"I do believe that if you have a strong athletic program, it helps you attract stronger students, and with stronger students, you can build an even better athletic program."
Reflecting on the importance of athletics at Bowdoin, Director of Athletics Jeff Ward voiced what many students, administrators and alumni believe is a truism, and others consider a misbegotten justification for spending money on sports. Some administrators say there is evidence to suggest that athletic success can promote or raise the academic stature of institutions. Stanford and Williams have the most compressively successful athletic programs in Division I and III, respectively. On the other hand, Columbia and Swarthmore have pathetic athletic programs and yet are two of the preeminent institutions of higher learning in this country.
If you accept the premise that college athletics teach valuable life lessons, enrich campus culture, and bring together communities, one issue nonetheless remains: what is the significance of winning? One of the arguments frequently made for supporting winning athletic programs is that victories on the field prompt alumni to give more generously. Economic professors have long sought to validate this claim, with mixed results. At Bowdoin, Senior Vice President for Planning and Development Bill Torrey said that athletic participation and success have little relation to higher alumni giving.
"We have not found any data to suggest that athletes give at a higher or lower rate than any other group on campus," he said.
When asked if success by current teams spurs alumni donations, Torrey said there wasn't evidence to support such an assertion.
"I'm sure there are anecdotal things...but I don't think it's a pattern," he said. "My experience has been that it is always great to feel good about victories—to read that Bowdoin wins in football or in hockey—people feel good about that when they read it. They don't like to be teased about the fact that Bowdoin lost another football game, but they are not going to give to send Bowdoin to the Rose Bowl."
If a strong athletic program doesn't increase alumni giving, then the resources that the College devotes to athletics are mainly for the purpose of furthering the educational experience of athletes and the broader goals of the institution.
The two key ways in which Bowdoin supports athletics is by reserving spots in every class for athletes and funding the athletic department.
On an annual basis, the budget of the athletic department is slightly less than 3 percent of the College's operating budget.
As for allotting spots, in every class there are number of "rated" athletes—those whose high school academic qualifications aren't strong enough to earn them admission to Bowdoin.
Rated athletes at peer schools typically get 12 to 17 percent of the spots in every class. Although Ward, citing a "conference rule," would not release the number of rated athletes admitted at Bowdoin, a December 7, 2001 Orient article and an Internet source placed the total at 79 per year, at the time. Ward said this was incorrect, but declined to proffer an alternative figure. In light of the College's commitment to building winning sports teams, the Orient collected data from the past decade to measure the success of Bowdoin's athletic program.
Conference and records
A recent Orient investigation of all men and women's NESCAC championships won over an eight year period, beginning in the 2001-02 academic year—the first year that complete results are available on the NESCAC website—paints a picture of an imbalanced athletic conference typically dominated by the schools with the most financial resources and strongest academic reputations. In the 11-team conference that is the NESCAC, five colleges won 90.5 percent of the championships during the survey period. Capturing 41 percent of the 200 titles won, Williams was the overwhelming force in the league, followed by Middlebury with 19.5 percent, Trinity with 11.5 percent, Amherst with 10.5 percent and Bowdoin with 8 percent. The number of titles won per year by each NESCAC college remained generally steady, with few schools showing marked improvement or decline.
Second-place finishes were also tallied, showing that certain schools are quite familiar with heartbreak. Amherst, for example, won 21 NESCAC titles during the survey period, but led the conference in second-place finishes with 37, while Tufts won only 11 titles yet finished second 32 times. Bowdoin had very balanced results, collecting both 16 titles and second-place finishes.
To determine which schools in the conference had the strongest athletic programs overall, the Orient tallied the total number of titles and second-place finishes earned.
Although the College ranked fifth in the conference in terms of overall titles won, according to this more comprehensive measurement, Bowdoin had only the sixth strongest program in the NESCAC. Williams still proved itself to be the dominant college in the conference with 30 percent, Middlebury was the second-most powerful school with 17 percent, and Amherst came third with a solid 15 percent of titles and second-place finishes. Ahead of Bowdoin were Tufts and Trinity, whose shares were 11 and 9 percent, respectively.
