Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Marsha Harris: She's the Rule, Not the Exception

By Kevin S. Austin

For three weeks in March 1997, Marsha Harris and her NYU basketball teammates were the toast of the town. New York City, where sports success is measured in Super Bowl trophies and World Series rings, scooped up the basketball girls of New York University. The team had a cumulative GPA of 3.2, no athletic scholarships, and their record was 27-1 heading into the Division III Final Four weekend.
The Daily News and the New York Times featured the Violets almost daily, especially the “dynamic duo” of Harris, the 5’8” point guard, and Jen Krolikowski, the 5’9” shooting guard. Together they scored more than 1,000 points in the 1996-97 season.
And what memory does Marsha first mention when asked about the championship season? Not ringing the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange, not meeting NYU and NBA hall-of-famer Satch Sanders, not racing three-fourths of the court to lay in the winning basket.
“Being an over-achiever, I remember the only game we lost.”
That’s not false modesty or false pride. Marsha, her team, all NYU’s intercollegiate athletes and hundreds more like them are part of an obscure, almost non-sensical, athletic conference. The University Athletic Association – accurately named, but brand-challenged – competes in the NCAA’s Division III, which means no athletic scholarships, lots of colleges with hyphenated names, and travel that takes place mostly in buses and vans.
The UAA – or Geek League – is comprised of Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, Emory, NYU, the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester and Washington University in St. Louis. It was formed in 1986 as an “alternative” conference and began formal competition in 1987. The presidents of nine prestigious universities (Johns Hopkins was a founding member that has since dropped out) wanted a sports program for their private research universities that matched the academic standards of their undergraduate programs.
Marsha Harris, who grew up in Queens and was always a nerd, is one of the thousands of undergraduates who matured in that rare atmosphere.
“I was doing my school thing and my sports thing and coming home every day,” she said of her four years at August Martin High School. But by her junior basketball season, her sports thing had become a big thing. Division I coaches came calling and knocking and visiting, offering free tuition to play basketball for them. Marsha was tempted, and she took a couple of campus visits. As a geek at heart, she had visions of becoming a doctor – her father’s idea. She also looked at nearby schools with a top drawer premed program, and quietly applied to NYU on her own. The DI visits left her cold. “They didn’t seem to be too focused on academics. It wasn’t going to work for me.”
Janice Quinn, NYU’s coach at the time, knew about Marsha and her skills, but with so many big-time programs hovering, she thought landing Marsha “would be a stretch.” Marsha had her own plans.
The day of a big all-star tournament in New York City, Quinn got a phone message that Marsha Harris wanted to talk to her about attending NYU. One of Quinn’s assistants was planning to attend the tournament and called Quinn to get down there quick once she saw Marsha play. Quinn saw one defensive and one offensive sequence and said to her assistant, “If Marsha Harris comes to NYU, that’s a national championship.”
By choosing NYU, Marsha was living the philosophy the UAA envisioned – she would be a student first and an athlete second. She would have more choices to make.
Freshman year, Marsha lived in an apartment-style dorm near Union Square. Her roommate played basketball, and there were several more on the floor. She took the transition from Queens to Manhattan in stride.
“I don’t think I went home for the first month and a half. You get used to the idea of being your own person with your own freedom. I wasn’t a crazy kid, anyway.”
Working into the 1994-95 team was more of a challenge than course work. She was a real star, with a reputation and the skills to match. But she had to learn how to become a leader and a contributor without stepping on the toes of some of the older players.
Winning, though, smooths over a lot of rough patches. “All that stuff goes out the window and camaraderie forms,” Marsha said. The Violets finished third in the UAA and reached the Sweet 16 that March before losing to Salem State College of Massachusetts.
The next season, they reached the Final Four and were routed 62-37 by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which hosted the tournament and went on to win the national championship.
In the classroom, Marsha faced her first real college student. She had been valedictorian at August Martin and could maintain good grades by cramming for exams. That strategy didn’t work for the chemistry and math major at NYU. In the first semester of organic chemistry, she had to learn a new way to study. “Before, it was so easy. I would just cram before a test and do well. As the classes became more difficult, I couldn’t do it that way. “There’s nothing you can do but do it, right?” So she taught herself how to keep up every day and make sure she understood the material before moving on.
Then came abstract mathematics. “It was really abstract,” she said. “No matter what I did, it was just too abstract for me.” But the concrete girl even learned the abstract and earned a decent grade.
Junior year was the pinnacle. Marsha and her teammates won the national championship.
The team ran through the non-conference schedule in November and December undefeated. Marsha’s backcourt teammate, Jen, was a senior and majoring in mechanical design. In the course of the season, she became NYU’s all-time career scoring leader.
The only loss was in Atlanta, against Emory.
