It was a splendid Homecoming at Ryan Field, but cheering hadn't started until a man with a purple sweater and a white crew cut walked to the Northwestern sideline.
"It's Morty!" someone shouted, and within a moment the students were chanting: "Mor-ty! Mor-ty! Mor-ty!"
"He has a passion for sports. I could see that within the first 30 seconds of meeting him," says Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips. Before Morty Schapiro even started as president, he asked the AD to text message scores to him from the NCAA lacrosse finals. A few weeks into the fall Schapiro wanted to settle up for his season tickets for Wildcat basketball, and Phillips knew that he had a new No. 1 fan.
When Schapiro was selected as the 16th president of Northwestern, the selection committee and trustees believed they had hired a "Renaissance man." They hoped that among many talents would be his ability to help make Northwestern teams fearsome on the field. Athletic expectations, of course, are famously fragile, and Schapiro's brilliant teaching skills, stellar research and deft political instincts cannot guarantee big wins at Columbus or Happy Valley.
But don't tell Morty that.
"He's a die-hard sports fan," says trustee Philip Harris (WCAS80), who was on the presidential selection committee and talked sports with Schapiro in their first meeting. Both remembered the 1996 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Northwestern played the University of Southern California, then Schapiro's employer, and the future Northwestern president was amazed and impressed (not to say dismayed at the time) to see more Wildcat fans in the stands than people rooting for the local Trojans.
Now with his supply of 20 purple sweaters (most leftover from his Williams presidency), Schapiro seems well suited to seek the holy grail: "Great in intercollegiate sports and excellence in academics," as Harris puts it.
Does Schapiro's tenure at Williams provide clues about Northwestern's expected success?
Williams won the Directors' Cup (for overall athletic success based on an institution's performance in NCAA postseason championship events) in Division III every year Schapiro was president. This honor came while he also raised admission standards for recruited athletes at Williams.
"Excellence in sports is simply part of a culture of excellence," says Dennis O'Shea (GJ81), a 1977 Williams graduate who later got a master's degree at Northwestern.
If passion is contagious, Northwestern's athletic renaissance is in good hands. At Ryan Field, for example, Schapiro brings donors and alumni to watch from the sidelines, but the president definitely pays more attention to the game. In the third quarter against Indiana, for example, the 'Cats were coming back but still behind when Schapiro told junior kicker Stefan Demos that he was going to win the game with a final field goal. And Schapiro said that he'd be behind the end zone to catch the ball after it cleared the crossbar.
Economists' predictions aren't always right, but this one was pretty good. And when the ball sailed over his head, Schapiro threw his arms up, making sure that anyone watching the president and not the ball knew that the kick was good and Northwestern had won. — J.P.