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Football And Missouri: The "Flutie Effect," Rankings Romance, Academic Reverberations, And Unexpected Guilt

November 29, 2007

I’ve confessed here before my fondness for professional and amateur sports. But I’m also a compulsive sports story guy. I read the sports section very quickly after cracking open the morning newspaper. I love to hear the latest drama on my favorite teams—which regular readers know are connected to my three homes: Chicago; my alma mater, Mizzou, in Columbia, MO; and Kansas City. For instance, about this time last year the Cubs were the most fun to follow in terms of off-season stories (i.e. signing Alfonso Soriano).

With my athletic affinities in mind, it should come as no surprise that I ran across this today. Titled “Missouri Enjoying Football Renaissance” and authored by Alan Scher Zagier, I expected this to be another after-glow piece on Mizzou’s big win over Kansas this past Saturday. After eighteen years of following—sometimes less than more—Missouri’s football team, I’m not yet tired of basking in this week’s “black-and-gold” sun.

What surprised me about Zagier’s piece, however, was that it addressed a number of non-athletic topics normally covered here: administration, admissions, funding, campus life, etc. In sum, Missouri’s newfound ascendency in football gives the observer a chance to see first-hand what a successful program can do for a university. This is a case study on why universities pursue success in sports, particularly football.

But I want Zagier to take the lead. His is a fine piece, so I’ll excerpt and cut in with comments, hyperlinks, pictures, and musings. Here goes:

– “COLUMBIA, Mo. — There’s a cry of ‘We’re No. 1’ on campus, and it has nothing to do with Missouri’s renowned journalism school.”

TL: Good one. Mizzou alums like me, meaning non-J-School types, tire of hearing about our premier J-School program. Puke.

– “A football team reduced to mediocrity for decades now flirts with a chance at the national title. The success on the field seems contagious.”

TL: I doubt Zagier intended this, but the choice of “contagious” as a direct object is ominous here. Letting football take the lead in your school’s popularity poses a number of hidden dangers. For one, who knows how long the success will last?

– “The admissions office reports a 20 percent increase in undergraduate applications.”

TL: If true, this is astounding.

– “Development officers find donors more receptive to opening their wallets. The alumni association hears from forgotten graduates eager to reconnect with their alma mater. ‘This is uncharted territory,’ said Barbara Rupp, admissions director at a school still referred to by many in the state by its regional designation, the University of Missouri-Columbia.”

TL: I awkwardly referred to this last point at the beginning of my last post on Mizzou’s rise in football.

– [Background] “This football designation is downright startling. Missouri has an 11-1 record and is No. 1 in both The Associated Press and BCS polls after defeating archrival Kansas last week to win the Big 12 North and earn a trip to the conference championship game in San Antonio on Saturday. A victory over No. 9 Oklahoma, the only team to beat Missouri this season, would earn the Tigers a trip to the BCS championship game on Jan. 7 in New Orleans.”
– “Rupp cautioned that it’s difficult to determine whether the surge in interest by high school seniors is tied to the football team.”

TL: Well, she should know. When did the applications come in? If they all arrived before November 1, then the surge is probably unrelated. If you received 10 of the 20 % more in the past two weeks, you can at least make a correlation.

– “Admissions officers, economists and other researchers have wondered about that question since at least 1984. That’s when Doug Flutie’s [Right, after Cotton Bowl victory in 1985] desperation heave sent Boston College to a riveting victory over Miami a day after Thanksgiving. The dramatics supposedly led to a large increase in applications at Boston College the next year, but the long-term influence on other aspects of college life — coined the Flutie effect — is still debated.”

TL: I love this—The Flutie Effect. I’ll never forget it. It has a Pied Piper ring to it. I wonder if South Florida (#21 and 25, BCS and AP respectively) is also experiencing an extra 20 % due to the football-based Flutie Effect?

– “Still, there’s no doubt the Missouri campus is reveling over its moment in the spotlight. There has not been this kind of success since coaching great Dan Devine [Left] roamed the sidelines four decades ago.”
– “Across the country, alumni in far-flung cities such as Miami, Phoenix, Seattle and Los Angeles gathered en masse to watch the 36-28 defeat of Kansas — then ranked No. 2 — in one of college football’s oldest rivalries. More than 300 Tiger faithful attended the Los Angeles watch party, with an additional 100-plus cheering in Phoenix, said Todd McCubbin, executive director of the Missouri Alumni Association. ‘We’re hearing that wave across the country,’ he said. ‘It’s happened throughout the season, but now it’s really building to a crescendo.’ “

TL: I can verify this in Chicago. I’m the Scholarship Coordinator for MUAA’s Chicago Chapter, and we’ve had more well-attended football “watch parties” than I’ve seen in my ten plus years here. It’s really quite amazing.

