It’s not exactly “The Process,” the much-vaunted, patience-pays-off blueprint the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers employed to lift the once-lowly team into the league’s top echelon.
But Joe Bednarsh, Yeshiva University’s bearded athletic director, had “a plan.”
Five years ago, in a first for the Maccabees, he hired a recruiting director to aggressively seek out the best day school athletes. Then he hired an assistant athletic director specifically for women’s sports. All on a shoestring budget.
Bednarsh’s plan seems to be paying off.
Last month, the men’s basketball team, for the first time in school history, won the Skyline Conference championship and earned a spot in the NCAA Division III tournament. The Stern College women’s tennis team qualified for the NCAAs for the first time — the first Stern team in any sport ever to reach an NCAA tournament. And the YU men’s tennis team, which earlier this month captured its fifth consecutive conference championship, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament, won its first-ever NCAA playoff game, beating Ramapo College.
“It’s been part of my plan” — to play a role in making the school’s student-athletes “the pride of the Jewish people,” Bednarsh, 43 who became athletic director in 2006, told The Jewish Week. The plan also included adding baseball as a varsity sport at YU, hiring full-time athletic trainers at both campuses, and increasing the number of Stern College teams from three to seven.
David Kufeld, a star of the YU basketball teams in the late 1970s and the only Maccabee ever drafted by a NBA team, said of YU’s unprecedented success this year, “It’s hard to know if it’s a fluke.”
After all, the men’s basketball team lost in the first round of the Division II tournament, as did the Stern tennis team. And YU’s men’s tennis team lost in the second round to Bowdoin College.
Despite the tournament loses, it’s been a big sports year in Washington Heights for the yarmulke-clad men’s teams and in Midtown for the modestly attired women’s ones; they are unique in college sports, teams that re-jigger their schedules to avoid playing on Shabbat or major Jewish holidays, and lug kosher meals on road trips.
Bednarsh and other observers of the school’s athletic fortunes cite several reasons for the Maccabees’ recent success: a growing interest in sports, especially tennis and basketball, among members of the Modern Orthodox community, whose high schools supply many of YU’s student-athletes; the popularity of the annual day school basketball tournament that the school hosts (and formerly hosted in wrestling); and the impact that a few talented athletes can have in a Division III league like the Skyline Conference.
Recruiter Josh Pransky, who also serves as YU’s soccer coach, keeps an eye on outstanding Jewish high school athletes around the country and in Israel (YU alumni and sports-minded members of the Jewish community alert him to possible recruits), said Bednarsh.
YU, like other schools in NCAA Division III — mostly small institutions, including, like YU, many under religious auspices — does not give out athletic scholarships. But such schools can approach athletically talented, prospective matriculators to interest them in attending the school.
To Orthodox students, the chance to play on a team where observance of Shabbat and kashrut will not be a challenge, Bednarsh said. To non-Orthodox students, the chance “to represent your people.” To all, the chance to be on “the ground floor” of history, building YU sports teams into, if not dynasties, then successful competitors on the national scene.
Bednarsh said about 35 percent of the players on the YU and Stern teams this year were recruited; the rest were so-called walk-ons, who tried out and earned a roster spot on the various teams.
Bednarsh’s goal is 75-80 percent recruits on the school’s teams.
“Our student-athletes don’t have to choose between unmatched Torah studies, first-rate academics and a top-tier athletics department.”
The fortunes of the school’s teams – particularly basketball – began improving when the Max Stern Athletic Center on YU’s Washington Heights campus was built in 1982. Home to the men’s basketball team, the building offers both upgraded training facilities and the image of an institution that takes physical fitness seriously.
Since then, the basketball team, which previously practiced and played its home games at nearby high school gyms, in front of small crowds, usually losing more games than it won, has finished with winning records and attracted bigger crowds.
“There’s a sea change of difference,” said Kufeld, who remains a YU booster.
The administration has grown more supportive of its athletic department, recognizing that athletic success “can be translated into other benefits for the university” — like fundraising, public relations and attracting qualified students, Kufeld said.
“Athletics plays an integral role in the Yeshiva University experience. Our student-athletes don’t have to choose between unmatched Torah studies, first-rate academics and a top-tier athletics department, while still retaining steadfast religious observance,” said Dr. Josh Joseph, the school’s senior vice president. “The program serves as a source of pride to the Jewish community worldwide and prepares our student-athletes with the skills to succeed in the future.”
While the records of several YU and Stern teams have steadily improved over the last several years, 2017-18 was a high-water mark: 9 of 15 teams reached their sports’ championship events or playoffs; the men’s volleyball team competed in the Skyline Conference championship for the first time since 2010; seven fencers (four men, three women) qualified for the NCAA Northeast Regional; Stern College senior Shani Hava, the Skyline Conference’s women tennis player of the year for the second consecutive year, was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” column, which profiles up-and-coming young athletes.
All this, on limited resources.
According to the Equity in Athletics website, the total YU and Stern College athletic budget in 2016, the last year for which figures are available, was $1.7 million, and the recruiting budget a mere $20,398. By way of comparison, the figures at a major school like the University of Michigan, which runs a high-powered athletic program, are, respectively, about $174 million and $2.5 million.
YU’s growing athletic success is a reflection of a parallel interest in sports at many Modern Orthodox high schools, said Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at YU and a former assistant coach on its basketball team. The students “come to YU with good [athletic] backgrounds,” he said.
Paul Oberman, head of school at the Beren Academy in Houston (its basketball team garnered national publicity six years ago when it declined to play in the state championships on Shabbat), pointed to YU’s annual Red Sarachek Invitational Basketball Tournament as an attraction for some Beren students. “For a lot of kids, it’s the first time they get to tour YU,” he told The Jewish Week
Hava, a native of Israel who was ranked among the top 10 female tennis players in Israel, was recruited to Stern by Pransky. She said she noticed an increase in her team’s popularity on campus during her four years there. During her freshman year, she said, “no one knew” Stern had a tennis team. By her senior year (she finished with a 31-3 career singles record), classmates would regularly approach her in the halls to congratulate her or send her Facebook messages. “People want to be part” of a winning team.
Eli Mamann, captain of the YU men’s basketball team this season, said the players helped spur the improvement that resulted in the NCAA berth. The players, he said, instituted early morning training sessions five days a week, at 6:30 a.m., instead of in the early evening, after the players finished their regimen of secular and religious studies, and usually were tired.
“That’s what the pros do,” said Mamann, a native of Boca Raton, Fla. “We were tired of being average.”
Mamann mentioned one uniquely Jewish practice that helped bond the team this year: brief Torah study sessions before every game.
For about five minutes, a half-hour before the game’s start, the players would gather in the locker room, in their uniforms, to review Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, or the week’s Torah portion or something related to an upcoming yom tov. Various players would take their turn leading the study sessions.
Loyola University Chicago, the small Catholic school that made an improbable run in this year’s NCAA Tournament, introduced America to a hoops-savvy nun named Jean Dolores Schmidt; Sister Jean, the basketball team’s longtime chaplain, who offers coach Porter Moser sharp-eyed scouting reports on his players, accompanied the Ramblers through their March Madness run to the Final Four and became a national senstation.
At YU, there are no octogenarian rabbis courtside, said Mamann. But the Maccabees are armed — spiritually, that is — with Rashi and other commentators the players would review before taking the court.
“It’s something that changed our mindset,” Mamann said.