For many of the country’s colleges and universities, March represents a time to watch alma maters compete on the national stage thanks to March Madness. But for Ithaca College, it represents a time to cheer for other people’s alma maters.
“The Big Dance” is an opportunity for schools from all over the country to challenge some of the nation’s biggest programs in front of a national audience. The chance for smaller schools to “play up” presents an amazing thrill for the players, their respective campuses and alumni. Such was the case this year with No. 1 seed Syracuse University losing to Butler University, a school of only 4,700 students, which also went on to beat Michigan State University and play Duke University for the National Championship.
Over the years, schools like Davidson College (1,700), Tulsa University (3,072), ValparaisoUniversity (3,950) and dozens of others have had their athletic reputations, their fans and entire campus cultures forever connected with national-level competition and recognition. The excitement, the school spirit and the campus pride these games generate are simply unmatched.
In contrast, Ithaca College, with an enrollment of roughly 6,600 focuses its athletic program against Division III competition from schools less than half its size — Hartwick College (1,450), St. Lawrence University (2,000), St. John Fisher College (2,100), Alfred University (2,300), Utica College (2,900), Union College (2,128), Hobart College (2,058). While the history and success of the program are undeniable, the overall impact rarely extends beyond the immediate participants, approximately 15 percent of the student population, and their alumni counterparts.
As an alumnus, one of the things sorely missing from my experience is the opportunity to cheer and follow my alma mater in meaningful sporting events or to enjoy a national identity; I am tired of educated professionals asking me if Ithaca College is a community college.
Outside of the Cortaca Jug game, when was the last time our student body and alumni were mobilized for the common purpose of pride in competition or imbued with the school spirit that competing against the best teams in the nation can provide?
Imagine the excitement of regularly competing against teams that are top-ranked and often national champions, as Hobart does with Syracuse in lacrosse, as Union does with Cornell University in ice hockey or as Hartwick does with Syracuse or Cornell in men’s soccer? The list goes on. Also, try to envision the impact on the student body when teams from Duke or University of Notre Dame visit campus just to scrimmage. With the completion of a new multimillion dollar athletic facility, Ithaca is uniquely positioned to develop for students a true sense of school spirit and to provide alumni with a meaningful sense of institutional pride with the creation of a national identity.
When much smaller schools manage to attain national distinction and campuswide enthusiasm with much smaller enrollments and far fewer resources, why do we continue to “play down” in our athletic programs? As a college of 6,600 students with a well-developed sports infrastructure, why do we not want to “play up” and begin to take on nationally recognized sports programs in competition? Isn’t it time for the Ithaca College sports experience to involve the entire campus community and begin the pursuit of the national recognition and sense of school unity and spirit enjoyed by so many other colleges across the country during March Madness? Isn’t it time to begin to make plans to take Ithaca College dancing?
Michael J. Eckrich ’98, M.D., is a senior fellow at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.