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NCAA Division III Breakout Session
Access to Championships Nontraditional Seasons
Tuesday, June 16, 9:30 - 10:45 a.m.

Louise O'Neal:

Good morning. If everybody will take a seat, we'll get this session under way. I'm Louise O'Neal, director of athletics at Wellesley College and also a member of NACDA's Executive Committee. I'd like to welcome all of you to our NCAA Division III Breakout Session. Our topic for this session is the "Nontraditional Playing Season." Unlike yesterday where we spent two sessions discussing specific proposals regarding championships, our objective today is to begin discussion on various aspects only on the nontraditional playing season. We do not have any specific proposals. We would hope to provoke discussion among us on terms of happiness and unhappiness with the nontraditional season.

This topic will be on the agenda for the July meeting of the Management Council and will possibly be a topic for discussion by the entire membership at the annual convention in San Antonio. We wanted to begin the discussion at NACDA among the members present.

Our three speakers have agreed to present various viewpoints on the nontraditional season with the hope that we will stimulate discussion among members present today. Therefore, their presentations may not necessarily represent their personal viewpoints, but rather, it's an attempt to get a lot of viewpoints out to have discussion on this topic.

Our speakers bring extensive coaching, athletics administration in higher education experience to their presentation. Mike Walsh will be our first presenter. Mike is now in his ninth year at director of athletics at Washington & Lee University. He was a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Mike came to Washington & Lee after nine successful years as an administrator and baseball coach at Dartmouth College. During Mike's tenure at Washington & Lee, his teams have won 46 Old Dominion athletics titles. Washington & Lee has captured the Conference's Commission Cup for overall excellence each year since 1995.

Following Mike's presentation, we will hear from Dr. Sharon Whittaker, vice president for student affairs and director of athletics at Stillman College. Dr. Whittaker holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Howard University and a doctorate degree from Illinois State University. Prior to her position at Stillman, Dr. Whittaker served as dean of students at Payne College, vice president for Academic Affairs at Mary Holmes College and a professor at Mississippi State University.

Our last presenter is Lynn Oberbillig, director of athletics at Smith College since 1993. Lynn did her undergraduate work at the University of Iowa. She also holds a master's degree in athletics administration from Iowa and a Master's of Business Administration from Nichols State University. Lynn was a successful softball coach and an athletics administrator at Nichols State University before moving to Smith College in 1990. She has served on the NCAA Softball and Rowing Sports Committee and is on the Division III Budget Committee.

It's my pleasure to welcome and thank Mike, Sharon and Lynn for sharing ideas on the nontraditional season. Their plans are to share these thoughts and then open up the floor to you. We hope you will step forward and present your viewpoints and follow up with questions to the presenters.

Mike Walsh:

Thank you Louise. In my attempt to prepare for this discussion topic, I made an effort to try and learn about the genesis of the nontraditional playing seasons and the 21-week rule. Certainly, during my nine years in Division III, the nontraditional season and the 21-week rule has been a way of life. Since I have great respect for elder statesmen, I contacted, among others, John Harvey of Carnegie-Mellon and Bill Marshall of Franklin & Marshall. They pointed me in the right direction and I learned that the 21-week rule was developed in response to the, then, 26-week rule in Division I. In the sense that although Division III could benefit from expanded practice and playing seasons, 26 weeks were too many.

By looking at basketball, the Division III sport with the longest season, which at that time, began practice on October 15 and conducted the championship finals in early March, 21 weeks, it was decided to permit sports 21 weeks of playing and/or practice time, so the 21-week rule was adopted.

There seemed to be many reasons for the adoption of nontraditional playing seasons and the 21-week rule. This list that I'm about to present is not all-inclusive, nor is it ranked in priority order. Nontraditional seasons provide an opportunity for the coaches of spring sports to evaluate their first-year students in optimal weather, or at least, better weather than is normally encountered during late January or early February when spring sports usually begin practice. This is particularly true in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions where most Division III institutions are located.

Nontraditional seasons provide an opportunity for coaches and athletes to work with one another in a time period apart from the pressure cooker of in-season competition. This situation can be particularly helpful to sports specific skill development.

Nontraditional seasons provide an opportunity for our teacher coaches to spend more time teaching and instructing our athletes. Year-round instruction can be beneficial to an athlete. After all, a student can take math year round, if he or she so desires.

The nontraditional seasons are in a response to the wishes of so many of our incoming athletes. More and more athletes are specializing in one sport before reaching high school, let alone reaching college. These athletes want fall ball. These athletes want indoor soccer. These athletes want spring ball. The nontraditional season, in theory, encourages athletes to stay in good condition in the off-season because they need to be fit for the nontraditional seasons.

What's interesting is that the reasons for nontraditional seasons and the benefits from the nontraditional seasons mirror one another. In other words, they work. Spring sports are able to sort out their team members and install their style of play during the fall in good, or at least, better weather than they would find in January. A baseball player cannot and should not be judged on how he looks indoors. For fall sports, the nontraditional season provides the coach and players a chance to implement wrinkles into the program, to build upon the successes of the completed season and to address weaknesses within the team or program. It can be a gauge into the upcoming season.

