By Richard J. Alley
In the 1920s, the college published a code for athletes. Heading the list:
“As an athlete I am determined to play the game to the limit of my capacities, giving each detail the greatest care and attention.”
It holds true today, as then, at play and in the classroom.
At the far north end of the Rhodes College campus stands a citadel of sweat, an acropolis of aches and a fortress of fortitude. The Bryan Campus Life Center (BCLC) is where the athletic administration offices can be found, past fitness rooms and down long hallways adorned with trophies and plaques and photos of athletes who won them for the college.
The tradition doesn’t stop with photos, though; it is also in the air, mixed within the mortar and stone and on polished woodwork. The William Neely Mallory Gymnasium, built in 1954 and dedicated to the 42 alumni who perished in World War II, is where the men’s and women’s basketball teams tip off, and the volleyball team rallies, atop the Lynx paw at mid-court. If nearby Paul Barret Jr. Library is the brain of the campus, then the BCLC is its muscle, flexed daily and stretched with dedication and passion by the student-athletes within. In its shadow, a bright light in its own right, is Crain Field, which was refurbished with state-of-the-art synthetic FieldTurf, a gift of Brenda and Lester Crain Jr. ’51 in honor of his father, J. Lester Crain Sr. ’29, at the start of the 2012 football season.
Playing for Rhodes, a Division III college
In the 1920s and ’30s, long before there were NCAA divisions, the football Lynx played a surprising range of teams. In 1936, they defeated Vanderbilt 12-0. Two hundred leading business and civic leaders gave team members a luncheon to congratulate them on the win and the national attention they were bringing to Memphis. In September 1937, they beat Arkansas State 67-0 in front of 4,000 fans at the Mid-South Fairgrounds stadium. In 1939, the Lynx played Ole Miss, and in 1940, the University of Tennessee.
"In the beginning, college football wasn’t supposed to have 95-man rosters, 300-piece marching bands, $10 million budgets and under-the-table inducements to get top players into school."
So wrote George Lapides, sports editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, in 1982. He would later become the Rhodes athletic director in 1984, and his words stand true now as then. Lapides continued his musings on college sports:
"… a few pockets of purity do remain. In today’s structure, it’s called Division III. That’s the classification of colleges where the football philosophy is not win at any cost, where academic integrity would never be sacrificed for Saturday afternoon victories …"
Lapides wrote then specifically about football, but the same is true across the rosters for Division III athletics, described on the website of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the reigning body for all college sports. It says, in part, that Division III "… minimizes the conflicts between athletics and academics and keeps student-athletes on a path to graduation through shorter practice and playing seasons, the number of contests, no redshirting and regional competition that reduces time away from academic studies. Student-athletes are integrated on campus and treated like all other members of the general student body, keeping them focused on being a student first."
To put it simply, Division III athletics, and the athletics program at Rhodes, are about balance. It’s the balance of a challenging academic career as well as sports career. It’s about understanding that there is a time for physical practice and one for mental practice.
"That was the attraction and, certainly looking back, that was actually the experience—there seemed a proper balance between education and athletics," says Tom Mullady ’79, managing director of Global Compensation for FedEx. A Rhodes success story both on and off the field, Mullady would go on to be drafted by the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League in 1979, and was shortly thereafter traded to the New York Giants, where he played for six years.
Mullady is the exception to the rule, though. Most student-athletes in Division III don’t harbor dreams of one day suiting up for the NFL, shagging flies in Major League Baseball or lacing up for a national Olympics team. Instead, they dream about donning lab coats or leading a team in the board room. But they have a passion for sport and for the physical, and that is what leads many of them to Division III in general, and Rhodes in particular.
Sports, for a high school student, can be all-consuming, and the thought of an abrupt end to working with teammates and pushing oneself to be better, faster, physically stronger can be a dispiriting one. For many who wish to play beyond their high school graduation and are looking for the equal mixture of academics and athletics, Rhodes draws them on many levels.
"The student-athletes we have would not be here if it weren’t for the quality of education and the value they’re getting for their tuition dollar academically," says Mike Clary ’77, director of athletics for Rhodes. "That’s true for any student who considers coming here. But when our coaches recruit, they have a great opportunity to enroll prospects, thanks to Rhodes’ academic reputation, its location in Memphis, the physical beauty of the college, the facilities, the people."
Clary is proof of the passion for sport at Rhodes. The biology major was a three-year starter for the football team and played on the ’77 golf team that won the College Athletic Conference championship. At the age of 28, he was hired as head football coach. The all-time winningest coach in Rhodes history, he has served in a coaching capacity for men’s track, swimming and, currently, women’s golf.
