Pepperdine's Return to National Prominence in Athletics

November 22, 2010  | 4 min read

By Andrew K. Benton
President, Pepperdine University

In 1998, the late Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist (and dear friend to Pepperdine, by the way) publicly chastised the administration of Rutgers University—his alma mater—for pursuing national prominence in college sports. While I was often impressed by Friedman's economic theories, I can't say that I was moved by his arguments when he declared in the student newspaper—the Daily Targum—that universities do not "exist…to provide entertainment for spectators or employment for athletes." If that was the only return a university could expect, I would have to agree with his assertion; but from my perspective, strong athletic programs contribute greatly to the life of the individual athlete and the life of the university as a whole.

The chance to compete at the national level instills within each athlete a desire for excellence. At Pepperdine, coaches, trainers, and staff harness the athlete's love of competition and use it as an opportunity to teach life lessons about integrity, honor, dedication, a strong work ethic, teamwork, sportsmanship, prioritization of time, service to others, and leadership. The institution as a whole benefits when a successful athletic program unites the campus community and the alumni around the spirit of school pride that only championship play can ignite.

Even so, as I added the words "Pepperdine must return to national prominence in athletics" to the vision document I shared with the Pepperdine community earlier this fall, I realized that some thoughtful members of our community might share concerns similar to Friedman's.

In response to Friedman, Rutgers president, Francis L. Lawrence agreed that "[Rutgers'] primary mission is the academic one," adding that the university must achieve the same high level in athletics. "A successful athletic program, in fact," Lawrence wrote, "underlines the university's academic reputation in an especially compelling way."

I would suggest that Friedman's position might have been forged out of frustration with college sports programs that eclipse the academic purpose of the institution and higher education in general. These programs, rare but often high-profile, place such a premium on winning and revenue that they will bend the rules, recruit academically unqualified athletes, and exploit the athletic brand in unseemly if not unethical ways.

Though a local prominent sports writer has declared that Pepperdine will never compete nationally precisely because it refuses to run its programs this way, I would argue that our mission calls us to prove to ourselves and the world that we can excel in ethical competition at the national level. I am motivated by the idea that a university committed to the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values can likewise compete consistently and successfully in athletics.

Over the years Pepperdine has demonstrated its capacity to field teams of academically qualified, high-performing athletes who are leaders in the classroom and in the community. Our track record is phenomenal. Since 1993, the Pepperdine athletics program, competing against much larger schools, has been ranked by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics as the number one athletics program eight times during that period. Few schools of any size have consistently placed as high in this prestigious, national competition as has Pepperdine.

My concern as president is that the most recent trend data suggest that it will become even more difficult to compete at the national level if we do not act now. We see that universities with successful football programs are turning their attention to Olympic sports and are using resources generated from their football programs to compete with greater success. To counter, universities with non-football programs are focusing on sports where they can be most successful and are leveraging them to invest in new facilities. These strategies are working and we must respond with vigor and creativity.

To vie for a position on the national stage, Pepperdine must compete effectively in NCAA Division I. Yet, with each passing year our competitors are fielding teams that are better equipped and better prepared than our own athletes. With the addition of Brigham Young University to the West Coast Conference, a development that I fully supported, the stakes are even higher. To compete more effectively with our rivals we must provide our athletes with advanced practice and training facilities. We must also offer more marketing, recruiting, and staff support to our coaches. And finally, to recruit the nation's most qualified athletes, we must strengthen our ability to fund scholarships.

In a future essay in this publication, I will share Pepperdine's plans for investing in new facilities that are so cleverly designed that they will not only support championship teams but will become a major hub of campus community life—supporting athletes, students, alumni, and faculty and staff alike. For now, let me simply underscore the vital importance of building a durable athletic brand with the potential to better position Pepperdine on the national dais. Very few things we do today will propel us further and faster than fielding championship teams on the national stage.

As I've said, competing in NCAA Division I at the highest levels will require a significant investment in facilities, coaching personnel, and a reevaluation of our recruitment and retention strategies. But I see that this investment will produce a high return, for it will better serve our student-athletes, it will unite and energize our alumni, it will provide for a stronger campus community, and it will underscore the value of our mission to an ever-widening and appreciative audience.

Is success in our athletics programs important to Pepperdine's future? I believe it is essential.

To read "Boundless Horizons," please visit www.pepperdine.edu/president.