Which leads you to wonder, first, why anyone would bother to play football at MIT and, then, how good the football is. Could the despairing college football fan find some solace at the Division III level, where the term student-athlete is something other than a laughable oxymoron?
Smith does not try to answer those questions. He is a coach, content to work with the players he gets and to leave the big-think to the administration and others. "Why don't you come out to practice and talk to some of the players?" he said one day last year at the end of August.
Practice, on a cool, achingly clear afternoon, began at four. It was orientation and rush week, so the team was holding two practices a day (morning practice was at nine) until classes began. After that, practice would last from five to seven every afternoon. Those hours are supposed to be sacrosanct at MIT, time for students to do something other than study or attend class (although many professors schedule exams then in order not to waste class time on them). The school has long recognized that students need to relieve the pressures that come with the territory of a first-class education. The athletic department has done its part to make sure that outlets are available. Students can choose from among 37 varsity sports.
As the football players drifted out of the locker room on their way to the practice field, they passed baseball players, soccer players, cross-country runners and tennis players. Down on the Charles River, out of view, the sailing team and the crew were practicing. The stereotype of the MIT nerd who never leaves the library except to go to the bathroom is plainly a creature born of imagination and envy. These are healthy, alert-looking young people—even the football players. This comes as a surprise to some of the school's opponents. In MIT's first season, the players at Assumption wrote E = MC² on their wristbands, presumably as some kind of taunt. "Yeah," one of the small MIT linemen said, "and we not only understood the formula, we also beat them."
Practice began with the usual calisthenics, counted off by the four team captains. But a few elements of the picture seemed a little off. There weren't very many players. Fewer than 45. Even in pads, they didn't look very big. And two of them were not in pads at all but were wearing Jams and T-shirts. Smith explained that they were kids who had never played football before but thought they would like to give it a try. "So it's a little early to give them uniforms."
Does he get many first-time players?
"Yeah, we get a couple every season. But it works both ways. There are some kids here who started in good high school programs and then decided to put football behind them when they got here. Some of them may come out later, when they're sophomores or juniors. When we were a club, we had a few guys wait until they were in grad school before they came out. I guess by then they figured they could handle the academic load."
You have to wonder just what kind of person would say to himself upon entering one of the world's most prestigious academic institutions, What the hell, long as I'm here, I think I'll play a little football.
Another aspect of the MIT practice that did not seem quite right was the nearly desperate shortage of assistant coaches. Only four, as far as I could see.
"That's right," Smith said. And only one of them, offensive line coach Tim Walsh, was on the MIT payroll. The others were volunteers who worked for "token pay." One of the assistants, Larry Monroe, played club football for four years at MIT and was doing research in efficient nonpolluting energy sources while coaching the defensive line on the side. (He will not be coaching this season.) "Football was always a way to relax and have fun," said Monroe. "Do something a little physical, you know, after you've been at it in the lab all day."