When the Yale women’s swimming and diving team raced Harvard and Princeton last year, the Elis fielded the fewest athletes of the three in all but one of the meet’s 17 events. Four Yale swimmers took on eight from Princeton and 11 from Harvard in the 50-yard freestyle. Three Yale divers faced nine from Harvard and seven from Princeton in the one-meter springboard. The outnumbered Elis, who were the smallest team in the Ivy League last season, lost to Harvard, 83–217 and to Princeton, 63.5–234.5.
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That numerical disadvantage is not unique to the swimming team. The number of spots for recruited athletes at Yale has been dwindling since Richard Levin became University president in 1993. Levin wanted to cut the number of recruiting spots for varsity athletes in order to open more spaces for the general admissions process. So shortly after he took over leadership of the University, he charged Director of Athletics Tom Beckett, who arrived at Yale in 1994, with trimming the university’s varsity rosters.
Since then, the number of recruited athletes at Yale has decreased from 18 to 13 percent of the student body, Levin told the Yale Alumni Magazine in 2010.
“I have wanted to maintain a strong athletic program, and I believe we have demonstrated this can be accomplished without admitting quite so many athletes,” Levin told the Magazine. “We now admit significantly fewer recruited athletes than the Ivy League allows.”
Beckett keeps a copy of the magazine in which that quote appeared next to the desk in his office, and has bookmarked the relevant article. He said that alumni often call him to ask about cuts to the Athletics Department, and that he likes to have the exact quotation handy. He is not the only one in the Yale athletic world who has the policy on his mind. Of 63 varsity athletes and coaches interviewed for this article, all but two — both freshmen — were familiar with Levin’s desire to reduce the number of athletes on campus.
There were approximately 859 varsity athletes at Yale last year, Senior Associate Athletics Director Amy Backus said.
The Athletics Department has achieved its reductions with a system called “roster management,” which was designed to assign the new, limited number of recruiting spots to Yale’s various teams on an annual basis, Beckett said. He added that those reductions make the challenge of developing a team greater. Each team now has less depth, and thus any injury or athlete’s decision to quit affects the team more.
But Beckett did not express an explicit opinion about the policy, saying that he defers to Levin’s authority.
“The number [of recruiting spots] is open every year to discussion, but he is the president,” Beckett said.
Because the vast majority of student-athletes at Yale are recruited, the reductions under roster management are obvious on the field. The men’s and women’s track and field and cross-country teams are the smallest in the Ivy League. So is Yale volleyball, whose 10 women shared the Ivy League title last year with Penn’s 20.
Athletes and coaches said those cuts can be difficult to swallow. Although they said they understand admission spots are more competitive than ever before, the cuts make it seem as if the administration does not believe that athletics are important. Baseball’s Josh Scharff ’13 said the cuts make him feel like the administration considers varsity athletes “marginal students.”
“I understand that we are at a time in history when every year, there is a new record for the number of applicants to Yale,” women’s crew head coach Will Porter said. “I understand that admissions is under more pressure than ever and that admission sports are more valuable than ever before. Intellectually, I see and understand the paring-down of athletic spots. But it sends a clear statement that athletics are not as valuable to the Yale community as other things, whatever those things may be.”
Not only does Yale have fewer recruiting spots than other schools, but it also maintains the strictest admissions standards for recruits in the Ivy League, athletes and coaches said. And yet Yale has one of the Ivy League’s most successful athletic programs. Last year, the Bulldogs won seven Ancient Eight titles, second only to Princeton’s 16. The women’s squash team won a national championship. The men’s hockey team achieved a No. 1 national ranking.
“We think we provide the best of both worlds,” Beckett told the News. “We strive to make this one of the very few places in the world where you don’t have to compromise on your dreams.”
The admissions process for recruited athletes can begin in any number of places. Women’s track star Kate Grace ’11 submitted a recruiting questionnaire to Yale. Soccer goaltender Blake Brown ’15 played in a showcase tournament his sophomore year of high school and Yale began emailing him as soon as NCAA rules allowed it. Football wide receiver Chris Smith ’13 sent Yale his highlight tape and coaches began contacting him after they watched it.