“I think I only scored 10 points,” Marsha said. It was a typically hostile, if well-educated, environment.
“We always felt like we were the Yankees coming to town,” she said of UAA road games. It was a matter of their power as well as coming from New York City.
NYU won the conference with a 13-1 record and won four regional games to reach the Final Four.
The Violets hosted the tournament that year in Coles Sports and Recreation Center, a singularly plain building at the corner of Bleeker and Mercer streets in Greenwich Village. One unique feature of Coles is that the basketball floor is built below street level, so when you get past the security desk you are standing on a bridge overlooking the court, which has a huge, purple NYU logo in the center. It seats 1,500, but only occasionally would it be filled to capacity. No admission is charged for most UAA events, and the schools host regular events to boost attendance. Average attendance that season was 250 .
The newspaper and TV coverage ramped up as they won the regional tournament. Marsha remembers that Jen – jokingly – guaranteed a national championship and one of the local TV stations ran with it. “We pretty much had no choice but to win.”
In the semifinal game, NYU fell behind by 10 points to Scranton College in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains. Marsha had three fouls and was on the bench. Jen took over. She scored 21 points in the second half, making all three of her three-point shots. NYU 84, Scranton 74.
The next night, Saturday, March 22, 1997, NYU fell behind by 15 points in the championship game against Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Coles was filled to capacity. Slowly, the Violets came back, and Jen tied the game in the last minute. After Eau Claire missed a shot, Marsha took the outlet pass and ran past two defenders for a layup and the win. NYU 62, Eau Claire 59.
Quinn told the newspapers afterward that she had a dream in which Marsha dunked the winning basket.
After three years of anonymity, Marsha was finally recognized on campus. Kids congratulated her on the street and in class. She heard people mention her name as they passed or walked behind her. That was a new experience, and one that a lot of UAA athletes share. While they might have been stars in high school, they were simply college students on the big, UAA campuses.
That role of fitting in with the student body doesn’t offer the athletes much recognition. It does however fulfill a goal of the UAA, where athletic teams regularly match or exceed the GPA of the overall student body.
As a senior, Marsha was the leader, but she and her teammates couldn’t match the previous season. Jen and her classmates were gone, and a new crop of freshmen joined the team.
Marsha, who had a 3.5 GPA, was applying to medical schools – NYU, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia among them. She wanted to stay close to home, just as she had for undergraduate school. She also scored 549 points that season and her career high of 41, and overtook Jen for the all-time – men’s and women’s – NYU scoring leader.
The New York Times came calling again that year with a profile of Marsha under the headline, “Academics over Athletics.” When newspapers or TV stations take the time to write about the UAA, they play that angle so relentlessly that it almost flattens out. It’s the truth, but within the UAA it can lose its resonance.
Marsha, while typical, faced an unusual choice. She was probably good enough a basketball player to make it in the young WNBA, but she had been striving for medical school.  Quinn has no doubt she could have made it in professional basketball, but her promise to all players was to launch them into the world with the best undergraduate experience NYU could provide.
As Marsha recalls, Quinn turned out to me more excited than Marsha on the day she got into NYU. Coach even brought a cake to practice. “We celebrate those achievements as much as we celebrate a national championship,” Quinn said. That’s probably a stretch.
Of course, Marsha chose NYU medical school over hoops and talks about it so matter-of-factly that it’s easy to forget the enormous gap between the two options. “At the time, it [the WNBA] wasn’t as much of a sure thing as medical school.” This is a woman who is way more concrete than abstract mathematics.
Now 34, Marsha is a surgeon in private practice in Manhattan, double board certified in general surgery and colon and rectal surgery. Quinn says she’s a celebrity doctor. Marsha admits that at least a couple of patients a day want to talk about her basketball career. Not because she brings it up, but because they have Googled her for background before their appointment  and discovered she has her own entry in Wikipedia.
“It goes on for about five minutes,” Marsha said, “and then you go back to work.” She typically operates on Mondays and Thursdays and sees patients the remaining days.
She was in a recreational basketball league when she first started her practice, but hands are everything to a surgeon, and the risk of injury was too high to continue.
So why would Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, Emory, NYU, the University of Chicago, the University of  Rochester and Washington University each spend between $3 million and $6 million a year on Division III sports?
“EVERYTHING I learned in sports translates right into what I do on a daily basis,” Marsha said. Learning how to get along with different people, treating people with respect and being calm under fire. Sports is really about learning through losing, and medical training is really about correcting errors, because mistakes can be fatal.
Is Marsha Harris special? One reporter asked her that question during her college days. She said that her achievements seemed so natural that she didn’t think of herself as exceptional.
In the University Athletic Association, Marsha Harris is the rule.

