Only just a game?

Prior to last weekend, I had arranged with the Record to write a somewhat different piece on the Williams football program, one that was far more critical. But given the 110-percent effort that Williams players put in against Amherst last Saturday, I can’t write that article – it would be unfair and mean-spirited.

Against a far more accomplished team, Williams actually outplayed Amherst for an entire half, never gave up after falling behind and pushed the Jeffs through the entire 60 minutes before their opponents could pull off their undefeated season. Everyone at Williams should be proud of what this team did Saturday. Losing is always bitter, but there are times when you can take satisfaction in an effort that falls short.

Questions, however, still remain. One sterling performance doesn’t erase the frustration of the last several years. There hasn’t been a winning season since 2011, and the last two have resulted in identical 2-6 records. Amherst has run off four in a row against Williams, and the program is now even finding a comfortable spot in the Little Three’s basement.

Yes, I know this isn’t Division I. We’re not Michigan, Texas or Florida. When things go wrong at football programs at universities such as these – and they have recently – a hue and cry soon erupts, often followed by a quick rush to judgment.

But that’s “Big Ball,” not places like Williams. If you lose more than you win, if your program sinks a little further into mediocrity, it’s no cause for concern, as long as you, as an institution, are seen to be “trying.” There are more important things about the Williams experience than games. And there are certainly more important things to worry about in the nation, as it swerved into a “death-takes-a-holiday” right-hand turn last week towards increasing intolerance, inequality, exclusion and indifference. Division III Football? Come on! Who cares?

But does excellence at Williams, when it doesn’t involve our much-vaunted academic achievements, not matter?

We know there is one group that genuinely does care about excellence: the players. They themselves believe in effort, possess pride and appreciate the tradition of which they are a part. That’s why it was so sad – and so frustrating – to see these young men  struggle so hard with so little success this season (just like, to an alarming degree, their counterparts over the past several seasons).

Maybe if your time at Williams fit somewhere happily into the 40-year period between 1970 and 2010, you will have a distinct recollection that, “Wow! Our football team really rocked!” (And, facts will show, it rocked decidedly!) That was a fun thing. It may also have been good for the College. We (as in the royally-purple “W-e”) believe in excellence. We believe in success. And we like the rest of the world to know that we do.

That excellence was achieved largely through the efforts of three of the finest coaches, educators and individuals who have ever served Williams: head coaches Bob Odell, Dick Farley and Mike Whalen. Anyone who has ever played this or any other sport knows that coaching is the most essential ingredient of success. You may be a talented athlete, but if you don’t receive the special contribution the gifted coach provides, you will never be as good as you could be. Almost every one of the several hundred Williams students who played for these three legendary coaches will attest to the truth of that statement. That’s also the reason why we alumni send our sons and daughters to Williams: to experience the gifts that great teachers provide, not just the cachet of a college name on the rear window of your car.

So, does football matter at a place like Williams? If it does, what can we do to improve the current program and culture? Does the Wesleyan experience of recent years have anything to teach us?

Unexpectedly in 2010, Mike Whalen apparently gave up a loaded Williams team with 18 of 22 returning starters to coach at his alma mater. After a harrowingly dismal start, he went on to right the sorry Wesleyan football ship with a 360-degree turnaround in attitude, performance, success and pride. At Wesleyan, a new president (Michael Roth) sought a new coach (ours) and gave him the tools, the authority and the mandate to return that university’s football team – and entire athletic program (Whalen is also the athletic director) – to excellence. (Wesleyan’s last Little Three football championship prior to Whalen’s 2013 achievement had been 43 years before in 1970. Williams amassed nearly two dozen of them in the intervening period.)

Let’s hope we can learn from whatever source might return Williams to its tradition of excellence. Sometimes, the people directing the players, coach and staff try too hard to make more out of what may really be – in the very best sense – “only just a game.”

Daniel Sullivan ’68 is a resident of Bennington, N.H. The writer wished to clarify that he was a middling football practitioner at Williams in the 1960s, but a slightly better observer and student of the game later as a sportswriter.

Comments (2)

  1. I can only imagine the recruiting power that must come with being the athletic director of your university. (rubs hands together)

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