By Caleb Bissenger
The 1972 Lords football season was the stuff of football myth: a 7-0-1 record, a shutout over Case Western Reserve University on homecoming weekend. That season, tight end Mike Duffy caught 35 passes for six touchdowns, and in one moment of fourth-quarter magic, after fighting back from 14-0, Giovanni DiLalla booted a 35-yard field goal for the win. But all seasons, even glorious ones, end. Today, Duffy is a lawyer in Chicago, DiLalla sells copiers in Cleveland and the undefeated team they left behind is struggling.
In the past 25 years, the Lords have posted more last-place seasons than winning ones. As of this week, it has been two years since the Lords’ last win.
The recent losing streak prompted President S. Georgia Nugent to form a committee of coaches and administrators to investigate ways to bolster the program. Their recommendations are expected later this month, Nugent said.
This is not the first time the administration has intervened with the football program. “In 2002, the year before I came, the football team had dwindled to nothing, where it was actually considered a dangerous condition because there weren’t enough guys to support the team,” Nugent said. The College formed a commission. “My understanding of the charge then was really, do we get rid of football or not?” she said.
That committee decided against cutting the program, opting instead to put more resources into it. In 2003, Kenyon hired Ted Stanley, who is now in his ninth year as head coach. Stanley rebuilt the program, and in 2005, the Lords went 6-1 in the North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC), their best outing since 1991.
“We saw real progress,” Nugent said, “but what has happened in the last couple of years is that progress has stalled or declined, and I think it’s largely around the recruiting environment.”
“If you’re not effective at recruiting, if you’re not getting the athletes you need, you’re going to struggle,” Stanley said.
For Kenyon, part of that struggle is recruiting student-athletes who are successful both on the field and in the classroom. “It’s a question of can you get the best players that meet the academic criteria,” Stanley said. “And then with Kenyon … can they afford to come here?”
“Admissions is working very closely with the football program – and have done so ever since Coach Stanley arrived at Kenyon,” Dean of Admissions Jennifer Delahunty said in an email. She added, however, “Recruiting football players is difficult simply because of the number of players we need and the competition for those players.”
There are currently 58 players on the football team’s roster, but Stanley would like to see that number grow. “If everybody did one thing, [played one position,] that’d be 120 players,” he said. “But you’re gonna need 50 to 80 to 100 players just to fill the team on top of what is dangerous and what is not dangerous.”
Toward this goal, Stanley and the team’s seven other coaches, which includes a recruitment specialist, visit high schools across the country looking for the rare student who fills out SAT bubbles as well as he threads through defenders.
Running back Brett Williams ’13 remembers Stanley’s visit to his high school in northern Ohio. “Coach Stanley came to my school my junior year,” Williams said. “He pretty much told the coach, ‘Hey, I’m stopping by. If you have any kids that are smart and decent football [players,] send them in and I’ll talk to them.'” At the end of his visit, Stanley invited Williams to a summer visit day. After several more trips to campus to meet the team and watch them play, Stanley encouraged Williams to apply early decision. “I had an opportunity to go play at other schools that have done better, but for me, it was more the academics,” Williams said. “Kenyon’s English program was something that was a big draw.”
Offensive lineman Patrick Maher ’13, who went to a boarding school in Massachusetts, was also drawn to Kenyon’s academics, and the team’s poor record offered another appeal. “I knew that they hadn’t been successful,” he said, “but it presented an opportunity to play early, not to have to sit around and wait to get your time.”
But academics and the promise of playing time is not enough to lure many of Stanley’s recruits, however. Last year, only 10 new players joined the team, well below Stanley’s goal of 25 to 30.
“There are a number of students – applicants, let’s say – who are football players who are not going to make the academic cut at Kenyon,” Nugent said. “But they’ll be perfectly admittable students at some of our other [conference] schools, maybe a Wooster or a Denison. We just have a different academic profile.”
Kenyon also struggles to attract football players who do make the academic cut. “Last year, we lost football players to the top colleges in the country – the Ivies, the military academies, the NESCAC [New England Small College Athletic Conference] schools,” Delahunty said.
Nugent speculated that the NESCAC, a cluster of Division III schools, is the biggest poacher of potential Kenyon football players. She blamed the intricate slotting system NESCAC schools employ. The system, which ranks student-athletes into A, B and C bands based on their academic records, allows those schools to admit athletes with slightly lower academic profiles than their average students. “That’s our real competition in terms of recruitment,” Nugent said. “They’re doing things that we don’t do. Now there may be reasons of principle that we don’t want to do those things, but that’s, I think, what the tough conversation’s going to be.”
“Division III recruiting in the last 20 years has exploded,” Stanley said. “It’s much more competitive and, certainly, if you look at the sport of football, it’s grown. It’s America’s pastime, and I think Kenyon needs to get onboard with that a little bit.”
