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FOOTBALL '89 : BRAINS & BRAWN : Emphasis on Academic Enrichment Helps Inspire Occidental to Achieve Passing Grades in NCAA Division III Football

August 31, 1989|JEFF MEYERS | Times Staff Writer

In the fall of 1895, on some long-forgotten field, two Los Angeles colleges played football. It was a time when the sport--just beginning its evolutionary journey--existed largely to enrich the college experience and ennoble the human spirit. Winning was important, of course, but so were such concepts as honor, purity and sportsmanship.

Nothing much is remembered about that game, but the score is preserved on an ancient football in a college trophy case. Scrawled in faded letters on the cracked and brittle leather: Occidental 10, USC 0.

But that was Stone Age football. Today, the teams never meet. And if they did, it wouldn't be pretty. Like all the major powers--and a lot of the minor ones, too--USC plays football mainly to enrich its coffers. Winning is still important, but it's also absolutely necessary. Nobility has fallen prey to marketing imperatives.

The old leather football is kept in the athletic department at Occidental, a private four-year school in Eagle Rock. It serves as an ironic reminder of how the times have changed--and how the Oxy football program has stayed the same. Over the decades, Oxy teams have kept pace with modern strategy and techniques without losing sight of the sport's earlier ideals. Call them the Occidental Purists.

"This is what college football should be like across the board," says Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Oxy's most prominent former football player. "The emphasis on winning is put in perspective at Oxy. It's not done at the cost of one's soul."

Barry Switzer's worst nightmare: no scholarships, no active recruiting, no spring practice, no cuts, no long practices, no semi-literate players, no control over admissions, no cheating. Imagine a team that puts education ahead of competition, that even skips practice to study. It would surely be enough to drive Switzer out of football--had a scandal at Oklahoma not already done so.

But Dale Widolff thrives on what most coaches would see as major obstacles to a winning team. Widolff, head coach at Oxy since 1982, has managed to stay clean and win more than 80% of his games. His Tigers have been the top Division III team on the West Coast and have dominated the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, winning or sharing five of the last six league titles and going unbeaten in 1984.

While most college coaches come across as slick used-car salesmen, Widolff, 36, appears more cerebral and earthy, almost professorial with his short-cropped beard and glasses. He doesn't wink when he says, "I want football to be one of the most rewarding things a player does here."

Indeed, Oxy players don't get under-the-table cash to play--they all have to pay the school to get in.

Despite its orange-tile roofs and balmy eucalyptus trees, Occidental seems more like an exclusive eastern college. Teaching liberal arts to some 1,600 students, it takes pride both in its high academic standing--The New York Times calls it "one of the best colleges on the West Coast"--and its high admission requirements. Admission standards require high school students to have a 3.5 grade-point average and/or a 1,200 SAT score. Football players, too.

"It takes a special person to play here," says senior Tony Ferguson, a 5-foot-9 starting defensive end.

Instead of railing against such high standards, Widolff tries to use them to his advantage. Even before hyping the football program, a recruiting letter sells Oxy's academic reputation, calling it "a leader among the nation's top liberal arts schools." Another selling point for Oxy: It graduates 100% of its senior football players. "The highest goal of any college sport is to prepare men for life after that sport," Kemp says.

In competing with other colleges for a player, says Widolff, "If a kid has a choice between Oxy and a school with less of an academic reputation, we usually win." On the other hand, "If a kid is thinking about going here or to Swarthmore, football will break the tie. He'll come to Oxy."

Of course, Oxy isn't competing for blue-chip players, nor do blue-chip players even apply. Only a handful of Tigers (including Kemp, a quarterback who starred with the Buffalo Bills, and running back Vance Mueller, now with the Raiders) have made it to the pros. (Though Jim Mora, Kemp's roommate at Oxy, is head coach of the New Orleans Saints).

The typical Tiger is a good high school player considered too small or too slow for big-time football. Most didn't even know Oxy existed until they received a letter expressing interest in them. Nearly half come from out of state. Most are white.

Widolff takes the mail-order approach to recruiting. In the fall he blankets the western states, sending out 4,000 letters to coaches asking them to list players who qualify academically for Oxy. He'll get about 2,000 names, and will follow those up with letters. About 1,100 players will return questionnaires.

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