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Magazine Essays

Athletics at Berry
Winter 2004
PDF Version

The recent Summer Olympics moved me to think about athletics at Berry College. The original Olympic athletes cared only about winning; there was no interest in achieving a personal best or making a valiant effort. In ancient Greece, it was first place or nothing. Sports at Berry stand in stark contrast. Our athletes are students first and competitors second. Despite ranking each year in the top 3 percent nationally within the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), we are more concerned with our students’ heads, hearts and hands than with narrow conceptions of athletic success.

For years, the myth circulated that Martha Berry prohibited football – and possibly other sports – because of a bad injury to an athlete. There is no evidence in the historical record to vouch for this tale, although it is true that intercollegiate sports did not develop here in the same way they did at many other institutions. Dr. Susan Bandy’s The Viking Tradition: 100 Years of Sport at Berry College (2002) provides an excellent survey of the place of athletics at Berry from the earliest days. Dramatic change took place after World War II when alumnus Garland Dickey returned from the Navy to become athletic director, and the modern sports program was born.

Nearly 60 years later, intercollegiate, as well as intramural, sports are thriving at Berry. Each fall, the college fields intercollegiate teams in men’s and women’s soccer, basketball and cross country. We are in our second season of women’s varsity volleyball after a 24-year hiatus. In the spring, running competition continues as we pick up men’s and women’s golf and tennis. Baseball, of course, is also a spring sport. We at Berry take particular pride in our three club sports: men’s and women’s crew and our equestrian team. The crew and equestrian clubs are known as giant killers as they compete successfully against a variety of large universities. In fact, all Berry teams do well in competition, as our national rankings attest.

Individual Berry athletes also receive many commendations. Since 1998, when Todd Brooks became athletic director, 95 Berry athletes have been named All-Americans for their athletic prowess. During that same period, 72 student-athletes have been recognized as Academic All-Americans for achievements in the classroom. These numbers are even more impressive when we consider that we have only 180 athletes in competition during any given year.

For the last several years, Berry athletes have achieved a collective B average. In the spring of 2004, baseball player Tyler Coats received national recognition as an NAIA Coca-Cola Community All-American. A year earlier, Tyler had won double All-American honors for his performance as a baseball player and his work as a student. Two Berry women also were recognized in the spring of 2004. Kristin Johnson was named a Power of Achievement award winner by the American Association of University Women, and Laurie Cook was chosen to receive the TranSouth Athletic Conference’s A.O. Duer Award, which is given to an outstanding junior student-athlete with an overall grade point average of at least 3.75 – an A average.

Over the years, Berry teams have won five national championships: women’s basketball (1976), women’s soccer (1987, 1990 and 1993) and men’s golf (1998). Moreover, three Berry students have won individual national titles: Michelle Abernathy in the marathon (1999), Caio Soares in the 3,000-meter indoor race-walk (2004) and Nicole Wildes in women’s golf (2004). Indeed, during the 2003-2004 academic year, almost all of our teams competed in conference or national tournaments: baseball and men’s and women’s basketball, golf, running, soccer and tennis.

There is more to Berry athletics than awards and winning seasons. In 2000, a group of our student-athletes began the Athletes Bettering the Community program. Team members wanted to put the Berry motto into action and “minister unto others.” Consequently, there is a day each semester in which all Berry athletes go throughout the community to work with convalescing patients, cook for people in homeless shelters, work with children at the Youth Detention Center and carry out maintenance projects for the rescue squad. In addition, these athletes have held parties for underprivileged children at Thanksgiving and Christmas, delivered food and gifts to needy families at Christmas and visited children in the hospital during holidays. Berry athletes have won national recognition for their well-organized and effective community efforts.

A particularly illustrative story concerns the forfeiture of 10 men’s basketball games last winter. The previous year, the men’s team had won 21 games, and Coach Jeff Haarlow was named co-winner of the conference coach-of-the-year award. Early in 2004, after a routine check of transcripts, a staff member notified Associate Athletic Director Dr. Janna Johnson about a technical error in the record of a transfer basketball player. I would call this an innocent, indeed inconsequential, error that nevertheless constituted a technical violation. Neither Dr. Johnson nor Todd Brooks hesitated. They reported the infraction immediately, and the NAIA national office assigned us losses in the 10 games in which the athlete in question had played. Without this self-reporting, no one could have discovered the error. As Coach Brooks said to me, “We could have ignored it, but we didn’t want to live with any type of dishonesty.”

The future of athletics at Berry is bright. Our planned Student Athletic and Recreation Center will support all students, not just our athletes. Only one third of the facility will be devoted to intercollegiate competition, and that space will double as a convocation area. Most of the building will be given to wellness, fitness and recreation and will draw students, faculty and staff members from all corners of the campus. We have learned that prospective students and their parents often consider recreational opportunities as they make their college selection. To be located between Krannert and Moon, this new
building will represent a giant step forward for Berry.

Berry athletics are first and foremost about integrity, academic engagement and community involvement. But our sports programs also are very much about winning. At Berry, we indeed bring to life the ideal of “student athlete.”

This leaves only the question of football. People often ask me why Berry does not have a football team. I taught scores of football players over 30 years at both Vanderbilt and Hampden-Sydney and much enjoyed watching them play. I would like to address “What about football?” as I assume Martha Berry would have responded in her own time: “Which sports best serve Berry students?” That is the question we have been asking ourselves for the past 60 years and is one we will continue to address in the years to come.

Dr. Scott Colley
Berry College President

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