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Like any head football coach, Dwight Smith looks forward to the first day of practice, when he can get down to the real work of his trade. Time, at last, to get out of the office and the film room, to get his mind off the fumbles and injuries of last year and on the promise of a new season. Time for blocking and tackling, X's and O's, fundamentals and execution. The good stuff. And besides, fall is just a great time of year.
Especially in New England, where Smith is employed and where he probably looks forward to the first practice with even more curiosity than other coaches. Smith is head football coach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and he is always keen to discover just what sort of players will be coming out for football.
"We get all kinds," Smith says. Except, needless to say, the dumb kind.
While the coaches of national powerhouse teams, and teams that have such aspirations, will have spent more days and nights than they care to remember in the company of their incoming freshmen-laying on the charm and spinning visions of glory—Smith won't have met most of his new players. He doesn't have the money to recruit, and if he did, he wouldn't bother anyway, because nobody comes to MIT—whose faculty includes as many Nobel laureates (seven) as Notre Dame has Heismans—to play football.
"We get a few real players," says Smith, who is in his 13th year at MIT. "We just hope there are enough that we can build the rest of the team around them."
Smith is also interested in raw numbers. Fifteen to 18 freshmen showing up on the first day of practice would be "real good," he says, since that would put the squad size at around 45 and would enable him to conduct something like a full-scale practice most days.
This is an important consideration, Smith says, because once classes begin, his problem is not simply that his players' minds are elsewhere—"their bodies are elsewhere, too." There are practices, and plenty of them, at which he does not have enough players for a scrimmage.
Sitting in a small, cluttered office he shares with two coaches of other sports, Smith shrugs and smiles. "Coaching is about challenges, and we just have some special challenges here." He is a mild man who seems almost perpetually amused. At registration tables set up on a volleyball court outside his office, students are signing up for courses in, among other things, plasma kinetic theory and celestial mechanics. Smith's players take classes like those. In fact, his entire backfield last year majored in aeronautics and astronautics (aero/astro). "We called it the rocket backfield," he says.
This will be MIT's third season of Division III football. The school played club football for 10 years. Before that, there was no football. It had been banned by a narrow vote of the student body in 1901. In 1988, the year of MIT's return to the gridiron, the Beavers (nature's engineers, don't you see) went 3-2 against the varsity programs at small Massachusetts colleges such as Stonehill, Assumption and Bentley. "We never got blown out," Smith says. "We lost by six and three points, and we never got pushed around, even though we played only one kid who weighed more than 200 pounds."
MIT is certainly one of the few schools playing football at which the combined SAT scores of any player are higher than the total weight of the offensive line. "MIT students average 735 in math," Smith says. Their average SAT total is 1,350, and every player is a student first. There are no athletic scholarships. No academic scholarships either, since it is impossible to make the case that any one student deserves such recognition over any other. Financial aid at MIT is based solely on need. Annual tuition alone is $15,600, which is $600 more than the school's entire budget for football. Players buy their own shoes.