Jocks among us

Missouri Tiger basketball coach Kim Anderson was talking about team discipline the other day after he had suspended a couple of his players who were found to have some drug paraphernalia in their apartment.  Police searched the place because one of their roommates, not a university athlete, had been arrested in connection with a house robbery.

It’s easy to ask how athletes at the top level of university sports can so often get caught with drugs or be involved in drug issues or have other problems. As is the case throughout society, it’s the few who bend the rules, who think they won’t get caught, or who don’t think at all, who embarrass the many who behave themselves.

One part of Brandon Foster’s article in the Jefferson City newspaper that caught this reader’s eye was a discussion of the athletes’ living arrangements.  “A team spokesman said the team makes sure players have a place to live and that they’re paying rent.  The team will help players find a place to live if they’re struggling to do so, but that’s rarely a problem because athletes tend to choose one of the many off-campus developments south of the University.”   And later, Brandon writes, “Anderson said housing with athletes is a persistent issue with college athletes.”

We are reminded of our own freshman year at the university, living in 313 Graham Hall.  Across the hall, just down from the bathroom and the telephone was the room where Charlie Henke and Joe Scott lived.   They were the leaders of the Tiger basketball team.  Henke was a 6-7 center, the tallest person I’d ever seen, and Scott was a 6-4 guard.  They had to live by the same rules all the rest of us in the dormitory lived by, including “silent hour” when students were supposed to be studying behind closed doors.  In truth, there also was card-playing but it had to be done quietly because our Residential Assistant, the den-dad of King House, would prowl the halls with sharp ears and no hesitation about knocking on a door to tell the inhabitants to “hold it down” or to non-verbally suggest that card-playing wasn’t what responsible university students did during quiet hours.

Charlie was an All-American in his senior year and still has the second-highest season scoring average in the Missouri record book.  He got a degree in conservation science but found his niche as a high school basketball coach and spent 22 years at Carrollton.  Scott, who was called “the Gainesville Gunner” by Mahlon Aldridge—who began the Tiger sports network broadcasts—went to law school and is a lawyer in Poplar Bluff.  I watched him set the still-standing school record for points in one game—46.  That was before the three-point line.  Scott has said that his father once figured he would have had 65 that night if there had been the three-point shot.   (I was also in the stands the day Henke and Kansas Center Wayne Hightower got into a fist-fight that led to an on-court brawl involving fans and players.  I wasn’t about to get involved.  Too many guys were much bigger and stronger than I was.)  Both Henke and Scott are in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame now.

When we went to the post office in the cafeteria building that served the four dormitories in the South Residence Hall group, I would sometimes see Dan LaRose looming over the rest of us as he came to get his mail.  LaRose was a 6-5 two-way All-American end for Dan Devine’s football team who went on to a five-year career in the NFL.

Sometimes when I’d go into the bathroom/shower room there would be a guy in there swinging a baseball bat.  I think he had a minor league baseball contract.

This was, as I recall, university policy—that student-athletes lived in the student dormitories with all the other guys (Title IX hadn’t come along yet to create women’s sports of any substance and the idea of co-ed dormitories was not a matter of polite discussion).

One of the writers for the “Rock M Nation” webpage recalled a few years ago a jock who lived a floor above him in Hatch Hall, a 6-8, 275-pound tight end named John Matuszak.  Matuszak lasted only one year at the University. He was dismissed from the team after he beat up an Air Force Academy cadet who was a foot shorter and half a Matuszak lighter at a fraternity party.  He went on to a notable career in the NFL before he died young, at 38.  He’s considered an early casualty of steroidal drugs.

Anyway, in those days, those we still call student-athletes were reminded of the first part of their roles at the university by having to live with the student-non-athletes in the dormitories.

This was a looooonnnnngggg time ago when off-campus housing was fraternity and sorority houses or extra rooms in private homes or in the basements of homes.  But we don’t recall hearing about some of the problems that have made the news for several years in reporting on collegiate athletics.  The university has dormitory space for only about one-fourth of the students today and off-campus apartments are a big business in Columbia.

It was a much different time, a much different culture on campuses and in the nation.  Coaches have to deal with a lot of players who bring baggage to college with them that students and student-athletes didn’t have back then.   But having jocks among us in the dormitory had some values that worked both ways, it seems.

Would integration of the jocks with dormitory students work today?  Dunno.  It seemed to once upon a time.

But the whole climate is different now and coaches are dealing with young people coming from a totally different society.  Maybe there’s more growing-up that has to happen today than there was when a college education was a rarer thing.

We like Kim Anderson—spent a little time with him and his wife during a meeting in Joplin a few years ago—and we want him to succeed.  It’s painful to watch but surely not as painful as it is from his viewpoint.  Recalling the “good old days” doesn’t do much good in situations like his right now.  And, come to think of it, the “good old days” that we’ve just recalled weren’t all that good anyway.  The Tigers were only 12-13 that year, 5-9 for sixth in the Big Eight.  They would have losing records for six straight years before a new coach came in and posted a 42-80 record in the next five years.   Then Norm Stewart came to town.

