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Winning Formula
Emory University's student-athletes emphasize academics over athletics

By Don Campbell
Atlanta, Georgia

It was 112 years ago that Warren A. Candler, a Methodist bishop who served as president of Emory College and chancellor of its successor, Emory University, offered one of his many clairvoyant remarks about why institutions of higher learning should avoid big-time sports.

Intercollegiate athletics, Candler declared, "is evil, only evil, and that continually." He added: "The next thing you know, the coaches will be making more money than the (college) president."

Candler's prescience may have sounded a bit radical at the time, but it was actually conservative. Football and basketball coaches at major universities today routinely make three or four times as much money as the president. Bishop Candler might turn over in his grave if he knew that one football coach-Oklahoma's Bob Stoops-makes more money each year than the $2.3 million that Emory spends on its entire athletics budget. That budget covers athletics, physical education and recreation, including salaries and fringe benefits for coaches in 18 men's and women's sports.

As the commercialization and quasi-professionalization of college football and basketball continues unabated, Candler's beloved Emory University steadfastly refuses to embrace football and gives basketball about as much attention as tennis. It has no football arena and no big homecoming weekend with tailgate parties in the fall (though it does have an "alumni weekend" featuring a basketball game that sometimes draws hundreds of spectators).

What it also has, as the only university in the Deep South without football, is a rising reputation as an academic powerhouse where athletes balance the classroom experience with a commitment to excellence in a wide range of team sports. It ranks 18th on the U.S. News & World Report list of best national universities, and continues to rack up awards that recognize students who excel in both academics and athletics.

Emory ranked second in the country in 2002-behind the University of Nebraska-among some 1,000 NCAA schools for having nine Verizon Academic All-Americans, which honors the nation's best student-athletes. It finished fifth in the nation among more than 400 NCAA Division III schools in the final 2002 standings for the Sears Directors' Cup, presented to the school with the best all-around athletics program. It was one of only five schools-along with Stanford, Notre Dame, UC Berkeley and Washington (Missouri)-to place in the top 20 in both the Sears Cup standings and the U.S. News ranking.

On the playing field in 2001-'02, Emory's men's and women's tennis teams placed second in the country in Division III competition; the men's and women's swim teams placed third and the women's softball team placed third.

But perhaps the greatest source of pride to Emory coaches and students alike is another statistic that did not make the newspapers: Seventeen of the school's 18 athletic teams had grade point averages higher than that of the student body at large. That is no small accomplishment at a school where the average undergraduate GPA is 3.25, and the incoming freshman class averaged 1330 on the SAT.

In the scramble for recognition and revenues that football and basketball bring in the era of television, the headlines about university athletics in recent years have tended to be negative: Numerous colleges are placed on probation for illegal recruiting practices; a Baptist university president is given a $600,000 severance package after admitting that he ordered school officials to ignore an F in calculating a basketball star's grade point average; another university cancels baseball and men's swimming so it can give raises to its football and men's basketball coaches.

In the midst of these and other troubling stories, a national commission funded by the Knight Foundation has recommended that universities be barred from postseason play if fewer than half their athletes graduate.

At the 11,300-student Emory campus in the wooded hills east of downtown Atlanta, surrounded by football-crazy members of the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences, the kind of win-at-all-cost philosophy that gets so many colleges in trouble seems as alien as a tribute to General Sherman. President William Chace, who describes big-time sports as the "third rail" for university presidents, provides the context: "We are gratified and secure at Emory, thanks to an accident of history."

Indeed, it's hard to appreciate Emory's unusual role today without learning about the attitudes that shaped the institution long ago.

For nearly 50 years after its founding in 1836 as Emory College, in the little Georgia town of Oxford, the school had no organized athletics. In 1884, the school formed an intercollegiate baseball team, but its history and any hopes for success were short-lived. In April 1886, nine Emory baseball players took the train east from Oxford to the little town of Union Point, where they engaged a team from the University of Georgia before what was described as a "large crowd."

The Emory nine came out on the losing end, 12-1, and there were subsequent hints in the campus newspaper that some gambling on the game might have taken place. These hints reached the ears of the school's board of trustees, and when the board met in June, it declared that Emory athletes could no longer travel off campus to play baseball "or any other intercollegiate sport." (Baseball was the only sport then being played.)

Five years later, in 1891, after Georgia's baseball team came to Emory's campus to play a game, the trustees decided that there would be no more intercollegiate sports-on campus or off campus. That policy stayed in effect until 1946.

