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Passing the Baton

September 16, 2009
by Michael Taylor
photograph of a man tossing a football

It’s not their mom and dad’s NCAA.

Sports at Berkeley is as old as the school itself—it began in 1868 with the men’s crew team, followed in 1882 by men’s rugby. Browse through images of Cal sports and you’ll find all the lovely and endearing artifacts—the male students of 1879 exercising in the newly opened Harmon Gymnasium (the women were allowed to use the gym five hours a week.)

Once Berkeley had a gym it dawned on the Regents that a sports program, or some sort of athletic activity, was a worthy goal, that health and fitness might well be a boon for the budding late-19th-century student. And so they created the Department of Physical Culture.

Over the years, sports became an integral part of campus life, quickly expanding from early successes—the rubgy and crew teams won consistently, and in 1924 Helen Wills took the gold in tennis singles at the Olympics. New sports were constantly added to the mix. By the 1930s, Cal students could try their hand at anything from basketball and badminton to squash, soccer, and social dancing.

By the 1940s and 1950s football reigned supreme. The city of Berkeley had annual parades in which the players rode majestically up Shattuck Avenue in convertibles loaned by football fans and, of course, auto dealers eager for advertising opportunities. “The atmosphere about sports was different than it is now,” says Ray Colvig ’58, a student back then and a longtime Berkeley spokesperson who retired in 1991. “Students generally liked to be part of the sports scene.” The main rooting section, in the middle of the stadium, was filled by male football fans. The women, except for a few designated cheerleaders, were shunted to the side. In this chaos, Colvig recalls, Life magazine arrived and managed to photograph, “3,000 boys getting up and shouting and raising their middle fingers. It was a full-page picture in Life. Every middle finger except a few that they missed was airbrushed out.”

Come the 1960s, and Berkeley became synonymous around the world with “student demonstrations,” and specifically with the Free Speech Movement. The FSM didn’t have training tables—it had leaflet tables—and its presence, and eventual dominance in the headlines, created an “odd separation,” as Colvig calls it. “You could have all this going on and up a couple of blocks you’d have a football game with little or no connection [to the demonstrations].”

Ironically, those protests and the collateral civil rights and equal rights movements playing out across the nation led to the biggest revolution in Cal sports. In 1972, a new federal law, known best by its austere name, Title IX, was enacted. Simply put, it prohibited discrimination—including financial discrimination—on the part of any school, college, or university receiving federal funds.

In 2008, we see much of Cal sports through the prism of star athletes, seven-figure coaches’ salaries, big corporate sponsorships, and nationally televised games, all of which have made Cal sports something of a high-stress cauldron for students, staff, and coaches.

“There are definitely more pressures on students,” says Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbour, “especially when it comes to a place like Cal, with its high academic expectations and expectations of community service.” Time demands on student athletes are huge. And they must perform at a high level, both because of the big money that permeates college athletics and because athletes are on championship teams.

“There’s pressure for [participation in] the Olympics or the NBA or the WNBA,” Barbour says, referring to the two big national basketball organizations. And there’s pressure for Cal sports—like collegiate athletics programs throughout the nation—to get on television because such exposure helps pay the bills. Of the approximately $55 million annual Cal sports budget, a substantial amount comes from TV contracts, the rest from gate revenue, donations, sponsorships, and the Chancellor’s discretionary fund. “You don’t get on TV unless you’re good,” Barbour says, “and if you don’t get on TV, you don’t reap as much of that revenue.”

Today, given the reality that some students may be more interested in a ticket to the pros than a college education, coaches and administrators are trying to reestablish a balance between scholarship and athletics. Barbour goes so far as to say “it makes a mockery” of the system when athletes use college as little more than a way station en route to a professional contract.

Robert Gordon Sproul, who was president of the university from 1930 to 1958, and had much to say during those years about the role of sports in the life of a student, provided this capsule declaration of his athletic policy: “At California we want students playing at athletics, not athletes playing at being students.”

Alot of things in life come down to weight. It’s basic physics: heavy versus light. If you’re in a small car and you get hit by a monster SUV, other things being equal, you’ll be flattened. So it is with football. And therein lies the tale of what has happened with men’s sports at Cal over the past couple of generations.

When Kirk Karacozoff joined the football team in the late 1970s, “we probably averaged 250 pounds, with the offensive linemen around 260. Now, they’re close to 290, 300 pounds,” he says. Kirk, now 50, lives in Sacramento and owns a construction supply company. He is long out of college football, but he comes to campus whenever he can to watch another Karacozoff—his 22-year-old son, Jonathan ’09—play defensive end on the current Cal football team.

