Forget football. Northwestern's winningest team is far fiercer, far more lethal to competitors -- real Wildcats.
Northwestern's debaters are not only the winningest team on campus, they are the best in the nation. This spring, team members took home top honors at the National Debate Tournament for an unprecedented 10th time. (Harvard and Dartmouth have each won only six tournaments.) They also claimed the tournament's top individual speaker award, given to Michael Gottlieb (WCAS99) for the second year running. He and senior Ryan Sparacino are only the fourth pair in NDT history to place first in consecutive tournaments.
So why does this team with such high-profile achievements remain so low profile on the Northwestern campus?
Coach Scott Deatherage (G94), director of debate since 1991, can't figure it out. "We've had a very successful few years here, and it seems like nobody knows it," he says.
The torrid pace began in 1994 when the team won its first NDT since 1980. Taking home the honor again in 1995, 1998 and 1999, Northwestern also scooped up several top individual speaker awards.
To Deatherage, teamwork and hard work are the keys to victory. "The most important thing I try to do is to get every member of the organization to feel like they are a part of the success of the team, that we value who they are and what they contribute," he says. "That's a theme I find myself emphasizing over and over."
Even at odd hours, a visit to the Hardy House, the team's headquarters, can be an invitation to a hurricane in action. Students everywhere engage in animated discussion over strategy or laboriously dig through banana boxes containing thousands upon thousands of factoids about anything under the sun that's worth debating.
Gottlieb and Sparacino, arguably the best college-age debaters in the nation right now, are proof positive that Deatherage must be doing something right.
"When Mike was a freshman," Deatherage remembers, "he was no better than the 20th-best freshman debater in the country. His goal was to become the best, and he worked every day to accomplish that. He learned more about the competitions, the topics and the judges than anyone else. Mike Gottlieb, I think, is the most disciplined debater I've ever worked with.
"As for Ryan, like any great debater, he works incredibly hard, and, in particular, he learns his own arguments and those of his opponent inside and out," Deatherage continues. "Plus, Ryan can translate difficult concepts into terms that the judge can appreciate better than most anyone I have worked with. He sees the forest while other debaters are off looking among the trees."
Gottlieb and Sparacino return their coach's regard. "Winning and losing comes down to the debaters, but everything begins with planning and learning how to do it, and that comes down to coaching," says Gottlieb, who this year will be a coach for the debate team at Harvard University. "I won't say that you must have a good coach to have a successful debate team, but it's very difficult without one."
Getting the word out on campus about the debate program is one of four goals Deatherage and David Zarefsky (S68, G69, 74), dean of the School of Speech, have set out to accomplish.
First, they wanted to secure the program's competitive footing, making sure they were offering good teams and good competition to the students. They also wanted to strengthen and develop ties with the high school community, primarily but not exclusively for recruiting purposes. Third, they intend to expand existing ties with alumni to solidify the tradition and history of the program. And last, of course, they want to raise the visibility of the program on campus and in the community.
Achieving the last goal will involve more public debates on campus, pitched both to student audiences and the Evanston public. The concept is still in the planning stages, but the School of Speech is confident it will succeed.
Is the Northwestern community finally ready to sit up and take notice of the best team the University has going? Maybe yes and maybe no, but, in either case, don't expect a little thing like fame to break the stride -- or the heart -- of Northwestern's debaters.
"I tell my debaters to remember they won't win any debates tomorrow because of what they won yesterday," says Deatherage. "They have to keep putting their best into it. I don't want a team that gets fat or rests on what they've already done and assumes that will bring them future success."
Grrr: Now that's a fierce game plan.
Marisa Kula (J00) was a summer intern at Northwestern magazine.