But there is more to the story than that. Candler was an avid supporter of physical education and intramural and club athletics, and all three remain a major focus of Emory life more than a century later.

Because of the Candler family's business history, it's worth noting the long relationship between Emory and the Coca-Cola Company. Although there's no modern-day evidence that Coke has tried to influence the Emory philosophy on big-time sports, it certainly did in the early days. Asa Griggs Candler, who, like his brother Warren Candler, was a critic of intercollegiate sports, was an Atlanta pharmacist who became owner of Coca-Cola in 1891. In 1905 he donated $1 million to make possible the eventual transformation of Emory College into Emory University. Asa Candler also served on the Emory board of trustees.

In 1919, Coca-Cola was sold to a group of investors headed by Ernest Woodruff, whose son Robert became president and chairman. In 1979, Robert and his brother George Woodruff made a gift of $105 million to Emory. In 1983, Emory's new physical education center was named for George Woodruff. In 1994, Emory named its business school in honor of Roberto Goizueta, chairman and CEO of Coke. The Woodruff family also figures heavily into Emory's endowment, which now stands at $4.3 billion.

The dictates of Bishop Candler and the trustees on intercollegiate sports in the early 1900s were not accepted without dissent. The first edition of the student newspaper, the Emory Wheel, published when the newly chartered university opened in Atlanta in 1919, carried above its masthead the slogan "For a Greater Emory and Intercollegiate Athletics." Most of the first issue of the Wheel was devoted to a plea for intercollegiate sports. At the time, the trustees allowed one track meet a year, and it had to be on campus.

"The students were petitioning all the time-as soon as they got here-for more sports," said Clyde Partin, Emory's sports historian and a former athletics director. "The board of trustees didn't say yes and it didn't say no. But suddenly, at one of the track meets, they tacked on a tennis meet at the end."

The next big push for intercollegiate athletics came in the 1940s, with the hiring of Emory's first director of athletics. Thomas McDonough, recruited from Eastern Kentucky University, announced on his arrival that "the only way you can go is up." He subscribed to the Emory philosophy of pushing physical education and intramural sports, but also believed that it was unbecoming to expect teams to come to Emory and not reciprocate. So in 1946, the intercollegiate travel ban was lifted.

From the 1940s to the early 1980s sports such as soccer and cross-country for women were added. There were periodic demands from the students, primarily for basketball. Partin, who had succeeded McDonough as athletics director in 1967, set the stage for a burst of growth by successfully pushing for construction of a new 185,000-square-foot state-of-the art physical education center on campus. It included an aquatic center that was the envy of the NCAA's Division III.

Gerald Lowrey, who succeeded Partin as athletics director when the new center opened in 1983, recalls the struggle. "We had seven teams, most of them glorified intramural teams," he said. "The swim team was so bad I had to schedule a lifeguard when they were practicing. I was afraid they would not be able to get all the swimmers out of the pool safely. We were bad."

From that base, Lowrey, who is now the Emory alumni association's senior director for campus relations, added ten teams in the next seven years, including men's and women's basketball, baseball and women's soccer-teams, he notes, that had a little more "spectator appeal."

Lowrey, who was succeeded in 1990 by Chuck Gordon, the current athletics director, said the rapid increase in the quantity and quality of Emory's athletics program was accomplished by adhering to a basic philosophy: "We don't bring in athletes to play. We bring in students of top quality who then want to be involved in athletics, rather than the other way around, and we've been successful at that, even as it gets harder and harder as we get more competition."

There were also external influences that made Emory's stance more easily maintained and defended. In the early '80s, several urban research universities whose leaders were concerned about the growing emphasis on college sports began to discuss the possibility of creating a formal athletic association within Division III. It would be based on academic similarities instead of athletic comparisons. Out of those talks came the University Athletic Association.

UAA members include, in addition to Emory, Brandeis University, Carnegie Mellon University, Case Western Reserve University, New York University, the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester and Washington University in St. Louis. They subscribe to three basic assumptions:

  • Student-athletes are just that-students first and athletes second;
  • Excellence is not to be confused with a "win-at-all-costs attitude";
  • Athletic programs are not considered income centers, nor are they public entertainment.

UAA schools compete in a wide range of sports, from swimming to soccer to basketball. But only five of the eight schools compete in football: Carnegie-Mellon, Case Western Reserve, Chicago, Rochester and Washington University. They do not play Division I opponents.

