Leaving the best athletes behind?

Coaches say Queen’s admissions policies prevent effective recruiting

When former men’s hockey assistant coach Tim Cunningham looks back on his 10-year stint at Queen’s, one of the things he remembers most is wishing he had more resources.

“[Head coach Chris MacDonald] and I personally subsidized team meals on the road, donating 20-30 per cent of our salaries,” he said. “We were the only team in the league that was doing that.”

Under the Queen’s Athletics Funding structure, those salaries were part-time ones, and Cunningham said it was tough to build a strong hockey program and recruit players under the system.

“After the season, we were out on the road four or five nights a week looking for kids, and we were rarely reimbursed by the school,” he said. “We would have to do it on our own ticket. It really became a thankless job.”

Funding issues were just one of several factors current and former Queen’s coaches cited as obstacles to creating a strong athletic program at the University. Pointing to narrow admission standards, complicated recruiting policies and nearly non-existent scholarships, they offered the Journal their suggestions for a more effective athletics program. According to women’s basketball head coach Dave Wilson, the results will be worth it.

“The University is looking to have a global society, but we’ve failed to see that is exactly what athletics does,” he said. “In a classroom you are trying to teach students to think critically. This is what sports teach—we should put more value in that.”

To find the students with the strongest potential, coaches argue, Queen’s should adopt a more flexible admissions policy.

“Queen’s admissions policies have got to change,” said head rowing coach John Armitage, who has been a coach at Queen’s since 1977. “This university still doesn’t get it. It is still admitting people based only on marks and disregarding other aspects in their lives.”

Queen’s doesn’t make allowances for student athletes when it comes to admissions, said John McFarlane, chair of Athletics and Recreation. Athletes are judged by exactly the same standard as every other student. Furthermore, the entrance standards at Queen’s are among the highest in Canada each year.

Armitage said he is concerned about this approach, and that great athletes and great people are being sent elsewhere.

“Countless champions with high marks and leaders in their schools do not get into Queen’s,” Armitage said. “We are arrogant, we think we are special. We are losing top-notch athletes to other schools.”

Football is the largest athletic team on campus, with a turnover rate of about 40 players a year, according to assistant football coach Pat Tracy. His recruiting staff is currently working seven days a week to try to convince high quality prospects to come to Queen’s in the fall. He echoed Armitage’s concern that simply looking at high marks is not sufficient in terms of judging a potential student’s ability to perform well at Queen’s.

“There’s no question, when you have a talented athlete close or just below the cutoff, but who are actively involved in their community and school, that these things need to be considered.”

Tracy acknowledged that Queen’s current system of requiring a personal statement of experience (PSE) from prospective students is a step in the right direction.

“The school has to come through with the PSE. That’s where you get a chance to see the whole picture,” Tracy said. “I think that it is sufficient, but I will support the argument that it should be worth more. If someone is a two-sport athlete in high school, working with a youth group or Big Brothers, and still pulling down an 84 per cent—I think that’s pretty special.”

Many Queen’s coaches said they believe the idea that great marks do not necessarily make for good students, and that factors such as extracurricular activities—which can promote leadership and time-management skills—produce students who are well suited to thrive in a university setting.

“We have kids who work hard and have good study habits, and there are kids who have 85s and don’t have to study: who says who’ll succeed?” said women’s hockey head coach Harold Parsons. “We want well-rounded students. I’d take kids who are well-rounded rather than just kids with really high marks.”

Men’s basketball head coach Rob Smart is willing to take Parsons’ thinking one step further.

“I think there’s more to talent than the mark you bring out of high school,” he said. “I don’t think people with high marks make the best whatever: doctors, lawyers, athletes, etc.”

McFarlane acknowledged that the high entrance requirements at Queen’s make recruiting difficult.

“At Queen’s the challenge is that, academically, the standards are higher,” he said. “Our challenge is that there is a very thin band of athletes at the top academically. We must get more than our share from that group.”

He also acknowledged that Queen’s standards push other athletes not only to other Canadian universities, but to the United States to seek bigger programs with more scholarship opportunities.

“Perhaps by being more flexible we would lose less athletes in certain sports to the NCAA,” he said. “However, the reality is that if your goal is to become a pro athlete or your focus is on sports, your best bet is to go down there. There are just more opportunities there. There are more universities in New York State than in all of Canada.”

Wilson said Queen’s high admission standards have been an obstacle in recruiting throughout his 25 years as a coach for the University. However, he said he does not think Queen’s should change its standards, but rather that they should re-evaluate what constitutes those high standards.

“You have to establish a minimum criteria for different categories. A 65 per cent student will have difficulty here, and it won’t help anyone,” Wilson said. “However, an 82 per cent kid has the capability to be accepted—and do well—at Queen’s. You need to find a reasonable figure, and use it as a benchmark—not a cutoff—but a benchmark to evaluate talents.”

Many coaches expressed their concern that their hands are tied by the way Queen’s handles the application process. With Queen’s high academic standards, many potential student-athletes sitting on the cut-off border line for specific programs remain unsure if they will be accepted to Queen’s. According to some coaches interviewed by the Journal, Queen’s is notorious for offering acceptances very late, which makes it difficult to secure prospects.

In the meantime, they said, other Ontario schools offer strong student athletes early admission and academic scholarships for grades that this University would never even consider for financial awards. Making the recruiter’s job even more difficult are universities outside of Ontario whose governing bodies allow them to offer first-party athletic scholarships, which are given out by the individual universities—not to mention the allure of the NCAA in the U.S. Currently the OUA does allow schools to grant athletic scholarships to returning student-athletes, and many schools promise these to first-year students, should they maintain a 70 per cent average. Queen’s does not.