Though the Division III rules stipulate that no athletic scholarships shall be offered, recruitment became much more proactive in the 1980s. Before then, students often showed up and, almost as an afterthought, considered trying out for a sport. "In the late ’70s and early ’80s, nationally, that changed to where liberal arts colleges became very intentional about going out and seeking students to play golf, play lacrosse, play football," Clary says.
In 1991, Robert Shankman ’80, who currently serves as vice president for Division III Cross Country for the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Association, gave up his position as a vice president and commercial lending officer at Memphis’ National Bank of Commerce (now SunTrust) to coach at Rhodes. Since 1991, Rhodes track and cross country teams have won 31 conference championships, including 10 titles in men’s cross country, seven in women’s cross country, six in men’s track and eight in women’s track. Shankman’s peers voted him SCAC Coach of the Year 17 times in cross country and 13 times in track. The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association also honored Shankman with Regional Coach of the Year awards in ’02, ’09 and ’10 for women’s cross country; in ’03 and ’10 for women’s outdoor track; and in ’07 for men’s cross country.
Mike DeGeorge grew up in Division III athletics as the son of football coach Ed DeGeorge of Beloit College in Wisconsin. He saw the passion of his father and the players and learned of that magic word "balance" along the way. As the men’s head basketball coach for Rhodes since 2009, DeGeorge has led the Lynx to their best conference record in 20 years, 18-9 in 2011-12. (Rhodes men’s basketball teams were SCAC champions in 1979-81 and 1992-93.) DeGeorge’s time as coach in the NCAA has been scattered among Cornell College in Iowa, Eureka College in Illinois and Lawrence University in Wisconsin. He’s drawn to schools like these, "the last pure level of college sport" as he calls it. "We’re the model of what college athletics should be about in terms of character building, and even the concept of just being physically active and being a part of something bigger than yourself.
What Title IX has brought to Rhodes
The balance has been given a wider meaning in the past 40 years since the passage of Title IX, the 1972 law requiring equality for genders at all levels of school sports. Rhodes expanded its offering in women’s sports under director of athletics Ed White and became the first Memphis-area college to offer varsity women’s soccer in 1983. It’s an achievement that, these days, might go unnoticed by women on the pitch such as Mae Casey ’13, a left forward for the Lynx. Casey is from New Orleans and could have played Division I soccer, she says, but "I wanted the experience of having a social life and being more involved academically and socially and playing sports, so Rhodes just seemed like the best choice for me." The women’s soccer team finished the 2012 season 15-4-1, and ranked nationally.
"I’ve seen improvements throughout my time playing and coaching that I think our current student-athletes take for granted a little bit, and so it’s interesting to see their perspective on things," says Jane Wells ’03, head field hockey coach. "There are certainly still issues with gender equity in sports, but I think Rhodes is doing a good job providing quality student experiences for our female student-athletes as well as our male student-athletes, and striking that balance well." The field hockey team finished this season with its fourth consecutive conference title.
Lacrosse is popular in many Northern and Eastern high schools, and Rhodes plans to add a women’s team in the 2013-14 academic year, increasing the geographic diversity of the student body, and bringing the total number of women’s sports to 11, thus surpassing the offerings in men’s sports.
Lapides wrote in 1982: "They don’t play in Division III to make money … or even to break even. They don’t play to get on TV or into the headlines. In Division III, they play because it’s fun."
Mike Cody ’58 didn’t just walk onto the campus on North Parkway. He ran. East High School in Memphis, where Cody ran track, didn’t have facilities for the sport; his team, instead, ran through an adjacent field, and his coach would often drive him to the then-Southwestern campus to run on its cinder track. He was good enough at the time, he said, to compete with the college students, and the Southwestern coach asked if he’d be interested in attending school and running track. With no money, and looking to join the Army right out of high school, Cody was eligible, through grades and extracurricular activities at the high school level, for a leadership scholarship. "It was a life-changing event," he says. "Rhodes literally changed my life in terms of public service and a broader education in liberal arts."
Even after graduation, there is a striving for excellence within these Rhodes athletes. Mullady gained his MBA from Rutgers University during the off-seasons with the Giants. Cody went on to law school at the University of Virginia and continues to practice with the firm of Burch, Porter & Johnson, where he has had a distinguished career filled with awards, accolades and service. He has amassed thousands of miles on tracks and sidewalks in the Midtown area. A 4-mile race held at Rhodes every February to raise money for the athletic program is named in his honor.
Mullady played in the College Athletic Conference (CAC), formed in 1962. In 1991 it became the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC). Today, Rhodes is part of the eight-member Southern Athletic Association (SAA), a Division III college athletic conference that started play in 2012–13.
