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Earning the W: Whitman Athletics’ Path to Success

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Is there something in the Walla Walla water? Regardless of whether they’re on the court or field, Whitman varsity sports have experienced a tremendous upswing in success over the last few years.

The success is visible too. This year’s men’s basketball team finished two wins away from an undefeated season and an NCAA Championship. The women’s basketball team made a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. Women’s golf is ranked seventh in the nation and plans to make a bid for the national championship. Men’s tennis is ranked 13th and the women are not far behind. The swim team has become the powerhouse of the NW Conference. Even the baseball team, perennial basement-dwellers, would make the Conference Playoffs if they started today. 

Why all the success now? Many around the Whitman administration used to subscribe to the belief that varsity athletics hindered, instead of complemented, academics. This changed with the hiring of former Whitman President George Bridges in 2005 and his first pick for Athletic Director, Dean Snider. Snider has been lucky enough to have the added resources raised by Whitman’s athletic booster club, the W Club, which was founded at the same time.

Eric Johnson ‘72 currently serves as the President of the W Club. Johnson played on one of the final iterations of Whitman’s football team and believes that varsity athletics and academics go hand-in-hand.

“There were prior administrations that had a bias against athletes I believe. With Dr. Bridges on board and now with Dr. Murray, there doesn’t seem to be that bias,” Johnson said. “Our varsity athletes have as good a GPA and as good a retention, if not better, in both aspects than the general student body.”

The W Club serves as a unique conduit between Whitman alumni, the administration and the athletics department. Donors can specify which sport they want their money to go towards, allowing more autonomy for donors than a typical donation.

“If you want to make sure the money you set aside for philanthropy goes to the place you want, how about you put it in varsity sports so that it doesn’t get lost out there in the college ether … and the coaches and athletic department are really good about honoring those requests,” Johnson said.

For Michelle Hanford, the women’s basketball coach for the past 16 years, the recent success stemming from Sherwood has been years in the making. Hanford mirrored Johnson’s observation that athletics have not always been a main priority

“The college was really pushing itself to raise its profile academically … but there was no effort to pull athletics with that excellence, so athletics kind of got left behind,” she said.

The W Club was central to enabling the shift that brought Whitman athletics to the level it is at today.

“The W Club has helped because they’re helping to funnel money and funds and attention to programs that need it. [They’ve] made some things happen than they probably wouldn’t have otherwise,” Hanford said. “To be honest, we’ve just kind of caught up. Most schools our size have booster clubs, have an involved alumni network on the athletic side.”

While the student athletes are the ones doing most of the work, fans of Blues varsity athletics can look back at the shift in the administration’s focus on athletics as the catalyst for the more recent and sustained run of success.

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Whitman news since 1896
Earning the W: Whitman Athletics’ Path to Success