Starting From Scratch

The Johnson & Wales recipe for success includes a fresh-baked sports program.

For the first three months of their season, the Johnson & Wales men's basketball squad had a road schedule that made Colin Powell look like a shut-in. The Wildcats started the season on November 1, in Garden City, Kansas. The next nine games were all played in opponents' gyms as well, most in the hinterlands of small-town Nebraska and Kansas. In fact, the first home game in Denver wasn't played until January 24, versus Otero Junior College.

One reason for the brutal travel schedule may have been the J&W gymnasium, a vintage facility that's about nineteen feet shorter and five feet narrower than a standard basketball court. But do you think that mattered to the hometown fans? Before the first game, the 970-student school hosted a campus-wide barbecue.

While Johnson & Wales also grants business and marketing degrees, the university is known primarily as the cooking college that turned out celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. Students can join the Ice Chippers Club (for ice sculpture), the Bacchus Society (which allows students of legal age "to pursue their interest and passion in fine wines"); and the Baking and Pastry Club (enough said).

"The barbecue sold out," notes Tim Corrigan, the school's athletic director.

So did the game -- all 440 seats. During halftime, a hastily assembled cheering squad entertained the capacity crowd. T-shirts were flung into the bleacher seats, which overhang the gym floor in the style of gymnasiums built over a half-century ago, which this one was. A shooting contest for fans was held.

To say the team lost would be like saying that Bangladesh didn't quite get around to participating in this year's America's Cup finals. Otero scored about three points for every one the J&W cagers put up. But nobody in that rowdy place was prepared to say the 104-41 game was a loss.

"They're all great guys," says Lindsay Morgan, the university's director of community affairs. "They have a lot of spirit. And our students and staff stayed to the end. It was just like Hoosiers. Except, of course, we lost..." Just as they did every game the entire season. Oh for sixteen.

Hell, none were even close. Against the Air Force Academy's junior varsity team, the Wildcats managed a respectable 60 points. Unfortunately, the Falcons scored just over 100. It didn't help that halfway through the season, the team's best shooter -- he was averaging about 50 percent of the entire point total -- had to quit because he ran out of tuition money.

That wasn't as bad as the women's team, however. At the beginning of this past season, Coach Sherry Peterson signed up about a dozen girls. Ten showed up for the first practice. Most, she says, had some high school experience, although a couple were just soccer players in hightops. "They didn't have the basketball concepts," Peterson explains charitably. "But they liked playing on a team."

Johnson & Wales students keep a demanding schedule -- the cooking students often go to class six or seven hours a day. Many then report for work in local restaurants to gain experience behind the stove. So the only time the women's team could meet was at 6:30 in the morning -- approximately one hour after most CU students go to bed. Peterson was skeptical, but the team voted on the time themselves, so she dragged herself out of bed, too.

The grueling hours took their toll. "For some of the girls, it was more demanding than they thought," she says. After a few weeks, only six were still showing up for practice. But they came every day. "They were small in numbers, but they had a tremendous passion," the coach says.

In mid-October, the Lady Wildcats traveled to Lamar, far out on the Eastern Plains, for their first game. Seeing their depleted numbers, the community-college coach took pity and ran the game as a practice, occasionally stopping play to give the Denver team pointers. Was Johnson & Wales disappointed?

Hardly. "When we went into the locker room, the girls' eyes just lit up," Peterson recalls. "They saw the chalkboard and lockers. We did a real pre-game talk and warmup. They felt like they were a part of big-time college athletics." After the game, the women went out to dinner. When they took out their wallets to pay, the coach shook her head. "I said, 'This is college athletics,'" she says. "They couldn't believe it. They were thrilled. It was the little things that got them excited."

Alas, it was the high point of the season. The next week, another young woman quit. She was one of the soccer players, and she felt she just wasn't getting the hang of the game; she didn't want to hold back her teammates. A bit later, another woman told the coach that with her late-night restaurant work and daytime class schedule, she couldn't swing it. Down to just four players, the Lady Wildcats were forced to call it a season after a single game.

Next season, coach Peterson insists, looks brighter. In fact, the best thing about the athletic program at Johnson & Wales is that the future looks much, much brighter. That's because this year, the university started its entire competitive sports program from scratch. Last year, there was nothing. In August, the "athletic department" -- two guys working seventy-hour weeks out of a couple of converted dorm rooms -- jump-started men's and women's basketball and soccer, a golf team, a baseball team, a softball team and a volleyball team. The move was partly an admissions incentive, partly a way to give students something to do.

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