Coaching at Rhodes
The amenities of Rhodes, the balanced workloads, the communal feel of a classroom and locker room, apply to the coaching staff as well. There are currently 10 women’s sports and 10 men’s sports, with 16 head coaches. "Ninety percent of our coaches really self-select institutions like Rhodes because they want to be in this type of environment where they’re working with athletes who have very high goals in every aspect of their lives, but certainly very high academic goals," Clary says.
Current Rhodes head football coach Dan Gritti had a lucrative position as an attorney with a Manhattan law firm. After the horrors of 9/11, though, much of that existence ceased to be meaningful. He got in touch with then-Indiana University coach Gerry DiNardo, for whom he was a student assistant in his Vanderbilt student days, and a new career was born. Gritti went on to coach at Middlebury College and the University of Chicago before coming to Rhodes in 2011. "It’s important to do what you love," he said in a Memphis newspaper story at the time. "And it’s important to do what you love as well as you can."
The ingredients for a well-rounded college experience include a supportive classroom dynamic, friends and social gatherings, off-campus fellowships and internships and, for many, sports. Athletics at the Division III level is not meant to charge life on campus, but to recharge it, to add another tone of color to the palette of academics and career planning.
Marie Brandewiede Schofer ’04 came from St. Louis to run track and cross country for Rhodes, qualifying for the NCAA national championships as an individual and as part of a team in both sports. She earned All American honors on three occasions.
Both Mullady and Schofer met their future spouses, as well as lifelong friends and confidants, while at Rhodes. Now working in the admissions office at Cornell College in Iowa, Schofer still runs and maintains contact with past teammates, which is "something really special," she says. Schofer is also close with coach Robert Shankman, a lasting influence and mentor both on and off the track. "We relied on each other and supported each other," she says of her teammates, "but when I needed to buy new tires for my car, I went to Coach Shankman and he recommended a place and a guy to go see, to make sure I didn’t get a bad deal. He really looked out for his athletes that way, on a personal level, too."
For Mary Reed ’14, her time on the links for the Lynx golf team has been an experience she wouldn’t trade for anything. The bridge major in economics/business knows what it is to be pushed to the limits with studying, exams and projects, and the time spent with teammates on the greens of local golf courses. All have provided hours of camaraderie and memories. "I can’t imagine being at Rhodes and not playing a sport, to be honest, having that extra layer of challenge and something else to do has made my experience all the more important and fun. It’s nice having a lot of other student-athletes on campus because everybody gets it."
On being a Rhodes student-athlete
Of 1,872 full-time students for the 2012-13 academic year, 573—31 percent—are student-athletes, numbers that rival even the largest Division I schools. What’s more, 60 percent of Rhodes’ student-athletes receive academic financial aid. Sixty-three percent participate in extracurricular campus activities other than sports.
The well-rounded college experience is something sought after by incoming students and their parents, faculty and coaches, and all the way to the top. "Seeing our athletes compete and succeed on the playing field, in the classroom and later in life is a great source of pride for us," says Rhodes President Bill Troutt.
Says Welch Suggs ’95, track and field and cross country runner: "What you learn as an athlete are lessons that you cannot get anywhere else. You can make the same argument about the classroom as well, but when you’re an athlete, you have to learn first and foremost how to manage your time, not just to get your homework done, but to put in the time you need in the weight room or training room, as the case may be."
Suggs chose Rhodes over other schools because he wanted the experience of a Division III school. He wanted to run, but "did not want it to be my life in college." What he wanted was to be a sports reporter. He would later attend the University of Missouri graduate program in journalism and write about the business side of sports for the Kansas City Star, Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is now an associate professor at the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal sports columnist Geoff Calkins, whether covering the summer Olympics in London or the Memphis Grizzlies closer to home, spends his days and nights caught up in the euphoria of winning sports teams. Just as George Lapides 30 years prior, he also knows the ins and outs of Division I athletics programs and has, at times, become "disgusted" by the scandals and out-of-all-proportion chase for money.
"The great thing about Rhodes," he says, "is that when you look to see what lies beneath, you’re only more impressed when you realize the leading tackler is going to medical school. Well, that is exactly what it was supposed to be, the mind-body ideal, which is a farce at the Division I level, but is still a reality at a place like Rhodes."
