A championship such as that won by Georgetown or Villanova—or even just a nicely publicized winning season—can enlarge for a university what politicians call "the recognition factor." Villanova's applications rose almost 15% last year—although it's a safe guess that these are just more of the same sort of kids.
Villanova's vanillaness is not altogether of its own choosing, though. Like so many private schools just below the top rank, it is caught in a bind. With tuition and costs totaling in excess of $10,000 a year, it obviously is going to attract a high percentage of well-heeled applicants. Yet because Villanova is not generously endowed, it cannot offer the bountiful scholarship assistance that wealthier schools can. (Villanova's endowment totals $15 million as compared with $300 million for Notre Dame and more than $3 billion for Harvard.) The well-endowed Ivies routinely dip down the scale to accept reasonably well-qualified minority scholarship applicants. This leaves Villanova with, as Capone characterizes them, "second-round draft choices" and poses this dilemma: How do you justify offering aid to kids who don't project as graduates?
Contradictory as this may sound, the better academic schools—such as Georgetown among Catholic institutions—also seem more comfortable in practicing a form of noblesse oblige and granting admission to borderline students. East Cupcake State bends the rules; Harvard provides minority opportunity. Charles Deacon, Georgetown's dean of undergraduate admissions, says flatly, "We have no minimum averages or standards." So long as an applicant is projected as capable of graduating, who is to say that a 7-foot basketball player with a minimal SAT score isn't more deserving than a wimpy poet with an SAT score out of sight?
There was grousing on the Georgetown campus when Patrick Ewing was admitted in 1981, complaints that he was taking the place of some more deserving student. But as Father James Redington, a Georgetown theology professor who also serves as scorekeeper for the Hoya team, says, "After a year it was no longer an issue. The main way I see Georgetown—as a Catholic university, but as one with basketball—is in terms of the increased commitment by Catholic universities, and by Jesuits in particular, in support of social justice. Or, specifically, it's what we Jesuits call an option in favor of the poor." Cynics might suggest that the option is more likely to be exercised in favor of those among the poor who excel at basketball, but the fact is, long before Thompson arrived as a coach at Georgetown, the university had begun a "community scholars program" to help students with special educational needs.
Under Georgetown's current president, Father Timothy Healy, esteemed and outspoken (although he declined to be interviewed for this article), the school's minority enrollment has reached almost one-fifth of the student body; almost one-tenth of that total is black. But then, there is a significant black heritage at Georgetown. Not withstanding its founding in the 18th century, Georgetown began to exert some influence only after the Civil War when another Father Healy was president. Patrick Healy, a fascinating man, was referred to behind his back by students as the Spaniard. His mother was a Georgia slave whose freedom had been purchased by the Connecticut sea captain who married her. Healy was the first black president of any major American college. He is described in the school history as possessing "a touch of ruthlessness.... A perfectionist himself, he could be caustic in spurring on the less energetic or the mediocre." That quote might equally describe the controversial black man who today rules Georgetown basketball.
Once upon a time it was thought that enhanced alumni support was one of the byproducts of big-time college sports. Today—especially in private schools—it seems that the very justification for big-time sports is that they attract alumni contributions.
Five years ago Villanova became the last in the line of Catholic schools to give up the ghost and cancel football. At the time only 691 season tickets had been sold for a stadium that seats 13,400. But as soon as the decision was announced, the somnolent alumni rose up in such holy protest—KEEP FOOTBALL, DROP THE TRUSTEES read the bumper stickers—that the board eventually surrendered, and football returned in the fall of '85, on a vastly reduced, lower-division scale.
Nobody makes any bones that football was brought back to appease the alumni. Villanova is in the midst of a major fund drive. Covenant II. The goal is $25 million, with almost half that earmarked to build a splendid new field house—although as Capone hastens to say, "It is an intramural building where we can also play varsity basketball." Still, it is clear that at Villanova, as at so many schools, the alumni hold athletics hostage.
Driscoll draws on his pipe again. "One of the values of athletics is that it maintains a line of communication with the alumni." he says. "That communication reinforces the values that the whole institution stands for." Pause. Another deep draw. "One would hope."
Faith is required in the matter because nobody has ever proved that a large-scale sports program does indeed result in improved alumni support. The examples of both Seattle and San Francisco are certainly instructive. At USF, under Lo Schiavo's aegis, the trustees heaved basketball off the campus three years ago after a staggering succession of abuses. Some of the president's advisers were petrified by the decision; they expected "a firestorm." In fact, just the opposite occurred. Apart from a handful of angry letters, the USF decision was widely hailed for its courage and morality.