Little Ivies – The New England Small College Athletic Conference by Dan Covell

This is a fantastic read written by one of our own that tells one story with a hundred little ones. Click on the image to buy the book.

Over the weekend I saw Chris Wallace being interviewed and he was talking about the state of the news on TV.  He said that he blamed his father Mike Wallace in some small part for the demise of TV journalism.  Mike Wallace is a personal hero who was among the very first public-facing people to acknowledge his journey with depression.  I don’t have the stones to blame Mike Wallace for anything, but Chris Wallace made a decent case.  He said that 60 Minutes, which was once the number one program on television, taught executives that you can make money with the news.  And once they saw that…

Such is the case with college athletics, as commercialism has infiltrated every aspect.  In Covell’s book, however, the story of  the Little Ivies and their continuing aspiration of leveraging college athletics to push forward higher values (diversity, equality, etc.) gives rise to an example of what could be.  The Little Ivies formed The New England Small College Athletic Conference in 1971 and since that time have negotiated an onslaught of challenge and changing times in the most Ivy of ways.


The Little Ivies: Amherst College, Bates College, Bowdoin College, Colby College, Connecticut College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, Trinity College, Tufts University,Wesleyan University, and Williams College.


The Introduction to the book starts with a Sports Illustrated article from ’94, so we will start there too.   The article is in praise of The New England Small College Athletic Conference,  a conference of the Little Ivies with its own rules and standards.  From the article:

But the NESCAC philosophy is to consider sports a part of that education, and in keeping with that, there are occasional special admissions considerations for an athlete, just as there are for a musician. “The sweatiest of the liberal arts” is how Amherst’s Gerety describes athletics. “Be it poetry, acting, philosophy or athletics, any youngster has more to give than what is called for in a traditional class,” he says. So justifying sports is not a problem.

From there, Covell writes his way through the story of the NESCAC in the tradition of the best nonfiction:  entertaining, quick-paced, and knowing exactly where the high notes are.   Covell himself does the best job of describing the book:

This book is a case study of how this group of private, academically selective liberal arts colleges in the American Northeast, which collectively created an educatory model for the country, experienced and responded to shifts in the competitive landscape of intercollegiate athletics beginning with the establishment of intercollegiate athletics programs in the late 1800s… which evolved to become NESCAC in 1971.  Over the decades since, the group endeavored to manage a range of conflicts, including an image-altering decision relating to NCAA postseason championship participation, which has led to its current position ns the perceived “gold standard” of the melding of intercollegiate athletics competitive excellence with the “small-time” framework of the primacy of high academic standards.


Dan Covell in a kickass hat.


Covell’s writing is tight, and his thinking clear.  Covell is a storyteller to be sure.  The walk through the history is compelling, and peppered with quotes that give you the feel of the times.  But Covell is also an analyst, and his observations of how the NESCAC works the mechanics of college sports in such an Ivy way (my words, not his) serve as a guide for any business, and even at times, personal conduct.  From recruiting to financial aid to institutional diversity goals to the 1993 decision to allow postseason play to the upcoming tsunami of player compensation, Covell covers the NESCAC’s higher ground thoroughly and economically.

My takeaway from the book might be different from what Covell, a Professor of Sports Management at Western New England University, originally intended.   The narrative of a collection of schools agreeing to a stirring set of principles by which they would engage sport, and doing so unwaveringly, is a guidebook.  A manual.  Instructional.   There is a spectrum of reaction every time we talk about Ivy values here, ranging from the demand for personal perfection before one can even broach the subject to the dismissal of these values as they pertain to the style.   Both are wrong, and if you read this book, you read a masterclass in the argument for understanding these principles.   Yes, the Little Ivies do not win as many championships.   But in the story told in Covell’s book, they are dedicated to an educational experience that integrates competition with the power of thought and the pursuit of excellence.  Winning a championship is important.  Bringing every aspect of one’s self to the highest level it can be is MORE important.  And doing so in an inclusive, ethical, and noble way?  Covell and the NESCAC show us where the apex is.

You can meet Dan Covell at a book event sponsored by the Williams Club at the Penn Club on November 2.  Here’s the link again to Amazon to buy the book, which you should do if you want an inspirational and aspirational read.




15 Comments on "Little Ivies – The New England Small College Athletic Conference by Dan Covell"

  1. “Principles,” not principals. Goodness me.

    • DAMMIT. Good catch. I got it right on the earlier one but totally screwed the pooch on this. Thanks!

  2. Since we’re editing, it’s [at] a book event. (I only wish I had an editor).

  3. This information (from 1971) is outdated.

    Maybe in 1971 Tufts was a “small college”. In 2022, Tufts has a student enrollment of over 12,000.

  4. I haven’t read the book, so I’m likely talking out of my tail even more than usual. However…

    It’s true these Little Ivies represent a wonderful bygone era in American college sports. It’s true they uphold some bedrock American values. It’s true they give us all a warm, fuzzy feeling.

    However, it’s also true these schools stopped trying to compete in sports while similarly sized and respected schools — Notre Dame, Stanford and Duke for example — kept competing and succeeding. Are they so bad?

    I realize you didn’t intend to criticize them, but the comments about commercialization in college sports creates a dividing line nonetheless. It touched a nerve.

    And what about the big state universities? Of course they have rabid fan bases and a devotion to sports that is insane. Yet, these same schools are the source of enormous amounts of research advances. For example, many important COVID discoveries occurred in labs at these state universities.

