Bring Your 'A' Game

As competition intensifies on the field and in the classroom, student-athletes are working harder than ever. Can Stanford stay on top of it all?

November/December 2005

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Bring Your 'A' Game

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

Walk into the office of Stanford men’s swimming coach Skip Kenney and behold the clutter. The place is so thick with rectangular wooden NCAA championship trophies that Kenney has had to slide several of them into his bookcase sideways, like textbooks, to make room for others. The half dozen or so that don’t fit into the case huddle on the floor in front of his desk along with a small army of Pac-10 championship trophies. There are display cases in the hallway, but guess what? They’re full. “Storage and display space is a problem in this department,” says Kenney. “But it’s about the only problem.”

Indeed, Stanford’s athletics program appears to be a place of uninterrupted blessings: world-class facilities; generous backers; a perfect climate; coaches who win without scandal. Stanford teams have won 90 NCAA championships in 18 different varsity sports, and downstairs from Kenney’s office, in the Hall of Fame, glitter 11 crystal Directors’ Cups, signifying the best overall sports program in the country.

And yet, there is more to worry about than where to house the championship hardware.

Sustaining the careful balance of athletic success and academic rigor the University has fostered—and which many faculty agree has become an important feature of Stanford’s reputation—requires a precarious dance that gets harder all the time. Winning requires ever more specialized coaching, year-round training and athletes willing to endure crushing schedules to keep up with studies. And, with the recent resignation of director of athletics Ted Leland (see sidebar), Stanford must now replace the chief architect of two decades of unparalleled success.

The proper role of sports at Stanford is an ongoing debate, and opinions vary so broadly that Leland worried about both not winning enough and winning too much. Calibrating what’s best for students and how much can be compromised to remain competitive is a constant struggle, he says. “There’s a sports imperative that says, we are going to be bigger, faster, stronger tomorrow than we were today. There is a natural impulse to always move toward more and more complexity, more and more money, more and more everything. Our fight is to keep the commercial, entertainment, competitive nature of our program compatible with the academic.”

In interviews with athletics officials, coaches, faculty and students, what becomes clear is just how unusual and difficult it is to pursue championships in nearly every sport and observe strict academic standards. In many cases, no clear guidelines drive policies, just instincts based on experience and a deep understanding of what Stanford values culturally and philosophically. The key to success ultimately may come down to this: some 800 student-athletes willing to work their butts off.

There are two models in intercollegiate athletics. The first, the so-called education model, holds that sports participation is part of the growth and development of healthy citizens, but should not interfere with or distract from the central pursuit of academic achievement. The focus, notes Leland, is on “the student experience.” In the other model, familiar to anybody who watches March Madness or Bowl Championship Series football games, the emphasis is on win-loss records, ticket sales and revenue. “The trend in college has been from the first model to the second,” says Leland, PhD ’83.

Some universities, with varying degrees of success, attempt to straddle these two worlds. Stanford is one of them. It embraces the notion that students’ well-being comes first, and its practices attempt to honor that, says Leland. But he acknowledges that winning is important. “There is no redeeming educational value in chronic losing.” He concedes that the decision to compete against the best programs in the country increases demands on athletes’ time and on the resources required to succeed. “We play people who have pretty well bought into the big-business, big-entertainment model. That’s our competition. If you want to go to the Rose Bowl, or win the baseball title, those are the guys you have to beat. But you don’t want to sell out your values.”

Every day, in decisions large and small, Stanford faces the same quandary: how much is too much? For example, when the Pac-10 voted to add a 12th football game, Stanford opposed the move because of the extra time it would demand of athletes. The measure passed anyway, and a 12th game will be added in 2006. In another instance, Stanford signed an equipment contract with Nike—whose swoosh appears on Stanford uniforms—despite concerns by some faculty and students that this amounted to an endorsement of the company, which has been criticized for alleged poor working conditions in overseas factories. “In that case, we went for it, and made ourselves feel a little better because we weren’t taking any cash, just taking equipment,” Leland says.

Three things help inoculate the University against leaning too far toward the prevailing commercial model, according to Leland: a robust athletics endowment that reduces the pressure to deliver “profit”; an admissions process that leaves the athletics department out of every decision; and faculty oversight of the athletics department.

Athletics receives $7 million from the University to run the recreation and P.E. department, but gets scholarship and operational money for intercollegiate sports from its own sources. Returns from an $80 million athletics endowment augment ticket sales and other revenue.

Fifteen million of the department’s $64 million annual budget is spent on scholarships, more than any other school in the country. At the same time, Stanford spends less than most of its competitors on operations. “A lot of people think we run a lavish athletic program, but that’s not true,” says Leland.

The high cost of living in the Bay Area has run off a few coaches and support staff, but Leland has resisted setting up a housing aid program more generous than the one available to faculty and staff generally. It was in part a symbolic nod to the University’s interest in keeping athletics in perspective.

“Ted has had the ultimate challenge,” says women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer. “To have these great ideals, that’s wonderful. But the reality is, we have trainers, we have sports information people. How do they afford to live here?”

