Team Spirit

“Good job Saturday, Shawn,” says Michelle Schmidt, assistant professor of psychology, to a large young man with downcast eyes in the HUB. “Thanks, Professor,” he answers softly.

“It was a tough loss,” explains Schmidt, who was Coach of the Week for the September 28 game against Widener University (final score: 27-20).

At a Big 10 university, the distance between academics and athletics is all but unbridgeable. (For anyone who went to Ohio State in the Woody Hayes era, it’s hard to believe he knew the university had an academic program.) The entente is a lot more cordiale at Moravian, where the game is still a game and football players are still students.

Moravian is not the only college to stress the connection between academics and athletics. But few put it into practice with quite the cheerful spirit of the Coach of the Week program.

Coach of the Week is adapted from an NCAA program at Division I schools that tries to improve relations between academics and athletics. Even at a Big 10 school, after all, not every player is headed for a professional sports career.

At Moravian, the Coach of the Week does not draw game plans in chalk on a blackboard nor devise the drills that help the Greyhounds become a more limber, powerful, or responsive team.

But though most faculty coaches aren’t able to do more than attend practice and be visible on the sidelines at the game, the experience is enlightening for both faculty and players. “We all see our students and professional coaching staff in a new light,” says Dana Dunn, professor of psychology.

Some coaches get really involved. Michelle Schmidt was at practice one afternoon when assistant coach Ron Cardinal set her up as the “target” of an agility drill. Big, burly football players thundered up to don’t-fire-until-you-see-the-whites-of-their-eyes range before shearing off to one side or the other of Schmidt, who would have ended up as kindling if one had missed his feint.

“I went in not knowing a huge amount about football,” confesses Schmidt, who attended Drew University and George Mason University in Virginia—neither a great football school. “My husband is a [Washington] Redskins fan, and I’ll sit and watch a game with him occasionally.”

But there she was, offering comforting words to Shawn Nelson. “A football player in one of my classes thanked me for being there at all the practices and the game,” she marvels. “The players told me ‘We need you there for inspiration’—or whatever it is I do.”

The professors, too, learn from the coaching experience. Alicia Sevilla, professor of mathematics and chair of the department, was able to attend only one practice during her week, but she availed herself of a helper: her son, Alex Queen, an eighth-grader at Nitsch-mann Middle School in Bethlehem, who plays right tackle on his school team. “He explains it to me,” she jokes.

The first time he was Coach of the Week, Chris Jones, assistant professor of biology, told the team: “Everyone in this room knows more about football than I ever will.”

In that case, why should he want to be Coach of the Week? “I yell well,” he grins. Then he explains: “I’ve had a number of football players in my classes, and I thought it was important to get out and see what they actually go through. It’s such a big part of their lives. I wish we as faculty could inspire such single-mindedness.”

As these professors confirm, the faculty coach comes to understand how much time and energy is consumed by the daily practices. The players, for their part, learn that professors are human and approachable.

In the meantime, Coach of the Week allows Cardinal to meet faculty on his own ground so that, when a student athlete has a problem, he can meet the faculty on their turf. “I made it a point to go and meet the people I knew I needed to meet,” he says: student tutors at the Writing Center, Ron Kline of the Counseling Center, Lori Roth in Learning Services. And he’s not reticent about telling a student with an attendance problem: “Get your fanny to class.” (Though he probably doesn’t say fanny.)

“ I definitely believe in keeping this academic and athletic link going,” Michelle says. “It’s about making a connection that otherwise wouldn’t be there.”

Alicia Sevilla, chair of the Mathematics and Computer Science Department, learned a thing or two about football during her stint as Coach of the Week.

Photo: Michael P. Wilson