The hockey team’s Frozen Four triumph has rightly energized Yale’s campus. But in its wake, I couldn’t help but notice students are asking the wrong question: “Do you think this will encourage Yale to invest more in athletics?”
This question is the wrong one for two major reasons. First, this year’s victory was heroic and special because it was so improbable, and because Yale had never won the Frozen Four before. The Elis were the last at-large bid into the tournament.
Second, the hockey team’s success had very little to do with money.
We all know the story, because it is so good. Yale was the 15th of 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament, and went on to defeat each of the top three seeds, culminating with a finals victory over No.1 overall seed Quinnipiac, which had beaten Yale all three times the teams had met this season.
But the hockey team’s victory did not come out of nowhere, and its model of success is one that other Yale teams can definitely emulate. After languishing in the ECAC cellar from 2004 to 2007, the Bulldogs have not posted a losing record, dramatically improving over the past six seasons. The program’s upturn in fortune coincided with the arrival in 2006 of a new head coach, Keith Allain ‘80.
“When I came back to Yale, one of the things that I wanted to try to prove was that you could go to the best university in the world and compete in college hockey at the very highest level,” Allain said.
And that’s just the point. That Yale is an academic institution first and a place to play hockey second is more than half of the attraction and always will be. As recruiting quotas for other sports decreased, the hockey team improved, and with it, the school’s recruiting profile. Once a team squeaks out a couple winning seasons in a row, it becomes easier to attract top athletic talent. In 2011, Allain had amassed enough elite players to earn Yale’s first ever No. 1 national ranking. In 2013, the team built upon its recent success and captured the NCAA championship.
Of course, Allain and his players got some support from the university — most notably the $23 million renovation of Ingalls Rink, completed in 2010. Although alumni donors contributed significantly to the renovation, the university was behind the project.
The hockey team’s triumph holds lessons both for athletic teams and for the administration here at Yale. The first is that the administration’s perceived attitude towards athletics need not deter any terrific athlete from coming here. Last year, athletic director Tom Beckett said the hockey team has been largely unaffected by the administration’s restrictions on recruiting, but it has been argued that the hostile environment for athletes at Yale deters athletes even in sports with full recruiting classes. The only thing that will attract high-level talents, though, is success, which is attainable with a modest recruiting quota. For example, the volleyball team has won three straight Ivy League titles, despite having had their number of recruits cut by the administration.
Although the primary onus in developing a winning program falls on players and coaches to practice hard and to make the most of their talent, that is not to say that the administration should play no role in improving athletics at Yale. There are ways to support higher-profile teams such as hockey and basketball without funneling money to them or lowering admissions standards. Some of them might require getting creative.
For example, why not have an important administrator talk to a blue-chip recruit in order to help sway him or her towards coming to Yale? This would show that athletics are truly an important part of the university.
More importantly, though, it clearly helps when recognizable administrators attend home games. The hockey team already has a strong and devoted student following in the Whaling Crew, and President-elect Salovey was seen at a fair number of games, even conducting the Yale Precision Marching Band once or twice.
Earlier this semester, my colleague Evan Frondorf wrote about Dr. Santa Ono, president of the University of Cincinnati (Frondorf: Lessons from Santa). Frondorf described Dr. Ono at UC basketball games “throwing T-shirts into the crowd and even risking his life on top of a pyramid of cheerleaders.” “He shaved his head for charity after a game to celebrate 10 straight victories for the men’s basketball team,” Frondorf wrote.
Throwing T-shirts and climbing pyramids won’t be necessary. But the new president’s presence would sure be helpful in creating an atmosphere conducive to winning. Many have noted President Levin’s attendance at the National Championship game in Pittsburgh. I hope we see President Salovey at a few in New Haven.
Nothing is systemically wrong with Yale athletics. On the contrary, in the three years I’ve been here, we’ve had a national hockey champion and dominant squash, field hockey, sailing and volleyball teams. If teams work hard to establish themselves, and the university makes them understand they are an important part of Yale’s culture, we’ll see more teams added to the above list, regardless of money invested and recruiting spots allocated.