The university's inaugural athletic director set the tone for today's successful Division III program
Tufts athletes have reached the top of their mountain. The program headed by Athletic Director John Morris was awarded the 2021–22 Learfield Directors’ Cup, a gorgeous pile of crystal recognizing the most successful athletic program among the more than 440 colleges and universities that make up Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Over in the Tisch Fitness Center lobby, there is a display case filled with more trophies won by our terrific athletes: 63 New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) Team Champions; 11 NCAA Team National Championships; and 51 NCAA Individual National Champions, including nine top student-athletes honored last year alone, in swimming, tennis, and indoor track and field.
Yet even as the laurels pile up, Tufts does not reap the financial rewards enjoyed by other collegiate sports programs. Division I schools, for example, may benefit tremendously from the NCAA’s $19.6 billion television contract for the March Madness basketball tournament and from media deals and corporate sponsorships for their popular televised football programs. The NESCAC, the NCAA conference that includes Tufts, sees very little of that support. You also may not officially place a bet on any sports contest with Tufts in its name.
We chose another path, thanks to Morris’ forebear. Professor Clarence Houston, Tufts’ very first director of athletics, was appointed to his role in 1921, two years after members of the 1919 White Sox allegedly threw the World Series for profit and 15 years after the NCAA was founded to rein in the excesses even then corrupting college sports.
Houston, We Have a Problem
In the early decades of the 20th century, Tufts football was primed for a big-time stage. The 1913 team was nationally ranked, with a 7–1 record and a sole loss coming on a safety to a powerful Army team in turn defeated only by the already indomitable Notre Dame.
As fate would have it, on that Tufts team was a 145-pound lineman named Clarence Houston, a senior who would return to his alma mater in 1920 to teach government and economics. The following year, Houston became Tufts’ first athletic director, a position he held until 1954. More than any other person in Tufts history, Houston shaped the future of Jumbo athletics. An authentic scholar-athlete, he wanted no part of the corrosive culture that had come to define college athletics.
Take one of Houston’s counterparts: Amos Alonso Stagg, an innovator in both football strategy and player recruitment who arrived at The University of Chicago in 1892. Stagg came up with something called “the student service payment,” which he used to compensate players-for-hire. By 1924, when Stagg took his seventh title in the Big Ten conference he had helped form, his fellow collegiate coaches followed suit, drafting “student” athletes wherever and however they could, no questions asked.
The abuses had come to a head by 1929, when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Education produced an investigative report, “American College Athletics.” A preface by Carnegie President Henry S. Pritchett asked: “Can [the university] concentrate its attention on securing teams that win, without impairing the sincerity and vigor of its intellectual purpose?” His answer—a resounding “No!”—traced the process that led to what he called “systematic professionalized athletic contests for the glory and, too often, for the financial profit of the college.”
Back at Tufts, “Pop” Houston, as he was affectionately known, took one look at the professionalization of intercollegiate football and wanted no part of it. In one of his first acts as Tufts’ athletic director, Houston banned first year students’ participation on the varsity football squad. Houston took his orders from President John Cousens, who led Tufts from 1920 to 1937. In those critical years between world wars, many college admissions officers received lists of admittees from the head football coach. A 30-year-old freshman quarterback might materialize to lead his team—but not under Cousens and Houston at Tufts.
Houston did all he could to create national academic standards for NCAA athletes, and he had his supporters. In 1947, at the invitation of the NCAA Compliance Committee, Houston took a one-year leave of absence from Tufts to create enforcement statutes for athletes in what became known as “the Sanity Code.” Among other stipulations, the code permitted the awarding of scholarships, but only if recipients demonstrated financial need. When he returned to Tufts in 1948, Houston stayed on as a senior official of the NCAA and worked to keep professional sports off campuses.
Creating Strength through Divisions
Some might consider Houston’s efforts for the NCAA a lost cause. In addition to the problems long plaguing football, collegiate basketball had emerged in the post-war period as a national gambling magnet, with point spreads making it easy to fix the scores of a contest.
By the time Houston died in 1965, he had witnessed the 1951 dismantling of the NCAA’s Sanity Code. But he knew what he wanted for Tufts—to keep the school’s athletes safe from the scandals making headlines across the country—and he laid the foundation for better things to come.
In 1971, Tufts and nine other highly selective liberal arts colleges and universities created the New England Small College Athletic Conference, which “remains committed to keeping a proper perspective on the role of sport in higher education,” according to its website.
NESCAC tenets generally are more restrictive than those of the NCAA in terms of season length, number of games, and off-season schedules, among other areas, with the goal of keeping “athletics strong but in proportion to the overall academic mission of the member institutions.” It’s a mandate that sounds a lot like the shared philosophy of Cousens and Houston.
Although the NCAA abandoned the Sanity Code, it did eventually embrace NESCAC. In 1973, the NCAA adopted a tiered system that created Division III, including 28 national championship titles in which NESCAC members compete. With more than 440 member institutions, it is the largest of the NCAA’s three divisions and the only one that explicitly prioritizes academics over athletics, allowing “student-athletes to focus on their academic programs and the ultimate goal of earning a degree,” according to its website.
Division III rules and regulations govern admissions, financial aid, and recruiting, including placing an implied limit on salaries for even the most successful coaches. Which, by the way, Tufts has a few of—including Karl Gregor, the 2021–22 Wilson Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Division III National Coach of the Year and the 2021–22 NESCAC Coach of the Year, topping off the winningest season in the history of Tufts men’s tennis. Gregor followed women’s tennis coach Kate Bayard, who was the previous year’s ITA national honoree and NESCAC Coach of the Year. And Adam Hoyt, the head coach of both the women’s and men’s swimming and diving teams at Tufts, was named a NESCAC Coach of the Year for women’s swimming and diving in 2022 too.
Tufts is committed to valuing the intersection of athletics and academics, today and in the future. The Tufts Athletics Faculty Liaison Program, launched with a pilot program in 2017–18, aims to enhance the relationship between faculty members and student-athletes. And the Tufts University Athletics Student-Athlete Advisory Committee helps improve communications between student-athletes and the university administration.
Student-athletes shine in Tufts classrooms, labs, and campus activities as well as on the field. Last year, 561 of them earned Academic All-NESCAC honors, the most ever for Tufts. As one example, Jaden Pena, A23, a defensive back on the football team, is serving as the elected student body president this year while also performing with the a cappella group the Beelzebubs and double majoring in political science and music, sound, and culture.
Meanwhile, Houston’s legacy lives on. Inducted posthumously into Tufts Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018, Houston also lends his name to one of Tufts’ two annual Athlete of the Year Awards.
A quote from Tufts tennis player Isaac Gorelik, E22, on Karl Gregor’s recent honors could easily apply to Houston as well: “Though he is about as competitive as it gets, he's taught us time and time again that college tennis is about so much more than wins and losses. It's about the effort, the lessons, and the many steps we take together to become better people, better teammates, and better friends.”
Sol Gittleman is the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor Emeritus and a former Tufts provost.