A professor, a coach, and an athlete share their perspectives on the value of school spirit and the sense of community a strong athletics program can build.
By Regan Houser
Photos by Keith Boyer
It’s difficult to define what makes people love sports. Sociologist Melissa Swauger will tell you that society’s values are played out in athletic competition.
Flash back to March 9. The atmosphere in IUP’s Ed Fry Arena was electric. The noise ranged from total silence to frenetic celebration.
Up until the end, the PSAC championship game—IUP vs. Slippery Rock—had been a nail-biter. The house was packed with fans of both teams, and in the game’s last few seconds, Slippery Rock made two shots, bringing the Rock within four points. But time was on IUP’s side. Students flooded the arena floor and swept guard Devante Chance off his feet.
Students, faculty members, players, coaches, alumni, townspeople, Hoop Troop—the children’s club that follows IUP basketball—all now share that moment. Together, they celebrated IUP’s third conference championship in four years.
According to Swauger, a member of IUP’s Class of 1997 who joined the Sociology faculty in 2009, sociologists who study organizations and institutions and their survival have found that sports have a way of establishing unity and allegiance. “There aren’t many collective goals that everyone—from custodians to presidents—can share,” she said. “Sports provide a rallying point for students, alumni, the community—everyone.”
Athletics enable competitors and fans alike to participate in a ritual and be part of a group, she said. They allow those who aren’t directly competing to vicariously experience the thrill of the game. And, the cohesion and spirit athletics bring to universities are an important part of relationship building.
During basketball season, men’s head coach Joe Lombardi wants a packed house. It’s a valuable asset to game strategy, particularly as an intimidation factor, to have loud and proud fan support.
“More than that, a packed house is really important to the university,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to pull together students, alumni, and the community—and it gives us a platform to showcase IUP. This facility [the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex] makes a statement when it’s full.”
“The team is my family,” said cross country’s Stephanie Beaudette, IUP’s top finisher at nationals last year.
It’s the spectacle of the event, he said.
“I’ve always felt there are way more important things going on at the university [than sports], but there are very few things like a game atmosphere and full house that can pull people together and touch their emotions.”
Lombardi’s perspective comes from two stints at IUP and coaching positions at St. Francis, St. Bonaventure, La Salle, and the University of Pittsburgh. An athletics program is not only about what athletes gain, he said; the university itself benefits.
“We need to build spirit here. We need to use it. Everyone wants to be associated with success,” he said.
Lombardi suggested that a successful athletics program provides a platform for celebration for people of all ages. In turn, the university gains increased interest, which can pay dividends in terms of admissions and future financial support.
Non-revenue sports, those not as visible at the university, can have the same community-building value, but on a more intimate scale.
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Stephanie Beaudette, a senior Natural Science major from Johnston, Rhode Island, who plans to continue her education to become a physical therapist, is a member of the cross country team that took IUP to the national championships in 2012—its first appearance since 2003. In high school, she placed second at her state meet and was recruited by Division I schools closer to home but chose IUP because she felt it was a better fit.
“I’m not from Pennsylvania. I’m from eight hours away. I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “The team is my support system and gives me everything I need to thrive. Everyone has tough times, you know. I wouldn’t have gotten through any of those without my team.”
She said while competing in the national championship will always be a great source of pride and a cherished memory, 30 years from now, she suspects what will come to mind first will be very different.
“It will be the time I spent with the team—even the social times, like playing a game of Monopoly. The team is my family,” she said.
A Symbol in Bronze
If, as Melissa Swauger contends, sports are a ritual and serve as a common tie among seemingly unrelated people, then having a bold symbol of membership is a natural step. In September, the IUP community received the ultimate symbol in the form of a 700-pound bronze hawk suspended from the ceiling of the lobby of the Kovalchick Complex.
Sculptor John McCombie ’72 and his wife, Barbara Ratay McCombie ’82, watched the hawk’s unveiling in September. —Keith Boyer
Sculptor John McCombie, a 1972 graduate, was more than a bystander when IUP, at the insistence of the NCAA, changed its mascot in 2006. He was a vocal proponent of retaining IUP’s longstanding Indian symbolism. In fact, he had a heart-and-soul investment in it—he had created the Spirit of the Warrior, a bronze sculpture that remains in place at the entrance of Memorial Field House.
McCombie was excited to learn that the university had settled the mascot issue by selecting in 2006, through surveys and open hearings, the hawk as its new symbol.
As years passed and the Kovalchick Complex was constructed, the late Ed Bratton, a businessman who had generously supported the development of the complex, and several other local benefactors—Tom Zaucha, the late Roger Reschini, Ann Wilmoth, and Bill Beck—provided the funds to help McCombie create the sculpture. Without those private funds, the bronze magnum opus wouldn’t have been possible.
“It’s important to have a symbol that pulls everyone together and puts them in the same place. We all knew the hawk had that kind of potential, and I think this [sculpture] is going to do that,” McCombie said. “The students need a rallying point. The hawk has that going for it—to put it in bronze is the ultimate, in my opinion.”
At his Indiana area studio last year, McCombie put finishing touches on the clay hawk, from which the mold for the bronze was made. —Keith Boyer
Students, already inspired by what they’ve seen, have jumped into action. The Student Philanthropy Council, which oversees the Senior Class Gift program, has turned its attention to raising funds to cast a second hawk that could be displayed at an outdoor location on campus.
Acknowledging that the change from Indian mascot to hawk mascot was difficult for him and for many others, McCombie said, “The students now, as they come in as freshmen, will still have that hawk as their mascot when they graduate. …The decision has been made. We have a very strong mascot now that I believe can be fun. I think it can be the thing we’re all looking for.”
More from the Fall-Winter 2013 Issue of IUP Magazine
Mike Barnett came to IUP to grow musically. Twenty years later, the CU-Boulder faculty member has enlisted the help of an IUP mentor on his latest project—a fusion of metal, rock, and jazz
As shrinking high school class sizes take their toll on student enrollment, IUP must rely on innovation to weather the challenge
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
As thousands of alumni returned to campus in October to celebrate Homecoming 2013, they continued a tradition that has spanned eight decades
Junior Caitlin McCabe, a member of the IUP Color Guard, starts to get her gear together for the IUP Marching Band: her uniform, her flag—and her prosthetic leg
Since the start of the Fall semester, students have had access to a new gymnasium adjacent to the Hadley Union Building