    I guess I’m saying to be careful of the broad brush. There are some good things — even in the athletic programs — going on at some huge private and state institutions. The wise approach — the Ivy approach — is to consider the facts case-by-case, school-by-school, and make a logical decision from there.

    I’ll probably read this tomorrow and wonder what the hell I was talking about.

    • Similarly sized and respected schools? Duke, Notre Dame and Stanford each have undergraduate enrollments of a minimum of 3x the average enrollment at a NESCAC school. NESCAC’s are primarily undergraduate institutions, save Tufts and a very limited number of MA programs available at Trinity and Middlebury. Research advances are great, but that’s not the purpose of a NESCAC school – they exist to provide well rounded liberal arts education to undergrads, and they do an exceptional job. Sports is part of being well-rounded, but they compete among themselves.

      Heck, at one point in the recent past the (concurrent) heads of Goldman, P&G, a GE Vice Chair, Netflix (founder), The Governor of Delaware, Legendary Pictures (also founder), and the Secretary of Agriculture all hailed from the same NESCAC school. That’s a massive amount of quiet power per capita, and what NESCAC schools have been producing for generations.

      Big State Universities are great. They’ve benefitted hugely from sports, both in terms of dollars to fund research advances and from the platform that sports provides, which has brought attention and applicants from far and wide, improving what in many cases were mediocre (at best) undergraduate institutions.

      No clue what the perceived slight was here, but if the argument is that Big State universities are also “good”, sure. If the argument that the undergrad education at say, Alabama is equivalent to that of a NESCAC (pick any, doesn’t need to just be Williams, Amherst, Middlebury or Hamilton), come on now.

      • I stand corrected on the size issue, though Stanford (7,600 undergraduates) and Notre Deme (8,000) are hardly big.

        Re: perceived slight, the Little Ivies are depicted as virtuous throughout and compared against the failings of larger schools. It’s not harsh at all, but big schools are in a negative light.

        In no way did I mean to say an education at Alabama is equivalent to, say, Williams. However, not every state school is Alabama. Forbes ranked Cal Berkley and UCLA, two large state schools, ahead of any school in the Little Ivy and some in the Big Ivy.

        More importantly, the difference in student experience is vast. My alma mater, the University of Texas-Austin, has more international students, about 5,000, than the total enrollment at most in the NESAC. What’s more, a student can get a degree in 170 fields in 13 colleges.

        Meanwhile, I would imagine a NESAC student receives far more personal attention in class from a professor and can probably customize a degree plan. They very likely will get a much broader education. Most obviously, they’re not subjected to the mass of humanity, red tape, and high-pressure competition you’ll find at UT. There are probably other differences that favor the small schools.

        The Little Ivy is good. Just don’t try to prove it by knocking the big schools.

        • I wouldn’t assume any virtue assigned to an institution based on size or athletic structure. Think this is an error in Covell’s thesis, though at least he has first hand experience in the NESCAC via Bowdoin.

          Wasn’t aware that Forbes did college rankings, though not sure it’s sensible to rank colleges as a whole as opposed to undergrad program vs. grad program and small vs large.

          That said, the thought that “high pressure competition” would somehow be less at NESCAC schools, which are SIGNIFICANTLY more competitive to get into than large state institutions as a whole is comical. UT-Austin accepts 29% of applicants. Williams, Bowdoin, Amherst: 9%. Middlebury: 13%. Hamilton, 14%…you get it. Not knocking the big schools per se, just pointing out that few will confuse a Williams education for, say, The University of Tennessee.

          My high school put approximately 35% of my graduating class, and those thereafter into Ivies and another 30% in NESCACS. Competition was fierce both to get into school and excel once in. These schools schools that place so many people into finance, law, consulting, and top tier graduate schools, all of which aren’t interested in low GPA’s. The “gentleman’s C” is a relic of my father’s era.

  5. Talking about Mike Wallace, the text is like a “60 minute”expose of the good, the bad, and the ugly of college presidents, AD’s, and coaches vying for a leg up in the NESCAC. Informative and at times head shaking.

  6. I played football for many years. Nose Guard (tackle). I have a blown-out knee, aching back, crooked nose, hernias, the fuzzy memories of awaking from three concussions, and happy recollections galore (cue The Boss’ “Glory Days”). I cannot imagine the abuse inflicted on men who play big-time college (and later, for some, professional) football, nor am I eager to imagine the residual suffering. You don’t see or hear much about it because it’s bloody awful and even excruciating, and I speak as one who never reached the lofty heights of the sport. Even “small time” football takes an enormous toll on the human body. whiskeydent is right: the devotion to sports (winning at the big-time level) is insane. Most of the fans never played one minute of the game, and, had they played for a season or two, they might rethink their rabid allegiance. These days I much prefer (to watch) high school and small liberal-arts college football–like, say, Williams v. Amherst. They’re not factories for professional (or aspiring-to-professional) athletes. I’m planning to buy this book, which is most welcome. Anything to further the valid argument that smaller is almost always more discreet and charming, and therefore more Ivy. Christian would (will) hate this but it’s still about an aesthetic–a vibe.

  7. I tend to root for underdogs as a general rule, but to piggyback on whiskeydent’s comment, the implication that these schools are more “inclusive, ethical, [or] noble” than other institutions seems speciously reasoned.

  8. “More includive”?
    I suppose that means that in addition to brainless White behemoths, they now have a greater number of brainless Black behemoths on the field. I for one find nothing whatsoever Ivy about the bloodsport called football.

  9. inclusive

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