Coaches and prospective students will exchange phone calls and text messages, and a coach might even visit the student’s house. Eventually, if a student is serious about any Division I university, he or she will take an official visit: a strictly regulated 48-hour trip to a campus, paid for by the university.
The goal of this process is to get a sense of the athlete’s character and personality, squash head coach David Talbott said. Before he asks a student to commit to Yale, he wants to make sure he thinks that student will be a good fit for his team and for Yale. He must also try to judge, based on what he has seen of a student and on his or her high school transcript and test scores, whether he or she will be able to succeed at Yale.
“Recruiting is about judging potential and about judging character,” Talbott said. “You watch them play, get to know their family and gather all the information you can about them. It’s as important for us to try to determine if they will thrive here as it is for them to find what they’re looking for.”
Eventually, a coach will ask the recruit in question to commit. At most Division I schools, that commitment is the end of the recruiting process; as long as the student meets certain minimum requirements with his or her transcript and SAT or ACT scores, he or she can be admitted as a recruit.
But within the Ivy League, a recruited athlete must pass through two sets of standards. First, he or she must achieve an adequate score on a metric called the Academic Index (A.I.). Second, he or she must earn the approval of the Admissions Office, Beckett said.
The Academic Index is a metric calculated for every incoming Ivy League student, athlete or non-athlete, based on his or her high school GPA and test scores. An Ivy League school’s athletic recruits must meet a standard based on the A.I. scores of the rest of its student body, Ivy League Deputy Executive Director Carolyn Campbell-McGovern said.
Each Ivy League school’s incoming class of recruits in every sport but football must meet a certain mean A.I., Campbell-McGovern said, adding that the mean is calculated based on the A.I. of the rest of the student body. At a university where students have high test scores, incoming recruited athletes will also be held to a high standard.
“The idea is that the numbers are based on the institution’s profile,” Campbell-McGovern said. “At Yale, the numbers would be based on the students who the students recruited for football will be competing with in classroom.”
Football teams do not have to meet a mean A.I. Instead, the Ivy League regulates football recruits with a system of “bands,” Campbell-McGovern said. Over a four-year period, a certain number of a team’s recruits can be one standard deviation below their school’s mean A.I., a certain number can be two standard deviations below, and a certain number can be 2.5 standard deviations below. The specific numbers in each group are not disclosed by universities.
The Ivy League also regulates the number of recruits each school is allowed. Once again, football is regulated with one set of rules, and all the other sports are regulated with another, Campbell-McGovern said. According to Levin, Yale recruits fewer non-football athletes than it is allowed. But the football team brings in a number similar to its Ancient Eight rivals each year. In 2011, it boasted the league’s fourth-largest recruiting class.
It is not enough for a Yale student merely to meet the Ivy League’s A.I. requirements, Beckett said. The final decision on whether or not to accept a recruit rests with the Office of Admissions.
Yale Admissions and Yale Athletics work closely together throughout the recruiting process so that each can have an idea of what the other is thinking, and each athletic team has a point person in the admissions department, Beckett said.
Still, squash head coach David Talbott said that there are occasional surprises. Coaches are allowed to see no part of an athlete’s application beyond the transcript and test scores. Sometimes, the rest of the application raises red flags, and coaches must trust that admissions is making the right decision, Talbott said.
“We’re looking for the kind of kid who can fit both into the rigorous academic environment and into the competitive athletic environment,” Talbott said. “Admissions tries to give us those kids.”
If Admissions approves of a student-athlete, he or she will receive a “likely letter” after Oct. 1 of the year in which he or she is applying. A likely letter has the same effect of a formal acceptance letter but is contingent on the candidate continuing to share a satisfactory high school performance off the field, according to the Ivy League’s Prospective Student Athlete Information guide.
That path from initial contact to a likely letter seems like a simple one. But coaches and athletes said it can be complex. Head football coach Tom Williams said that his coaching staff tries to identify potential recruits as early as their sophomore year of high school in order to give them an idea of the classes they will have to take and test scores they will have to earn in order to have a chance of admission to Yale.
In men’s hockey, too, years can pass between initial contact from Yale and matriculation. Bennett Carroccio ’15 committed verbally when he was 15 years old. Nick Maricic ’13 did so midway through his junior year of high school.