Rhodes parents, thankfully, will be parents
This purity of sport and love of the game at Rhodes is still undiluted and is a characteristic instilled by little league and high school coaches as well as parents, the ones who introduce us to sports with a first pair of running sneakers or by playing catch in the backyard. As important as the student-athletes, their coaches, the coaching staffs, professors and groundskeepers are at Rhodes, there would be nothing without the parents. These are the people who hustle their kids outdoors, pay for uniforms and lessons, drive them to away games during little league, cheer them on, wipe their tears and probably hide some of their own. A Rhodes parent is a proud parent, a fan and the 12th player in the bleachers.
On football game days, sandwiched between the tennis courts and Crain Field is a group with its own sandwiches and grills, wearing the red and black and boasting about the prowess of their sons on the field, their accomplishments in the classroom and the college in general. Led this year by Michael and Dana Wilson, whose son, Dane ’14, is a political science major and running back, the team off the field supports the team on with tailgating, networking and relationship building. It is potluck with a purpose as the veterans take the parents of first-years under their wings to show them the ropes and make them feel welcome. "It’s always fun because as parents during that transition where your kid is becoming an adult … you always want to support them and the more we can do with that as far as activity and being there, the better," says Michael Wilson, who works for FedEx and has missed only one game—whether home or away—in his son’s tenure on the team.
The coaching staff relies on Wilson to send out emails to team parents and help keep them in the loop. It’s nice, too, says Wilson, when head coach Dan Gritti and his staff come out before games to see how everyone is doing and after the games to cheer with them or explain the challenges when things don’t go the way they’d hoped. The post-game revelry is a time as well for the parents to connect with the players who then join them for a meal provided by the tailgaters.
College athletics is a commitment entered into by the administration, faculty, the student-athlete, their parents and the fans. Dane Wilson’s parents are as eager to see him carry the ball into the end zone as Mary Reed’s parents are to watch her birdie a hole. "They are huge supporters and come to all of my tournaments, as many as they can," Reed says. "They’re probably the biggest proponents of me going to Rhodes and having the full experience of playing the sport."
Marie Brandeweide Schofer recalls her final competition as a Rhodes runner in the nationals and of breaking down and sobbing on the van ride home. "One of the reasons I was crying was that my parents sat on cold bleachers in a dozen states, traveling around to watch me at different meets, and that was something that I really treasured."
The future of Rhodes athletics
Rhodes does not draw the crowds one might see at SEC games. That’s a given and one that is understood by players and coaches alike. But that does not mean there is any less commitment to the programs by the administration. There is money budgeted for salaries and recruiting, and there is money budgeted for facilities. Philanthropy plays a big part in this commitment, as evidenced by the Crain and Bryan families and the new baseball and field hockey facilities. Rhodes could not do without the generous support of alumni and parents.
"We’re always thinking about what the future holds and always looking for improvements, and obviously those plans and improvements come as we raise the money to make those happen," says Jim Duncan, director of athletic giving. Currently there is a push for funds to permanently light all the fields. With Crain Field pulling double duty for football and lacrosse, and other sports’ practice times and game scheduling at the mercy of daylight and classroom priorities, lights would allow a flexibility that would benefit students, coaches and fans.
As a means to an end, the Lynx Club, the fundraising arm for athletics only, was established last year as a way "to bring all of our athletic fundraising components under one umbrella," Duncan says. "Parents of current and former athletes and alums who were athletes now have an avenue to make annual contributions … and they can designate it to the sport of their choice."
In the past, coaches have been more involved in fundraising for their specific sport, and the Lynx Club hopes to free up their time to focus on players, building relationships and recruiting. It is expected that any increase in fundraising and subsequent improvements to facilities and amenities will, in turn, boost recruitment efforts. Duncan characterizes it as "an ever-evolving circle" as the athletic program works to better itself through more efficient fundraising.
"It’s very important that we make a commitment to all of our programs, and I think we’ve been about that," President Troutt adds.
While much of the campus population will always, naturally, be more student than athlete, there is no denying the urge to run, jump, pass and score. Intramural and club sports play a big part in life on campus. Organized games of flag football, whiffleball, basketball, soccer and volleyball can be had for all skill levels. From the windows of Buckman Hall, the casual observer might watch a pickup game of Ultimate Frisbee in an arena bordered by oaks, dogwoods and crape myrtles.
The need for physicality is inherent, just as is the want to feel pride of ownership in a school and sports team. Rhodes students have the best of both worlds with first-rate academics and a sports program that is accessible and exciting. Even as they look back to the college’s beginnings in the 19th century and marvel at such tradition, students and alumni should feel energized for the 21st century and a playing field of balanced scholars and athletes eager for the future.
For more information on Rhodes athletics, including current and past rosters, schedules, program overview and Hall of Fame inductees, please visit rhodeslynx.com.