Copyright 2011 Kevin S. Austin

Monday, May 16, 2011

Where's Kevin? Where's Honey?

May 17, 2011

Dear friends, colleagues, UAA fans and Honey lovers,

It's been five months since I ended my road trip to visit the universities of the UAA. Five months since the soccer matches, cross country training and football games.

I miss it. It's hard to re-create the spirit, the smells, the sounds, the cheers in my room here in Atlanta. But I'm shaping it. I'm also reaching out to the athletes from the past from each school who personify the mission of the University Athletic Association. My plan is to solicit two alumni from each school and use their stories and their successes after graduation to show how important the UAA is.

I will soon post the first profile in this series, about Dr. Marsha Harris, who helped lead the NYU women to their national basketball championship.

A couple of months ago I was made an offer I couldn't refuse: To work for a few months editing newsletters for the fabulous Website, WebMD. Funnily enough, I keep running across the names of medical researchers at Chicago and Rochester and Washington in the stories we write about the latest medical research.

Because of my work at WebMD, I have had to cut back the time I am spending on the book. But I am still working on it.

It's graduation time, and that makes me think of all the athletes who will be heading off to jobs or graduate school and who will be leaving their organized sports lives behind. Leaving it behind for the first time in 15 or 16 years. What a shock it will be for them come September, when there are no practices, no bus trips, no team meetings. What there was, however, was a great education and a great experience of pursuing your sport at the highest level. The UAA is so established now, it's hard for newcomers to imagine what sports at your schools used to be like. The athletics programs existed long before the UAA. But no doubt the quality of competition and level of commitment would not be what it is today if that group of presidents hadn't gotten together in 1985 to get the ball rolling.

It's graduation time, and that makes me think of the juniors and sophomores who will be stepping into new roles next season. And the freshmen, who think they are hot or think they are not, who will be joining the veterans of Brandeis or Case or Carnegie Mellon.

There's a very good reason that people get teary at this time of year: What the seniors have accomplished is great and what they will accomplish is great. It makes folks proud, and sad, and ready. My own son, in fact, graduates this Sunday from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

And next fall, everyone will do it all over again. The UAA's 25th season.

Thanks to all who have helped with the UAA book along the way.

Kevin Austin

P.S. Aren't you forgetting about Honey? My trusty home on wheels is going just fine, parked halfway between my driveway and a pupular tavern known as Manuel's. I got mufflers now. And my couch doesn't turn itself into a bed when I hit a bump. And the black water tank doesn't leak anymore. On occasional weekends,  Honey and my girls, Claire and Leia, head to a nearby state park for a long weekend.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Q&A with Janice Quinn: The Real Meaning of 'The Best'

Blogger's note: The following is what kids today would call "random." By that I mean, it is one of many Q&As that I conducted while on my tour of UAA schools last fall. It is not intended as favoritism to NYU, women's basketball or Satch Sanders. It is simply the first of many Q&As that I will post.

Janice Quinn, the senior associate director of athletics at NYU, likes to talk, likes to coach, likes to motivate.
Last fall I sat down with her in her office to talk about sports at NYU, the value of the University Athletic Association and the national basketball championship her team won.
Quinn played basketball for NYU for four years and was named head coach of the women’s basketball team at age 23. She coached the Violets to 453 wins from 1987 to 2008. Her teams reached the Final Four three times and won the national D3 championship in 1997.
 Here is a transcript of part of that conversation.

On the value of the UAA
"At its core, the UAA is an opportunity for student athletes at very high-level academic institutions to experience a very high level of athletics -- competing against other students seeking the same thing. The benefit of the UAA is to be able to provide that experience for our student athletes on a broad basis."
"The UAA uniformly allows us to provide this as the norm. As a given. As an expectation that is reasonably and consistently met year after year, decade after decade. If you come in, and you are a women’s fencer, or you come in and you are a women’s volleyball player or you are a men’s basketball player you should uniformly expect this very, very high level of experience. And you are going to be able to interact and engage with other students who are receiving the same experience."

