But a center of athletic excellence? Yes, in a way, and not hardly. All the hoary jokes about "hearing their brains ticking" are revived when MIT boys come out to play. As well they should. Says a student adviser who divides his time with the Apollo program at nearby Draper Laboratories, "There are those who, when they come out to play basketball, cannot turn the ball loose to dribble it. A lot of them are just terribly smart young men who have developed no physical dexterity or practical sense. I had one who sheared the bolts off his muffler unscrewing them the wrong way. I had another who could make nitroglycerin in the eighth grade. In his senior year in high school he was able to formulate plastic explosives, the most complicated kind. One weekend he blew up the high school cafeteria."
But come out to play they do. In multiples. In increasing, staggering droves, spurred on by an energetic, yes, even enlightened athletic department and by their own logical quest for grindstone respite. Beyond the standard physical education requirement (a dose of eight credits in two years), 68% of the students compete in some form of organized athletics, including those on the 800 teams in 19 intramural sports. One thousand of the total undergraduate enrollment of 4,000 make up the 22 intercollegiate teams, an astounding one in four. These squads usually are larger than the opposition's because players are not cut at MIT—for practical as well as humanitarian reasons. An MIT varsity coach, traditionally, is ignorant of his material. His unsung, unrecruited athletes sign in as total strangers on registration day. A coach cannot be too careful under those conditions. When John Barry, now assistant athletic director, was basketball coach, he said he "lived with the single nagging fear that someday no one would show up for practice."
In such an insulated, catch-all environment, many who reach varsity status—the upper crust—"think they're better than they are," says Peter Close, an angular, goateed, lyric, ex-Olympic distance runner from St. John's who doubles as the assistant track coach. A conscientious SID, he enjoys telling the whimsical anecdotes about his charges. As a coach he is not so sure. "I had a boy collapse near the finish of a two-mile relay. I said, 'You run out of gas?' He said, 'No, I fainted.' What's the difference?
"Coaches at MIT go bananas answering 'why.' I go bananas. They ask, 'Why four laps? Why not five? Or three?' We practice till 7:30, then I have to stand around an hour explaining the workout we just had.
"It's the MIT way. When the basketball team refused to stand for the national anthem a few years ago, MIT quit playing it. Most of them are great kids, strong Middle America types. I had one mother in Skokie, Ill. send a walnut tray of caviar and cheese, she was so grateful to the department. But some of these kids—face it—are snobs. Especially the younger ones. They had a job getting here, and they're proud of it. They walk around with their noses up, making fun of people. I took a team to Columbia, into Spanish Harlem, and I was scared to let them out of their rooms. I was afraid they would get killed with their attitudes.
"We never have trouble getting opponents. Everybody wants to beat MIT. They think when they beat us they're beating us in the classroom. It ain't so. They beat us because we're bad."
But, ah, says Close, the dawn comes up like thunder over the Charles River. Encouraged to leave their intellectual cocoons, given time and opportunity, the true scholar-athletes emerge at MIT. Except that the order is reversed from the way you may have remembered it at your neighborhood football factory. "The professionals," as MIT athletes call those on scholarship at big-time football schools, ride in on the best deal a recruiter can buy them and, it is to be hoped, eventually discover the classroom. At MIT a straight-A student stumbles, blinking, into the sunlight—and discovers athletics. And this, says Close, is really the fun of it: some of them actually get good.
Exhibit A: John Wesley Pearson, class of '74, mechanical engineering. Six three, 220 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes. A graduate student with a research grant in nuclear thermo design. President of the MIT Varsity Club. Two-time All-America hammer thrower, Division III, NCAA. Personal best, 175'6".
This is John Pearson talking: "I weighed 250 pounds when I came here. Not fat, but overweight. My size, you play football in high school. I wasn't good at football. I didn't play anything, I was into music, I sang. And I was smart, so nobody hassled me. I came to MIT to study, period. I thought that's what everybody did. How was I to know?
"There are three well-defined groups at MIT. First, the ones who study all the time. They wind up hating it. And griping. A lot of chronic complainers are intellectuals. They need to gripe. The second group coasts through, never really getting involved, skimming over studies and barely trying the activities. The third group jumps into everything. Really gets involved. You won't believe this, but some guys here have more activities than they do studies.