Athletics unquestionably plays a large role in the Williams community. The College has 32 varsity teams with about 30 percent of the campus participating in varsity sports. These teams have claimed 142 NESCAC titles since 1983, and the institution as a whole has claimed 13 of 14 NACDA Director’s Cups for overall athletic excellence in Div. III.
At the same time, the College has maintained its status as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Though athletics and academics aren’t usually thought to complement one another, Williams seems to be an exception.
Significant mystery surrounds how those student-athletes arrive at Williams, particularly so-called “tipped” applicants admitted primarily for athletics. While numbers for specific teams are not public, the total number of tipped athletes for every NESCAC school hovers around 70.
“The number of [tipped] students [at Williams] was decided on in the ’80s,” said Dick Nesbitt, director of Admission. “Basically, the dean of Admission at the time, Phil Smith, and the Athletic Director, Bob Peck, got together and dealt the cards, and said [which] sports will have one ‘tip,’ which ones will have two, and on down the line.”
The last 20 years have not radically changed the numbers because, as Athletic Director Harry Sheehy said, “[the process] seems to be working. Rather than tier teams based on how important we think a sport is, we have [allotted tips] around what we think a program needs to be successful.”
Today’s standard for student-athletes admission is initially set by the NESCAC for all schools. “The league determines how far down the bar you can go,” Sheehy said. “Every school has a different index given their natural pool of students, and you can move away one standard deviation from the mean.”
Williams has consistently held itself to an even higher standard than the league sets: While the NESCAC presidents decided last week to raise the floor for admissions standards, the standards of the College needed no adjustment. “We have unilaterally done this on our own,” said Nesbitt. “We were already well within the limitations [the Presidents] set. I would prefer to see it even higher, and I think this will affect other NESCAC schools while [not affecting us].
“The idea in the NESCAC is to make sure that student athletes are representative of the student body,” Nesbitt added. “We have certainly made tremendous strides in raising the floor so to speak so that our student athletes are quite representative of our student body.”
Currently, coaches can only support the admission of their team’s allotted number of tipped athletes, but this was not the case before the turn of the century. “In the ’80s and ’90s, we were in admissions fairly flexible [on the number] of kids coaches could support – we would let them support three or four in order to yield two, let’s say,” said Nesbitt. “We did that so that they wouldn’t have to put any kind of pressure on students to force choice. What happened, though, was that our coaches did such a good job that instead of yielding two, they would yield three or four. Instead of hitting the target number, we were always over. Instead of being around 70 [tipped athletes], we were around 85 in the class.”
Support policy changed when William Bowen’s book Reclaiming the Game hit the shelves in 2003. Bowen’s book shed light on many of the admissions practices for athletes in higher education. “When . . . [the] book came out, there was more scrutiny on athletics,” said Nesbitt. “We had to be much more careful in the number we admitted. So we basically told coaches we aren’t going to admit three or four [supported athletes] to yield two.
“The unintended consequences of that are that the coaches have to be more cautious and be very up front with students and say, ‘I can’t support you unless this is your first choice,’” Nesbitt continued. “As a result, that has meant that more of the student athletes are coming more via early decision.”
Recruiting student athletes is an extensive process for coaches, especially with the admissions policy and Williams’ academic standards, which, incredibly high to begin with, have increased over the last decade. “[Recruiting] is a year long process,” said Mike Whalen, head coach of football. “When I first got here 10-12 years ago, we weren’t working nearly as hard at recruiting as we are now . . . We have had to find ways to increase our pool. The kids are out there â€“ what [increased admissions standards] has forced us to do is find other ways to increase our pool with a limited recruiting budget.”
Women’s basketball Head Coach Pat Manning, who has worked at the College for 18 years, echoed Whalen’s thoughts. “Our academic standards are where they should be, but they are incredibly tough,” Manning said. “Kids have always wanted to come to Williams, and that hasn’t changed. What has changed is that our academic parameters have become stronger and stronger. It very much limits our pool of kids. I can go to a tournament to watch a couple hundred kids play knowing that only a few can play [at Williams]. It used to be that we could be a little more reactive in recruiting, whereas now we really have to go find the kids.”
However, those challenging academic standards play a huge role in the College’s athletic success. “We don’t have a great school because we have a great athletic program, we have a great athletic program because we have a great school,” said Sheehy. “You look at Williams, Middlebury, Amherst – schools that finish high up in the Div. III [Director’s Cup] – they tend to be places with broad-based athletic programs where athletics is viewed as part of the education, and I don’t think that is a coincidence.”
“I think that at certain NESCAC schools like Williams and Amherst, there is a bit of a competitive advantage in recruiting because of the academic reputation of the place,” added Nesbitt. “And I think where that advantage comes in is with high level academic kids who are also athletic.”
The nature of Williams as an academic institution plays perhaps the biggest role in recruiting for coaches, both in compelling athletes to matriculate at the College and deciding whether or not to recruit players. “Because we are doing so well academically and so well athletically, we are attracting a brighter student athlete,” said wrestling Head Coach Dan DiCenzo. “I think that Williams sells itself that you are going to get one of the best educations in the country at a place where there are no teaching assistants or graduate assistants and the class size is the right fit. The other thing is that [recruiting] is finding the right kid. If I can tell it is not going to work out academically, if he’s not the type of kid that I think is going to be successful here, it is not worth putting him in that type of situation because if you don’t want to be engaged in your education [at Williams], it is not the right fit for you.”
Women’s crew Head Coach Justin Moore believes that Williams students also play a large role in the process. “Recruits have told me that the people at Williams are some of the nicest people they have met and that their passion comes through,” said Moore. “[The] people who are here are a huge magnet when [recruits] come in for visits.”
While the admissions process could lead to conflict between Admissions and Athletics, particularly in regards to the admission of tipped athletes, it does not because of the types of coaches the institution employs. “I think coaches are proud of the academic quality of their student athletes, and I think over the years they have also seen that if we take a certain kid at a low academic level, they’re going to struggle at Williams; it will also be reflected in their athletic output. It just doesn’t pan out well,” said Nesbitt.
“I wouldn’t say that there is no tension, but . . . the coaches know what they signed up for,” he added. “I think that it starts at the top, with an athletic director who understands [the culture] and hires people who understand the culture here, who understand the academic rigors of this place – I think that is something when they are hiring coaches that they really have to take into account.”
Sheehy also noted that the success of each office helps the other. “There is no benefit for the Admissions office to have us be unsuccessful – it doesn’t do them any good,” he said. “So they actually partner with us and we work on this together.”