While bulk is the most noticeable difference between the two generations, and one that helps get Cal sports on national television, it’s only part of the story. The era of jocks scoring big on the field but not so big in the classroom is largely over.

“The most important change here is in academics,” says Steve Desimone, whose perspective comes from his having been on and off the Berkeley campus since 1966, when he was a student basketball player. He graduated in 1970, played basketball for the Navy for a couple of years, and is now the head golf coach for the Cal men’s team. Desimone points to the Athletic Study Center as a place that “gives [student athletes] the chance for success they didn’t have years ago. There’s a commitment the university has made to the athletes. They get priority enrollment before other students. And this is a necessity for them. In the late ’60s, we were always scrambling for classes, worried if we could take classes for our major.”

Back when Kirk Karacozoff was playing, he got the distinct feeling that athletes were the second-class citizens of the Cal community. “There was a negative connotation [to being an athlete],” he says. He almost never saw high-level Cal administrators down on the field and “very few of the professors seemed interested in athletics. As for the general mood from the academic side—we’d go to class and, as players we didn’t even want them to know we were athletes. We didn’t feel that side really accepted us.”

He sighs with envy as he talks about the training his son gets compared to what he and his mates got during their tenure in the ’70s. “There are tremendous differences. When I got there, the weight room was underneath Harmon Gym. It was probably 500 square feet and there was a chain link fence in front of it, with a padlock. If you wanted to lift [weights], you had to find a coach to open it up, or you could go at certain times. Now, they have a much larger weight room and they have strength coaches.” Once in a while, he says, “if we were lucky, Dave Maggard,” a former Olympic shotputter who was men’s athletic director at the time, “would come down and do a little workout. That was the biggest thrill. Other than that, you were pretty much on your own.”

You were also pretty much on your own when it came to eating. Ideally, a training table gives an athlete a correct and balanced intake of all the things that will keep him or her healthy and fit. Back then, a few cheeseburgers, a basket of French fries, and maybe a chocolate milkshake would do fine. When Desimone was playing basketball in the ’60s, he says, “We’d have a steak and baked potato at the Durant Hotel four hours before game time.”

“When my Dad played football,” Jonathan Karacozoff says, “they didn’t know anything about dehydration. They served Coca-Cola to the players at half-time.” And 15 years ago, golfers weren’t given food or water until the end of practice, even when they were playing in 90-degree weather, says Desimone, who soon acquired the nickname Seven-Eleven because of the pack full of granola, water, fruit, and Gatorade he carried so he and his golfers were “eating something every three holes.”

Now virtually every sport has sport-specific training for athletes, with conditioning, weight training, and nutrition as integral elements, according to Desimone. And with so much training and practice and discipline, there is a tendency for some players to believe—possibly with good reason—that all this effort is not just a way of getting through college, but also is a way of hitting the Big Time, big time. Not only do they hear of the multi-million-dollar professional salaries and endorsement contracts, they need look no further than their own campus to find some fairly hefty sports payouts.

Five years ago, Desimone says, “there were no assistant coaches. Now almost everyone has an assistant coach. It’s all part of the growth of college golf. Golf is its own subculture in athletics and we continue to grow in the same direction as larger sports.”

Much of this comes from what Desimone calls the “Tigerization of golf.” The eye-opening move that showed undergrads there was more to school than classes and coaches came when Tiger Woods left Stanford after two years and went professional in 1996. As everyone knows, there is only one Tiger. But his example has put a lot of pressure on schools, coaches, students, and athletes to go for a different sort of gold.

“As that money gets huge,” says Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbour, “so does the pressure to succeed, in order to reap those paydays. And it’s not just the pressures that others put on them, but the pressure they put on themselves.”

When Luella Lilly arrived at Berkeley in 1976 to become Cal’s first women’s athletics director she found herself in a situation similar to the one in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when the two fugitives from U.S. justice get off the train at a forlorn little village and have a look at their “safe haven”: Bolivia. The less-than-welcoming world Lilly entered was women’s collegiate sports, which for a century had been operating, like society in general, in the shadow of men.

Women had been on teams since the late 19th century. The first intercollegiate women’s basketball game in the country occurred between Cal and Stanford in 1896 (Stanford won 2–1), according to the Athletics Department. There were other, sporadic victories on the distaff side, as when eight-time Wimbledon champ Helen Wills (later Roark) helped take the doubles gold medal at the 1924 Olympics, and when swimmer Ann Curtis Cuneo took two gold medals at the 1948 Olympics.