In many cases, more teaching and learning takes place in the nontraditional segment because the emphasis is on development rather than results. I recall a friend of mine who was a professional baseball scout explaining that he would rather coach in the Minor Leagues than coach college baseball because the emphasis was on developing players for the Major League level rather than on winning. A college coach often feels the pressure to win and may, for example, have a tendency to overuse a pitcher. The nontraditional season permits the coach to take the high road and to seek improvement rather than to emphasize the bottom line.

Even in Division III, many, if not most, athletes come to us as one-sport specialist. The soccer player plays year-round, the volleyball player plays year-round, the lacrosse player plays year-round and on and on. The players, particularly the better ones with Division I options, are looking to play their sport year-round and they expect to have the opportunity to do so. In fact, if you do not provide a nontraditional season, many athletes feel that you are not committed to having a good program. Additionally, a year-round commitment to a particular sport enhances the togetherness of the team, sharpens its focus, and provides an esprit de corps that might not otherwise exist.

The benefits are many for nontraditional seasons. As a former baseball coach, I have seen firsthand the improvement of players during a fall season, particularly over the course of a player's career. It is much fairer to judge a baseball player in the fall and a true baseball practice setting than it is to judge them in indoor workouts conducted in a gym or a fieldhouse. It is an advantage to be able to put your program in the fall and not be worrying about the Ws and the Ls. The player-coach relationship is strengthened by the personal contact experienced during the nontraditional seasons.

Yet, as you will hear, there are also drawbacks to the nontraditional seasons. I think that's why we're having this discussion. Most of these drawbacks, interestingly, hit first at administrators and support personnel, then coaches and then, and only sometimes, on the athletes. The athletes like the nontraditional seasons. More and more, we find our programs back into a corner that forces us to keep up with the Jones'. This keeping up, if you will, is generally and very narrowly aimed toward our physical side in an attempt to maintain our competitive posture, at any cost, or at least with little or no regard for the intellectual, personal or spiritual side of our players, coaches and support personnel, let alone the bite that it takes out of our limited and shrinking financial resources.

We find ourselves in this pickle. Is more better, or is less more? When is enough enough?

I thought that would be a segue into Sharon's presentation.

Sharon Whittaker:

Good morning. As Louise indicated, I'm the interim athletics director and vice president for student affairs at Stillman College in Alabama. Stillman College is an independent college in the process of forming a conference with five other regional institutions. From an independent's perspective and within the context of the Division III mission statement, priorities should be given to the overall experience of the student-athlete, whether we're discussing access to championships, competitions or playing seasons, we need to be concerned about keeping the student in student-athlete. Students deserve everything we have to offer them including fair treatment, fair policies and the best training rules, physical conditioning, equipment and facilities available in our schools.

We are responsible for emphasizing, promoting and assuring a balance between academic and athletics excellence for our student-athletes. It was for this reason NCAA bylaws were created that limit the length of each season as well as the matches per season. However, with any change in policy, there are drawbacks and issues that surface that needs to be resolved.

At Stillman, we currently do not have football, so with the exception of basketball, the playing seasons have not been a major issue. Basketball coaches argue that moving the starting date for on-court basketball practice without a corresponding adjustment in the starting date for competition is counterproductive to the needs of student-athletes. This shortened time period forces coaches to maximize practice time which potentially places more physical and personal demands on the student-athletes. Our coaches note the increased risk of injury, therefore, the health and safety of student-athletes is placed in jeopardy.

Basketball coaches argue that the nontraditional segment is as important as the playing schedule itself. The 21-week playing season does not allow ample time to prepare outside of the traditional segment in order to have a fair chance of going to a championship. We are already at a disadvantage for participation in championship play. As an independent, we do not qualify for an automatic bid and because there are relatively few Division III independent schools in our area, and those that are not willing to compete with us, it's difficult to gain the national rank we need to be considered for a playoff bid, not to mention the additional traveling expense that we incur trying to demonstrate national competitiveness.

We are often forced for schedule Division II schools that have the advantage of earlier practice starting times. Due to the subjectivity of the championship selection process, colleges like Stillman, with no conference affiliation and historically Black, are left with little or no chance of playing beyond the end of the regular season. The concept of strength, in my judgment, is a travesty.

Nonetheless, to the topic at hand, Stillman has no out-of-season competition for any of its sports. With the exception of volleyball and basketball, fall and winter sports, our starting dates for the remaining sports are in distinct seasons. Our end of the season dates correspond with the NCAA championship for each respective sport. Stillman complies with the 21-week restriction. At this time, we're mainly concerned about preseason practice. We propose additional practice opportunity to allow for appropriate teaching, coaching, conditioning and preparation. If we can increase practice opportunities, the seasons will overlap and there will be facilities overload, but these are opportunities for cooperation among the coaches. Fortunately, at Stillman, we have minimized staff stress by fostering a family concept and coaches involved in a facility conflict communicate and work together with me as the athletics director to be assured that the allocation of facilities is fair, if not equitable.

