Raising the Bar

By Jon David Willingham ’04
Photography by Justin Fox Burkes


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They said this was to be a rebuilding year for the Rhodes Mock Trial teams, but you certainly wouldn’t know it. Paying homage to hard work, commitment and outstanding coaching, a pedigreed program represented by almost all-rookie teams is turning just about every head it meets…and even more when it’s learned just how green the teams actually are.

“Rhodes has two really strong teams going into nationals this year. Unlike past years, both our traditional first and second team have an equal shot at placing in—if not leading—the top 10 in the nation,” noted David Hanson ’06.

“I expected us to be competitive, but I thought we would have trouble being in the top tier…obviously, coming out of regionals with our record, we’re heading to nationals with a really good shot,” said Millie Worley ’05, a team captain.

In fact, Rhodes’ three Mock Trial teams—872, 873 and 874—this year swept the American Mock Trial Association’s (AMTA) regional tournament in St. Louis, taking respectively, first, second and third places in the face of mostly veteran teams. Rhodes’ regional showing yielded three bids to Gold Nationals (one for each place), but any given school is only allowed two. This marks the first time in its history that Rhodes has secured all three of the region’s top positions. All the more stunning, this is the first year for most of the members of each of the teams. But this is certainly not the first year Rhodes has set the standard of excellence for collegiate Mock Trial.

Founded two years after the establishment of the AMTA, Rhodes’ program came on the scene in 1987 when only 56 teams competed in the national tournament. Today more than 500 teams participate, from UCLA to Harvard and from the University of Texas to the University of Chicago. Along the way, Rhodes has claimed more national titles and had more national finals appearances than any other college or university in the country. Further, Rhodes is one of only two schools to win consecutive titles. All the more impressive, Rhodes has done so twice. And, while the competition is team-intensive, more than 30 individuals from the Rhodes Mock Trial program have earned All-American awards.

The considerable work of the teams and their members aside, Rhodes is able to claim so many of these accolades thanks to the founder and head coach of the Rhodes Mock Trial program, Dr. Marcus Pohlmann. A professor of political science, Dr. Pohlmann also serves as a member of the AMTA national board of directors and has been instrumental in establishing Mock Trial programs at other schools. Indeed, at an invitational hosted this past fall by the University of Iowa (the current defending national champions), the hosts’ head coach made certain first to thank Pohlmann—even before members of his own University of Iowa staff—for helping to build the champions’ program.

Pohlmann notes Mock Trial is very much a competitive engagement in law, forensics, debate and theater, “but it’s the camaraderie that keeps people involved.” Not surprisingly, Dr. Pohlmann has been supported by a series of devoted attorneys, assistant coaches, former program members and consultants including Whit Gurkin, Marty McAfee ’92, Ryan Feeney ’96 and Bill Monroe, as well as Rhodes professors David Jilg ’79, Diane Clark ’62 and Dr. Roger Cicala. Jennifer Keirce ’02 and attorney Autumn Cartmill Chastain ’98 currently round out the program’s coaching staff.

Training begins with Rhodes’ Trial Procedures course, taught by Pohlmann each fall. The course front-loads its fall semester curriculum, doubling the required traditional classroom instruction time for the first half of the semester to allow for in-class trials during the second half of the semester (coinciding with the beginning of the competitive season). Like athletes, the teams meet throughout the year many times each week to work through case theory, develop characters and contingency plans and practice and analyze trial technique. Everyone, regardless of role or experience, is expected to pull their weight.

“I learned right from my first tournament that attorneys couldn’t win by themselves. Witnesses needed to be every bit as prepared and savvy as their lawyers,” said Dane Wendell ’05.

Recent Rhodes Mock Trial alumni have gone on to law school at some of the nation’s most prestigious institutions including Virginia, Harvard, Georgetown, Duke, Texas, Chicago, Columbia and Vanderbilt. Alumni rave about the “leg up” Trial Procedures and other courses like Constitutional Law have given them. And, they are excited for current students that a course on the rules of evidence may soon be offered at Rhodes.

Former Rhodes “mocker” Anna Smith ’02, who was very successful in Mock Trial as a high school student, noted, “One of the main reasons I chose Rhodes was the success of its program nationally.” Smith’s successes certainly did not stop at the undergraduate level. As a first-year at Duke Law School last year, she won the prestigious Hardt Cup and a seat on Duke Law’s Moot Court Board at the first-year competition judged by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. “I attribute my success to my experience in college mock trial,” said Smith, who was a member of the Rhodes 2001 national runner-up team.

Current students and alumni agree consistency and professionalism set Rhodes’ program apart.

“[Pohlmann] doesn’t teach his students to rely on gimmicks…other teams respect Rhodes not because of a cheap trick, but because of the traditional trial advocacy methods used,” Smith said.

But success does not simply rely on skill, ability or even preparation. Ironically, despite the strength of Rhodes’ program, it is the opportunity to maintain that national respect that may soon be watered down. The differences between Mock Trial program operating budgets from school to school are starting to vary vastly. Pohlmann noted, “There’s starting to be a large discrepancy” where scholarship and recruitment resources, travel budgets and other funds are concerned. “A shakeout may well be on its way, similar to sports divisions. It’s probably just a few years away.”

Undergraduate institutions’ recruitment of Mock Trial participants is growing as the program at the high school level has now spread to more than 40 states. Pohlmann estimates Rhodes is currently in the top 20 percent in terms of its program operating budget, but by no means in as secure a position as it used to be. There’s no doubt that Rhodes Mock Trial teams will continue their pursuits of national championship titles, and, as David Hanson notes only half-jokingly, “When teams learn they’re going up against Rhodes, they’ll still be scared right from the get-go.”

Jon David Willingham is a senior from Owensboro, KY, and an economics/political science major with minors in business administration and international studies. In this, his first year of participation in Rhodes Mock Trial, he has been named Outstanding Attorney, both at the Blues City Challenge (the country’s most competitive tournament) and at the AMTA Midwest Regional Tournament, where he served as lead counsel of the first-place team, 872. A Rhodes Service Scholar, he currently serves as president of Rhodes Student Government.