Nationally, coaches’ salaries have skyrocketed as pressure to win intensifies. According to the NCAA, compensation for coaches at Division I programs increased 89 percent between 1997 and 2003. Several schools now pay their head football coaches $1 million or more. At a few schools, even assistant football coaches make more than most tenured faculty. Stanford’s refusal to pay market salaries is as much a cultural decision as an economic one, says Jerry Porras, a Business School professor and former faculty athletics representative. “Ted has had to live with a lot of pressure around the decision not to pay a million dollars [to hire a football coach],” he says. “The idea that we would pay our football coach two times what we pay the University president—what kind of signal does that send?”

The obvious question now is how Leland’s departure affects this delicate balancing act. Porras, who co-wrote (with James Collins, ’80, MBA ’83) the bestselling Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, says that depends on whether the values Leland sought to promote are hardwired into the athletics department. In successful companies, he says, “you can have leaders come and go, but the organization is so well put together that it just keeps producing excellence. I think Ted has inculcated the same sort of orientation [regarding the importance of academics] into the athletics department. Can someone else step in and continue the process? That will likely happen if he has built a great organization.”

Leland is quick to acknowledge that the faculty provide the conscience to help keep athletics in its proper place. “Stanford has had a long history of faculty involvement in athletic-department issues,” he notes. A faculty oversight board monitors athletics. The athletic director reports to the provost—the University’s chief budget and academic officer—and presents an annual report to the Faculty Senate.

Support for athletics among the faculty, while not universal, is broad and deep. “Tiger Woods’s first five years on the PGA Tour got Stanford more good PR than any other single thing,” says biological sciences professor Robert Simoni. “When our students go to the Olympics and [announcers] say so-and-so is a Stanford student, I think that helps the University. Maybe a student will apply here who hadn’t thought to apply.”

But even among its ardent backers, athletics is viewed with a wary eye. “I love our athletic program, but only because it’s the way it is,” Simoni adds. If there were recruiting improprieties, “we’d become a Division II school in a minute.”

Senior associate athletic director Darrin Nelson, ’82, knows Stanford is not immune to disgrace. “Every day, we worry about embarrassing this place,” he says. “A scandal here would be disastrous.”

The next AD must bring a deep appreciation for the primacy of academics, Leland says. “There are no short cuts here. You’re not going to change the culture; you have to maximize that culture. You have to understand the values of this place.”

Stanford alumni and fans may assume that the biggest obstacle to athletics success is recruiting, and it’s true that finding top-flight talent who can meet the University’s admission standards is daunting. In any given year in her sport, says VanDerveer, perhaps five of the top 100 players in the country are potential Stanford recruits. Every recruit fills out an application and writes an essay like every other prospective student, and the decision to admit or not is entirely up to the folks in the admissions office. It can drive coaches, not to mention rabid fans, batty when a blue-chip recruit with solid academic scores is denied admission. But few complain about the lack of a back door at the admissions office. “If our athletic success is based on any one thing, it’s based on the academics,” says women’s volleyball coach John Dunning, whose team won the 2004 NCAA title.

VanDerveer agrees. She says Stanford has created a niche in the student marketplace, attracting those who are serious scholars as well as serious athletes. “The pool is small, but Stanford appeals to that pool.”

Head baseball coach Mark Marquess, ’69, whose teams have appeared in 12 College World Series, says Stanford attracts Ivy League-caliber students who want to play against top competition. “All of my players want to be professional baseball players,” he says. “That’s why they come here instead of Harvard or Yale or Princeton. They know they will play against the best.”

Leland notes that even in football, where the recruiting challenge is most pronounced, “the Class of ’05 had eight players drafted by the NFL. That shows that we can get the athletes.”

The thing is, Stanford has little margin for error. Miss out on one or two prize recruits, says VanDerveer, and “you drop like a lead balloon. There’s no backup.”

So to maintain a consistently strong program, coaches say, they rely on recruits improving after they arrive. “Our athletes get better,” says assistant men’s basketball coach Eric Reveno, ’88, MBA ’95. “They are disciplined, focused achievers.”

“There’s something in the water,” VanDerveer says. “They come to Stanford and they are around other very motivated, very dedicated athletes. If players don’t buy into your system, you are really cooked because you are counting on them to maximize their potential.”

It begins when they are recruited and told, “This won’t be easy,” says Leland. “We tell them that they are expected to be students first. If you want to be an Olympian, we have plenty of examples of people who have done both, but don’t come unless you are a serious student.”

Dan Gill, ’04, wanted to do both. A biological sciences major, he placed second in the all-around at the 2004 NCAA men’s gymnastics championships and just missed making the 2004 Olympic team. He now works in business development for Integration Appliance, a Palo Alto software company. The grueling pace he kept as an undergraduate was part of the reason he deferred plans to attend medical school.

“I would like to say that every student takes on activities that fill just as much time as athletes’ practices and competition schedules do, but that was not my experience,” Gill recalls. “There were some full-time premed students that I went through school with. It was a little intimidating, but I think it just forced me to be smarter with my time.”

