Harvard Falls an Athlete Short

By John Feinstein
Sunday, February 4, 2007

Senior night has become a tradition in college basketball. Throughout February and March, teams honor their seniors during their final home games and, more often than not, include their families in the ceremony.

This season, one school will have two senior nights: Harvard.

When the Crimson plays its final home game Feb. 24 against Princeton, all their seniors will be honored -- except for Brian Cusworth.

Cusworth's senior night was eight days ago, when Harvard beat Brown, 92-88, at Lavietes Pavilion. Cusworth scored 19 points and had six rebounds in his final college game and was voted Ivy League player of the week. This weekend, while Harvard played games against Columbia and Cornell, Cusworth, a 7-foot center with a soft shooting touch, was home in St. Louis, planning to follow the games as best he could on his computer.

"I can't even begin to tell you how frustrating this has been," he said shortly before Harvard played Columbia on Friday. "All I wanted to do was play four full years of college basketball. I tried every possible angle to get to play, and nothing worked."

Cusworth isn't injured. He didn't flunk out. In fact, he graduated with a degree in biology and hopes to go on to medical school. Why then did his senior season end after 18 games?

"It's called the eight-semester rule," Harvard Coach Frank Sullivan explained. "It isn't a rule aimed at athletes; it's just a school rule. In Brian's case it forced him to make a choice: play our first 18 games this season or our last 10. We all agreed he would be better off playing the first 18."

Harvard is the only school in the country that could lose its leading scorer and rebounder midway through the season this way. Here's how it happened:

In the fall of 2003, before the start of his sophomore season, Cusworth suffered a stress fracture in his right foot, ending his season before it began. At most schools, the next step would have been obvious: Cusworth would have been granted a medical redshirt, meaning he would retain a season of eligibility and come back for a fifth year. But the Ivy League doesn't allow medical redshirts unless a player drops out of school. So, Cusworth dropped out of Harvard for the spring semester, intending to return in the fall and play in the 2006-07 season.

The Ivy League also has a rule that doesn't allow graduate students to participate in varsity sports. Even so, plenty of Ivy athletes play a fifth year when injured by dropping out of school the way Cusworth did. It isn't at all uncommon among football players: Someone gets hurt in the fall, drops out in the spring and then returns to play in his fifth fall. In fact, Cusworth's roommate this fall, Mike Lucas, was a football player in his fifth season, having been injured as a freshman.

"Football players do it here all the time," Cusworth said. "A lot of one-semester athletes do it, and it's no problem."

Basketball is a two-semester sport. Still, Cusworth would not have had a problem at other Ivy schools: He could have taken an underloaded curriculum in the fall and graduated in the spring. Or, he might have finished his course work in the fall and then done a senior thesis in the spring that would have allowed him to play.

At Harvard, the eight-semester rule says, very simply, that once you enroll you have eight semesters to graduate. They don't have to be consecutive, but that's all you get: eight semesters; four courses a semester; 32 courses to graduate.

"It would take something truly monumental to get someone a ninth semester," Sullivan said.

Because he had been in school in the fall of 2003 -- even though he never played a basketball game -- Cusworth had used up seven semesters at the end of last season. He appealed to the school to grant him a ninth semester, noting that he had not played in a game as a sophomore and that he was on schedule to graduate. The answer came back quickly: You have one semester left to play.

Cusworth consulted with Sullivan, who recommended he play fall semester. He would get to play more games that way; he would have a better chance to get invited to postseason camps to show scouts how much he had progressed as a player, and he would have enough games to appear in both league and national statistics. Cusworth agreed, which is why he had his Senior Night in January.

"It was a very weird feeling," Cusworth said. "There just wasn't any real closure to my career. You're supposed to build to the end of the season with your teammates and I didn't get to do it. As an athlete, you always think you're going to have some time after your last game to get ready to go out into the world, to deal with the end of being a college athlete. I didn't even get to sleep in my dorm before my last game."

Harvard told him he had to be out of the dorm by Thursday at noon because it needed rooms for transfer students and students returning from abroad who were going through orientation before classes began Monday. So, Cusworth's last three nights as a college basketball player were spent at a hotel.

"He really handled the whole thing well," Sullivan said. "I know it bothered him, but he never got down about it and he never let it affect his play. He obviously would have been first team all-Ivy if he'd been able to finish the season. [Cusworth was the league's second leading scorer when he had to shut down.] It was kind of fun to coach a fifth-year kid. I can see why other coaches love having them. There's clearly an extra level of maturity."

Sullivan has coached at Harvard for 16 seasons and has done one of the most underrated coaching jobs in the country. With tougher academic standards than any Ivy League school at a place where football and hockey are far more important than basketball, he has finished in the top half of the league seven times, once as high as second, and won a school-record 17 games one season.

"People just don't understand how good a coach Frank is," said Temple Coach Fran Dunphy, who, when he coached Penn, faced Sullivan for 16 years. "He's always got one hand tied behind his back, but his teams always manage to compete. I'm not sure how he does it."

He will have to do it the rest of this season without his best player because of the eight-semester rule. College presidents insist that their first priority when making rules or decisions is the welfare of the "student-athlete." By simply repeating the mantra of the rule and not taking into account the circumstances that faced Cusworth, Harvard let down someone who defines what a "student-athlete" is supposed to be.

It also let down all his teammates, who now have to play without him during the most important part of their season, and it let down the coach who recruited him with the promise that he was coming to a school (without an athletic scholarship) where his best interests would always be paramount. After all, what school could possibly care more about its students than Harvard?

The cop-out is that one exception can lead to others. If the other exceptions were stories such as Brian Cusworth's, then the more the merrier. There are times when rules should be broken.

Cusworth's case was one of those times. He deserved to celebrate his senior night with his fellow seniors. Not alone. Not in January. Not with 10 games left in the season.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company