Since the fall of 2001, Bowdoin men's sports teams won only three NESCAC championships; two of those titles came in cross country, while the only title any current students will remember was the tennis team's in 2008. On the other hand, Bowdoin won 13 titles in women's sports, with 11 of those titles coming from the field hockey and basketball teams. It is worth noting that the distribution between the genders is less imbalanced using the comprehensive tallying method, as Bowdoin's women claimed 62 percent of all the titles and second-place finishes.
Because many schools' positions in the rankings were determined by only a handful of teams, the data should be considered with that limitation in mind. Nonetheless, to explore why schools had the results they did, the Orient interviewed several coaches and administrators to see what insights they could provide. (No female coaches were interviewed for this article because none of those contacted responded to requests from the Orient.)
Facilities and institutional commitment
On March 7, in the third period of the 2010 NESCAC Men's Ice Hockey Championship game, Middlebury senior Charlie Townsend slammed the game-winning shot past goalie Chris Rossi '10, marking the fourth title game in six years in which the Panthers triumphed over the Polar Bears. Yet as much as the Polar Bear faithful were disappointed by the game's result, the Bowdoin hockey team and the entire athletic program are looking up with the construction of the Watson Arena and the Buck Center for Health and Fitness.
"Until 18 months ago, we were probably in the bottom third of the league in terms of facilities," Ward said. "Now we are in the top third. Even the planning of that has started to have an impact on our recruiting. The sophomore class at Bowdoin may be the most talented athletically that I've ever seen."
Ward said that while Bowdoin has great coaches, talented coaches abound in the NESCAC. He did, however, single out praise for Men's Ice Hockey Coach Terry Meagher, who had struggled to compete for recruits against those colleges with nicer facilities.
"I like Bill Beaney, the Middlebury men's ice hockey coach, but I would never trade Terry Meagher for him," Ward said. "I think Terry is an innovative genius. But he had to deal with Dayton Arena. The difference between Dayton and the Middlebury rink was just phenomenal."
Ward added that he was sure Watson Arena was superior to Middlebury's rink.
"I'm a great thief," he said, trying to hide a grin. "Whenever we are looking to build something, I try to look at the best that others do, and then put our own stamp on it."
Men's Tennis Coach Colin Joyner said that institutional support for athletics can be one of the factors that can give a school an advantage.
"I do know that Middlebury very publicly made statements about investing in their athletics," Joyner said. "They said, 'we are going to be an athletically dominated school—that is going to matter a lot to us.' So that says a lot when a school comes out and says that, so it is no surprise that they are pumping a lot into [their athletic] programs."
Men's Lacrosse Coach Tom McCabe suggested that while winning is important at Bowdoin, athletic success isn't venerated to the degree that it is at other NESCAC colleges.
"If your president and board of trustees think it's important, then guess what, so does everybody else," he said. "If championships were the only measure of success at Bowdoin, then I would have been gone a while ago."
Ward did not say that Bowdoin's administration cares less about winning than the administrations at other colleges. He did say, however, that other schools fret more than Bowdoin about getting victories.
"I think Amherst and Williams worry a lot about each other," he said. "I'm very comfortable in saying that we have the institutional support that other places do. President Mills believes there is a right way and wrong way to do things. He has been a big support of athletics at Bowdoin, but he has also been a big advocate for increasing academic quality."
Budgets and school size
According to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education and provided by Ward, the total expenses of the athletic department in 2009 were $4,107,899. This amount placed Bowdoin fifth in the conference, behind Middlebury's conference-topping $4,926,939, Williams' budget of $4,891,702, Amherst's $4,787,882, and Trinity's $4,469,160. When adjusted for the number of athletes participating in each college's program, Bowdoin came in sixth, spending around $6,562 per varsity athlete. Amherst spent the most per athlete at $9,119, while Tufts spent the least at $4,093.
Ward said that athletic spending was not strongly correlated with athletic success.
"I actually don't think that funding is what drives success," he said. "If you ask me for the things that are most important for us to be successful, budget is not one of them."
