It takes awhile to adjust to St. John's College and awhile longer to adjust to its athletic program.
The Annapolis college has an athletic director who teaches calculus and has, for decorative purposes, a barber's chair and a mammoth poster of Babe Ruth in his spartan concrete-floor office.
It has a female student who runs the women's program, with teams named after the Maenads (the priestesses of Bacchus) and the daughters of Camilla (queen of the Amazons, whom the students will tell you is mentioned for six lines in the Aeneid.
Unusual, perhaps. But not as unusual as a four-year liberal arts college turning its back on intercollegiate athletics in favor of establishing what administrators, faculty and students believe is a true amateur athletic program.
Forty years ago, St. John's dropped what was a fairly successful intercollegiate program and substituted, over angry cries of alumni, an intrmural program.
Since that November 1938 day when President Stringfellow Barr announced the change, St. John's has been one of the few colleges to offer only intramurals.
The number may be growing now because of the high cost of running intercollegiate programs today, costs that would have left Stringfellow Barr's mind reeling. Things were bad enough in 1938, he thought, when he said:
"That big business (of intercollegate sports) substitutes spectator psychosis for actual participation, cheering sections for playing teams, an orgy of sports goods equipment for costumes fit to have fun in, large business staffs with long-term schedules for the old-time impromptu challenges of natural antagonists, monotonous physical drill for learning to play by playing, pressure from fellow students for zest to play . . ."
Athletics at St. John's Stringfellow Barr said, should supplement and strengthen rather than compete with academics. It is a creed many schools subscribe to in spirit only.
The academic curriculum; by its very nature, discourages serious competition with athletics as they are practiced at most American colleges. Founded in 1696, St. John's College is known as the "Great Books" school.
During their years there, students read and discuss with tutors (as faculty members are called) more than 100 classics whose authors range from Homer to Descartes to Kafka. They also carry a heavy load of languages, mathematics and science.
Athletics, then, provides an outlet from the grueling academic schedule.
"I think I would have cracked without it," said Roberta Rusch, a senior who is captain of the Daughters of Camilla. "No, I'm kidding. It provides a balance. I don't look on it as a remedy to academic tension, but we would be less healthy without it.
Unlike at other colleges at this time of year, a softball game at St. John's isn't a diversion to take a student's mind off grades or final exams. There are no final exams and it is considered "bad taste" to ask what your grades are. (Grades are kept for graduate school purposes.)
The Annapolis campus of St. John's is located on 36 sprawling acres across from the U.S. Naval Academy. The campus has a few colonial houses preserved and converted to office building that make Igehart Hall, the gymnasium dedicated in 1910, look even older than it is.
Over the years, there have been plans to build a new gym, but not one that would require razing Igehart, which is practically regarded as a family heirloom. The money, however, has not exactly been rolling in from alumni, many of whom believe Barr eliminated sports altogether with the conversion to the intramural program.
"Sports here have a little bit of the spirit of a company picnic," said assistant athletic director John White, also a tutor. "There's no tension. Everything is pleasant and relaxed."
The description of the program could also apply to Bryce Jacobsen, a tall, trim graduate of St. John's now in his 20th year as athletic director.
From a reading of the scandals besetting intercollegiate sports programs at other colleges, Jacobsen is happy he is not involved "in the rate race . . . (of) getting the best athletes by hook or by cook and the win-at-any-cost mentally, all wrapped up in dollar signs. If that's supposed to improve the character of a young man, we fail to see it."
A student at St. John's when Barr introduced the New Program, Jacobsen said almost two-thirds of the 365 students at the college now participate in some intramural sport, although participation is not mandatory.
"We try to find something for the average student to do. Our whole premise and atmosphere tends to be radically different from other colleges," Jacobsen, 56, said. "Every day, one of our teams wins and one loses - so we have a loser every day.
"Nobody is made to feel bad because he isn't very talented or makes mistakes or errors because that's a fairly common thing . . . It's not that we don't play to win, though."
"People play to win," interjected senior Glen Meredith. "The difference is, if you make a mistake it's not as if you committed a criminal act. There'll be another game later."
St. John's offers five team sports for men (soccer, touch football, volleyball, basketball and softball)and four for women (no football).In addition, there are individual sports - which are sometimes played in the form of coed-team competition - such as badminton, tennis, table tennis, racquetball, fencing, track, karate and others if there is sufficient interest.
Students accumulate points based on their performances and 300 points earns a player a college blazer.
Freshmen are assigned alphabtically to one of the five men's and four women's teams. As sophomores, they are "drafted" by a team, with the selection process going in reverse order of the team's standing the previous year. The students stay on that team the rest of their college days and are encouraged to continue to participate on the team as alumni. The faculty is redrafted each year.
Because of the manager budget for athletics, students supply their own uniforms, towels, shoes and other equipment. The college supplies the balls and facilities.
Jacobsen is allocated about $2,500 annually for equipment and supplies. "Harvard spends more on tape and I don't think (the sum) would buy soccer shoes for most varsity teams," Jacobsen said.
However, with the lack of funds comes the lack of problems associated with money. "Everybody comes here equally," Jacobsen said. "We haven't made any promise or given (athletic) scholarships."
Jacobsen and White were also amused when it came time to fill out an equal-opportunity questionaire sent by the federal government.
"It had questions on it such as 'How much is spent on travel for the women's teams?'" White recalled. "Well, zero. Nothing is spent on travel. We don't go anywhere."
Besides their teaching and athletic posts, White and Jacobsen referee all the men's games. Each team plays twice a week and there are games every day except Sunday.
"We have a gentleman's code of conduct which is completely absent in intercollegiate athletics," Jacobsen said. "It's not uncommon for us to ask an athlete if he went out of bounds."
Steve Scott, captain of the Druid soccer team passed up a potential athletic scholarship in lacrosse to two colleges after he was named to the high school All-America team in lacrosse in 1972.
"I felt I wasn't being accepted on my own merit," he said. They wanted me just because I happened to be a good lacrosse player."
Senior Mark Sugg, captain of the Guardians teams, grew up in Annapolis area, but was unaware St. John's had a sports program when he enrolled.
"If you participate in the athletics program here, you get to know all the people," Sugg noted. "You're not going to play a team that maybe you read about in the newspaper . . . so the competitive edge is tempered because you know the guys you're playing against."
For senior Marta Stellwagen, the program was a boon to her confidence. "I never played any sports at all in high school," she said. "I tried out and never made any teams. I was the worst athlete. But I can play here."
Tricia Kolp, a senior, is director of women's athletics. The latter post means she referees the women's games and sets up their schedule. The job rotates yearly.
"Since I referee the women's games, I play on the men's teams," said Kolp, adding that one of the men's teams she plays for is the touch-football team.
The less-talented athletes may slow down a team or even cause a loss. But the students say it doesn't matter all that much, that St. John's isn't grooming athletes for the Big Time.
"It's a rare athlete who can do everything," said Glen Meredith. "You learn a little humility. You could be a great soccer player and not able to shoot a basket. So we learn empathy."
Adds Jacobsen: "We may have the last program of true amateur athletics."