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May 05, 2004

Debonair Deford Delights De People

Ed.- Clips readers will recall a spirited back-and-forth series of essays describing this year’s basketball version of the historic Amherst-Williams rivalry. In the first essay, Mike Considine--a proud Amherst alum--wrote of his Lord Jeffs upsetting the favored Ephs. The next day, Williams SID Dick Quinn wrote me an e-mail of protest demanding equal space. I agreed, and Quinn supplied the opposing view for the next game.

A couple weeks ago Dick Quinn graciously invited me up to Williams to attend the 15th annual Frank Deford Award presentation. He said I could bring Considine “if he behaves.” The following is my eye-witness report of the proceedings.

By Nick Infante

It was well worth the long trip to attend the 15th annual Frank Deford Award presentation, even though the trek-and-back to Williams College is nine hours and 400 miles.

I stopped in Lenox, Massachusetts to pick up my cohort Mike Considine, and we drove up to Williamstown in a pouring rain. There were about two hundred people at the Williams Chapin auditorium, half of them over 45.

Most of the seats were filled, so Mike and I ended up front, in the third row. We picked our heads up and there was Frank Deford, sitting on the stage with Williams SID Dick Quinn, who was the MC for the event.

We had a real close-up view of Deford. I wish I could look that good when I’m 60-ish. His is a dapper and dignified appearance, from the slipper-like Italian loafers to the sharply creased slacks to the contrasting blue shirt (silk?) with white cuffs / collar to the muted goldenrod cravat to the nattily checked brown blazer. His tanned face, with a lean, chiseled handsomeness, was accented by a smartly trimmed thin moustache and topped with slicked-back hair that ended in grey curls over his back collar.

Meanwhile, Mike and I wiggled in our seats like schoolboys in the presence of Mickey Mantle.

Dick Quinn gave a fine intro to Deford, and he described that the Deford Award is given to the top student assistant Sports Information Assistant.

Mr. Deford spoke for about twenty minutes about the hypocrisy of college sports--mostly Division I programs. He immediately got to the heart of the matter by commenting that people are wrong in thinking that college sports have gone wrong only recently. Actually, he said, “It’s always been rotten.”

He lamented the cyclical house-cleaning charade that takes place—the latest being the NCAA’s much-ballyhooed “sea change” incentives-disincentives program.

Mr. Deford described the big D1 athletic programs as “rogue elephants” that have “too much invested in real estate” (arenas and stadiums) to ever agree to smaller, cleaner, more sane programs.

Posing a rhetorical question to the rapt audience, Deford asked, since schools give out scholarships for non-revenue producing sports, why don’t they give out scholarships for music or dance or art?

Mr. Deford railed about the distorted, illogical view of amateurism in college athletics. In particular, he called for a rule change that would allow athletes back into college sports if they don’t make it in the pros.

I thought that one of his best ideas had to do with an innovative way to clean up college sports. He said that change would have to come from outside the college world, not from the NCAA or the member institutions—because the big schools have too much to lose. Like the supernumerary outside-of-Congress commission established years ago to decide on the highly-charged military base closings, he thought that meaningful change in college athletics could only be enacted by impartial outsiders. That made a lot of sense; I would love to serve on that commission.

After his presentation, Deford took about twenty minutes worth of questions. He fielded questions about the football draft, the NCAA, Title IX, performance enhancement drugs (he did not say yeah or nay regarding an asterisk for Barry Bonds), fan misbehavior, etc. When asked about the athletes who impressed him the most, he said Arthur Ashe and Muhammad Ali.

The presentation ceremony was great, but things got even better when sixty of us made the short walk to the president’s residence, a stately mansion with what seemed like a dozen living rooms, sitting rooms, dens and dining rooms all on the first floor. It was a great party house. The wedding reception-quality offerings included a full bar (including Dewar’s scotch and Burnett’s gin), plus a succession of beef, crab cake, lobster, shrimp, sausage and veggie hors d’oeuvres.

In keeping with the academic underpinning of the proceedings, the invitees were a decidedly eclectic bunch. There were elderly blue bloods, students, placard-carrying Greenpeace activists, NASCAR dads, soccer moms and Amherst infiltrators. I actually saw a young man who was barefooted. Ah, academia.

Later Mike and I shook hands with Deford. In our open-mouthed awe, about all we could muster up was that we grew up together. He graciously asked where, and we said Torrington, Connecticut. He said, “Oh, I passed through there on the way up here.” We were thrilled at the thought that he actually drove through our hometown.

Overall, Mike and I behaved ourselves, even though Mike got picked on repeatedly because he was an Amherst grad.

I hope we get invited again next year.