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BEATING THEIR BRAINS OUT
John Underwood
May 26, 1975
...but rarely anyone else's. MIT fields teams in a record 22 sports without granting a single athletic scholarship or charging admission or caring if anyone turns out to watch, which is always a possibility
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May 26, 1975

Beating Their Brains Out

...but rarely anyone else's. MIT fields teams in a record 22 sports without granting a single athletic scholarship or charging admission or caring if anyone turns out to watch, which is always a possibility

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Peter Close says he believes David would rewrite the Ten Commandments if he thought them lacking. "LD[2] doesn't look at you when he's talking," Close says, "but his eyes roll behind those glasses, and when he's onto something and whipping himself into a frenzy, he gets very satisfied with what he's saying. His eyes really roll then."

David says he does indeed get exercised when the cause is right. For example, he says he got very upset about the caliber of opposition the basketball team faced. "Way out of our league—teams like Howard, for crying out loud. It was ridiculous." He wrote a two-page "prospect for change," recommending that MIT coaches have more to say about scheduling. Athletic Director Smith made copies and filed it away.

In a week when the Associated Press was running a series of articles on the athletic dilemma of such schools as the University of Wisconsin, where Athletic Director Elroy (Crazylegs) Hirsch was portrayed as a modern Jacob wrestling a killer $3 million budget, MIT's Smith tended his unthreatened $820,000 program without a hitch. From hour to hour he tooled around the facilities, usually on foot, sometimes in his ancient yellow Volkswagen, through the rusted front fender of which an inspired auto dealer had stuck a key in an attempt to impress on Smith his need for a new car. Smith resisted the pitch.

MIT that week was alive with goings-on. On Tuesday the baseball team lost its annual big game with Harvard 9-2. Julia Child came to speak in Kresge Auditorium, rocking gently in a sea of mushrooms and bell peppers as she sliced and saut�ed. There was a flea market in the student center and a science fair at the Rockwell Cage where, during fall registration, MIT coaches are allowed to set up booths to entice prospects. In the wrestling and fencing rooms, faculty and students submitted themselves to Maggie Lettvin for overhauls. Maggie is svelte, black-haired and 48, "The Beautiful Machine" of Boston educational television. Her roly-poly husband is an MIT biology and electrical engineering professor.

Jim Smith is 60, no longer svelte, a wide-lipped, round-faced man with dark eyebrows and light, almost stoic good humor. He uses the latter to convert minimums to maximums in his athletic budget.

He has been MIT athletic director 14 years, coming from Cornell, where he coached lacrosse, soccer and freshman basketball. He is his department's only full professor. He says that the 68 people on his current payroll actually boil down to 41.2 positions (the Frisbee instructor was on campus, and got $250 for a short-term deal), and only 20 of the staff are full-time varsity coaches. Smith juggles. He is inventive and very opportunistic.

"How, you might ask, does MIT justify having a skiing coach?" he said as he slipped the Volkswagen behind the fence near the outdoor rink and stepped onto the spongy grass. It had been raining on Greater Boston, a bleak spring day. MIT was seen in a curiously depressing perspective, like the heaths in a Constable oil. "Well, we found a guy who was a certified ski professional and an All-America soccer player at Springfield. He coached both. Unfortunately, he hasn't worked out. The new skiing coach will probably be a graduate student from Harvard Business School. We'll probably wind up hiring a combination rink operator-hockey coach when the new rink is completed. See? It's a constant juggle. The current hockey coach is a part-time civil engineering instructor. Sometimes you get lucky. The rugby club team doesn't even want a coach."

The MIT athletic program was student controlled until 1947. A student committee had full power to fire coaches and buy equipment. The students themselves asked for the change. Smith is only MIT's third athletic director.

"When President [Julius] Stratton hired me," Smith said, "he told me he wanted a program for the students, not for the glory of the school or financial gain. Athletics were never intended to make money here. Our intercollegiate sports were never intended to be dependent on gate receipts. It's the root of most problems at other schools.

"The only reason we go beyond the intramural level and field all those teams is that there are young men and women who want to compete at a higher level, as high as we can provide. That's the way intercollegiate competition began years ago. It's not that way anymore, of course."

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