Coaches say this can be frustrating since they spend countless hours on the phone, arranging campus visits, and traveling across the province to convince the best student-athletes to come to Queen’s.

“At times you’re not sure when—or if—they will get in ... and we don’t find out until very late in the process,” Tracy said. “It’s gets very stressful on both ends—for us and the family involved.

Still, many coaches agreed high standards at Queen’s are important.

“I don’t know if we’re handicapped by policies,” Smart said. “I think sometimes we get kids because it’s a good school with high standards. Obviously Queen’s has had some trouble recruiting in the past, but the reputation can help you.”

Parsons said his team has been relatively successful in terms of recruiting because they have managed to build their program to the point where they are ranked in the top 10 most seasons.

“We’ve had a fair amount of success recruiting based on the development of our hockey program,” he said.

Former men’s hockey head coach Chris MacDonald said the recruiting difficulties Queen’s encounters were a significant hindrance to the program he directed until this season.

“I found the barrier to be quite large,” he said. “At first you think it’s something you can work around, but the reality is you’re working with a really shallow pool.”

Parsons said the recruiting problem is exacerbated because the vast majority of Queen’s coaches are part-time employees. Queen’s boasts only eight full-time coaches.

“There can only be so much recruiting part-time coaches can do,” Parsons said. “If it was centralized, we could do recruiting through an office instead of handing off to coaches.”

MacDonald said he ran into the same problem, because he had substantial duties at his regular job.

“You get frustrated when McGill’s staff, who we’re supposed to be competing with, is jumping on a plane to go out to Calgary or B.C. to watch kids play, and you can’t because you’ve got to work. That’s one of the many reasons I have no regrets about leaving the team and seeking full-time employment.”

McFarlane said he thinks that the OUA’s athletic scholarship policies do need to be reviewed, but that he’s also quite proud of the athletic student body at Queen’s.

“In many ways our academic standards help us as much as they hurt us,” he said, referring to the high-quality student-athletes Queen’s attracts. “It’s time that scholarships in Ontario are examined and reviewed. It’s doesn’t have to change, but it is healthy to review. Change can really only come from university presidents.”

MacDonald said he agrees that a certain degree of wariness about abrupt changes is needed. At present, the OUA does offer athletic scholarships to players, but the dollar limit is lower than the CIS stipulates, and the academic requirements that go with them are higher. At Queen’s, scholarships may only be given to athletes on purely academic grounds.

Scholarships sound attractive and would make a definite difference, but they come with their own set of concerns and needs.

Armitage said that he does not disagree with enforcing high academic standards for admittance, but stresses the need for the University to consider balance when reviewing grades.

“I think that the OUA should not offer scholarships, and should retain an Ivy League academic school image,” he said. “Our academics distinguish us from other schools. These standards actually help us to recruit—we just need to take a better look at the whole picture.”

Nevertheless, there appears to be a general sentiment around the University that players deserve some kind of support for their efforts.

“My frustration is how hard the teams are doing it and how much is demanded of the players, and they deserve some support,” Smart said. “We have to talk the kids into coming, because we’re really not offering anything.”

“We look at rewarding athletic ability as not a good thing,” MacDonald said. “But if you’re a good engineer or a good musician, they seem to find you the money.”

However, it’s not all doom and gloom within the athletic community at Queen’s. Many coaches have joined with McFarlane in providing positive suggestions as to how things can be ameliorated.

Under the current funding system at Queen’s, every team is funded to the same basic level, relative to their respective needs. The 14 interuniversity sports form one category comprising 24 teams, and are paired with competitive clubs, of which there are also 24. Interuniversity teams are funded equally, but get more resources than competitive clubs. Recreational clubs form the second category and are divided into three sub-headings: developmental, participatory and instructional. The final category is intramural sports.

Parsons said he believes this approach leads to a diluted program, where few teams are able to thrive.

“At some point, Queen’s will have to look at how many sports they can offer,” he said. “It needs streamlining—core programs have to be supported. Look at the way Carleton streamlines things.”

He is referring to the Carleton Ravens, who have reduced the number of teams and given the bulk of funding to select programs. Their men’s basketball team is a model of success, having just had an 87-game, three-year win streak snapped. Smart, of the Queen’s men’s basketball squad, said he agrees with Parsons’ proposed funding model.

“You have to decide, does winning matter?” he said. “The same people who ridicule basketball, football, and hockey for a lack of success may be the same people who want us to be all things to all teams.”

Cunningham said he is also not a supporter of Queen’s current approach.

“There’s no way the hockey team can compete on a national level with a broad-based approach,” he said. “Pretty well every year we felt we were behind the eight-ball. We have to identify the top 10 programs in the school and really fund them at a substantial level.”

McFarlane also said he believes there is room for improvement, but was careful to stress that immediate change is secondary to an intelligent review of the current policies.

“We should re-examine the role of the student-athlete and what they can bring to the University,” he said. “We try to stay on top; we’re conservative in our approach. It’s hard to define success, and hard to define failure.”

Despite coaches’ criticisms of the existing order, McFarlane said he was eager to talk about the issues and hear concerns.

“It’s healthy to create this kind of dialogue,” he said.

“There’s sort of a feeling at Queen’s that because it’s Queen’s, everything will be fine,” Smart said. “People have to wake up. It doesn’t just happen because it’s Queen’s.”

That means the University has some tough decisions to make about how much of a priority athletics will be as it goes forward.

“The question is, do you feel athletics—from an identity point of view—is important to the University?” Smart said.

“You can be a top academic school and a top athletic school at the same time—they’re not mutually exclusive,” Cunningham said.

Dan Robson was recruited by Queen’s Athletics. James Bradshaw was not.

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