Presidents decide only NESCAC champ will go to NCAA tourneys

The 11 NESCAC presidents decided the future of NESCAC post-season participation on Wednesday. The six-year experiment in open access to NCAA tournament play will be replaced by a policy of more limited access.

The New England Small College Athletic Conference was founded in 1971. According to its Mission Statement, “Its members are committed first and foremost to academic excellence and believe that athletic excellence supports our educational mission.” In accordance with this aim, NESCAC banned team participation in post-season NCAA tournaments. In 1993, the ban was lifted for a six-year trial period. As the trial period nears its end, the NESCAC presidents have fashioned a new Mission Statement and a new policy on post-season play.

The new guidelines are as follows: NESCAC members will form a playing conference under the aegis of a conference coordinator and a conference office. NESCAC conference winners will be determined based upon either regular season records or post-season competitions.

“We will allow only the conference champion to pursue post-season competition in the one venue deemed appropriate–normally NCAA Division III,” the guideline said. ECAC participation will be eliminated “except in instances where we determine that ECAC competition is more appropriate than NCAA national competition.”

The guidelines apply only to team sports and eliminate the confusion between individual and team post-season play that existed before 1993. The change may take up to three years, but timetables and models of transition will be developed in the next few months.

Payne’s Position

“It’s certainly public knowledge that here at Williams we strongly favored a system in which all invited teams could play in NCAA’s,” President of the College Harry C. Payne said, but Payne defended the decision on many grounds.

Payne said the presidents carefully considered all options, and considered four models of post-season play. Two eliminated NCAA participation altogether, either by returning to the pre-1993 system of ECAC’s or limiting post-season play to the NESCAC conference. Two models permitted NCAA participation, either without limitation or only for the conference champion.

A committee chaired by Payne dicussed the advantages and disadvantages of each model. Presidents, admissions directors, athletic directors and senior women administrators at each NESCAC school were asked to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each option. “We tried to take into account what people thought were the most significant advantages and disadvantages of the plan we approved,” Payne said.

Payne also noted the decision was made in a “spirit of compromise.” “The alternatives were this option or reverting to the long-standing policy of allowing no post-season competition. I believe that would have been a much worse choice for Williams and NESCAC,” Payne said. “We ended up with the more restrictive NCAA model. The good news is we ended up with an NCAA model.”

In addition to keeping Williams in the NCAA, Payne said there are distinct advantages to the new system. “It will create, within NESCAC, regional championship structures that are more natural and what I will believe will become just as competitive as ECAC’s,” he said. “The trade of ECAC championships for NESCAC championships is not a bad thing.” Payne said conference play is potentially more fun for fans and players because a clear winner emerges.

Payne also said the new system is more conducive to academics. “The new system will also reduce significantly the amount of academic accommodation required for post-season team competition [and] remove the ambiguity in conference practice regarding post-season team competition that conflicts with final exams and other required academic exercises.” In other words, because fewer teams in NESCAC will play post-season games, the overall level of academic conflicts will decrease.

Unhealthy athletic pressure should also be reduced. This type of pressure, according to Payne, includes “the pressure to keep playing more and more contests, the pressure to measure the success of a team solely in terms of post-season achievement, the pressure on admissions offices to make greater accommodations for promising prospective athletes, the pressure to manipulate schedules to meet expectations of NCAA committees.” Though Payne said he believes NCAA play at Williams did not create these pressures and the new system may not resolve them at other schools, he said an attempt to reduce them factored into the presidents’ decision.

“The general direction of Division III has been toward the forming of playing conferences and the automatic granting of bids. This is in sync with the direction of the evolution of NCAA play,” Payne said. The process is incomplete and Division III may never have a system without open bids, but the trend is significant. “If we want to be in the NCAA’s in the future, it’s probably good to be in a playing conference,” he said.

Considering the advantages, Payne has embraced the new policy on post-season play. “These developments advance NESCAC well beyond where it was five years ago and are, I believe, ones Williams can embrace as an important step in the development of the conference that it helped form and that has served all its members so very well,” Payne said.

Opposing Positions

The director of athletics, members of the coaching staff and captains of Varsity teams vehemently disagree with the policy itself and the president’s characterization of its advantages.