On the unique urban setting
"The cities do give the UAA a different feel.   NYU – as you physically see it – is at the center of the universe. Sitting right at the middle of Washington Square. But Washington University and Brandeis and Chicago and Case Western – these are all in large cities, and that does distinguish the nature of the experience."
"The type of students who are attracted to these institutions is different. Kids who are attracted to a New York City school, to a Boston school, to a Chicago school are different. There’s an eclectic mix and sophistication in the metropolitan and global nature that these types of campuses offer."

Differences between the UAA and Division I sports programs
"By definition, the UAA and Division III are different because these institutions have declared voluntarily, based on philosophy, that they chose to participate in college athletics without giving scholarships. Sometimes people don’t understand this. They might think that a school as big as NYU should be Division I.  It’s a philosophy, it’s a mindset. It represents the most intrinsic, deeply rooted values of the university. It’s a very deliberate, voluntary decision."
"In the UAA you see a longevity in the coaching ranks that is remarkable. People are attracted to these positions for the philosophy, not necessarily only for the career stepping stone. And I think that in a lot of cases – not all , but in a lot of cases—they can get the most out of that academic experience for those kids. In a way, on this level, there is less pressure to win – not to say that the UAA isn’t extremely, extremely competitive – but I think it allows coaches to truly focus on the sport, the love of the sport, the mentorship of the students, the overall development of the students as people."
"You also have to be national championship caliber to get any press. Some kids come out of high school and every thing that they did in sports was celebrated in their hometown. When you get to the UAA, because of the major cities that we are in, you by in large are doing this in relative anonymity. That just speaks so loudly to the authenticity of what they are doing. There’s no way you can say you’re doing it for the celebrity or notoriety or the publicity. So you get a level of authenticity from the players and coaches that is just thrilling. It really is."

The NYU athletic experience
"At NYU we take incredible pride in the quality of events we run… This is not a campus where from Thursday morning until Sunday the entire community revolves around an athletic competition. And we don’t want that. It would change the entire campus. We are recruiting kids to a campus that is an extremely, dynamic, eclectic, diverse environment. We take a lot of pride in when we are doing that the quality of the experience."

Competition, sharing, outcomes
"When someone in the UAA has innovated in events or facilities there is a sharing of ideas."
"When you get on the court the coaches will do everything to win, and the student athletes will do everything to win, but I think beyond that the level of sportsmanship in the UAA stands out. I think there’s a great camaraderie that were doing something that’s different and were in this together."
"The competition level is tremendous.  That level of success comes because coaches are competitive, the  kids are competitive and they’re all putting a lot of commitment into this."
"I tell people what we are doing at NYU and at other UAA schools is impossible to do, and yet it happens every single day. Some people will tell you that over time it can’t sustain itself and yet it has. Its been 25 years, and so I think we can say its sustainable."
      "It takes enormous financial resources, enormous human resources and enormous commitment to keep this thing going. There’s just one Marsha Harris [NYU’s All-America point guard who is now a surgeon in Manhattan] after another. These kids are great academically and great athletes, and they leave here and do remarkable things."

Commitment at NYU
"In New York, this is real life. We can’t do anything to tame it or pretend it isn’t anything it’s not. For the varsity athlete to try to life in New York City and get a degree and carve out 30 hours a week to keep playing, they have to find tremendous amounts of energy and commitment.  This in an environment I have been in since 1981, and I tell people that this is a place that continues to stimulate me. You don’t settle in."
"Men’s soccer practices in seven different facilities. You’re not walking out the back door to a practice field. You have to decide do I really want to do this. When you’re running track or playing soccer or playing tennis, you have to decide every single day do I really want to do this. You get a passion for it. You can’t be in New York and be ambivalent or apathetic."

Academics in the UAA
"No UAA school is letting anyone out easy. You can’t be ambivalent or apathetic about your academics, and that is something that is uniform and consistent across the UAA. And its pretty darn neat when you are going up against that kid on the other team on Saturday or Sunday and you know that by in large they are experiencing in a academic way very much what you are experiencing. I think there’s a great respect that they have for each other."

"It’s a monster. You would be absolutely amazed at the sheer labor-intensive effort required because you are trying to recruit someone who might be eligible for a Division I scholarship and might be eligible to attend an Ivy League school.  So what coaches are doing is giving a nonstop education about what the UAA experience can be. We still call ourselves, 25 years later, ‘an alternative.’ This is the kind of school you thought you would go to academically and this it the type of school you can go to athletically. Guess what, these are schools where you can do both. It will be a life changing experience."
"Recruiting is competitive, cut throat. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of money and a constant education of coaches, parents, guidance counselors and students.  There’s a lot of competition to distinguish yourself from the other UAA schools by the team, the success, the coach, the coach’s success, perhaps by the team’s projected future success, perhaps by the city.    Each school does an admirable job of highlighting what is unique to them."

