Starting From Scratch
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.
Each of the players was "recruited" on Campus Life Night, when the jocks set up informational tables next to the Ice Chippers and the rest. Names were taken; not many questions were asked. For former high school athletes who thought their best days were behind them, it was thrilling.
"It's like our second chance to play again and be competitive," says Keven Bambrough, a Sports and Entertainment Management major from Utah who signed up for Johnson & Wales's inaugural baseball team. "I love baseball. I've missed it so much. Being back on a team is so awesome."
Next year will be slightly different. This spring, Mark Gentry, the school's chief recruiter -- and sports information director and assistant athletic director and head baseball coach -- sent out letters to every high school coach in Colorado who oversaw any of J&W's chosen eight sports. He licked about 2,800 postage stamps.
"We asked them to refer students who were good athletes and a good match for us," he says. "Not Division I players, who were being recruited by CU or CSU, but solid athletes who wanted to stay close to home. In Colorado," he adds, "it turns out there's a ton of these guys."
After figuring out who, exactly, Gentry worked for -- "We get a lot of 'Johnson and who?'" he says -- the coaches forwarded the names of about 300 potential recruits. For a chief recruiter without any actual scouts, the tactic was something of a crapshoot. "A lot of players, it's hard to gauge their ability," Gentry concedes. "I've asked them to send videotapes, but most kids don't have those."
Still, he called every single one of them. Johnson & Wales doesn't offer any athletic scholarships, he told them. But if you finish school in the top third of your class and carry a 3.0 GPA, there's an academic scholarship waiting for you. And if you get over 1,000 on your SATs, there's more where that came from.
Best of all, though, Gentry was able to tell a bunch of young men and women who stood by and watched while their high school team's stars got snapped up by bigger schools that maybe, just maybe, there were more glory days ahead for them, too. There's a three-year-old university in Denver, he said, that wants them to represent it on the field and in the gym. "These kids," says athletic director Corrigan, "are hungry for sports."
Coaches, too, have been surprisingly eager to come to Johnson & Wales, despite only a small stipend and no moving costs. "At this level, college coaches definitely aren't doing it for the money," Corrigan says. "But they get to come in with no expectations and build a program from the ground up."
There's no quick road to a championship, of course. But for many coaches, it's comfort enough just to realize that everyone knows it. "It's gonna take years of competition and maybe a big win to get on the map," Gentry says.
That probably won't happen for this year's baseball team, which is in the thick of preparing for its first game this season. Although a few of the players who signed up during Campus Life Night had some experience, others, Gentry admits, "probably wouldn't have started on their high school team." Still, he cut only three players of the twenty-odd guys who took the time to show up.
The team's entire budget this year -- equipment, travel, food, three overnight stays -- is $5,000, probably less than the University of Nebraska spends on buying baseballs each year. The team will travel in buses the university snapped up when Up With People went bankrupt. "Actually," Gentry notes, "the real challenge is facilities."
Specifically, there are none. Thanks to the drought, efforts to secure use of a nearby high school or city field came to nothing. So the team patiently took batting practice indoors. Finally, a local elementary school granted permission for the first-year baseball team to use an empty lot on its property. In exchange, two of the baseball players in the Johnson & Wales culinary program agreed to auction off a six-course gourmet meal to the highest bidder, with the money going to the school.
For the past couple of weeks, the players have been tilling the field themselves, raking and flattening the soil to create an infield out of weeds and dirt. "It's almost like a sandlot field," says Bambrough, sounding not one bit disappointed. "But it's a lot better than nothing."
Last week, for the first time, the brand-new Johnson & Wales baseball team took infield practice on the diamond they made themselves. Not everyone made it, work and class schedules being what they are. It's a far cry from a Division I field.
And ain't it grand?
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