Being a Division III university also reinforces the Emory philosophy because it means the school cannot offer athletic scholarships. Thus, applicants know that they can't count on their athletic skills to get them the "free ride" they might be offered at a Division I school.

The gender-equity requirements of Title IX also have served to support Emory's history of promoting a wide variety of team sports on an equal footing for men and women. With the introduction of fast-pitch softball for women in the 1990s, Emory achieved gender parity in team sports, but the objective had already been pushed in the 1980s by Lowrey. "I hired women's coaches at the same salaries as for men, and spent the same budgets on women's teams as men's," he said. "And even though people told me I couldn't do it, I just did it. I thought it was the fair and reasonable thing to do."

Today, Chuck Gordon estimates that, under Title IX, the introduction of football and some 85 to 90 male players would mean that Emory would have to add 100 to 110 female athletes because of the gender ratio of the undergraduate student body, which is 56 percent female. "We'd probably need five or six new women's sports, new locker rooms, new training rooms, new weight rooms, additional staff-not to mention a football stadium and other facilities."

This is a powerful argument for the status quo, one that appeals to Emory's 347 varsity athletes in other sports. "You get the chance to be the big dog here, whether it's swimming or soccer or tennis," said Gordon. "Whereas, if you have football, it drives the perception of the program, good or bad, based on the success of the football team, regardless of how other teams do."

"The interest (in football) at Emory comes primarily from the students, who have an idea of what college life is supposed to be like from watching television and talking with their friends from other places-and to a very limited degree from a small number of staff, faculty and some alumni," said Lowrey.

"What they're looking for is the Division I experience, and to do that, all the sports programs would have to go to Division I and the budget support would be vastly different," Lowrey added. "We'd need different kinds of coaches. What we have today are long-time faculty members who also coach. They are here for years and years-we don't have much turnover-and that is a tremendous asset for students who come back and want to see their former coach. It's part of the beauty of the system we have at Emory that we don't run though coaches like Kleenex, like they do at some schools where, if they have a losing season, they're out."

But while the Emory model is appealing, it presents challenges to coaches who are competing with the elites of Division I academically but have no athletic scholarships to offer, and often do not come close to matching the merit or financial aid offered by those schools.

Swim coach Jon Howell, who leads one of Emory's most successful athletic programs, describes the trials and tribulations of the annual recruiting process. Casting "a wide net," he mails Emory information to as many as 10,000 high school students each year, with the expectation that perhaps 3,000 will reply and a third of those will look as if they might make it through the admissions process. The next step is to let the potential applicants know what the mission is at Emory and to see, in Howell's words, "if they're interested in contributing to that mission, if it's something that really piques their interest."

The final part of the process, which tends to come at the 11th hour, involves financial aid. After the students find out if they are admitted or rejected by Emory, they get a financial aid package offer, and then they have to decide whether they can afford it. The total cost of attending Emory this year is $34,000, of which $26,600 is for tuition and fees.

"Often, every year, we have kids who want to come, and it's their first choice, but it's not a choice that works out for them financially," lamented Howell, who served as assistant swim coach at Division I Clemson before coming to Emory. At Clemson, Howell said, "you knew that if you offered someone a full athletic scholarship, you'd end up getting them."

Emory is limited even further in terms of what it can do to recruit. "We don't fly in anyone or split bus tickets or do anything like that, even though it's permissible under Division III rules," said athletics director Gordon. "We figure if you really want to look at Emory, you'll figure out a way to get here. That's a different approach that occasionally may cost us a kid or two.

"When you look at it academically, there's a thin slice that we can actually recruit, of high school seniors who are athletes," added Gordon. "Because we're not going to dip no matter how good an athlete you are; we're not going to fudge on financial aid; we're not matching your package from somewhere else; we're not negotiating aid here. So our slice is pretty thin, but we're doing pretty well with that slice."

The no-nonsense emphasis on academics resonates well with Emory's student-athletes, but it makes for demanding schedules.

"You have to really manage your time or you'll not succeed here," said Claire Lederman, a senior international studies major from Cleveland who captains the women's swim team. A typical day, said the three-time All-American Lederman, begins at 6 am and includes four hours of swim practice, two hours of classes and five to six hours of studying. Some athletes tutor their teammates in courses they've already taken.

