Sports fans who lament the state of professional sports often cite the rent-a-player culture that increasingly dominates. Players move around so much these days that even a team's die-hard fans need to keep programs handy. Free agents seem to outnumber the guys under contract; blockbuster trades have become more common; and shooting-star salaries make it harder and harder to keep talented players.
Well, sure. Nothing's what it used to be. But if you want to study how a team copes with players who are around for only a few years, look at college sports. Phil Estes, Brown's football coach, for example, has to part with his most skilled and mature players - his seniors - as a matter of routine. For replacements he must look, not at the talent playing for other Ivy League teams, but to sophomores on his own campus, who may have done okay in high school but who can be raw rookies when it comes to Ivy-level play.
This fall, the turnover will be especially hard to bear. Brown has lost not only record-smashing receiver Sean Morey '99 (who was drafted by the New England Patriots last spring), but four other All-Ivy standouts: tight end Zach Burns, cornerback Alex Pittz, center Tim Hevesy, and defensive tackle Ephraim Wernick.
All this from a 1998 team that almost took the Ivy title, but not quite. Brilliant at bringing the ball downfield in a hurry, the Bears learned to play effective defense halfway through the season and reeled off six straight wins to finish off their slate. When the season ended with Brown in second place (7-3, 5-2 Ivy), people started looking back at the squad's early struggles - in particular, a season-opening, two-point loss to Yale - and wondering what might have been.
Aside from Morey, who became the first player in Brown's 119-year football history to have his uniform number retired, Burns will probably be missed most. The only Brown player ever to be named an AP first-team All-American, Burns romped over and through opponents of all shapes and sizes, hauling in fifty-eight catches, third best in the Ivies, for 703 yards and six touchdowns.
"Can you replace a Sean Morey or a Zach Burns?" Estes wondered aloud recently. "I don't know that you actually can. You may be able to replace their physical presence, their size, their speed. But you may never replace the leadership, the intangible stuff."
Estes is comforted by the hope that at least some of the surprises in any new season will be good ones. "You're always going to be able to bring in new talent," he says. "You may not always have a Morey in the crowd, but you've got to work with the idea that some other type of player will step forward. You adjust some things. And you try to play to your strengths and hide your weaknesses, no matter what hand you've been dealt."
Captain and quarterback James Perry '00 seems to agree. "Every year," he says, "you have what look like holes at the beginning of the year. And this time, it's true, we have some large shoes to fill. But you focus on what you can do well, and I know this team will be very tough. We were excited about what we did at the end of last season. But it doesn't satisfy you. We got off to a slow start, and we're not going to let that happen again."
If any quarterback can match up to receivers like Morey and Burns, it's Perry, who has his own rsum full of superlatives. Already one of the top passers in Ivy League history, Perry may end up being considered the league's best ever when he's done tearing apart defenses with his deep and accurate tosses. A two-time first-team All-Ivy pick, Perry ranked second nationally in total offense last season with an average of 310 yards per game. He holds the Ivy League record for completions in a season (274), and needs 1,810 passing yards to become the league's best all-time passer.
"James is captain now," notes Estes. "He knows he's missing the people who took the verbal role. He knows he's now the guy. So many of the passes that Morey caught - James was on the other end of them. But now he's the one in the limelight, and we're looking for him to really step up to that."
A top candidate for Perry's day-in and day-out target will be wide receiver Steve Campbell '00, another first-team All-Ivy selection. Campbell caught sixty-one passes last year, twentieth best in the country, and he should be fully recovered from last spring's shoulder surgery and ready to take over as the centerpiece of Brown's passing game. At six-foot-three-inches and 220 pounds, he will be easy to spot even when double- or triple-teamed.
As for surprises to watch for, Estes believes that Brown's offensive secret weapon during 1999 may be a running back named Michael Malan '02, who hadn't figured greatly in the team's plans prior to spring practice. "We thought he was a blocking-type back," remembers Estes. "But we gave him the ball at fullback once or twice last spring, and I looked over at my offensive coordinator and said something like, 'Do you see what I see?' Malan hit [linebacker] Louis Ames ['00], knocked him over, and then dragged along two or three other guys. We've moved him to tailback and can't wait to see what he can do."
On defense, Estes looks primarily to All-Ivy strong safety Azibo Smith '00, who, he hopes, will prevent a repetition of last year's early ineffectual pass defense. "He's very soft-spoken," Estes says of Smith, who was responsible for eighty tackles last year (nine of them for a loss), "but put a football helmet on him and he'll go right through you. We're going to count on Azibo to be the big-play guy."
Most agree that Smith, along with linebacker Ames and lineman Dave Gatcha '00, was a huge help to defensive coordinator Dave Duggan in improving last year's defense. "There were a couple of negative write-ups in the paper that kind of got us going," recalls Smith. "Coach Duggan got us to watch more film, and when we began to really focus on our roles, we started working together. Defense is made up of a lot of little things, and you've got to get on top of them."
This team may not be quite be up to bringing the Ivy title to Providence, but it could have the talent and drive to make it an interesting contest.
When the women's varsity crew raced to a four-second victory at the national championship final in late May, Brown had a new set of heroes. The boat blew past such perennially powerful squads as Virginia, California, and Princeton - not to mention the University of Washington, the defending champions, who, before losing to the Bears in the semifinals, had racked up a thirty-three-race unbeaten streak. The victory was nothing less than historic: Brown had never before won an NCAA title in any sport.
Unlike last year's football squad, which was loaded with senior standouts, the only oarswoman lost to graduation last spring was Amy Meyers '99, who was in the number-six seat. To understand what made this young team so exceptional - they lost only once during the regular season and set a course record at the Eastern Sprints - I asked coach John Murphy and several athletes what they thought the crew's "X-factor" might have been. What set this boat apart from other top-ranked Brown boats in recent years?
Amy Meyers '99 (6-Seat): "I think that because we were so young there was less pressure on us. We had nothing to lose, and because of that we were relaxed and had a lot of confidence in our 'move.' Our start was typically slower than other teams', but we never let that rattle us. We knew we were down, but it didn't make us jittery. Somewhere around the middle of a race, we would hit them with our rhythm and go right through them."
Kellie Walker '00 (4-Seat): "Some other boats I've rowed in were nervous and anxious before a race. We were rarely uptight. Plus, we got along really well with each other, and sometimes we'd even hang out together off the water. We'd have ice cream or watch TV or whatever. Because we were able to communicate, you could always trust the other people to be working as hard as you were."
Caroline Grogan '00 (Stroke): "One thing that separated us from last year was that [this season] we were happy each time with a win and didn't look further ahead than the next race. Because we were a young team, we just wanted to do what we could do. There wasn't this sense of, 'Uh, oh, it's now or never, we have to win it all this year.' "
John Murphy (Head Coach): "I've been thinking about exactly this - what made this group so special? I think their success was based on the fact that each did everything she had to do, plus a little bit more. They were very even in their strength, ability, and conditioning. There weren't two or three really strong women and the rest trying to keep up. Also, boats that can come from behind in a race are always special, and this was one of them. It takes just one person to doubt and the whole thing goes down. But we never had that doubter." Last year's astonishing feat has built up even more confidence. The women should be just as tough this year.