn," she says. The coach knows that "spring practice is an important time for us as a team, but spring is also the time when we can go out and try other things." The other things can take a student-athlete pretty far a field; one of Carlson's teammates spent the Spring Term studying in Australia. Coach Hall's open-minded approach certainly seems to work. The volleyball team has won five straight conference championships. What's more, the team consistently earns among the highest cumulative team grade-point averages on campus.
The expectation that student-athletes will experience college life beyond the boundaries of the athletic department is one of the things that distinguishes Division III from Division I, where scholarship athletes might typically exhibit a narrower devotion to sports. "That's one of the great things about a small school—you don't have to be pigeonholed as an athlete," says Elmhurst's football coach, Tom Journell. "It's too easy to fall into just going to school, lifting weights and hanging out with your friends on the football team. We're always reminding our players to get out and experience some of the other activities on campus."
That is not to say that Elmhurst student-athletes are brimming with free time. Student-athletes are expected to condition and practice year round, even in the off season. Last spring, the football team met for two weeks of 6:00 a.m. practices. "Even at the Division III level," says Athletic Director Krohn, "playing a sport requires a great deal of sacrifice."
One of the reasons the Division III philosophy is attractive to so many Americans is that it benefits from the contrast with the Division I reality: the regular recruiting scandals, the win-at-all-costs commercialism, the anemic graduation rates of student athletes. Compared to what's often on display in the sports pages, Division III seems like an oasis of idealism.
At the same time, the Division III model is not without its critics. In two recent books, William G. Bowen, the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a former president of Princeton University, argues that even the most elite colleges in the United States compromise their academic standards in the hunt for talented athletes. In Reclaiming the Game, Bowen and his coauthor, Sarah Levin, study eight Ivy League schools and several small, national liberal arts colleges—the "Little Ivies," like Amherst and Swarthmore. Not all the colleges mentioned in the study are members of Division III—Ivy League schools compete in Division I—but all conform to the Division III practice of eschewing athletic scholarships.
According to Bowen and Levin, athletic ability plays too large a part in admission decisions, even in the absence of scholarships. Too often, they write, even the most selective colleges give talented athletes preference over other, more academically qualified applicants. What's more, once admitted, student-athletes perform more poorly in the classroom than do other students; in fact, they do more poorly than even their own test scores and high school GPAs would predict. The authors blame the trouble on a single-minded devotion to sports among recruited athletes. (They found no similar academic shortfall among musicians, another group that devotes large chunks of time to an extracurricular activity.)
Reclaiming the Game and an earlier Bowen critique, The Game of Life, have attracted attention and generated concern on many Division III campuses. But even observers who sympathize with Bowen's overall critique say it hardly applies universally. It is still possible to sustain both the letter and the spirit of Division III traditions. "He's talking about a kind of creeping Division I-ism," says President Cureton, adding, "It doesn't ring true to what I see here."
Any critique of Division III culture is difficult to apply with a broad brush, because the Division Is at once the largest and most diverse in the NCAA. While most Division III members are private institutions, fully 20 percent are state schools. Enrollments range from 252 students to 20,212. Some Division III members are among the most selective institutions in the nation; others have wide-open admission policies. They also vary in their level of commitment to Division III ideals. "It would be naïve to think that, from top to bottom, the resources and priorities are equal across Division III," says Paul Krohn. "I'm sure the envelope gets pushed at this level, too."
Krohn and others point to the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) as a model of a league that manages to compete athletically without compromising academic standards. Elmhurst is a charter member of the CCIW, which was founded in 1946. (It also includes Augustana, Carthage, Illinois Wesleyan, Millikin, North Central, North Park, and Wheaton.) In governing their athletic departments, cciw schools often go above and beyond Division III standards. The institutions maintain a sportsmanship code for players and fans, and voluntarily share information on such matters as financial-aid practices and game-day expenditures. Two years ago, at Division III national meetings, the cciw proposed a stricter rule on out-of-season practices than the one eventually passed by the NCAA. "It's a pretty special conference by any com- parative measure," says President Cureton. "The presidents of the member colleges share an honest commitment not to cross lines, to honor what we're about."
Still, if athletics are firmly rooted in the larger educational mission at institutions in the cciw and elsewhere, they also are part of the business plan for many small colleges. Unlike schools that can meet their operating expenses with government funding or income from huge endowments, many small colleges depend on tuition revenue to pay the bills. For these schools, offering prospective students an opportunity to actually play a varsity sport helps attract enrolled students and their tuition income. (Athletics are especially important in attracting male students, who are at a premium now that many campuses are two-thirds female. In 2005, Elmhurst's freshman class is about 60 percent female.)
Athletics is a sizable part of the enrollment efforts at Elmhurst (which currently are yielding some of the largest and brightest classes in the school's history). Some thirty coaches in eighteen sports assist the Office of Admission in its efforts to recruit students to the College. Last year, about one in three applicants was a student-athlete.
