COMMENTARY: Why do alumni care now?

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Tom Ehrich is a writer and computer consultant managing large-scale database implementations. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C.)

DURHAM, N.C. _ In this hotbed of college basketball, performances on the gridiron don’t stir much heat.

But business is business. After lackluster football seasons at North Carolina and N.C. State, the cries of”fire the coach”grew intense. Carolina’s Carl Torbush survived; State’s Mike O’Cain didn’t.

Similar choruses are heard wherever football fortunes fall short of expectations. Alumni boosters voice outrage, funding-minded administrators hold urgent huddles, media types circle death row, and otherwise noble academic institutions announce a ritual beheading behind the gym.

A similar blaming frenzy will occur four months from now, when four basketball teams will be playing for NCAA glory and everyone else will be wondering what went wrong.

It’s hard to fault university presidents. They lost the battle long ago to keep the ivied walls focused on academics. Nor can one blame sports reporters, whose colorful writing is often the only bright spot in modern journalism. Besides, to the sports-minded, coach firings are more fun than drug busts or salary disputes.

The finger points at alumni. It seems that alumni won’t attend games unless the team wins, and they won’t fire off annual checks just out of gratitude for academic preparation. Football revenues underwrite other sports, and alumni giving builds libraries. So what’s a chancellor to do?

Still, I wonder why alumni care about athletic achievement. Most didn’t play varsity sports when they matriculated, nor, if my unofficial surveying of Saturday attendance is accurate, did they attend games as students. Why do they care now?

Why do they not remember Professor So-and-So, who opened their eyes to larger life? Why do they not simply walk the red-brick walks and remember a long-ago love, a sense of belonging that bore no cost, or an institution that tolerated their juvenile behavior because it believed in their promise?”It’s a macho thing,”says one diehard fan, just one more way that men compete. Could be, although the success of women’s college sports seems to be stirring similar fixations among women.

It could be that sports help us burnish tribal identity. That inevitable pigeonholing question _”Where did you go to college?”_ is more pleasing to answer if one’s college won the Sugar Bowl. Long before the University of Notre Dame got serious about academics, it had name recognition from football.

A cynic might say that sports help a bland state university claim at least one bit of supremacy over the academic powerhouses. Harvard might claim 1600 SATs, but Silo Tech, by golly, can whip their butts in football. But that’s silly. Why should Silo Tech agree to such a characterization, when in fact its graduates are doing just fine, thank you, and its faculty are winning just as many prizes as their crimson-robed counterparts?

In the state where I grew up, no one other than rabid boosters seriously expects Indiana University or Purdue University to win football games. IU is known for its music school and medical school, for goodness sake, and Purdue for its engineers. An occasional trip to the Rose Bowl is nice, but is it worth a lynch mob outside the coach’s office if the team falls short?

People don’t attend UNC or N.C. State because of football, or even because of basketball. Sure, it’s fun to cheer and to wear odd colors. But fire the coach because 20-year-olds couldn’t overcome the statistical likelihood of .500 mediocrity? That’s nonsense. Over the past 45 years, N.C. State has had only two successful coaches and a handful of winning seasons. Yet life has gone on.

My own dim view is that booster clubs are like church councils: they give a vocal few a venue for exercising control. People who don’t have enough to do in the rest of their lives find a juicy calling in chasing after coaches and pastors. They stir controversy and churn others into caring about things they wouldn’t otherwise care about.

We let them get away with it because their passions are intimidating and we’re busy. The larger societal issue isn’t why can’t Carolina play football, but why do we let the passionate few wield such power?

It isn’t that big a step from scapegoating coaches to finding villains to scapegoat for what truly does bother us.


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