Franciscan University sees NCAA membership as part of outreach

The rugby player in the red jersey was down, and he wasn’t getting up. As the seconds ticked by, it became clear that something was seriously wrong. That’s when the player in the green jersey who accidentally knocked him down dropped to his knees. Almost instantly, his teammates joined him. Soon, so did several players from the opposing team. They continued praying until the unconscious player was revived. 

Not exactly what you’d call a typical moment in intercollegiate play.  

But then again, there’s nothing typical about the sports program at the school that fielded the player in the green jersey: Franciscan University of Steubenville

In August, the small Ohio school, best known for its theology program and summer youth conferences, became a full member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Four years earlier, it had been admitted provisionally into the NCAA, ending the school’s absence of almost three decades. 

‘School of virtue’

Franciscan’s decision to join the NCAA was controversial. 

In 1981, then-president Father Michael Scanlan, TOR, pulled the college out of competitive play, partly because of financial concerns and partly to help students focus more intensely on faith and academics. As such, when the school began contemplating a return to intercollegiate athletics, some alumni, faculty and friends expressed concerns that the school would lose that focus. 

But according to Franciscan University athletic director Chris Ledyard, the move meant just the opposite. 

“Long ago, when we were building up our intramural program and then our varsity club teams, we decided our sports program, whatever form it took, would have at its core the formation of the human person within a Catholic framework and be mission-centered,” Ledyard told Our Sunday Visitor. 

As such, he continued, the decision to pursue membership in Division III of NCAA — which doesn’t permit schools to provide athletic scholarships — was, in the school’s eyes, a chance to expand the university’s evangelistic outreach to soccer fields and basketball courts. More importantly, it was seen as yet another way to provide solid Catholic formation in the virtues to students. 

“Sports is not an end in itself,” Ledyard said. “John Paul II referred to athletics as a ‘school of virtue.’ In other words, it’s a means by which you can become a better human being.” 

Mission-centered

In theory, that’s a great idea. But how do you put it into practice? 

At Franciscan, it starts with the coaches. Of the school’s 39 head and assistant coaches, 10 are faculty, staff or Franciscan friars and 19 are alumni. And all are serious Christians who support Franciscan’s mission. 

Take, for example, John Lamanna, Franciscan’s new head basketball coach, who came to the university after a five-year stint as assistant coach at University of California, Davis. 

The reason he made the somewhat unusual move from a D-I to a D-III school? 

“The student experience at Franciscan is incredible,” he said. “To have the opportunity to mirror that experience with a similar basketball experience is a dream come true.” 

As for how Franciscan’s coaches “mirror” that experience in athletics, it’s partly a matter of prayer. They pray with the athletes before and after every practice and game, take the athletes on team retreats and attend Mass and Holy Hours together as much as possible. 

It’s also a matter of setting the highest of standards for athlete behavior. 

“Our coaches literally drill self-control into us,” said Tony Gayed, a senior rugby player from Peoria, Ill. “In practice, any time people start talking smack, they get one, maybe two warnings. If they keep it up, practice is over for everyone, and we have to run the rest of the time.” 

The coaches likewise strive to counter many of the prevailing standards in NCAA athletics, from banning alcohol consumption by players to encouraging athletes to think deeply about the importance of masculinity and femininity. 

“In women’s college sports, modesty and self-respect usually go out the door, along with femininity,” explained head women’s volleyball coach Kelly Herrmann. “The women on my team, however, are encouraged to be women. We’re trying to show that you can be a tenacious athlete on the court, but off the court you should be striving to be what God wants you to be as women, with Mary as your example.”

Ultimate goal

With coaches like that, it’s not surprising that Franciscan’s athletes are prone to some unusual behavior in competition. 

As a rule, they always offer a hand to a fallen opponent. When an injury is more serious, they pray, the rugby and soccer teams actually dropping to their knees mid-field. They also invite the opposing team to pray with them after games, an invitation which, surprisingly, is accepted more often than not. 

They also naturally connect what they’re doing in competition to their Catholic faith. 

“During races, our team chaplain, Father Gregory Plow, will run in front of us, holding up a crucifix,” said Bill Jones, a senior cross country runner from Oneida, Wis. “It’s meant to remind us that we’re not running for our own glory, but for God’s, and that all the suffering we endure during those long runs is nothing compared to the suffering of Christ during his passion. We know all the pain, all the hard work, can be offered up for others and become stepping-stones to holiness for us.” 

For now, those coaching techniques seem to be paying off temporally as well as spiritually. This past year, both Franciscan’s men’s and women’s cross country teams, as well as the men’s tennis team, were conference champions. Likewise, the men’s rugby team made it to the Sweet 16 in the National Tournament Playoffs. 

“God doesn’t call people to mediocrity,” said Ledyard, explaining how the school balances the desire for victory with the quest for virtue. “He calls us to excellence. So we need to give him our all. If we do that and win, great. If we do that and we don’t, that’s fine too. But just because the ultimate goal isn’t winning, doesn’t mean you can show up and not give it everything you have and then some.” 

Bumps in the road

Not all of Franciscan’s teams have been nearly so successful, of course, nor is the athletes’ behavior uniformly perfect. As Ledyard pointed out, they’re students, not saints. A lack of funding, as well as facilities that are less than the school would like them to be, likewise complicate matters, making juggling practice schedules, hosting other teams, and training athletes harder than they would otherwise be. 

In short, the transition to competitive intercollegiate athletics at Franciscan has been far from easy or flawless. 

But Herrmann thinks the endeavor more than worth it. 

“It was important for Franciscan to join the NCAA because the whole area of athletics needs to be evangelized. Christ needs to be brought into the situations student-athletes face in competition,” she said. 

More importantly, said alumni Steven Duran, who played soccer at Franciscan during the four years of its provisional NCAA membership, it’s worth it because of what it gives the athletes themselves. 

“Not everyone encounters God in the same way,” he said. “I grew in my relationship with him through sports. It humbled me, seeing men who weren’t playing for personal glory, who were offering things up and integrating prayer into their playing. My teammates literally dragged me along the path to holiness. I wouldn’t be where I am today without sports at Franciscan.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.