Some student-athletes (among others) enter the College on a "contract admit basis," in which enrollment is contingent on regular sessions with academic support professionals. The aim is to give the College some flexibility in taking chances on students whose potential is not fully reflected in their high school academic records. Of course, such chances need to be considered carefully. As football coach Tom Journell says, it doesn't make sense to recruit a student, however talented athletically, who is unlikely to succeed in college. "If you can't retain your students, you're just spinning your wheels. We look at the transcripts of high school players before we look at the films of the players in action."
Once a student-athlete is enrolled, "coaches are huge allies in making sure students get whatever help they need to stay in school," says Dean of Admission Gary Rold. "They have a special role as mentors."
Coach Journell notes that the football team's cumulative GPA tends to be higher in the fall than in the spring, even though football players obviously have fewer demands on their time in the spring. "They do better in the fall because we're with them every day," he says. "We're asking things like, 'How'd you do on that math test?' We're educators. That's the Division III model."
At the entrance to the football offices, in a small house on the north end of campus, Journell posts the names and photos of players who earn a GPA of 3.0 or above. He can cite the numbers off the top of his head. "We had thirty-four students up there last fall and twenty-seven last spring. Our goal is to get to fifty. And when we get to fifty, our goal will be sixty. It's the first thing you see when you walk in the office. It makes a statement."
College sports and the attending hoopla—the homecoming weekends, the NCAA tournament pools, the Tar Heel jerseys in every teenager's wardrobe—have become so ingrained in American life that it's easy to overlook a basic question: Why are colleges in the business of sponsoring athletic competition in the first place? After all, in most of the world, colleges and universities get along fine without anything resembling a collegiate sports system, American style. What do sports have to do with higher education, anyway?
For many observers, the answer lies in the actual experiences of student-athletes and the lessons they say they've learned about effort and excellence and human potential. "Some of the best teaching on our campus happens in the athletic context," President Cureton maintains. "It happens when the coach acts as teacher, setting the bar higher, challenging the student. When I hear from alumni about sports, it isn't so much about wins and losses. It's about the fantastic experiences they had as student-athletes. And many are talking about losing seasons, character-building seasons." The president cites the legendary example of Oliver "Pete" Langhorst, who coached football and other sports at Elmhurst from 1933 to 1969. "He is one of the most beloved figures in the history of the College, such a positive influence on so many. And he is remembered not for his win-loss record, but for his teaching record."
When today's student-athletes at Elmhurst are asked about the role of sports in their own higher education, many cite the pure delight of playing on a team, a reward that makes the hours of sacrifice worthwhile. "I just love playing volleyball, love the way you need the five other people on your team," says Nicole Carlson. "I love it so much I don't want to be done with it."
The College's history with athletics dates to the turn of the 20th century, when Elmhurst was still a preparatory seminary. In 1901, students organized and ran their own athletic association, fielding basketball and soccer teams that competed against DePaul, Loyola, and other local schools. According to Melitta Cutright's College history, An Ever-Widening Circle, the athletic facilities in those days were limited to a room in the basement of Old Main used for calisthenics. Later, students borrowed a local farmer's plow and scraper and converted a campus cabbage patch into a baseball field.
In 1919, Elmhurst began to support a fuller program of intercollegiate sports. Within a dozen years, the College was embroiled in its very own athletic scandal. In 1931, the North Central Association visited Elmhurst as part of a larger investigation of intercollegiate athletics in Illinois. The investigators' report condemned Elmhurst for giving athletes preferential treatment for scholarships, for tolerating low academic records among student-athletes, and for fielding some athletes who were not students at all—one non-enrolled football player was a former Chicago Bear. The College quickly fired the offending football coach and hired Pete Langhorst (a former Elmhurst student) to radically reform its athletic program. The school even changed the teams' nickname, from the rakish Pirates to the respectable Bluejays.
Today's Bluejays, of course, have left both the cabbage patch and the scandal far behind. The current athletic program is among the most robust, successful, and respec-ted in years. Since 1994, student participation in inter-collegiate athletics has more than doubled. Since 2004, the College has added two intercollegiate teams, men's soccer and women's bowling, bringing the roster of varsity sports to eighteen. Facilities have expanded and improved, too. The attractive, well-equipped Tyrrell Fitness Center adjoins Faganel Hall. High-end artificial turf was installed at Langhorst Field, allowing more teams to use the stadium. A new baseball field was built off campus, in cooperation with the Elmhurst Park District. Plans are in the works for an off-campus diamond for women's softball.
The Bluejays are impressive as both athletes and students. In the last decade, Elmhurst teams have won conference championships in five sports. The volleyball and men's basketball teams have advanced deep into NCAA postseason play. (Back in the 1980s, the volleyball team won two national championships.) Elmhurst student-athletes have earned individual NCAA All-America honors in cross-country, wrestling, and track and field. What's more, athletes from six sports have earned Academic All-America honors, and three teams have been honored for their academic achievements.
Such accomplishments rarely make the sports pages of the big newspapers; but that, for better or worse, is part of the deal. On some high-profile campuses, the ideal of the student-athlete is a myth, a joke, or both. At Elmhurst, it is alive and well and winning.
By Andrew Santella
Photography by Tom Lindfors