Although the Ivy League was established as a sports conference, its reputation today restsmore on academic than athletic prowess. Penn, however, is a slight exception to the rule.
The only Ivy school ever to host an ESPN “College Football GameDay” broadcast, Penn has a tradition of athletic excellence that equals its scholarship. Sports legends permeate the University’s athletic history, from the football teams coached by the likes of John Heisman and George Munger from the 1920s to the 1940s to the nationally ranked teams that came out of the men’s basketball program in the 1970s.
Athletic Director Steve Bilsky W’71 played on one of those storied teams. The 1971 Quaker squad, on which Bilsky was point guard, had an undefeated regular season—the last Philadelphia team prior to this season to post a perfect record—was ranked No. 3 in national polls and went all the way to the East Regional finals in the NCAA tournament.
It is this legacy Bilsky returned to Penn to uphold 10 years ago. Not only has he upheld it, he has celebrated it through such creations as the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame, established in 1996—to whose second class of honorees he was elected in 1998. He has managed to do all this while also tackling issues of gender equity and the need for expanded and improved facilities.
Q. How would you characterize the state of Penn’s athletic program now?
A. I think it’s very strong. From a competitive standpoint, we’re strong. Our teams are doing very well. We’ve won, I think, 36 championships in the last five years, which historically is a good number.
Our student athletes are performing very well in the classroom, too. The caliber of student athlete coming to Penn, from a standpoint of measurements, SAT scores and class rank, is the strongest it’s ever been.
And we’ve been able to do other things around athletics and recreation. We’ve built buildings, we’ve renovated buildings and we’ve created the Pottruck Center, which is something that has become quite popular. I would leave it to others to judge how we’re doing, but for the most part, the feedback we’re getting is extremely positive.
Q. One of the distinctive aspects of the Ivy League is that it awards no athletic scholarships. What does that mean in terms of fielding a competitive athletic program?
A. What it means first and foremost is that student athletes are no different from any other students on campus. From a financial standpoint, their award is based on need, not merit, just like all students here at Penn.
When you measure the academic requirements to be admitted, and the fact that we don’t give athletic scholarships, the pool of candidates that can play at a Division I level is extremely small. So we have to extend our recruiting horizons way beyond the immediate area. We have to recruit nationally. We have international students now that are playing on our athletic teams. And, obviously, all the other Ivy schools are looking at a similar batch of candidates.
We have some teams that recruit against the very best Division I programs in the country, whether it’s Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Virginia, Georgetown—schools of great athletic prominence but also with high academic standards. Depending on the sport, and the nature of where that particular sport might have its greatest high school strength, we will go wherever there is somebody who is a candidate that’s legitimate.
Q. In what sports have we had the greatest success recruiting?
A. Penn in the last decade or so has probably been the most successful school in the Ivy League in what are considered the two most visible sports, football and men’s basketball, which we’re proud of. But we don’t want to be seen as just a single-directed program. Of the championships I mentioned before, I think 15 different teams have been successful by winning a lot of championships. I’m not going to name them all because it would leave someone out, but it spans the seasons, it spans the genders, men’s and women’s teams, and we’re probably as proud about that as we are any of our accomplishments, that we’ve become truly a broad-based, successful program.
Q. Speaking of gender, have we had to take any extraordinary measures to meet the requirements of Title IX? I know that some schools have eliminated entire sports to ensure gender equity.
A. We haven’t had to eliminate teams. That’s counter to our philosophy, which is to create the greatest number of opportunities.
What we needed to do and what I think we’ve done successfully is make sure the opportunities by gender are equal and that, basically, funding per capita for each student athlete is comparable, and we’ve been successful in doing that. We’ve also had some success in our women’s programs, and I think that adds to the morale of the department in that regard.
We’ve also had a history of adding opportunities for our women’s teams whenever we could. We started women’s soccer in the 1990s, and we added women’s golf more recently, so we’ve had a history of adding opportunities for women, and I think all that together has put us in pretty good stead from a gender equity standpoint.
Q. How does the athletic operation affect the University’s bottom line?
A. The Ivy League philosophy that began back in the 1950s was based on the fact that athletics would be treated as an educational component and not as a self-sufficient corollary to the institution. That principle has never changed.
Our budget is dependent on University support and our own ability to raise money, which in our case ranges from alumni contributions to ticket sales to corporate sponsorships to endowments. And the proportion is probably pretty close to a 50-50 split. Because of the size of our facilities, it’s extremely costly to run them, and that takes a good chunk out of our budget and clearly that’s something that the University helps us subsidize as well.
Q. Speaking of facilities, any chance we will get an indoor track?
A. Come back and talk to me maybe next year. We are looking at a variety of different facilities to counter what is our big disadvantage in that we don’t have adequate facilities for both athletics and recreation, for team sports in inclement weather. And whether it be an indoor track facility or a field house that allows people to play inside, we’re the only Ivy League school right now that doesn’t have something like that.
Q. How do you think sports figure into the life of the campus now as opposed to when you were an undergraduate?
A. Penn has always had a spirit around our intercollegiate programs. Students come out and support the team, they’re proud of the teams when they do well. I think there is probably as much— if not more— school spirit at Penn than at all the other institutions in the Ivy League. And that hasn’t changed. What has changed is the number of teams we sponsor and the seriousness of the sports.
Q. Does anyone regret our giving up big-time football in the 1950s?
A. I think no one could have predicted the amount of revenues available right now to big-time football teams—$20, $30, $40, $50 million from bowl games and television rights. Nobody could have predicted 50 years ago that athletics would become such a big business.
Q. But some say that this big-business nature of college sports has corrupted universities. It’s the tail wagging the dog.
A. No question. And that’s why I think that even with that knowledge, if people could make the decision again, there would be a sense that the values [embodied in Ivy sports] were correct and we shouldn’t go that way.
Originally published on March 18, 2004