McCardell Reflects on Chapter in Sports History

Middlebury Campus  (12/4/2003)

By Peter Yordan


Over his 13-year presidential tenure John McCardell has overseen a number of remarkable changes to the athletic landscape of Middlebury College. Athletics at the College have expanded at an unprecedented rate since 1990 with the extensive renovation and expansion of athletic facilities, the rise of women's sports, and the growing controversy over the role of student-athletes in the community. The Middlebury Campus sat down with President McCardell this week to hear his thoughts about sports at the College - about what their place has been over the past 13 years, and about where they are headed.

The Campus: When you first took office did anything surprise you about athletics at the College?

J-Mac: Only that when I would go to NESCAC meetings and hear some of my colleagues talk about the problems they were having either with a particular coach or a particular sport, I was mystified. Either I thought I was naive or oblivious, because I'm not having those problems. And it didn't take long for it to dawn on me that I wasn't having those problems and the reason was that I had a wonderful Athletic Director in Tom Lawson and subsequently Russ Reilly who had gone out and hired a first rate coaching staff who because of the kind of people they were because of their commitment to our students and because of their understanding of what their job was were going to be every bit as strong and committed to their jobs as our faculty. And so I was delighted to discover that I was not naive and not oblivious, but in fact I had the finest coaching staff of any school in NESCAC. And I still believe that.

The Campus: What do you think the role of athletics is at the Middlebury?

J-Mac: I think it is a very important component of our students' educational experience for those who participate. It is a very direct opportunity to experience teamwork and commitment over a period of time to the pursuit of a goal to learn leadership to learn cooperation to deal with victory and defeat and all those things sound like clichés, but in fact they are important lessons to learn. And for those who are spectators or followers it's a chance to see some leadership by example. I also think it is important from a campus spirit, a campus moral standpoint. Anyone who has ever been to a Middlebury hockey game certainly knows how that experience can attach one even more closely to the College, and that goes for alumni as well. I don't think it at all surprising, and I don't think it at all harmful that many of our alumni go to the sports pages on Sunday morning and look up to see how their teams did the day before. I think it's great that they do that, and I also think that it is great when they see us in the win column as much as we can be.

The Campus: What do you think has been the biggest change in athletics at Middlebury since you first took office?

J-Mac: The dramatic growth in women's sports and the success of our women's teams. I think if you go back 20 years you will see an athletics program that is dominated by men's teams and men's sports, and the great success that our women's teams have had, which is a fairly recent phenomenon, has been a significant change. What is striking is that that has happened, but not at the expense of success for the men's teams. There was a broadening of the opportunity rather than a reallocation of it.

The Campus: What about the change to national post-season play? What effect has that had?

J-Mac: I think that probably would get mixed reviews. On the plus side is discovering what we had suspected but hadn't known for certain, that the level of competition within NESCAC and the quality of our teams was as good as if not better than the competition anywhere else in the country. I think we've learned convincingly that the quality of play in NESCAC is very high and the ability of NESCAC teams to compete at the national level for championships is very strong, and I think that's a plus. That tells us that our athletic programs are of a successful competitive quality.

I also think that the effect that success on the national level can have for a team, a sport, a program, is incalculable. That doesn't mean that one should put a premium on winning or on championships. I'm not going to take that bait, but I do think that our successful teams have bred a sense of self-confidence, have raised the profile of the college because of the ways that our students represent us, have done those things altogether positively and that those have been good things for Middlebury.

On the negative side I think that within the conference as a whole there is probably more of an emphasis on postseason play as a determinant of success than is appropriate. The best example I can come up with is a few years ago when our men's hockey team won the NESCAC championship in overtime against Williams. The place was packed, the crowd was revved. It was an exciting game, and we pulled it out. And Bill Beaney said to me after that game, "You know what, if it were all to end tonight these guys would think they were on top of the world and they had done it all." Instead they had to get on a plane and fly out to Wisconsin the next week, and they lost, and so by definition their season was a failure. That's not right. And if that's how success and failure are to be defined then there's maybe more of an emphasis than is healthy. I'm less persuaded by the benefits of postseason play than I once was, and I should think that we might be content someday to be NESCAC champions and say, "You know what, that is for us all we need to be and all we need to prove."

The Campus: Why has the College invested so much money in athletics over the last decade?

J-Mac: Well, we've invested a lot of money in a lot of things, science building and library as well. The reasons for those investments were several. First, in some cases they were replacing facilities that were deplorable, and secondly they met needs for the college of the present and the future rather than the college of the past, and third they addressed needs for lifelong health and fitness that went beyond the needs of a particular program or team. We had let some things slide for a very long time that need to be replaced. The approach that we took for the most part was to do those things first that would likely benefit the greatest number. So that the things we did and the order in which we did them had some logic to it and were meant to benefit more than just the varsity teams that use them.

The Campus: How would you define the ideal student-athlete at Middlebury?

J-Mac: I think it is a student who will come here and excel as a student and excel as an athlete. I believe in the case of our athletes we have students who happen to excel at athletics and in most cases excel in other things as well. I think Middlebury College does not seek to attract students whose excellence is in athletics only.

The Campus: What has been the biggest challenge for the Athletic Department during your time here?

J-Mac: I think the pressures that result from postseason competition have been an issue. There was for instance a year when I was given to understand by some members of the extended family that playing a semifinals lacrosse game was more important than commencement and if something had to be moved it was not going to be Middlebury's hosting that lacrosse game. The answer to that question seemed to me much more automatic that it did to some of our supporters.

The last several years our lacrosse team has competed for the national championship on the day of their commencement. In the end it seems to me that should be their choice. But I hope in 25 years they still think they made the right choice.

In a completely different area I think there are challenges posed by the proliferation of student interest in new sports, not all of which we can elevate to varsity status, crew and rugby being the most obvious. I think that there will be continuous pressure to raise crew and rugby to varsity status and the challenge there is going to be to reconcile the benefits of broad participation which both of those sports do provide with the costs involved.

I also think we are going to be continuously held up to scrutiny in terms of the academic performance of our student athletes.

The Campus: Why do you think the academic controversy about student-athletes has been so incendiary?

J-Mac: I think it could potentially have been much more incendiary. There are a number of ways you could slice and dice a class and come up with subsets other than athletes to make that same point. It would be every bit as incendiary with another one of those subsets as with athletes. No one likes being stereotyped, no one likes being pigeonholed.

The Campus: In 10 to 15 years do you see Middlebury athletics being in the same place they are today?

J-Mac: I hope so. I certainly hope we remain in Division III. I certainly hope we don't succumb to the pressure to give athletic scholarships or merit or leadership scholarships which can simply be a disguise for athletic scholarships. I hope that we remain active in NESCAC and don't seek some other form of conference affiliation, and I suspect that we will see more sports offered at the varsity level than we have now. That's not a terribly bold set of predictions, but I think that if any of them turned out to be wrong we would have a radically different kind of institution.

The Campus: Lastly, do you have any favorite sports memory from your time as President?

J-Mac: Certainly winning that very first national championship in hockey was a special moment, and the team gave me a ring from that year. They put their numbers on them, on mine they put 'P'.

That was a very special moment. I remember going to Lehigh to watch the women's lacrosse team win their first championship, and winning that first men's lacrosse championship was the same way.

But you know, in many ways the most touching moment of all was the dedication of Kohn Field, because here you had a group of very generous donors whose children were all involved in athletics who thought it was important to build that turf field and who could very well have decided to put any one of their names on it, and they said no, we ought to name this for Peter, and that tells you a lot about this place.