Athletics runs the distance
In 1996, the Oberlin Athletics Department considered changing the name of Oberlin teams from the Yeomen to the Crimson Thunder. It was part of a comprehensive plan by the administration to boost the spirits and change the image of Oberlin’s struggling sports program.
Today, Oberlin sports are in the midst of a renaissance once again. These changes are more permanent and wide-ranging than a name change, but the results are no more certain.
A quick glance at Review sports sections during the ’90s reveals such headlines as “Softball team improves despite record” and “Track and Field realistic about season.”
The football team, the flagship athletic program of most colleges, suffered a 44-game losing streak from 1992-2001, an NCAA record, earning the designation “the ream team” by the Cleveland Scene. The administration at one point seriously considered scrapping football altogether.
Though it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when change began to occur, it is fairly certain that it is in large part due to the initiative of College President Nancy Dye.
Improving the profile of Oberlin sports was always a priority of the Dye administration, but it wasn’t until 1998 that major action was taken to strengthen the department.
The College hired Michael Muska from Milton Academy in Massachusetts to serve as Deltalta Lodge Director of Athletics. Muska made headlines as the first openly gay athletic director at a major American college. It was his work at improving the image and performance of Oberlin athletics for which he has been remembered.
“When I got here the belief was that we could be better,” Muska, now working as a guidance counselor at Poly Prep School in Brooklyn, N.Y. said. “A lot of coaches felt beat up. My goal was to make players and coaches feel better about themselves, to have a program people could feel proud of.”
While improvement was the main priority, Muska also had to take into account the idiosyncrasies of running an athletic department at a school like Oberlin.
“Oberlin is a very unique community,” he said. “We have a Conservatory which rarely contributes athletes and students who make an incredible time commitment to other activities. You have to work hard to identify the kind of kid for our department. The normal dumb jock doesn’t cut it here.”
While some criticized the administration’s approach to athletics as overzealous, Muska feels that they never misplaced the College’s real priorities.
“It was my impression that their focus was never on winning titles,” he said. “It’s just not a good experience for an athlete to go out and get beaten every game.”
Dye was not available for comment but has reaffirmed a similar commitment to athletics on several occasions.
“It is hard for students to have a good athletic experience if they don’t have any success,” she told the Review in an interview earlier this year. “They don’t have to be great but they should be competitive.”
Along with the construction of Philips Gymnasium, the hiring of a slew of new coaches and the addition of golf, softball and numerous club teams, there has been a new focus on admissions.
“When I arrived there were some concerns that there wasn’t a good relationship,” Muska said. “We worked hard to make it better. Not making exceptions but understanding the rules better. Just like the Conservatory we make exceptions for outstanding athletes who can do the work at Oberlin.”
Several Oberlin teams, including football, field hockey and men’s lacrosse, have dramatically improved their performance in recent years, but the future under Oberlin’s new athletic director, Vin Lananna, who Muska described as having a “real Division I philosophy,” remains anything but certain.
“I think that the general perception of athletics among the large population on campus could be improved. A lot of students don’t take pride in the sports teams. If you’re a college student, you can take pride the Conservatory. Why not take pride in athletics?”