1997 national championship
 "The night before we won the national championship my mom said, ‘Good God, Janice, you have to relax.  You can’t put this much pressure on yourself.’ And I said, ‘Mom I know that this is what NYU wants. I know that Dr. Oliva [the former president of NYU who was instrumental in creating the UAA] wanted to make a statement that you could not just do well but win a national championship.’ "
"Satch Sanders [the NYU and NBA Hall of Fame basketball player] came to our event when we were hosting the national championship in 1997.   Everybody was saying good luck and it was a successful season just getting here. Satch Sanders put his arm around me and said ‘Janice let’s not make any mistake about this. We expect you to win the whole thing.’  That kind of concern for our program and support for a non-scholarship approach is running through this program."
"I think what the UAA has done is broken down barriers of the stereotypical image of what sports is and what sports is not. The message I got from Satch was that there was great value in what we were doing too."

What it means to be the best
"One of the things that worries me about athletics in America is  the message isn’t out there enough that doing your personal best is always enough.  I didn’t have more value as a person because I won 450 basketball games. It’s the people who treated us the same whether they crushed us or we crushed them that I have tremendous respect for."
"I think there are so many kids out there who feel badly about themselves if they are not a starter or not the best player. The greatest hope in the UAA is that nobody (there was nobody more competitive than me. Nobody) but I never believed that you had more value if you won. The UAA comes closest to gaining an enormous personal and social perspective that winning a national championship doesn’t give you greater value as a human being."
"You don’t have to be the best to be the best.  All we can do on this earth is the best that we can be."


Monday, January 3, 2011

Conference Play Opens in Basketball

Conference play starts Saturday in the University Athletic Association, with "travel partner" teams matching up. Men's schedule  Women's schedule

Emory travels to Rochester; NYU to Brandeis; Case Western Reserve to Carnegie Mellon; and Washington University to the University of Chicago.

The Brandeis men's team is ranked 15th in the latest D3hoops.com poll, through Dec. 19.

The Wash U. women are ranked 4th and the Rochester women 9th.

The UAA website has a roundup of the fall seasons in the conference, with a record number of UAA teams earning spots in the NCAA tournaments. Fall sports roundup.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

UAA Soccer Teams Earn Academic Honors

Four schools in the University Athletic Association have been honored by the National Soccer Coaches of America Association for having men's and women's teams with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher.

The schools are: Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, the University of Chicago and the University of Rochester.

The Brandeis women's team also was honored.

Complete list of teams honored.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holiday Greetings From Honey and Me

Honey has been taking some well-deserved rest here in Atlanta since we returned from our UAA trip a month ago. And because I have become something of an RV Whisperer, I know what's on her mind. Honey wishes all the folks of the UAA a happy and prosperous New Year -- and may none of your tires ever blow out on an interstate highway!!!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Soccer Honors for UAA Players

Brandeis: Four players from Brandeis' women's soccer team have been named to the All-New England soccer team. Taryn Martiniello earned second team honors, and Sofia Vallone, Tiffany Pacheco and Alanna Torre were named to the third team. Read more.

Carnegie Mellon:  Elsa Wu was named to the All Great Lakes Region soccer team, and three men's players were honored. Matt Betzig and Zach Stahl were named to the second team, and Moni Sallam was named to the third team. Read more.

Case Western Reserve: Forward Vinny Bell was named to the third team of the NSCAA/Performance Subaru Men’s NCAA Division III All-America Team. Read more.

Emory: Sophomore Andrew Natalino was named to the third team of the NSCAA/Performance Subaru Men’s NCAA Division III All-America Team. Read more. Freshman Lauren Gorodetsky was named to the second team. Read more.

NYU: Men's soccer players Nick Coulson and Kyle Green were named to the second team of the All East Region. Read more.

University of Rochester: Ellen  Coleman was named to the second team of the NSCAA/Performance Subaru Women’s NCAA Division III All-America Team. Read more.

University of Chicago: Senior defender Claire Denz Ellen  Coleman was named to the third team of the NSCAA/Performance Subaru Women’s NCAA Division III All-America Team.  Read more.

Washington University: Senior Harry Beddo was named a first team All-American on the  NSCAA/Performance Subaru Men’s NCAA Division III team. Read more.  Emma Brown and Lee Ann Fielder were named to the second team All-Central Region.  Read more.