Call it the unconference. The NCAA's new basketball league this season, the University Athletic Association, gladly spends more money than it makes. Its student-athletes are just that, and in that order. Valedictorians, national merit scholars and academic All-Americas are as common on its rosters as slam dunks will be rare on its courts. In the Unconference the coaches don't have to repeat themselves much.
Maybe you've seen the women of the Ivy League; now meet the men of the UAA. But the introductions must be brief. These guys all have seminars or labs or student senate meetings—not to mention practice—and miles to go before they sleep. What they don't have are athletic scholarships, this being Division III. "They earn their scholarships with their heads," says William Danforth. Uncle Bill, as he is known to his students, has a sage and venerable look, like a senator, but he's the chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis. (It's his brother, John Danforth, who's a U.S. senator from Missouri.)
The UAA's eight other members are Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, the University of Chicago, Emory, Johns Hopkins, NYU and the University of Rochester. All are high-level research universities, excruciatingly selective and extravagantly well-off—six are among the country's 18 most richly endowed schools. Three words sum up their curricula: nowhere to hide.
When the coats and ties sat down to name this band of eggheaded gym rats, they weighed such options as the Gaslight League and the Holly League. But to avoid coming off as some Wal-Mart brand of Ivy, they settled on the bland UAA. They might have considered calling the conference the OAA, for Over-achievers Athletic Association. A sampler of the league's hard workers:
•Mike Latimore, 6'5", junior forward at Johns Hopkins. Scored 13 a game last season while leading the Blue Jays in blocked shots and working for a congressman. Is now interning at a Baltimore law firm, double-majoring in poli sci and humanistic studies. Next year he will start work on his Juris Doctor-MBA, a combined business and law degree. An all-Centennial Football Conference tight end last year, he led Hopkins in receiving. Tutored inner-city youngsters one day a week. "It's all part of the liberal arts experience," he says. Can perform a 360-degree dunk.
•Michael Swell, 6'6", senior forward at Brandeis. Averaged 5.3 points, 5.2 rebounds in 1985-86. Spent last year studying at the London School of Economics. Has since been accepted into Brandeis's international economics and finance masters program. Double major with 3.5 grade point average. Also worked for a congressman last year. President of Brandeis Students for Gephardt. Is considering entering politics himself. "I have to make a lot of tough decisions here," says Swell. "It's not easy to say, 'Coach, Senator Albert Gore is speaking on campus today, so I'm not going to stick around for extra shooting practice.' "
•Jeff Unterreiner, 6'6", senior center at Washington U. Business major and the Bears' top rebounder among their holdovers. Works three days a week as an assistant in the p.r. office of the NHL Blues. With an assist from a trust fund, he started a retail clothing store in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Mo., called Coast 2 Coast, specializing in bi-coastal beachwear. "The town was ready for it," says Unterreiner, who visited Chicago, Dallas and Long Beach, Calif., over the summer to do his fall and spring buying.
These are the kind of guys who still raise their hands after committing fouls. The idea of pitting them against one another on a regular basis crystallized three years ago at an American Association of Universities convention in Minneapolis. Rochester president Dennis O'Brien and Danforth were seated together on a bus, touring the 45,000-student University of Minnesota campus. On their left they noticed a hangar-sized building. "What is that?" O'Brien asked the driver. "Oh, it's our indoor football practice field," he said. O'Brien and Danforth looked at one another in mild shock as the contrast between Division I and Divison III athletics became clearer to them. They got to talking: Wouldn't it be nice if there were a conference of Division III schools based on academic as well as athletic similarities?
Danforth posed the same question to Washington's dean of students, Harry Kisker, a man of boundless energy and minimal sleep requirements. Kisker visited other schools, pitching the notion of "an Ivy-style national conference of academically reputable" universities. A philosophy was hammered out; costs were estimated and approved.
So far-flung are these schools that travel from one to another is the most expensive item on their athletic budgets. These schools will spend more on their basketball teams than the teams will take in. Washington, for example, doesn't even charge for tickets to games. Hasn't Division III learned anything from Oklahoma football? UAA officials respond: 1) We can afford it, and 2) for the $15,000-plus a year it costs the player to go to school, doesn't he deserve more plane trips, fewer seven-hour bus rides? "Division III does not have to be synonymous with vans and box lunches," says Rochester coach Mike Neer. Says Kisker, "It's worth the expense. Athletic departments do not have to be these freestanding. TV-revenue-driven enterprises only nominally connected to the university. Every week some new mess is unearthed [in Division I], yet there's this pervading myth that the way they do things is the way they should be done."