Coaches maneuver a little bit when the planning time starts, but they're willing to make concessions when the actual decisions have to be made. If a team is involved in a playoff, there is a mechanism in place that would permit staggered practice and play for all teams, with the first priority favoring the season or the sport in season without question.

Lynn Oberbillig:

It's my role today to talk to you a little bit about the principles of how we might change what we currently have or why we would even want to change what we currently have. Instead of giving you a specific model, I'm going to give you some specific ideas about ways we can make changes. Before you make change, you need to look at whether change is necessary. I'll talk to you a little about what the current models are, which many of you know.

The decreased emphasis on the concept of student-athlete has already been brought forward with the nontraditional seasons and going year-round. A lot of our students can't participate in the kind of academic activities that occur on campus. We lose the emphasis there. We have the decreased emphasis on teacher-coach with the focus on one sport. Our coaches often lose sight of their teaching responsibilities. They lose sight of the fact that they're coaching two sports, sometimes. There's a threat to broad-based programming. We might argue, are we losing the multi-sport athlete? Do we have less multi-sport athletes because we have nontraditional seasons? At Smith, we don't allow nontraditional seasons and I still have one-fifth of our women as multi-sport athletes, so we have more than 50 of those.

Finally, there is the notion of facilities overload and staff stress. Many of our coaches coach two sports. How do you do a nontraditional season in softball when you're the volleyball coach, vice-versa? Our athletics trainers are overloaded, with multiple practices in both seasons.

There is some concern with the present model and there might need to be some changes. What would those changes look like? It's hard to hold the microphone and put your overheads up. The first might be that we eliminate all out of season competition. Maybe the culprit is not the fact that we have nontraditional seasons. The culprit might be that we allow ball games during the nontraditional season. So the first step might be to look at eliminating those games and not having competition during nontraditional season.

One of the things is expansion of seasons. We might look at starting dates for the seasons and the fall seasons are pretty well set with our six team practice opportunities before the first games. Our winter season seems to be pretty well set. We have a starting date for basketball. The other dates are counting back. It's our spring season that we really don't put a starting date on, so maybe we should be thinking about something like February where our spring sports could actually start with their practices and competitions and not worry about at what point the competitions come it, but put a distinct starting date on each season.

If you have starting dates, maybe we should have end of season dates. Most of the time, people are familiar with the idea that the fall season ends with the NCAA championships, winter season ends with the championships, spring season ends with the championships, so we just make those the end of season dates. That comes into play with the 21-week rule. Right now, you're counting your 21-weeks to the end of your conference or your regular season play. If your teams go on to championships play, those are extra weeks. Maybe we ought to think about the 21-weeks following with the NCAA championship being the last date so that we don't expand the seasons, we actually shorten them a little bit by a couple of weeks.

It gets a little confusing when we look at some of the individual sports. What are you going to do with golf? What are you going to do with tennis? There are reasons why we have nontraditional seasons and traditional seasons in those two sports. Because of the New England weather or the north weather, it's easier to play a tennis season in the fall than in the spring where there's a NCAA championship. Maybe we could look at the difference between what team sports do and in the individual sports and not put a limit on the individual sports about whether they're a fall season, a winter season, a spring season. Instead, allow them the 21-week rule and to divide it up how they want.

Really, we don't want to lose the teaching aspect. We want to do the teaching outside of competition so we don't have that emphasis that we're always preparing to compete. We could allow an off-season opportunity where there could be a set number. I chose 12 here. We could choose a different number. You'd have so many practice opportunities outside the regular season. If you were a fall sport, field hockey, soccer or volleyball, you'd have your fall season that you would start with the 16 practice opportunities before your first competition. You'd go all the way to the NCAA championship; you'd be finished with your soccer season. Then, you would come back to the out of season opportunities starting in March. From March 1 to April 30, is the fall season for out of season opportunities. You could have 12 practice opportunities during that time period.

Some coaches would choose to have those practice opportunities spread over the two months. Some coaches would want to condense that into a one month time slot, but it would be clearly manageable. You would know when the period would come and you would have these teaching opportunities that Mike alluded to where you could work one-on-one and help improve individual skills.

You would do the same with the spring sports. The spring sports would have a window in the fall that was the same amount of time. That window could be from September 1 to October 30, there they could get their 12 practice opportunities in. They would work on individual skills. You could do tryouts during that period of time. Your regular season wouldn't start until February 1 for the spring sports.

In summary, if we look at this on a principle basis, the first thing we ought to do is get rid of the terminology of nontraditional. I'm not sure who invented the traditional, nontraditional, but really what we're talking about is in-season competition and out-of-season competition. In, as one of my esteemed colleagues wrote earlier this year in answer to Mike's question, maybe we need a moratorium on more and this would allow us to scale back a little and get the focus back on the Division III philosophy of broad-based programming and diverse student-athlete participation.

Thank you.

Louise O'Neal:

I want to thank our three presenters because each of them agreed that, even if they didn't agree with various viewpoints, they would present them with as much enthusiasm and passion as if they did.