– “Campus fundraisers are also taking advantage of Missouri’s newfound football prowess. While it’s still too early to directly link any hefty donations to the surprising season, administrators say the winning climate certainly helps cultivate donors. ‘Being No. 1 in football is great for fundraising,’ said Beth Hammock, the school’s director of development external relations. ‘Everybody’s excited when they hear a Mizzou person on the phone.’ School spokesman Christian Basi put it more bluntly: ‘When people feel happy, they send money.’ ”

TL: This is sad. Alumni associations exist, in part, to subsidize schools in the times and places when state and federal governments won’t. We value higher education in theory, but not substantially in a consistent, material way. In sum, we are all, as a society, complicit in the abuse-of-athletics phenomenon that exists across higher education.

– “On Wednesday, the campus buzz surrounded the release of this week’s Sports Illustrated, featuring quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender Chase Daniel on the cover. Students snapped up the magazine from the campus bookstore, which ordered 1,200 copies — more than 100 times its typical weekly allotment. The big order even eclipsed the store’s usual best-seller, Cosmopolitan magazine, which sells 500 copies each week.”

TL: Not the New Yorker, Atlantic, or New York Times, but Cosmo. That sounds like my school. …I know, I’m being a curmudgeon. This isn’t Shimer or some other liberal arts/great books school.

– “At the journalism school, the nation’s oldest and approaching its 100th anniversary [blah, blah, blah], faculty have long been accustomed to interest from students and professionals across the country and the world. Yet when Brian Brooks, associate dean and professor, fields calls from prospective students and their parents these days, football invariably becomes part of the discussion. After 33 years on the faculty, that’s a first, he said. ‘This year, none of those conversations end without the football team coming up,’ he said. ‘And I’m not the one bringing it up.’ ”
– “Rupp, the admissions director, said football allows academic recruiters to “get a foot in the door” and sell the university’s other attributes. Even before this year, campus enrollment at the 28,000-student school has steadily increased at a clip of 2 percent to 5 percent annually.”

TL: But for how long? Were there any special in-state incentives for application this year (i.e. fee waivers)?

– “She added that Missouri’s success at attracting ‘high-ability’ students — those scoring 30 or higher on the ACT college entrance exam [err, good test takers] — extends well beyond any perceived spillover from sports. This year, applications from that coveted demographic have increased 90 percent, Rupp said. ‘Those kind of students don’t choose their university based just on the success of the football team,’ she said. ‘We know they’re looking at us for all those other reasons.’ ”

TL: But since standardized admissions test scores have increased over the last 20 years (at least I’ve heard this anecdotally), it stands to reason that some of that demographic is less nerdy or bookish than it used to be.

– “At Poplar Bluff High School in the southeast part of the state, senior class counselor Lucy Wheeler offered a similar assessment of her best and brightest: Football wins may make for great school spirit, but selecting a college involves more substantive decisions. ‘My students have always been interested in Mizzou,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t say the football team has one iota of influence. It’s our state school.’ ”

TL: “One iota”? Please. It’s one thing to be proud of your high school and its students, and another to pretend you’re ignoring the hype. If Mizzou’s applications are up 20 percent, at least a few of Poplar Bluff’s students are contributing to the increase.

——————–

But personally speaking, all of this has created an unexpected reverberation.

I feel guilty.

Why? Because I’ve hypocritically preached here before on the evil influences of college athletics. I came down on HBCUs tying their Chicago recruiting efforts to an all-HBCU football game. I’ve also heartily chimed in at University Diaries when Margaret Soltan, in her Scathing Online Schoolmarm persona, flails football schools for their follies.

Paradoxes aside, I still agree with those sentiments. Missouri’s student applications were already on the upswing, both numerically and qualitatively. It does not, and did not, need a successful football program for validation. And my joy is that of the fan of the perennial loser. Football is ancillary to my affection for Mizzou: I never identified with the institution because of football. For me, it’s the place where I learned a lot about who I am and what I want from life.

The fact that alums are happier to give because of football is obviously bothersome. This is symptomatic of the wider problems in college-athletic connections. The two biggest culprits in these connections are football and basketball.

I’ll let my joy last through the New Year’s bowl games. After that, affection for my alma mater will again be a quieter phenomenon. – TL

PS—For Chicago locals: The location of Zagier’s article in the Chicago Tribune demonstrates, in a small way, how poorly the newspaper covers education. In the online Tribune, it was put under sports section’s bottom-fed, rolling AP box. I bring this up because the Tribune used to make a regular—I won’t call it concerted—effort to cover education by giving it a monthly, independent section. Now the same monthly “education section” is a 10-page or so advertisement. Like a real estate developer’s contribution to the paper, it is filled with pictures and “stories” which are puff pieces from local education institutions and businesses. Real education stories today are completely scattered throughout the paper, with many landing in the business section. While I find the latter ironically appropriate, it nevertheless demonstrates the Tribune‘s lack of commitment to education. – TL

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