Gill was not only training for intercollegiate competition, but also representing the United States in international meets. “I had one week where I flew to [a meet in] France for four days, landed back in San Francisco and had finals for the next two days. I was jet-lagged but I needed to study. And then I had conference championships that weekend. So that was pretty much a sleepless week. I wouldn’t recommend that. I was sloppy during the competition, and dislocated my finger.”

Senior tennis player and art history major Alice Barnes agrees time management is critical for any student, but especially for student-athletes. “If I have a match the next morning and a paper due at 9 a.m., I can’t simply pull an all-nighter to get it just right. I have to go to sleep and hand it in even if it’s in less than satisfactory condition. That said, if I plan my time properly, it never comes to that.”

Some trade-offs are harder to accept than others, Barnes says. “The main problem I find is that so many classes are offered in the afternoon when we can’t take them [because they conflict with practice times.] Our coach is very understanding and will let us take a class in the afternoon if it is essential to graduating, but if we just want to take it out of interest then we’re out of luck. This is possibly the single most frustrating aspect of being a student-athlete. Nearly all seminars are held in the afternoon; these present a real chance for close work with a professor and yet we can never take them.”

Women’s basketball player Krista Rappahahn, a junior, wanted to study abroad “but it is very difficult to leave your team for a quarter,” she says. She found “a happy compromise” with Stanford Overseas Seminars, a short-term immersion program. “I spent two and a half weeks with a Stanford class in Baja, Mexico. I could cross-train, experience a new culture and get back to my teammates in a relatively short amount of time.”

Both Barnes and Rappahahn say athletics has enriched them. “These last three years at Stanford have been the best of my life and I wouldn’t change any of it, least of all being part of the tennis team,” Barnes says.

And therein lies much of the tension. Participation in athletics can be rewarding and fun, not to mention a source of lasting bonds with teammates. And gifted athletes naturally want to strive to reach their potential. Competing at an elite level while trying to excel in the classroom is “not an ideal situation by any means, but it was absolutely my decision,” Gill says. “I knew I was getting a different kind of education by being an athlete and going through that whole experience. It has helped me be a more diligent worker. It was a worthwhile sacrifice.”

But at what point are the demands too much even for the most dedicated student-athletes? “The athletes I have had in class do fine, but they are exhausted. How much learning goes on when you’re exhausted?” wonders civil and environmental engineering professor Jeff Koseff, a fan of the athletics department.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Kennedy, ’63, believes a lot of students are compelled to compromise their commitment to the classroom when they commit to a sport. “I believe that for a lot of young people it’s a delusion to think they can truly excel in both those dimensions,” Kennedy says. “One or the other suffers. My impression is a lot of them suffer academically, not because they are academically unqualified, but because their sport is their priority.”

Leland has similar concerns. “I worry that we bring them here and we tell them that they can be world-class in sports, and they can be world-class in academics. That’s Stanford’s brand. We’re world-class in both. But can we be?”

He notes that training and preparation for most sports is now a year-round phenomenon, requiring 30 to 40 hours of work per week. “There’s no off-season. In the old days, when football players got done with football, they didn’t see the football coach until they showed up for spring practice. Now you start weightlifting the next morning.”

“Winter conditioning is ridiculously hard,” says senior linebacker Timi Wusu, a premed student. “We have 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. workouts every day of the week. Winter is when we get a lot bigger, faster and stronger.”

Meanwhile, with an eye on medical school, Wusu knows that just getting by in his classes isn’t good enough. “The difference between an A and a B is huge in terms of workload,” he says. “I’ve trained my body to perform at a constantly high stress level, but there have been times about two weeks into a quarter that I’ve experienced a physical and mental breakdown.” Wusu gave up track and field after his sophomore year. “There is only so much energy you can put into anything. Something has to give.”

Leland is also troubled by the long-term trajectory of college sports. “We aren’t there now, and we won’t be there in the next five or 10 years, but if the trend continues there’s going to be a tipping point where Stanford’s values become incompatible with big-time athletics. There could be a point in which the president and the trustees say, you know what, it’s just gone too far in the wrong direction and we’re going to have to withdraw.”

Already, Leland and President John Hennessy regularly hear from alumni who wonder whether the University can really be attentive to academics when the athletics program is so strong. “I’ve had people who support the athletics program say to me, you know, it might not be a bad thing to lose the Directors’ Cup,” says Leland. “Now, I don’t agree with that, and nobody in athletics agrees with that, but there is a legitimate point of view there. How good do you really want to be?”

On the other hand, football fans would like more winning, not less. And Leland believes that a descent into mediocrity would harm not only the athletics department, but perhaps the University as well. “It’s not a coincidence that Stanford has become a more attractive institution to students generally as our success in athletics has grown. I think right now Stanford is at the appropriate level of success. The kids speak for themselves.”

KELLI ANDERSON, ’84, is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. Her previous articles for STANFORD have included profiles of former men’s basketball coach Mike Montgomery, former football coach Tyrone Willingham and golfer Notah Begay, ’95.


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