Twenty-six colleges and universities planned to add a football team between 2009 and 2013, according to USA Today. Many of these schools believe the sport spurs campus growth and increases revenue. “It’s big business for a lot of Division III schools at this point,” Stanley said. “It attracts students; it brings in dollars. In many cases in brings in alumni dollars in donations and development.” Some, however, have argued with this view. In Reclaiming the Game, William Bowen, the former president of Princeton University, claims that across higher education there is no correlation between athletics and annual giving.
While some schools embrace football, others turn away from it. Since 2005, 12 NCAA schools have eliminated their football programs. In 2002, Swarthmore College dropped its struggling program because its large roster took away so many admissions slots. “People get an edge in the admissions process if they are incredible musicians or artists or maybe for community service,” a spokesperson for the college said at the time. “It’s basic math. If you eliminate football, you suddenly have a lot more spaces for everything else.”
Kenyon recruits roughly 25 percent of incoming students for sports, according to Delahunty. Of the 227 male students in the sophomore class, 11 percent are football players.
“Our football team has a slightly different academic profile than the student body at large,” Nugent said. The team’s average GPA is 3.1.
But Delahunty underscored her belief that football players are not given an admissions advantage. “I do not feel that we are giving away spots to football players that would be better used elsewhere,” she said.
“In admissions, we assess students for whether they will succeed in the classroom, and we have a rule: do not harm,” she added. “If we admit a football player – student-athlete for any team – they have passed the test; they can do Kenyon work.”
Kenyon’s football program has produced two Rhodes Scholars, a Fulbright scholar and eight Academic All-Americans.
“The fact is, this is a Division III setting, and this is academics first, which I really enjoy. And certainly football brings value to Kenyon in many other ways. Certainly, diversity-wise it brings a different type of student,” Stanley said. “There is no barrier here, and I think that environment is what we all try to achieve. Very few avenues in life do that.”
“The football team is more diverse than the student body,” Delahunty said. “Does football contribute to overall diversity on campus? Absolutely. Is that the justification for the team? No.”
Dean of Students Hank Toutain believes the team’s recent losing streak is only a small measure in evaluating the program’s success. “From my perspective, the greatest value of any sport is the quality of the overall experience for student-athletes,” he said.
“The nature of our country and the nature of our society is we don’t do physical labor anymore,” Stanley said. “To do that, that’s a great deal of commitment. And it should be applauded, and it should be promoted, and it should be supported. And that’s what I think this committee is trying to get to.”
“While the committee talked a great deal about the value of sport,” Toutain said, “there was little conversation about its cost.” Football, swimming and basketball are the most expensive sports at Kenyon. Toutain would not disclose the football team’s budget because the numbers do not always reflect the reality of running small programs versus large ones. An NCAA report released in January 2011, however, found that Division III schools with football had an average athletic budget of $2.2 million – $1 million more than the average operating budget of a Division III school without football.
“Both in curriculum and the co-curriculum,” Toutain said, “resource limitations make it impossible to accommodate every interest, and the college has to make choices as to how many and which majors or sports it can realistically support.” Student Activities and the athletic department fund club sports, but the budgets are much smaller than those available to varsity sports.
Men’s Frisbee for instance, a team that has recently had impressive results at national tournaments, requires players to pay for their own jerseys and food for away games.
Expanding football’s recruiting efforts would likely necessitate more money, but other efforts might boost the team’s success without much cost.
“I wonder if we should look at a different set of competitors,” Nugent said. “If there is that population that enjoys watching football, and there is a population of students who would enjoy playing football, I don’t think there’s a lot of concern about who the opponent is.”
“I think it’s a game that helps make the College better,” Stanley said. “Obviously within our society it’s something we value. I don’t think we’re sitting here saying football needs to be more important. … I don’t think anybody’s saying that. I think what we are saying is, ‘Let’s help support it and make it more competitive.'”
Still, Nugent wonders if football blends with the campus’ ethos. “I don’t perceive Kenyon as much of a football school,” she said. “When I go to the games, it seems to me the stands have more townspeople and senior faculty and administrators than they do students.”
Wednesday afternoon, as heavy rain put Gambier on flood watch, the football team ran its usual drills on McBride Field. Maher was one of the drenched players. “We’re a pretty experienced team,” he said. “It was positive coming into this year, but now it’s become more of a thing that worries you. We have all this experience – why aren’t we doing better?”
“There are teams that struggle and teams that thrive,” Delahunty said. “The football program is currently struggling, but I believe in the program. Those students enrolling at Kenyon to play football have a tremendous opportunity for an education and an experience that will change their lives.”
“It should be a unifying opportunity for our campus,” Stanley said. “People have taken advantage of that all across the country. We should be able to take advantage of that as well. Hopefully that’s what this committee ends up doing.”