A factor in Bowdoin's favor is that last year, the College had more varsity athletes—626, according to the U.S. Department of Education data—than all but three schools in the NESCAC. Wesleyan had the fewest varsity athletes with 495, while Williams had the most at 842. Several coaches interviewed said that Middlebury's larger size (with around 650 more students) gave it an advantage over Bowdoin. Despite this, Middlebury sported only 25 more athletes than Bowdoin in 2009.
Reputation and recruiting
One issue discussed in multiple interviews was the persistent problem posed by the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, which perennially rank Williams and Amherst ahead of Bowdoin.
"When I was first here, I don't think we ever beat Williams or Amherst for a kid," said Ward, whose tenure at the College began in 1998. "We do now. We don't get half of them, but we may get a quarter of them. The prestige of Bowdoin is definitely growing, and the gap between us and Colby and Bates is growing. Not so much in the rankings, but in the perception."
Head Coach of Bowdoin Men's and Women's Track Peter Slovenski said that he continually lost recruits to higher-ranked schools.
"I know some NESCAC schools that get great athletes who were not admitted to Bowdoin, but I never get any great mutual prospects who were rejected by Williams or Dartmouth," he wrote in an e-mail to the Orient. "It's a tough niche for us. The fastest runners we want are also sought after and admitted by Dartmouth and Williams."
Joyner said that in tennis, Bowdoin can win athletes if those students visit the campus.
"I lose recruits to Williams and Amherst if they haven't visited Bowdoin, if they have preconceived notions of Maine being rural and Mass being urban, and if they care about rankings," Joyner said. "With Middlebury, our recruiting is very, very tight. It is a...tough battle because we have similar things going on."
Meagher stressed the importance of tradition and history in impressing prospective players.
"Really what it comes down to is that you have to have a rich tradition," he said. "But there is a pecking order, obviously."
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Scott Meiklejohn said that "the five schools to which applicants to Bowdoin most often apply" in decreasing order of frequency, are "Middlebury, Williams, Amherst, Dartmouth and Brown."
Coaches could only anecdotally say how many kids they lost to other top NESCAC programs, and Meiklejohn said that the Office of Admissions does not calculate Bowdoin's yield for rated athletes who apply regular decision.
"I don't know, I don't track that," he said. "What coaches are trying to do is have their conversations early in the process, that way they don't end up in a position where the student athletes they are very interested in are applying regular decision."
Ward said that one of the recruiting goals of the athletic department is challenging prospective students' reliance on the U.S. News and World Report rankings.
"When we are recruiting kids, we want to get the best students and athletes that we can," he said. "We are trying to get students to realize the quality of the Bowdoin experience, but if people only look at U.S. News and World Report, that is a pretty shallow way of looking at things...The investigation should be a lot deeper and broader."
Given that Bowdoin's athletic program has faced some challenges, Ward said the College's place as the fifth- or sixth-best program in the NESCAC is nothing to be scoffed at.
"It's not bad, particularly if you accept my premise that our budget has been in the bottom half of the league and our facilities have been in the bottom half of the league," he said. "Then I can actually make the argument that we are doing a hell of a job, which I think we are. Do we aspire to do more? Absolutely."
Alluding to the enormous success of Williams, Ward said, "When people are dominant for a long time, it is generally because there is some factor they have a significant advantage in that others don't."
McCabe said that Bowdoin's performance over the past decade had to be viewed in the context of the depth of the NESCAC.
"We are in the strongest league in the country," he said. "It's not far from the outhouse to the penthouse."
Slovenski, the coach responsible for Bowdoin's two titles in men's cross country, said that judging the College by the record of its teams misses the larger impact of athletics.
"College sports are part of the curriculum to give students educational challenges that transcend winning and losing," he said. "If you judge college sports teams by participation opportunities and emphasis on character development, then Bowdoin might have a better intercollegiate sports program than most Division I schools."
Slovenski added, "You learn great lessons by winning and losing, so I don't think it's accurate to use winning as the only way to measure success."