Men's swim team captain David Hiller, a senior psychology major and pre-med student from Houston, said he chose Emory because of its academic reputation and its location. His other option was Duke, but Hiller said swimmers at Duke are overshadowed by the basketball team. That is not a problem at Emory, where a swim meet may draw as many fans as a basketball game.

"One of the real unique features to Emory is that swimming is one of the big sports," said coach Howell. "Swimmers are a very respected group on you don't have to play second class to football or basketball or some of the traditional revenue sports. For tennis and softball and swimming and some of the other successful sports on campus, that's a role that's really unique to Emory."

There are usually caveats to every success story, and in Emory's case it's the long-running debate about "school spirit." How can a major university in a large urban area have school spirit when it doesn't have the experience of football Saturdays in the fall and a packed basketball arena in the winter?

Administrators, coaches and students alike put the best face on it, usually by arguing that it is easy to ignore something you've never had.

"There's definitely a social stigma to not having football," said swim captain Hiller. "I don't mind, because we're the focus. Big football would be a distraction. But you always hear it as a freshman here. I don't miss it because I never had it."

"We are what we are," observed Gordon, the athletics director. "There are kids who want to go to football games in the fall, and want to sit in line and camp out for basketball tickets. And we don't get those kids."

William Chace, Emory's president, raised some eyebrows a few years ago when he was quoted as saying that "if the students want football, we'll give it to them." Asked recently if he really meant it, or was just being facetious, Chace replied with a chuckle: "I didn't worry about the reaction because it was an empty challenge. And nobody took it up."

Indeed, a common theme on campus is that Emory is unlikely to ever have football, move up to Division I or change its formula of favoring academics over athletics. But the challenges inherent in that formula are likely to grow-especially the role that financial aid plays in attracting top student athletes.

Swim team member Karryn O'Connor, a sophomore economics major from Andover, Massachusetts, said Emory is "pretty stingy on aid." In fact, she said, she was encouraged by her high school counselor not to apply at Emory because of the school's reputation in that area. She came anyway because her older sister was on the Emory swim team and liked it.

Gordon acknowledges that as Emory continues to "ratchet up" its academic profile, it will become more difficult to compete with the Ivy League schools and others that are more willing to increase financial aid.

"It's sometimes three, four, five thousand dollars more for a kid to come to Emory than to go to Penn (the University of Pennsylvania)," said Gordon. "That's a pretty tough decision to make around the dinner table in April. A $20,000 difference over four years is a semester abroad, or a car. So if we don't react with some packaging issues, it's going to be harder here. And once it gets too hard, it'll be interesting to see if the top coaches stay."

The "packaging issues" that Gordon refers to revolve around Emory's policy on financial aid. According to Joanne Brzinski, associate dean of academic affairs, Emory is in a "difficult position competitively" with a lot of top schools, and not just because it does not offer athletic scholarships. Emory continues to offer financial aid strictly on the basis of need. "Our approach is to treat all applicants the same, both the highly desirable students and the not so highly desirable students," Brzinski said. This means that while some other schools may provide up to 100 percent of financial aid for students they really want, Emory doesn't make such distinctions. About 73 percent of Emory undergraduates receive some level of financial aid.

However, next year Emory will attempt to improve its position on merit-based aid by moving back from November to April the decision on such aid. Because the decision on merit aid is now made early in the application process, Emory has been unable to match offers made by other schools later in the process. Beginning next year, the school will experiment with making merit aid of up to $5,000 available in April. Brzinski said $5,000 "may not be enough," and that the school may have to increase the figure.

Concerns about aid aside, Chace, who is leaving the presidency soon to return to teaching, is sanguine. He says Emory will never join Division I, and that he suspects a lot of other university presidents are envious of the Emory approach. "There is no change on the horizon here," he declared.

"If you run the clock ahead 50 years," said Gerald Lowrey, the former athletics director, "there are going to be a lot more schools doing it this way, because you eliminate a lot of ethical dilemmas, like the things you read about college presidents fudging the rules to keep athletes. Here, all that goes out the window. Here, it's academics first and athletics as a complement."

No less an expert than William C. Friday, co-chair of the Knight Foundation's Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, agrees with Lowrey. Friday, president emeritus of North Carolina's university system, said the reason is as simple as one word: money. With the continuing "arms race" to build bigger and more expensive college sports arenas, he said, "the financial balloon eventually will collapse of its own weight."

Don Campbell is a freelance writer and a lecturer in journalism at Emory University.

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