He was 10-16 his first year and didn’t break .500 in conference play for his first three years.

Patience, folks.   Painful Patience.  But Patience.

A mell of a hess

Your correspondent has paid a couple of visits to the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus within the last few days.  Believe it or not, all of the columns on Francis Quadrangle are still standing.  The lighted dome of Jesse Hall still shines brightly against the night sky.  White campus has not crumbled.  Red campus still stands.  Peace Park is still peaceful.  The lions at the journalism school arch that are supposed to roar when a virgin walks by remain silent.

One would think otherwise, of course, after reading the seemingly constant flow of headlines emanating from that campus.  The inspection trip to Columbia became necessary after a fellow UMC graduate sent a note saying, “This is depressing” after reading Tony Messenger’s recent column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch headlined “Somebody needs to drive University of Missouri out of ditch. Now.”

Tony, who was a terrific reporter at the state capitol before being demoted to editorial page editor, has recounted the seeming continued deterioration of the university system.  We say “system” although most of the collapse is centered in Columbia. And since the university system is so Columbia-centric, the screaming and the shouting (“when in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.”) seems to mean in the public mind that the whole darned thing is in one mell of a hess, as Grandpa Motes used to say.

Well, it is.  It is because the focus is on Columbia but the ripples include the campuses in Rolla, Kansas City, and St. Louis in several ways.  Columbia’s the one with the football recruiting class that is 53rd in the nation, with a basketball team at the bottom of the conference that is hoping its self-flagellation over a significant recruiting violation under a different coach and a different athletic director will spare it significant additional flagellation from the NCAA, and with an apparently previously well-accepted communications professor who made an egregious emotional mistake during last fall’s demonstrations becoming the poster-child in a heated disagreement involving academic freedom, constitutional rights, personal responsibility, and competing political agendas.   It is a system in which one-third of its governing board has quit for one reason or another (one curator leaving even before the Senate confirmed Governor Nixon’s nomination of her), where a former system president who was praised for his graceful forced exit last year has now attacked the system’s governance and management, where Standard and Poor’s has lowered the institutional bond rating because of financial uncertainty caused by decreased enrollment and political games at the capitol, where interim leaders are struggling for stability while the unenviable task of finding a new president is underway, where—as Tony says—“black students and faculty feel disenfranchised,” and where one of the town’s newspapers recently reported that foreign students—who have been aggressively recruited because their much-higher tuitions provide minor help in offsetting legislative parsimony in financial support for education (at all levels)—don’t know who to go to if they feel harassed or threatened.

And we’re sure we’ve left some things out.   Oh, yes—a governor who has convinced the university to freeze tuitions so he can recommend the aforementioned parsimonious legislature give it a sadly-inadequate increase in general funding because the whole goal of government is to convince Missourians they can get more of the services they need and demand if they pay less for them.  It’s the same government that seems to think the most important things in higher education today are making sure nobody who even knows where Columbia, Missouri is can perform an abortion there while making sure all students can carry guns.

And the leader of the Senate says the university’s governing board will stay crippled for at least a year—until a new governor takes office because the senate will not confirm any nominees by the sitting governor.  That’s real helpful, isn’t it?

So, politically, the University of Missouri has been driven into a ditch.  But a lot of hands have been on the wheel.   If we listen to the Missouri Department of Transportation, ditches might be the best-maintained part of our road system today.  So getting the University out of the ditch will still leave it on the same uncertain road full of political potholes that it’s been on for some time.

But friends, there is hope.  And it is not on the road of potholes.

It is in the classrooms.  And the view behind the headlines is markedly different.

While all of the people who THINK they are important are playing their games, the serious work of educating another generation is quietly being carried out in thousands of classrooms, laboratories, studios, clinics, and offices on the four campuses by people who ARE important.  Walk through the Columbia campus and you’ll be walking with the young people WE were, young people busy being in their teens and early 20s and going about the business of becoming.  They’re talking and laughing, not spitting and shouting epithets.  They’re thinking and working.  Their teachers are shaping, not threatening, them.  (Well, except that the threat of a poor grade still hangs over the head of every student.)

In dormitory rooms and apartment rooms, at the Heidelberg or at Shakespeare’s Pizza’s temporary location, or in the part of the Brady Commons that commemorates The Shack, the students are doing what WE did.  They’re studying or playing cards or sleeping or—-.  Fill in the blank from your own memories.  Most of them do not feel harmed by the oh-so-serious power struggles among the people who THINK they’re the important ones, although in various ways they are being harmed because the struggles for political power are limiting their opportunities.  The REAL important ones are the ones with backpacks over their shoulders and hope in their eyes as they and their teachers lay the groundwork for lives they hope will be well-lived.

They are the university.  Their headlines are in years to come.  Walk among them and be hopeful.