Friday, October 8, 2010

'How It's Supposed to Be'

I love Cleveland.
Cleveland rocks.
Cleveland is on fire (at least the Cuyahoga River was on fire once).
Cleveland is the home of the Cleveland Browns, the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Clinic, the Cleveland Indians, Dennis Kucinich, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Case Western Reserve University.
Cleveland is so cool they made a TV show about it. Cleveland is so cool that almost everything in Cleveland has the word "Cleveland" in it.
An old friend of mine told me once the story of how Cleveland was founded. A group of pioneers was traveling heading from New York State in search of a better life when they encountered a storm on the lake so fierce that they were forced to halt their progress and hunker down. Josiah Cleveland, who was leading the group and traveling under an assumed name, said, "We'll make camp here until the weather breaks."
One jewel in Cleveland's crown is Case Western Reserve University, a federation of the former Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University. Case, as it is now widely known much to the dismay of Western Reserve alumni, is located on Euclid Avenue, east of downtown, in an unpretentious hub of ethnic, cultural, medical and educational excellence known as University Circle.
Case and Cleveland are unpretentious. They have no chip on their shoulder. They don't shout out with self-conscious boosterism. They know how good they are. Case and Cleveland get up every day and get it done.
Case Western Reserve University is one of the founding members of the University Athletic Association, a sports conference of the top private research universities in the East and Midwest. The UAA is founded on the principle of providing top-notch athletic facilities, coaching and competition for true student athletes. For kids who love play sports for the love of the game, but whose main priority is getting a great education.
Hiram players greet Anna Kennedy before Wednesday's match.
Photo: Elizabeth Vaci
The athletes of the UAA -- and Case -- practice and play in relative obscurity on their campuses. I attended a women's soccer game Wednesday night against Hiram College, and there were no more than 30 people in the stands. I looked for the ESPN crew but couldn't find them. I looked for agents ready to hand out big checks but couldn't find them. What I did find was a bunch of bio-chemistry majors and chemical engineering majors and loyal parents and grandparents. And a big dog.
Before the match, something happened that brought me close to tears.
The Case goalie has cancer. She found out this summer and started chemo immediately. Now her head is bare, but she is back minding the net for the Spartans. Right before the kickoff, the Hiram players formed a line at the Case goal and every one shook the hand of Anna Kennedy.
Sports is ritual. Every event has its rituals. On that night, the girls from Hiram transformed the ritual into a transcendent moment of care.
Dave Diles, the Case AD, is really tall.
Who wouldn't cry?
Dave Diles, the athletics director at Case told me a story about meeting with the women's soccer team before the season to go over rules about NCAA compliance and UAA policies. He asked the group how their summer was, and Anna spoke up first. "I had the best summer ever."
Dave is an avid (understatement) golfer and was the AD at St.Bonaventure before he came to Case six years ago. He has a 4 handicap, which he doesn't want publicized because it makes it harder for him to get strokes when he's playing a match. He's a total dog guy, and always brings dog biscuits to games for the pooches in the stands. When I asked him how many rounds he plays a year, he said "Not enough."
And Dave is a UAA guy all the way. He loves the academic emphasis, the training of the "whole student" and the opportunity to get to know the kids in his program. (Actually, everyone I talk to who is associated with the UAA seems to have drunk from the cooler of UAA Kool-aid. They all get it. And I do not mean this disrespectfully in any way. Everyone I know associated with the UAA understands the philosophy of academics and athletics, but academics FIRST.)
What's so special about athletics at Case and the UAA? "It's all student centered, and it's about the educational outcomes for students."
What does it mean to be an AD at a UAA school? "The things that were important to me at the beginning of my career are abundant in my life every day."
Tiffany Crooks' office overlooks the soccer practice field.
So the UAA is a way of life, a way of education, a way of holding the academic opportunities high while providing a first-class athletic experience.
In the office down the hall from Dave, Tiffany Crooks gets it, too. She's the head coach of the women's soccer team, and not a bad player in her day, which wasn't that long ago.
Tiffany was the keeper from 1998-2001 for Ashland University, where she had 28 shutouts and a 0.64 goals against average.
When I asked her why she coaches at Case, her immediate response was about the kids.
"They're very committed to their academics and their athletics. They love sacrifice and they love to get better.
"Every kid on my team will tell you they play because they love it, but if forced to make a choice, every kid will chose academics."
Then Tiffany put the whipped cream on top of the Case and UAA athletics sundae:
"That is how it's supposed to be."

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