Sports Notes

Professor in the Huddle

by H. Jay Burns

At the half, trailing Bowdoin by 10 points in Brunswick, men’s basketball head coach Joe Reilly was a grumpy Bobcat.

“Animated” is the euphemism Reilly uses. “I’m looking them all in the eye, challenging them to come back, which we would, winning by 17,” he says, recalling the locker room scene last December. “First I look captain C.J. Nealy ’03 in the eye. Then, the next person I’m looking in the eye is Professor Steve Hochstadt, chair of the history department.”

The halftime locker room is an athletic sanctum sanctorum, yet standing nearby were Hochstadt and Joe Pelliccia, associate professor of biology, quietly observing the drama like a couple of Boo Radleys.

Dean of the Faculty Jill Reich served as the faculty liaison to the football team last fall. She's pictured here with seniors Pat Foley, Owen Miehe, Mike Lopez, and Rob Maguire

But they weren’t interlopers. As faculty liaisons to the men’s basketball team, Hochstadt and Pelliccia had been invited into the midst of this private sports dynamic. And even before watching the Reilly factor kick in, Hochstadt and Pelliccia had attended the week’s practices in Alumni Gym, joined the team for its pre-game meal in Commons, and boarded the bus for Brunswick.

True, the whole locker room scene was a bit awkward for everyone, in that junior-high dance way. “A little weird,” Pelliccia agrees.  “But then, as the season went along, it seemed natural.”

Weird to natural. That’s the unofficial goal of the liaison program, now in its second year. It aims to haul academic life and sports life closer together, so that an athlete’s walk from Alumni Gym to Carnegie Science, for example, isn’t a passage from one Bates world to another.

“We want student athletes to know that their experience in the classroom matters to coaches, and their experience on the playing field matters to their professors,” says Director of Athletics Suzanne Coffey, who developed the program, which resembles ones in the Ivy League and at several New England Small College Athletic Conference peer schools.

This issue whether college athletes live in a world apart from their campus peers has been debated at Ivy and NESCAC schools for several years. Two recent books, The Game of Life (2001) by James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen, and the more NESCAC-focused Reclaiming the Game (2003) by Bowen and Sarah A. Levin, paint a picture of sports programs zooming upward in excellence yet turning away from their institutions’ learning mission. The result, they say, is a troubling “athletic divide” on college campuses. (See President Hansen’s column in this issue.)

Whether there’s a divide, a ditch, or just a frost heave between the two realms could be bandied about by the Brooks Quimby Debate Council. Volleyball co-captain Kristen Johnson ’05 of Denver, Colo., notes that “it seems like there has been an increased hostility between [academics and athletics] over the past few years.”

Making a contrary point, Jill Reich, Bates’ dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs, points to the College’s organizational structure that places athletics within the academic program. “We have been very strong in recognizing that athletics are part of the academic and learning environment,” she says.

“I don’t see the liaison program as a response to [Reclaiming the Game],” Reich adds, “but rather that the book stimulated us to look at what we’re doing and how we could do it even better.”

Now in its second year, with about half the varsity sports covered, coaches and faculty liaisons work out the rules of engagement as they go along. Reich herself volunteered to be the football liaison, and she chose to host small weekly dinner parties at her College Street home. Professor of Anthropology Loring Danforth, the Nordic ski team liaison, joined squad members for dinner at a Rangeley lodge after a day’s practice. Last year’s swim liaisons, former collegiate swimmers Ken Overway (chemistry) and Lori Gano-Overway (psychology) occasionally hopped into Tarbell Pool to join practice workouts.

For Reilly, having two senior members of the faculty in his midst works because “all three of us have the same goal,” he says. “Give students at Bates the best possible experience they can have.”

“Not to get touchy-feely about this,” Coffey says, “but we want to create a partnership between coaches and academic faculty that places student-athletes in the middle. Not a tug of war, but a circle that lets students know that the adults around them talk to each other.”

In basketball, Pelliccia, Hochstadt, and Reilly circle around players like Sean Cahill ’06, a point guard and biology major from Dudley, Mass., where he was a two-time Central Massachusetts Conference All-Star. Recruited by Bates, Wesleyan, and Williams, he applied to Bates early decision. “I knew Bates was the place for me after seeing the academics the school had to offer and meeting my future teammates,” Cahill says.

For Cahill, the liaisons are a wild card in his Bates life. “It’s been great to get to know two guys who really have nothing to gain or lose by being part of our program,” Cahill says. “They just love students. They’re always open and willing to go the extra mile for their students or for each other.”

When Cahill talks, you can hear the tectonic bumping of academics and athletics. “With Coach Reilly, I’m always going to worry about how my performance on the court is. With my professors, I always want to do well in class. With Joe and Steve, there’s no business ties. It’s a friendship. And it means a lot that they’re faculty leaders who hold academics in such high regard, and they still respect what we’re doing.”

Perhaps the age-old Bates ideal of passion and hard work is the neutral ground where academic and athletic realms can meet. Pelliccia has gone to Bates basketball games for years. But hanging out at practices afforded the kind of revelation he’s used to getting from peering into a microscope.

“These kids love basketball; that’s what it boils down to,” says Pelliccia, himself a veteran of Bates noontime pickup basketball.

“I was so impressed with the intensity. I figured they shot fouls and hacked around at practice. But Joe has it scripted to the minute. He says if he can get what he wants to get done in an hour and a half, rather than two and a half hours, that gives them another hour of academic time.”

For football player Mike Lopez ’04 of Sudbury, Mass., dinnertime conversation over roast beef and potatoes at Jill Reich’s home proved filling in other ways.

Reich talked about postgraduate opportunities, and Lopez, a mathematics major, drank it in. Lopez, who advanced to the Rhodes Scholar semifinals in the fall, says Reich “was the spark behind all of my work.”

At Danforth’s dinner with the Nordic team last winter, conversation turned to the athletic culture at Bates. Of all the Bates sports, skiing demands the most off-campus time from its athletes. “They talked about sensing skepticism from professors about missing classes for their sport,” Danforth recalls. “My point was that if you miss classes for sports but are otherwise giving maximum effort, no one is going to be upset.”

Associate Professor of Biology Sharon Kinsman’s intersection with the athletic realm was once purely functional: Each semester, faculty members receive sports rosters plus a list of the dates/times athletes are excused for games. “My contact would be with those students who might miss an exam because of a game,” she says.

But one day in the fall, Kristen Johnson, the volleyball player from Denver and a student in Kinsman’s “Bugs in the System” biology course, invited her professor to join the team as a liaison.

Kinsman attended games, traveled with the team to the NESCAC tournament at Williams, and attended the breakup dinner. Suddenly, she realized, “This was my team.”

Says Johnson, “Professor Kinsman’s increasing support, as she became closer to the team, helped us to love our volleyball experience that much more.”

Kinsman witnessed the players’ talent and focus on the court, and the class and consideration their coach, Jen Bowman, modeled for the team off the court. There were gestures like including Kinsman in the gift-giving at their breakup dinner and inviting to the dinner members of the athletics staff involved with the team.

In so many ways, Kinsman says with a smile, “they are so good at what they do.”