Earlier this month, I had the honor of attending the induction of Lycoming College Coach Frank Girardi into the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame. The event was held in the magnificent Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City and attracted many luminaries from the world of football.
As the evening unfolded, I surveyed the room. Arrayed above the stage were banners from the colleges and universities of the honorees; the Lycoming College banner was surrounded by those of the University of Texas, Ole Miss, the University of Georgia, Iowa State and Colorado. It dawned on me that Coach Girardi was the only Division III coach or athlete being recognized that evening and that Lycoming College had the honor on this occasion of representing Division III and its special place within the collegiate athletics landscape.
I am an unabashed sports fan. I root for the Green Bay Packers every weekend during the NFL season. I thoroughly enjoyed the 2017 Rose Bowl between the University of Southern California and Penn State. I watched in awe recently as Kentucky freshman Malik Monk poured in 46 points in a three-point win over UNC. I was riveted to the television for the final three games as the Chicago Cubs brought joy to their long suffering fans by winning the 2016 World Series. I enjoy being a spectator to big time sports—both collegiate and professional.
But I would also contend that the best and most appealing sports competition takes place on the campuses of Division III institutions. Although Division III coaches and student athletes are rarely seen on national television, there are programs, like the football program at Lycoming College, that achieve such a high level of excellence that they are recognized by the most prestigious and visible organizations in the sports world—in this case the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame.
What make Division III athletics special is that our coaches coach and our athletes play because they love sport. They compete intensely and want passionately to win. They devote considerable time to their sport and work hard at perfecting their skills and knowledge of the game. Through sport they learn what it takes to be successful in life.
In these ways and many others, they are very much like their more celebrated Division I colleagues. But Division III coaches and athletes are also very different. For example, the coaches are not paid extraordinary salaries and the athletes are not motivated by the dream of a professional career. (In making this comparison, I recognize that many of the coaches and athletes in lower profile Division I teams resemble Division III in this regard.)
Division III athletics is also defined by its commitment to make sure that student-athletes can enjoy fully the educational opportunities offered by its member institutions. At Lycoming, we encourage our student-athletes to be involved in student life organizations, to study abroad, to complete internships, to conduct research with faculty—to do all the things that “other” students do. The same is true at almost all programs sponsored by Division III schools. Athletic competition is one part of their education—an important one—but not one that prevents student athletes from pursuing a well-rounded education.
A fundamental principle of Division III is the prohibition against awarding financial aid to students on the basis of athletics leadership, ability, participation or performance. This idea stands in stark contrast to the evolution in Division I toward the provision of both athletic scholarships and other compensation to athletes. This concept is critical to the nature of Division III. It helps to ensure that Lycoming College views athletics primarily as an educational opportunity, not a spectator experience. It also creates a relationship between our student-athletes and Lycoming College where the student is free to choose whether to participate in athletics, and where choosing not to continue as a student athlete does not jeopardize the student’s financial aid.
One of Lycoming’s most distinguished alumni is The Honorable Thomas Vanaskie, who serves on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Judge Vanaskie received a B.A. from Lycoming College in 1975 and was named a First Team Academic All American as a senior. In 2013, he was inducted to the Academic All-America Hall of Fame and, in 2014, the NCAA Division III featured him as one of forty student-athletes who best exemplified the values that define Division III sports.
Judge Vanaskie credits the Lycoming faculty for developing his skills in writing and research that have been the foundation to his legal career. At same time, he has also said that lessons of teamwork that he absorbed on the football field have been invaluable—in fact, they are essential to his work as one of 14 judges in the Third Circuit.
The standard of excellence set by Judge Vanaskie has continued. In 2014, Craig Needhammer, the college’s career rushing leader and an outstanding physics major was named as an Academic All American; and in 2016, offensive lineman Austin Midal, also a physics major, joined Needhammer as a member of this illustrious group.
Judge Vanaskie, Craig and Austin illustrate the appeal of the Division III athletics. We value intense competitors who want to succeed on the field and in the classroom. Yet we also place the education and well-being of our student athletes at the center of our athletic programs. We invite young women and men to come to Lycoming and experience the exhilaration of intense high level competition in the Middle Atlantic Conference. And we include as part of that invitation our commitment to providing a high quality education to our student-athletes.
Our athletes on campus praise the athletic programs for their academics-first mentality and the wonderful team environments they create. If you're interested in athletics at Lycoming College, talk to one of our coaches about how to get involved with our programs. Or, plan a visit to campus and have your admissions counselor set up a meeting between you and some of our athletes to get answers to all your questions.