But neither Carroccio nor Maricic committed thinking that he would go straight from high school to Yale. At Yale’s urging, both played for one year in a junior amateur league before their arrival on campus so that they could improve on their skills.
Carroccio, Maricic and most varsity athletes at Yale filled the slots allotted to their coaches by the Athletics Department. The number of those slots varies from sport to sport. Football can recruit more than 30 athletes each year, Williams said. The women’s tennis team alternates between two and three spots each year, captain Steph Kent ’12 said.
That number of slots is not always enough, coaches said. Talbott said that he can recruit 12 student-athletes every four years for both his men’s and women’s squash teams. But he finds that the ideal team size is 16 athletes.
“I’m on the constant prowl for students with the high level of squash and also the high academics to get in on their own,” Talbott said.
Coaches often approach athletes who fit Talbott’s description in a process known as “semi-formal recruiting”, men’s tennis captain Erik Blumenkranz ’12 said. The coach will assure the player that he has a spot waiting for him on the team, but that he must get in on his own.
That strategy is necessary, but also dangerous because the Ivy League schools tend to compete for the same small pool of student-athletes, said a senior member of a women’s varsity team who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of discussing recruiting protocol. Any one of those semi-formally recruited athletes might receive a likely letter from another member of the Ancient Eight and commit there instead.
It is not just numbers that complicate the recruiting process for Yale coaches. They must also find athletes who meet what the vast majority of the 57 athletes and six varsity coaches interviewed called the highest academic standards in the Ivy League.
“It is harder to be admitted to Yale than to any other school in the country,” Williams said.
Beckett declined to compare Yale’s admissions standards for recruited athletes to those of other Ivy League schools. But he did point to Yale’s NCAA Academic Performance Rate (APR) scores as a sign of the school’s academic rigor.
The NCAA created the APR in 2006 to measure Division I teams’ academic success by tracking the progress of each student-athlete toward graduation. In every year since, it has given an award to teams that post an APR score in the top 10 percent nationwide for their sport.
Yale has won more of those awards than any other team in the country every year the awards have existed. In 2009, all but one of Yale’s 29 eligible teams won.
Twelve Yale teams — including national powerhouse and 2010 national champion women’s crew — have earned a perfect score every year. Four of Harvard’s 34 eligible teams have been perfect.
Some athletes said that those academic standards make their teams less competitive, especially because athletes Yale rejects often end up at Ivy League competitors.
“There are probably three or four girls at other Ivy League schools that wanted to come to Yale,” said a member of the women’s soccer team who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of talking about recruiting. “I think it has a negative impact on our athletics because we’re competing against them as opposed to with them.”
Other athletes and coaches, however, said that those strict academic standards were in keeping with Yale’s mission.
Porter, who has led four Yale boats to NCAA titles in his 13 years in New Haven, said that he does not consider athletic and academic success separate. Yale is unique, he said, because it is a place where an athlete does not have to compromise on her athletics or her schoolwork.
“We tell people about performing to the highest level they can in everything they do,” Porter said. “Very few people can handle it. But the people who we bring here can.”
Yale coaches can bring fewer of those people to campus than many of their competitors, and the students they do recruit must meet higher standards. Yet the university’s athletic championships in recent years place it near the top of the Ivy League. The solution to that apparent paradox, coaches and athletes suggested, is that Yale presents prospective student-athletes with an incredibly appealing choice.
Many athletes said that Yale’s rigorous academic standards, and the prospect of achieving at a high level on the field and off, were a large part of the university’s draw.
Grace, a four-time women’s track All-American, was being recruited at both Stanford and Yale, among other schools. Stanford is often an obvious choice for students facing a similar decision because it offers athletic scholarships and a higher level of competition than that in the Ivy League as well as a similar level of academic rigor.
The Stanford coaches told Grace that they could make her a national champion, and she said that the athletic facilities there were clearly better than those at Yale. But the life of a student-athlete there also seemed sequestered — athletes lived with athletes and had special tutors.
“For most athletes, that’s a huge selling point,” Grace said. “But to me it felt sequestered. Yale offered more opportunities and was more vibrant than any other school. Like any high schooler, I had varied interests, and Yale seemed like the place I could broaden my horizons.”