Director of Athletics Bob Peck said he was displeased. “This is not the position I would have liked to see Williams take. I would have greatly preferred open access to the NCAA’s and dropping ECAC’s. This is severely limiting post-season competition…It’s being viewed as a compromise, but I feel that Williams has given up too much in the so-called compromise.” Peck said the new system will generate more pressure. “I think this will create a lot more pressure on coaches and players. You virtually can’t lose,” he said.

Much of Peck’s concern also lies with the well-being of the entire conference. For example, he said three of the top eight Division III men’s basketball teams and four of the top eight women’s lacrosse teams were from NESCAC this year. It is unfair for only one team to be able to play in the tournament. “This conference is the strongest Division III conference in the country. One college going is going to eliminate a lot of opportunities for a lot of schools,” he said. “I predict nobody in NESCAC will ever win the Sears Cup again.”

Head Coach of Men’s Varsity Basketball Harry Sheehy characterized the decision as “the most disappointing decision I’ve seen in my 15 years in athletics.” Sheehy said he was concerned with the greater level of pressure. “It creates much, much more pressure…. This decision is very short-sighted. It does not consider the ramifications of athletics and admissions.” Sheehy said he would rather an all-or-nothing decision. “If the NCAA experience has been positive, I don’t see a reason to limit it,” Sheehy said. “If it has been negative, eliminate it. I would have more respect for the president standing up and saying it was bad than for this in-between decision. I just don’t see what constituencies it benefits.”

Head Coach of Men’s Varsity Soccer Mike Russo also said the pressure will increase. “I think the initial reason for NESCAC was to reduce the pressure on players and coaches, and I think this is just going to make the pressure greater for one team to go to the NCAA’s,” he sa
id. “I think that every NESCAC game is going to be extremely competitive, even more competitive.”

“I’m incredibly disappointed. I just can’t imagine that that’s going to be our reality. It’s going to add tremendous pressure to students and athletes,” Head Coach of Women’s Volleyball and Basketball Pat Manning said. Manning said if the rule stood this year, no Williams teams would have made it to the post-season. “What are they thinking?” she asked. “The amazing thing about it is it caught us totally off-guard,” she said. “This was one of the worst options. The committee threw that out. We wonder how that happened.”

Student-athletes were also upset with the decision. “I think it’s a terrible decision. I don’t understand how the decision was made. I think it harms student-athletes and all students,” Alana Teutonico ’98, Captain of Women’s Varsity Basketball and Lacrosse said. “I don’t see it solving any problems.”

“I just don’t see how that improves the tension between academics and athletics because it’s going to keep us focusing just as much on soccer as we would before,” Dan Pozen ’99, next year’s Co-captain of Men’s Varsity Soccer said. “My problem is just with the whole issue at hand. There’s no possibility for Williams students to become too focused on athletics at the expense of academics, because the academic program here is so demanding. I don’t see how missing one or two classes for NCAA’s causes the problem.”

Captain of Men’s Varsity Basketball Michael Nogelo ’98 said it could hurt current and future Ephs. For example, basketball would not have made the tournament this year under the new rule. “It might hurt recruiting,” he noted.

Captain of Men’s Varsity Hockey Dan Bullock ’98, also a member of the Commission on Post-Season Athletic Competition said, “From an athlete’s standpoint, it breeds unnecessary contempt for other NESCAC teams.” He continued, “While it does fit in with the idea of a NESCAC championship, it’s completely counter to letting only one team go.” Bullock emphasized the need for further discussion. “One of my concerns is that this issue is not going to continue to be open to discussion,”

Bullock said. “I think it’s really necessary that coaches, students and faculty have a chance to express their opinions on this decision and that the collective group of NESCAC presidents seriously considers the views that are expressed.”

Payne said the lines of communication will remain open. “We’re always in dialogue and this is a three-year transition, so there’s always room for talking.”

Payne implied that the dialogue is limited, however. He said he will meet with the Commission on Post-Season Athletic Competition to discuss ways to work with the new system. “That is the only road open to us at this time,” he said. “My job in the next few weeks is to help people understand the complexities of the situation and the real virtues.”

To begin the dialogue, Payne met with the faculty of the Athletic Department early this week.