Thursday, November 3, 2016

Lafayette sports history II: 2 1/2 months later


To quote the immortal Oliver Hardy (invariably speaking to buddy Stan Laurel): “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

That was my initial reaction to the internal release from Lafayette College early this week that it would hire a consulting firm to conduct a six-month “thorough review” and come up with “precise recommendations” for a “shared strategic direction that ensures the athletic’s program’s resources are aligned with the mission and goals of the institution,” according to a quote from athletic director Bruce McCutcheon. By the way, the italics are mine, not the college’s.

A headline on the college’s website shouts, “Lafayette Seeks Blueprint for Greater Success in Patriot League.”  I want to shout back, hip, hip, hooray! Someone is finally stepping up to the plate for the coaches and student-athletes and wants to recognize the impact success on the field or the court or the diamond can have.

But, then I remember. We’ve been here before. We’ve seen the college take swings at this issue – and miss badly.  So, before I go too far with this, I thought I’d present a little history course in the form of a couple of columns I wrote years ago. Then, I’ll take my own swings.


Today’s Lesson in “Lafayette Sports History 101” is a column that appeared in The Morning Call on Jan. 20, 1999. The headline on the column was: “All seem to be on same page at Lafayette ... A.D. Atkinson said the recent recent adversity has had a positive effect throughout the college."



The column:

If Lafayette College is successful at raising new money to enhance its athletic program, it may put more pressure on the coaches to win; but it's not the kind of thing they can't handle.

"Everybody involved with sports thrives on pressure," Lafayette Athletic Director Dr. Eve Atkinson said Tuesday. "But our coaches are thrilled to have this opportunity. This is positive pressure."

When the Lafayette Board of Trustees voted on Saturday to retain all current varsity sports, it brought an end to a three-month period that Atkinson agrees was at times "trying ... hard ... painful; but sometimes you need some adverse conditions to get better."

"To a fault, I am an optimistic person, so I never dwelled on Lafayette being in a different division or not playing football," Atkinson said. "This is a great institution with excellent professors. I can't imagine Lafayette College shying away from a challenge like Division I athletics. It just didn't mesh with the mission of the college."

Atkinson, who will celebrate her ninth anniversary at Lafayette on Jan. 29, said she has been working in close contact with college President Arthur J. Rothkopf on the priority list for additional funds for athletics. She sees the cornerstone as being three-fold:

* the hiring of more full-time head coaches;

* enhancement of financial-aid dollars;

* additional money for recruitment of athletes.

Atkinson said she has been "ecstatic about the alumni commitment to our athletic program" as shown by the way it rallied when it seemed big changes -- the elimination of some minor sports, a drop from NCAA Division I to Division III or perhaps even the elimination of the football program -- might be made.

Admitting she is glad to see the issue brought to a head, "I always felt deep down that the right decision would be made. Lafayette has such a deep history that includes a well-rounded academic program and an athletic program that is an integral part of the experience."

Atkinson had particular praise for the trustees, who, unlike Rothkopf and Atkinson, are not paid employees.

"These people are volunteers, and they took the challenge very seriously," she said. "They realize that while academics will always come first, a hefty development campaign for athletics will make our department stronger."

Atkinson also gave a plug to Lafayette athletes as students, pointing out that 52 percent of the Leopard athletes had grade point averages of 3.0 or better for the spring 1998 semester, the last for which figures are complete. Also, 13 percent of the Marquis Scholars, those of the highest rank, are athletes.

From the time that the news of studies of the athletic program got out, Rothkopf took it upon himself to be the sole spokesman for the college. Atkinson, who has served as a spokesperson on any number of NCAA committees, admitted "It was difficult" to not speak "because I wanted to get the good news out. But I understood why he did it."

Even after the trustees' Saturday decision, athletic department personnel were not allowed to speak. Atkinson said the reason for that was Rothkopf's desire to give a first-hand Monday morning briefing.

Football Head Coach Bill Russo said after Monday's meeting that he and his staff were looking forward to undertaking some aggressive fundraising efforts on behalf of the football program.

"Bill's job is to be the head football coach," Atkinson said Tuesday. "He and his staff have to be concerned with coaching, recruiting and monitoring their athletes.

"We have an excellent development staff, headed by Vice President Gary Evans; we have the full resources of that office behind us. They know about bringing in money. Also, the board's Committee on Financial Policy will be discussing a plan at its (Jan. 30) meeting."

Atkinson said faculty members she has spoken to have been supportive of the athletic program.

"A lot of them like the company we are hanging around with," she said.

To emphasize the point, Atkinson said that Penn and Princeton are on the Lafayette football schedule for the next 10 seasons, and the Leopards will face Harvard in eight of the next 10 years.

The events of the past few months have been difficult ones, but Atkinson said she is confident that, in time, "people will forget going through it. This is a great time for Lafayette."

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