All 57 athletes interviewed said they were attracted to Yale for similar reasons.
Football quarterback Patrick Witt ’12 transferred to Yale after a year at Nebraska. That move meant leaving an elite football team for a mediocre one. But Witt — who is now a candidate for the Rhodes scholarship — said that he understood he could still play football and simply wanted to go to the best school academically.
“I couldn’t stand looking around the locker room and hearing this saying that ‘C’s got degrees,’” Witt said.
Often, athletes said that one of the first things coaches said to them was that Yale was a place where they could balance academics and athletics.
When men’s swimming and diving captain Christopher Luu ’12 was being recruited, he said he recognized that the Yale program had limitations. It did not have the recruiting power, the funding or the facilities of other Division I or even Ivy League programs. But, he said, he recognized that the coaches at Yale were hired because they understood academics, and because they expected athletes to apply themselves to both.
“During exam week, Coach [Tim Wise] likes to tell us that your academics are like your family, and your sport is like your job,” Luu said. “Often, one of the two makes time demands on you and you have to focus on it. But you would never sacrifice one for the other.”
But many universities, including rivals Princeton and Harvard, place similar emphasis on academics, even if they have lower APR scores. Athletes said that it was not purely Yale’s academic standards that drew them to the school.
THE X FACTORS
Athletes said they chose to wear Yale blue for reasons that included Yale’s athletic facilities, coaching staffs and, especially, the feeling they got when they visited the school.
Since Beckett took over as athletic director in 1994, Yale has raised and spent more than $300 million for athletic facilities improvements that including the construction of the 57,000-square foot Lanman Center at Payne Whitney Gymnasium in 1999, the renovation of Ingalls Rink between 2008 and 2010, and the construction of the Cullman-Hyman tennis center in 2010. The sailing, crew, field hockey, squash, football, lacrosse, baseball, softball and soccer teams have also benefitted from renovations or other improvements in that time.
“The facilities here are second to none,” said Talbott, whose squash teams play in one of the nation’s biggest facilities. “In my 28 years here, the experience for student-athletes has only gotten better.”
Not every Yale team’s home stadium dazzles, and women’s swimming and diving captain Rachel Rosenberg ’12 cited the cramped, 89-year-old Kiphuth Pool as a disadvantage for the team when it is recruiting.
Although a beautiful facility can make recruiting easier, athletes and coaches said that there were far more important parts of the process.
“The kind of kid who wants to go to a big state school like Michigan isn’t going to come to Yale no matter what the facilities are like,” Maricic said.
But the kind of kid who wants to go to Yale might also want to go to another Ivy League school. Field hockey’s Lexy Adams ’13 was sure she wanted to go to Harvard after she took her official visit there.
“But I realized on the Yale visit that I’d changed my mind after thinking my entire life that I wanted to go to Harvard,” Adams said. “It felt right. It felt like home.”
That gut positive reaction to Yale was common among athletes interviewed, and their coaches said that the feel of Yale and its students was their best recruiting tool.
But more concrete factors also often come into play. Carroccio said he had always wanted to go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton because they were the best academic options in the country. But he chose Yale in part because the recent success of the men’s hockey team makes it the Ivy League’s best path to professional hockey.
Most prospective student-athletes do not have professional ambitions, and so the personality of the coach recruiting them becomes just as important as the success of the team.
Kent, the women’s tennis player, spent a year on the Cornell tennis team. But, she said, she thought that the team was not competitive enough. Yale coach Danielle McNamara was “instrumental” in her decision to transfer, she said, because she admired how hard McNamara worked the team and her aspirations for turning Yale into a top national team.
In other cases, it was merely a coach’s personality that drew an athlete to Yale. Rosie Tormey ’13, a member of the women’s crew team, said that she was used to coaches who tried to sell their schools to her. But Porter was honest, didn’t play games and told her exactly where she fit into his plans, she said.
But many coaches, including Williams, said they advised athletes against making decisions based on the coach or even the rest of the team.
“I remind them that there’s a chance you walk onto the practice field the first day of preseason and sustain a career-ending injury,” Williams said. “There are a million reasons to choose Yale. I shouldn’t be one of them.”
Sarah Scott contributed reporting.