The Claremont-Mudd-Scripps athletics program has won the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) All-Sports Trophy, which awards points to schools based on their finishes in the SCIAC standings in 24 of the last 28 years, including the last four. In addition, CMS is the only team in the SCIAC that has won a conference title in each sport, and the men’s program has won 178 SCIAC titles, 48 more than any other school. Clearly, CMS athletes have enjoyed an incredible amount of success throughout the program’s history.
Yet, unless CMS is squaring off against Pomona-Pitzer, it’s unlikely that the Stags or Athenas will be playing in front of a packed house. As a passionate sports fan and a freshman who is new to the Division III sports scene, this bothered me at first. So I decided to take a look into the nature of a DIII sports program, and in particular, how CMS has managed to remain so consistently successful.
The main theme that emerged from my conversation with CMS Athletic Director Mike Sutton was that the main goal of the athletic program is to provide a positive experience for the players rather than to generate revenue for the schools, as is the case with most Division I programs.
Throughout our conversation, Sutton never highlighted any of CMS’s accomplishments, choosing instead to focus on how CMS can best serve the athletes and provide a positive experience for them. Although the CMS name and its accomplishments are not as well known across the country as those of UCLA or USC, that is almost by design.
Although CMS fields teams with incredible student-athletes and a history of success, there is only so much fame and publicity a DIII program can garner. When I asked Sutton about the possibility of combining all five colleges into one athletic program and moving to Division I, he responded that, “right now, we’re very comfortable with where our students get to compete. If we had one athletics program, our output would be better, but only half the student athletes would have the opportunity to participate. So the question is, what’s our goal? Our goal is have more students have this experience in their college lives.”
For athletes who are attempting to make a professional league, Division I is the place to be. However, attending a great school like Claremont McKenna can perhaps be even more advantageous because it provides students with a great education as well as a great athletic opportunity. In fact, Sutton mentioned that often coaches will recruit athletes who are deciding between Division I and Division III and convince them to go the DIII route.
According to Sutton, “If you’re a world-class athlete you should be around other world-class athletes, but if you realize you’re not, you can get more for your time, money, energy, and effort if you come here. You can contribute more if you’ve got a school that can launch you and you can find people you enjoy spending time with.”
Because the CMS schools—CMC, Harvey Mudd, and Scripps—are so hard to get into, it may seem at first as though it may be difficult to field competitive teams, but Sutton and I agreed that this could actually be an advantage.
“We rarely out-talent the teams we’re playing against; we have good talent, but there are other schools that have more potentially good athletes. But what we try to do is find a way to create that synergy that makes our whole greater than the sum of our parts,” Sutton explained.
The CMS program encompasses around 500 athletes, about 400 of whom are from CMC. However, when compared to other SCIAC programs, CMS teams often carry smaller rosters. When athletes are not buried at the bottom of an enormous roster, the quality of their practice time improves and their access to playing time increases. Both of these factors lead to more competitive teams.
Perhaps the most important aspect of fielding a successful sports team, though, is having a great coach. As Athletic Director, Sutton is in charge of finding and hiring the new coaches.
“We try to find people who have a background of experience, who can relate to the students, and who understand the value of the balance between academics and athletics and know how to promote that while also pushing the students athletically,” he explained.
While CMS strives to be as competitive as it can be, and clearly succeeds at doing so, it doesn’t seek to expand into something that it is not.
Sutton further expands on this thought by explaining that “athletic fame is not what the school cares about. This school wants to be known for being an excellent academic institution. The athletic program is a piece of that enterprise. We appreciate any good publicity we get, but we recognize that that’s not the point of the athletic program; we don’t need that kind of publicity to attract great students.”
So perhaps the reason for CMS’s success is a combination of its emphasis on simply playing sports, its affiliation with desirable colleges, and its athletes who play for the love of the game.
“It’s fun what we get to do and we like to compete and we try to compete well and try to win, but I don’t think we make more of it than it actually is. We’re doing well in our peer group and we’re proud of that and we’ll keep trying, but the fact is that if it ever got out of balance, we’d be missing the point,” Sutton stated. “So much is appreciating what we’re all about. Athletic participation is a means to the academic ends of the college, and it’s important that we value that.”