Still, it took nearly 100 years and an act of Congress before Berkeley established a department exclusively for women’s athletics. In 1972 a tough new federal law (Title IX of the Education Amendments Act) ordered, rather than simply suggested, that any school receiving federal funds give women’s programs the same attention as the men’s.

Four years later, Lilly looked around and quickly realized there was a sizeable gap between the law’s intent and its reality. “When I came there, Cal did not give scholarships to women,” Lilly says. “The men had full facilities, but there were no athletic dressing rooms for students or coaches. We didn’t have our own weight room; we had to schedule in with the non-athletic students. We had 12 sports and we had three telephones for the coaches, who were in a big open room without any desks. When I arrived, they allowed me to go down to UC Surplus and get more desks.”

When Lilly asked about equipment, she found that “we had one set of uniforms. We had to schedule it, so that people…might have to put on wet clothes. These were clothes that somebody had just played in.” As for the women’s facilities, “We had an area that was like a little locker room. It had two bathrooms—one had a door, one didn’t. Trying to show recruits what we had, well, it was pretty tacky.”

To hear Lilly and others talk about it, women’s sports at Cal has, for the most part, been an uphill struggle, but in the past 30-plus years it’s clear that the situation has changed dramatically, with most of the improvements attributed to Title IX. (One coach of a men’s team called it “the pink elephant in the corner,” the implication being that it’s the big-name men’s sports that pay the bills so the women, protected by federal law, can also compete. It’s a subtle undercurrent that runs through some of the discussions about men’s and women’s sports at Cal.)

The law (renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act in 2002, to honor a Hawaii Congresswoman who died that year) was a logical outgrowth of the political ferment and anti-establishment turmoil that roiled the ’60s—Berkeley, after all, was in the thick of it. Back in the somnolent ’50s and even into the ’60s, “women’s sports didn’t really exist,” says Ray Colvig. “Women were there and they played tennis and there was swimming. But there was no federal legislation that even remotely required UC to do anything about this idea of women having a right to some of that bigger [piece of the athletic pie].”

The feeling on campus even four years after Title IX became law, Lilly says, was that “anything that became more difficult, the women were blamed. We were seen as the bad guys, the invaders, taking time, taking money, using facilities.”

Athletic Director Sandy Barbour says that these days female athletes will find “a large and robust intercollegiate program at Cal.” And she believes that opportunities for women are even better “than they were 20 years ago.” Barbour came to Cal in 2004 after serving as an athletics director at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and at Tulane University in Louisiana. So when she talks about the state of women’s intercollegiate sports she’s discussing it from a national perspective, rather than as an Old Blue speaking strictly about Cal. “Women’s athletics has certainly come a long way around the country,” she says, “and Cal is one of those places that took the introduction of women to intercollegiate programs very seriously.”

By 1982, when Laura Schmitt ’86 entered Cal’s track-and-field and cross-country running programs, things had certainly improved for women athletes. “I felt that, without a doubt, we benefited hugely from Title IX,” says Laura, now 44 and a track and cross-country coach at Redwood High School, Larkspur. “When I came in, we would fly planes when the boys were taking buses. We had money for meals, we went to all the races we needed to go to. We had the gear we needed. If it wasn’t for Title IX, there would be no women’s sports. It’s a 100 percent link to the Final Four, to the WNBA [Women’s National Basketball Association].”

In some ways, Laura’s experiences were much like those of her daughter Meagan ’11, a Cal volleyball player. But there are some distinct differences, in training techniques, in nutritional support, in improved facilities—in intensity. Girls can take their sport so seriously “it defines them,” Laura says. “In my day, you picked up the sport and if you were good at it, you continued to do it.” Now, she says, students her daughter’s age are becoming “more specialized and sophisticated.” And she sees “parents more interested in the child’s success than the child is.”

For her part, the 19-year-old Meagan says she loves what she does. And her commitment supports that contention. Each day, her team practices from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays they have weight lifting for an hour each day, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays it’s one-hour sessions of “agility, sprints, and jumps,” she says. “We focus on having a healthy, balanced diet. We eat immediately after practice, to replace the calories lost. Compared with Mom’s day, it seems that, overall, we have better facilities, more opportunities. We have an advisor who talks with us every Monday to make sure we’re on top of our studies, who makes sure we’re not going through the motions academically.”

When Laura and her daughter are together, as they were for an hour’s interview this spring at a café near campus, you can sense their affinity for sports, for competition and, at its core, for being physically active.

Laura feels confident that Meagan and her teammates have a happy and healthy attitude about being female student athletes. “They’re doing what they love to do. No parent can make you go to practice four hours a day, seven days a week and love it.”

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