One would be hard-pressed to label Middlebury College a bona fide jock school. Not so long as the varsity athletes pump iron in the same weight room as the rest of the student body, there are no athletic scholarships, and the football coach won't cut any student who wants to be on his team. But there's no mistaking the fact that this highly-regarded liberal arts school nestled in the Champlain Valley of Vermont is a wellspring for athletic success at the Division III level.
Just consider this Murderers' Row of Panthers programs: The women's field hockey team won the NCAA championship two weeks ago, beating William Smith 3-2 in overtime, and the women's cross-country team placed seventh in the NCAAs last Saturday. The men's soccer team, undefeated in the regular season, lost in the first round of the NCAAs. The women's ice hockey team hasn't lost to a conference opponent in 52 games, and the women's lacrosse team has been in the NCAA semifinals for the past five seasons, winning the national championship in 1997 The men's hockey team has won the national title each of the past four seasons, while the ski team, competing in Division I, perennially finishes with a top 10 national ranking. Barring an epic collapse, Middlebury has a good shot at winning this year's Division III Sears Director's Cup, awarded to the school with the best overall excellence in NCAA competition. "Success breeds success," says athletic director Russ Reilly with a shrug.
But what really gives? How has this unremittingly preppy school—best known for its language departments and the summer immersion program—transformed itself from a modest member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) into a sports powerhouse? For one thing, the athletic department took a cue from its Division I counterparts and adopted a "build it and they will come" philosophy toward recruiting. Since 1990, Middlebury has constructed a track and field complex, a football field with stands that look out on the Green Mountains and a swanky natatorium (read: wildly expensive pool). The crown jewel, scheduled to open in early January, is a state-of-the-art, $17.5 million ice hockey rink that is being funded largely by donations, the biggest from a former Panthers hockey player. "I'm not sure kids are going to come here just because we have a great new building," says Bill Beaney, the men's hockey coach who also oversees the golf program. "But appearances matter, and we hope they'll see this and realize the commitment it stands for."
Middlebury has also benefited from encouraging athletes to play multiple sports. More than 100 of the school's 700 athletes (drawn from a student body of 2,160) will earn more than one varsity letter this year. "Even if you're good enough to do it, a lot of Division I coaches don't want you playing another sport in the off-season," says junior John Giannacopoulos, the leading scorer for the soccer team and a starting forward on the hockey team. "Coming to Middlebury and not having to give up either soccer or hockey was a big selling point for me."
Same goes for Kirstin Gerety, a senior from Anchorage who was the leading scorer on the women's soccer team and a top Alpine skier. Geography enriches Middlebury's appeal as well. Situated on a hill overlooking the village of Middlebury, this pastoral campus is chock-full of playing fields and is within a few miles of well-groomed ski trails.
Not that all this warmth and Patagonia fuzziness for sports has met with unqualified applause. A number of students and professors worry that the school has made a Mephistophelian bargain and the unseemly appurtenances that attend big-time athletics are lurking around the corner. For now, anyway, that hardly seems a problem. Played in front of sparse crowds, Middlebury games feature little jaw-dropping athleticism but lots of superannuated virtues such as ample ball and puck passing and plenty of postgame handshakes. What's more, Middlebury is a place where the term "student-athlete" doesn't provoke smirks. A full 100% of the senior varsity athletes graduated last year, including lacrosse captain Brandon Doyle, who nearly missed a crucial game when his French horn recital ran late.
Perhaps a more salient concern is whether the $25 million earmarked for the new pool and hockey rink might have been put to better use, say, endowing more professorships or providing more student financial aid. But Middlebury's president denies that athletics are exacting an academic price. "We're striving for excellence across the board," says John McCardell Jr.
Middlebury athletics, in other words, might simply be the sweatiest of the liberal arts.