I cannot think of a single thing that has eroded public confidence in America's colleges and universities and undermined key educational values more than intercollegiate athletics as it is practiced by a large fraction of the universities in the NCAA's Divisions I and II. It is hard to teach integrity in the pursuit of knowledge, or how to live a life of purpose and service, when an institution 's own integrity is compromised in the unconstrained pursuit of victory on the playing fields.
President, Allegheny College
Allegheny beat Lycoming 21-14 in overtime last Saturday in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in Bradenton, Fla. The win gave the Gators from Meadville, Pa., their first Division III national football championship. Daniel Sullivan's reaction to the triumph was consistent with his words above, which came from a recent article. He said, "It's nice."
Indeed, the win was very nice for Allegheny, a small institution (enrollment 1,950) in western Pennsylvania that heretofore has bragged mostly that one of its graduates was President William McKinley and that it is the 32nd oldest college in the nation. Now, Allegheny's run-and-shoot offense has given it another reason to pound its chest.
That's because Allegheny—like most of the 208 colleges and universities that play Division III football—defines a clear, if restricted, space for sports inside its academic walls. Sullivan professes that the way Allegheny handles football, with quiet understatement, no athletic scholarships (which are not allowed in Division III) and an emphasis on balance among all endeavors, works because "football is seamlessly connected to everything else we do. Athletics are for the students. What we're about is teaching."
In the wake of the Gator victory, it was apparent that everyone, including the Allegheny players and coaches, wanted to keep the championship game in perspective. Rookie coach Ken O'Keefe, the 37-year-old architect of the Gators' 13-0-1 season, said, "Success is not measured in terms of wins and losses. We are developing students, players, people." So sure is O'Keefe that W's and L's aren't the essence of athletic success that he never mentions winning. Moments before the Gators took on previously undefeated Lycoming (12-0), he told them, "Play like champions. Four quarters total team effort. Relax and have fun. The results will take care of themselves."
Fired up by those sentiments, Allegheny played horribly in the first half. The Gators had the ball six times and achieved these pitiful results: They punted three times and lost the ball on downs once, and senior quarterback Jeff Filkovski, who found it difficult to pass while lying on his back, threw an interception. On Allegheny's sixth possession, the half mercifully ended, with Lycoming leading 14-0. The Gators had rushed 22 times for 39 yards. But even that weak effort didn't induce O'Keefe to fill the locker room at halftime with talk of winning. "Be more aggressive this second half than you've ever been," he suggested. "Heck, be more aggressive than you have ever thought of being."
On the way back to the field, Filkovski unwrapped a piece of gum and read this fortune on the enclosed comic strip: "A good luck streak is approaching."
It arrived late in the third quarter. With 4:20 remaining in the period, Allegheny had a third-and-15 on its own 47. Filkovski flipped a shovel pass to tailback Jerry O'Brien, who took it around left end for 14 yards; the Gators easily picked up the first down on the next play. Seven plays later, Filkovski ran up the middle for 11 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Lycoming, which is located in Williamsport, Pa., 210 miles east of Meadville, was playing as poorly as Allegheny had in the first half, but the Warriors held on to the lead until good luck, once again, met Filkovski. With 2:57 remaining in the game and the Gators facing a third-and-nine at the Lycoming 25-yard line, the slow-footed Filkovski dropped back to pass, could not find an open receiver and took off, picking up 17 yards. Three plays later, with just 1:38 left, Filkovski threw a seven-yard touchdown pass to flanker Julio Lacayo. The point after by Steve Boucher tied the score at 14 and sent the game into overtime.
In a Division III overtime, each team gets possession of the ball, starting from its opponent's 25. If the score remains tied after one possession each, the teams continue this pattern until there is a winner. Allegheny got the ball first and scored on a 15-yard pass from Filkovski to tight end Kurt Reiser. On its possession, Lycoming was unable to score, and the Gators became the champions.
After the game, Filkovski said of Allegheny football, "All of us are going to get degrees, and we'll all be successful. All I wanted was for football to be enjoyable." Those sentiments were shared by center John Marzka and left guard Steve Menosky, who—including their days at Academy High in Erie, Pa.—played for eight years next to each other. "What we play is football in its purest form," said Marzka, who almost didn't attend college and is now heading for graduate school. Neither expects the NFL to call. Said Marzka, "They don't want a six-foot, 220-pound center." Said Menosky, "The reason the NFL is not in my future is I know my abilities." Marzka majored in psychology, Menosky in environmental science.
Last Saturday's game was a classic example of college football as it was intended to be. Perhaps 4,000 fans showed up at Manatee High to watch the Stagg Bowl. So what's wrong with playing on a high school field? "That field was fine," said O'Keefe. "If nobody is in the stands, that's fine. It's the same game. It's 95 percent players, five percent coaching." The players were smaller and slower and not as good as Division I-A athletes. But it mattered not a whit. The competition was keen and the effort was total. President McKinley would have been proud. Said Menosky, "We play for the inner gratification."
A Stagg line: A gang of Gators queued up to stop Lycoming tight end Matt Harvey.