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Caltech Football Team Reasons Out a Winning Formula

December 18, 1986|SHEILA BARNES

Fewer than 50 spectators populate the wooden bleachers at Tournament Park in Pasadena, and Caltech football Coach Lin Parker says most of them would not be there if it were not for the free beer.

There are no hot dogs or cheerleaders and half time festivities routinely consist of crocheting, reading a physics book or staring placidly in seeming contemplation of the universe.

Clearly, this is not Pac 10 football.

It's club competition and anyone can play, as reflected by the Caltech Battling Beavers' 48-man roster, which lists among its players custodians, faculty members and Jet Propulsion Laboratory employees as well as students.

Test of Survival

Shortly after Parker was hired in 1979, he decided that the Caltech football team, which had been averaging a winning season about once every quarter-century, had to drop out of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. to survive.

The move has been so successful that the Beavers' 20-game winning streak this year was snapped only at the end of the season, leaving the team with an 8-1 record. The Beavers' final victory came last weekend against the Pasadena Police Department.

In an era in which some student athletes star on the field but cannot read or write well, Parker has found a way to match brains with brawn.

The school, which draws some of the nation's brightest math, science and engineering students and has produced 21 Nobel laureates, has always had an abundance of brains. But Caltech has repelled athletes in the same way that it has attracted geniuses, via strict academic standards.

"Caltech selects its students from the top 1% and when you do that, you're going to get fewer athletes per square foot," said Caltech Athletic Director Warren Emory.

Taking a Beating

Pitted against schools that actively recruited players solely for their athletic ability, the less-skilled Caltech team was regularly taking a beating.

"Our sole reason for going club was the fact that we couldn't end the normal season with enough healthy bodies to play," said Parker.

Since the team became a club, its won-loss record has steadily improved, partly because it is no longer subject to NCAA rules regarding eligibility and scheduling.

"There are some clubs that are very, very good, and we simply avoid them," said Emory. "You can come up with a winning season if you schedule carefully."

Although a club's roster is open to anyone the coach is willing to accept, Parker tries to make sure the team is made up mostly of students and other Caltech-affiliated people. This year's team had 24 undergraduate and seven graduate students, 15 staff and two faculty members.

Even so, having club rather than NCAA status presents difficulties.

Clubs have a tough time finding other teams to play, and when they do get a game scheduled, the other team sometimes forgets to show up.

And only a few faithful fans turn out to cheer on their teams, Emory said.

Yet the players rarely complain.

"We don't expect a crowd," said Rick Gilbrech, an injured tailback who is pursuing a Ph.D. in aeronautics. "We've never really had one, so you can't miss what you've never had."

Several of the players had no football experience when they tried out for the team.

'Give It a Try'

"Before coming here, I never saw a football game except on TV, but I played a lot of rugby, so I decided to give it a try," said Pascal Yvon, a defensive end from Poitiers, France, who is studying material science.

"This is my first season," said Huw Davies, a 5-foot-6, 125-pound kicker seeking an advanced degree in geophysics. "I've played rugby before, but never football."

Davies said he enjoys the game but he and his friends take exception to being thought of as "nerds playing football."

Some players do have experience, including Vince Riley, 25, a maintenance man at Caltech's athletic center, who has played with the Beavers for five years. Riley, a running back, won unofficial Most Valuable Player honors in at least one game this season.

"We kid around a lot, but if you get too relaxed, you get hurt," said Riley, who injured his knee last year.

Had Wrong Date in Mind

On a recent Saturday, the Beavers warmed up for a game against the semi-pro Orange County Cowboys, but the Cowboys were severely shorthanded because half the team thought the game was Sunday instead of Saturday.

Cowboy Coach Paul (Blueberry) Montes tried to scrape together a team and even suited up himself, although he had not played for four years. He scrounged up enough odds and ends to create a uniform with too-small shoes and droopy-seated pants.

"We shouldn't lose today," Parker said, "but with the caliber of athlete we have here at Caltech, that is certainly possible.

"Of course, if it were a mathematics contest, we'd win hands down."

Holding Dummies

According to Parker, bona fide jocks are so rare at Caltech that he would practically jump up and down when he heard about the arrival of a new player who had earned a high school letter in football "until I figured out what it really meant."

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