Is Swarthmore College the Next Basketball Powerhouse?
Now home to one of the nation’s most formidable Division III teams, Swarthmore’s resurgent hoops program is part of a larger athletics initiative at the school.
(From left) Swarthmore players Lee Martin, Zac O’Dell, Nate Shafer and Cam Wiley. Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
The launching pad for the Swarthmore College’s resurgent men’s basketball program—head coach Landry Kosmalski’s office—is in the 84-year-old Lamb-Miller Field House. Those familiar with the school’s rather complicated relationship with athletics will understand the irony of that location, with its abandoned bleachers, wooden roof, two-lane track and tartan basketball court. In 2000, Swarthmore cut its football program, in part, to protect admissions standards. Now, it’s home to one of the nation’s most formidable Division III basketball teams and an overall athletic resume that might just compel some alumni to dispatch emails of protest.
Kosmalski’s team has reached the NCAA tournament in each of the past three seasons, its first-ever appearances in that event. It has posted school-record win totals in each successive year during that stretch and achieved its first-ever Top 25 poll spot in December 2016. Swarthmore has been a fixture in the rankings since. The team opened its 2018-19 campaign with a 10-2 burst, and it appears primed for another post-season excursion.
This run of prosperity has coincided with the arrival of Kosmalski, a Texan who played D-I college ball at Davidson College (pre-Stephen Curry). Under the aegis of athletic director Adam Hertz, he has instituted a culture of winning that demands a high commitment from players and has created a standard unknown at the school in its 118-year basketball history. The season before Kosmalski took over, Swarthmore had won three games, and few people considered the Garnet anything other than a perpetual doormat. “On my visit, when Adam was walking me around, he said, ‘Our program is in its infancy, but here’s my vision,’” says Kosmalski. “What he told me was true. There is support here for athletics, and that’s important.”
Swarthmore’s basketball team is part of a department that’s thriving across a variety of sports. The Garnet baseball team played in the 2018 Division III College World Series and is ranked third in the 2019 pre-season poll. The Swarthmore women’s soccer team reached the NCAA tournament round of 16 in 2018, and the women’s volleyball team reached the national quarterfinals in ’17. As of late December, the men’s swimming team was ranked 14th in the nation, and the men’s tennis team finished the 2018 campaign 16th. “It’s not just basketball,” Hertz says.
When Swarthmore dropped football in 2000, it was partly to reduce the number of athletes in its classes. The school has 1,577 students and boasts an admittance rate below 15 percent. With so many students vying for fewer than 400 spots in the freshman class, the competition is fierce. For years, the attitude among some at the school was that many athletes were taking positions that should be going to other, more qualified students, opening spots for artists, musicians and scientists.
Also behind the move was the connotation that schools with successful football programs were mere “factories” that sacrificed academics. And yet, in its final year, the Garnet won just four games, four times as many as it had in the previous three seasons combined, hardly a worthy factory output.
Over the ensuing decade-plus, things have changed among the nation’s elite Liberal Arts schools. Swarthmore is ranked third nationally in that category by U.S. News and World Report, and the top two colleges—Williams and Amherst—have built powerful basketball programs. Since 2003, Amherst has won two national titles, finished as runner-up once and played in two other D-III Final Fours, while Williams has won once, finished second twice and played in two Final Fours.
Zac O’Dell is part of a Swarthmore College men’s basketball team that’s defying expectations. Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
Elite schools have created mechanisms to attract capable performers who can also handle academic rigor. The Ivies use an “academic index” that produces a number based on GPA and SAT scores. Each team has an index figure that its players must meet or exceed. The NESCAC—of which Amherst and Williams are members—uses a “banding” system, which sorts prospects according to their academic profile. Teams then slot players according to their bands to create balance and ensure that there’s a good mix of talent and academic capability on rosters.
Hertz says Swarthmore uses neither system. By email, he stated that the admissions office strives to “build a diverse class.” But it’s unrealistic to think the school isn’t weighing athletic ability more heavily than it did when the Garnet teams weren’t quite as successful. It doesn’t hurt that school president Valerie Smith, who took over in 2015, owns two degrees from Virginia—where excellent academics and strong athletics intersect—and worked at UCLA.
There is clearly more institutional support—and Kosmalski has taken advantage of it. A four-year starter at Davidson who scored more than 1,000 points during his career and still ranks fourth in career rebounds, he has built the Garnet steadily into a winner. His first team won seven games. The following season, it was eight. None of the growth has been easy. “Watching a lot of Landry’s practices his first year, I sensed the kids couldn’t get it,” Hertz says. “I asked him, ‘Shouldn’t you adjust the practices?’ He said, ‘No. I’m teaching a system.’”
That system is relatively complex and demands unselfish play—though Kosmalski says there are opportunities to “freelance” within its confines. “He wants us to be attacking for 40 minutes,” says senior captain Cam Wiley. “He wants us to move on from our mistakes and be forward thinking.”
Growing up in Atlanta, Wiley had offers from Cornell and Columbia universities. Instead, he’s majoring in honors philosophy at Swarthmore, with an eye on law school. He’s also been part of three teams that have won a combined 70 games. The summer after the 2016-17 season, when Swarthmore went to its first NCAA tournament, “we realized we can be great,” says Wiley.
While there is no guarantee the Garnet will continue to improve, the expectations for the program have grown—though not everyone on campus has gone hoops crazy. “We still have some professors who don’t know we have a basketball program,” Wiley says.
Kosmalski will no doubt have offers to move up in the basketball ranks, despite his insistence that the bucolic Delaware County enclave is an ideal spot for him and his wife, Lauren, to raise their three children. “I like the culture here,” he says. “The faculty, staff and students value athletics here but want to do it right. We’re seeing the effect of that.”