Some folks here talk about Williams as if it is some sort of outlier in terms of athletic emphasis in NESCAC.  But check out what’s been going on at Amherst (and indeed, at other NESCAC schools) in recent years: if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Williams should be VERY flattered.  I’ve long been making the point that Amherst has dramatically improved its athletic performance over the past decade to the point where, in team sports, it performs just as well (if not better) than Williams in the aggregate.  One area where Amherst most certainly emphasizes athletics more than Williams is in terms of transfer students.  Check out the  summary below of transfers, mostly from higher-division programs, currently playing key roles for Amherst athletic teams.

I’m not suggesting these transfers aren’t qualified to attend Amherst, or that they don’t belong there.  Indeed, on the contrary, read the article on Jeff Katz, an impressive scholar-athlete, who I imagine is typical in that regard.  But I am suggesting that Williams gets unfairly branded as some sort of athletics factory while many of its peers are pouring millions into new athletics facilities (while Williams’ are the last buildings on campus to be renovated, and only when the situation becomes nearly desperate), or are placing more emphasis than Williams on bringing star athletes to campus, or are spending far more, on a per-athlete basis, than Williams, or are actively poaching Williams coaches (two to Wesleyan, one to Bowdoin, all making roughly lateral moves in the last year).

And indeed, as I constantly remark, Williams kicks butt in the Director’s Cup not primarily due to occasional strong runs from the higher-profile team sports, but more often because of the consistent, year-to-year excellence of individual sports like track and field, swimming, cross country, crew, tennis, skiing and wrestling.  Almost every year, Williams earns  a ton of Director’s Cup points from all of these teams.   And the higher participation rate in athletics at Williams is not, again, reflective of a larger number of heavily-recruited athletes on campus, or a larger percentage of students playing TIP-heavy sports like football, basketball, soccer, and hockey.  Rather, as I often note, it’s because of the large number of varsity teams and in particular the ENORMOUS rosters for no-cut teams like crew, swimming, skiing, cross country, and track and field, none of which require substantial (if any) admissions concessions, nor, would I argue, have a dramatic impact on campus culture beyond bringing a high volume of active, outdoorsy type students to campus.  (I would agree that Williams has a higher percentage of fitness-minded / outdoorsy students than all of its peers save for, arguably, Middlebury, but that is very different from having a culture more in thrall to team sports).

In sum, Williams’ tremendous success in athletics is not a product of a disproportionate emphasis on athletic recruiting or expenditures relative to its NESCAC peers.   Keep in mind that, while men’s hoops came very close last year, no Williams team sport has won a national title since, I believe, 2003.  Since then, Middlebury, Amherst, Trinity, Tufts and Bowdoin have been winning team titles (often multiple titles) in TIP-heavy sports including men’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s and women’s ice hockey, men’s and women’s lacrosse, women’s field hockey, and baseball.  And while Wesleyan hasn’t won any titles, they have been bringing in high profile coaches from other NESCAC schools (hiring away Bates’ basketball coach and the aforementioned Williams coaches)  and really amping up the most prominent (and recruit-heavy) teams on campus: men’s soccer, football, basketball and lacrosse, all of whom have been establishing (or soon will establish) new standards for success at Wesleyan following very difficult stretches.

Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not saying Amherst (or any other NESCAC school) is doing anything untoward.  Just pointing out that, if you are qualified academically and are a star athlete who wants to transfer down a division or two, Amherst is, apparently, usually going to be far more interested than Williams.  [Williams may have one, max two, high-profile transfers on campus at any given time — Ryan Malo ’11 in wrestling comes to mind, and his success has been amazing — but the difference is substantial].   And Amherst has also been bringing in very prominent recruits as first years in recent years, in particular in basketball and ice hockey, but also in sports like tennis, where this year Amherst had the top-ranked recruiting classes in the nation for both men and women.  Here are the Amherst transfer athletes (that I know of via Amherst publicizing them), all but one of whom came from D-1 or D-2 programs, and all but one of whom arrived on campus in the last two years:

  • Jeff Katz ’11 , 24 year old all-conference football player, former pro baseball player, transfer from Lafayette
  • Reggie Fugett ’11, basketball/football transfer from University of Cincinnati (note: injuries have unfortunately derailed his promising athletic career, and in all events, an unusual case since his dad is a high-profile Amherst alum)
  • Matt Pietersi ’13, football star who transferred from Springfield College after leading them in tackles as a frosh; currently doing the same for Amherst
  • Luis Rattenhuber ’13, men’s tennis star who transferred from San Diego State
  • Joe Brock ’11, ice hockey star who transferred from Holy Cross and proceeded to lead Amherst in points last winter
  • Jake Hannon ’12, another top-notch ice hockey transfer, from Army
  • Jackie Renner ’12, top-notch women’s hoops player who transferred from University of Vermont and finished second in minutes on Amherst as a sophomore
  • Jasmine Hardy ’13, women’s hoops player from University of New Haven
  • David Fredlund ’12, baseball player from Davidson
  • Erin Babineau ’12, ice hockey transfer from Bemidji State

Not coincidentally, the last few years, Amherst has had more success in men’s football, women’s basketball, men’s tennis, and men’s ice hockey than at any time in recent memory.   Amherst has also been kicking butt in men’s basketball, women’s tennis, and women’s ice hockey, without the aid of  (prior to this year) any high-profile transfers.  And to be fair, even for teams with high-profile transfers, the star players have mostly been home-grown.  Williams may have juggernauts in women’s tennis and women’s crew, but Amherst has built (in some cases with amazing speed) juggernauts in women’s ice hockey, women’s tennis, men’s tennis, and women’s basketball, all four of which (!) will likely be favored to win national titles this year.

The Director’s Cup is still fairly safe, and will be most years, particularly because Williams has a few varsity sports that Amherst lacks (wrestling, women’s crew, skiing), and because of Williams’ consistent excellence in the individual sports.  But the days of Williams dominating, or even having a decided edge, over Amherst in team sports are over, and have been for several years — they are truly even as athletic rivals in most sports at this point, which is probably a good thing overall.  If, however, Amherst keeps on bringing in three-to-four scholarship-level transfers per year as it has the past few years, I wonder how long Williams can hope to compete on even equal terms in team sports.  And yet, there is still the reputational lag, where Williams is frequently portrayed as some sort of athletic factory, as opposed to its peers who are taking far more aggressive steps to improve their athletic programs.

It’s really a credit to Williams’ coaches, athletes, and tradition of excellence that, despite rivals pumping up their athletic programs at the same time that Williams has been reducing admissions concessions and tightening budgets, and  despite the generally-dated athletic facilities, Williams has managed to maintain such a high standard of achievement.  And I’m not really critical of most of the changes at Williams — if the school can still win NESCAC titles and Director’s Cups while tightening athlete admissions, more power to it.  But it would be nice for the outside rhetoric to match the reality.  And it would be doubly nice if, in the next fund drive, the relatively deficient state of many of the athletic facilities — particularly the football field and field house, but also certain outdated aspects of Chandler — is recognized and addressed.

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