If it really was Dick Davies' "last lecture," then the talk he delivered to a "History of Higher Education" class Monday afternoon in the Raggio Building was a great way to call it a career after more than 50 years of in-class presentations.
Davies, a good friend of College of Education Professor Rita Laden, has been a regular guest in Laden's educational leadership classes over the years.
With his retirement last year following a distinguished 35-year career at the University, Davies has been embracing being out of the classroom and no longer having the expectation to publish regularly. He's been traveling - his son, Bob, is the president of Murray State University in Murray, Ky. - and, in a last nod to his productive and award-winning writing career, he's been putting final touches on an update to one of the 15 books he has either written or edited.
In terms of lecturing?
Davies, an emeritus professor of history, said that his appearance in Laden's class was - perhaps - "my last lecture."
"But who knows?" said a grinning Davies, who has been known to offer up a good story, either in the formality of a classroom or while walking on the University Quadrangle. Davies' writing portfolio includes "Main Street Blues," his study of the small Ohio farming village, Camden, which is also his hometown; "Sports in American Life: A History," a textbook that is used on college campuses across the country; and "Rivals! The Ten Greatest American Sports Rivalries of the 20th Century," which has been universally praised for its deep research, entertaining narrative and insightful perspective.
His talk Monday centered on the intersection that has occurred between higher education and intercollegiate athletics, and how that confluence has impacted American life.
"Of all the systems of higher education in the world, the American system of higher education is the only one to take on the responsibility of entertaining the public," said Davies, who then proceeded to take Laden's class not into the sports-saturated world of today, but rather, back in time, to the 19th century, when the nation's colleges and universities began fielding their first football teams.
With the advent of the "muscular Christian" movement of the 19th century, when Davies noted it was suddenly OK for higher education to expect its male-dominated student bodies to "knock somebody on their (butts) for Jesus," football began to flourish. He said the sport became a reflection of a society that put a premium on discipline and regimentation.
"The American universities were saying, 'We are producing real men,'" Davies said of 19th century football, which he said was a "vicious, brutal game." In one particularly bloody season, 18 college students died while playing football.
"Football came on line with the rise of the modern corporation and the bottom line," Davies said. "There was a residual effect from the Spanish American War and from earlier, the Civil War. There was a strong relationship between the game and militarism. The Coach was the 'general.' The assistant coaches were the lieutenant colonels, the majors, the captains. The players played 'in the trenches.' The linebackers ran after the quarterback on 'blitzes.' The quarterback would drop back and would throw a 'bomb.'
"There is a real analogy between American football and militarism."
Davies, whose writing has earned him a place in the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, showed the depth of his knowledge throughout his talk. He noted that the birth of college homecomings - which have become an enduring symbol for generations - could be traced to 1911, when the Missouri Tigers and Kansas Jayhawks played a football game at Missouri in which the alumni of Missouri were "invited to come home."
Thus, the term "homecoming" was born, he said.
"And today 'homecoming' is the big weekend on college campuses," Davies said. "With the advent of homecoming, higher education, through the back door, became very involved in entertaining the American people."
He also explained the proliferation of massive football stadiums in the 1920s. They were built through bonding authority that states granted their universities. The stadiums were pledged to be "memorials" to the veterans of the "Great War," or World War I, which had concluded only a few years before. Several institutions, such as UC-Berkeley and Nebraska, still have "memorial" as part of official names of their nearly-century-old home playing fields.
By doing this, Davies said, "Higher education became involved in capitalism. When you build large stadiums, you've got to put fannies in the seats."
Davies said of today's universities, "The bottom line is this: Higher education has sports attached to it. Any self-respecting university has to have a full-blown athletics program for public relations purposes."
Laden's class asked Davies a variety of questions, ranging from whether or not a successful athletics program means more money for the institution - "There is no relation between a winning football or basketball program and money that comes into a university. A lot of money will come into the athletics department, but that's separate from the university" - to his relationship with his longtime neighbor, University President Emeritus Joe Crowley, who was president of the NCAA in the 1990s.
"He's coming around," Davies, laughing, said of the philosophical differences he and Crowley have had regarding the NCAA. Davies has termed the NCAA "a cartel."
More seriously, Davies said television, more than the NCAA, is dominating the direction of intercollegiate athletics.
He said television dictates when games are played. He used the University's upcoming game with Fresno State, which will be televised on ESPN next Thursday, as an example.
"(Wolf Pack Coach Brian Polian) has said the team won't be in class on Wednesday when they travel to Fresno, and the game will be played on Thursday night, which means an additional day away from the classroom," Davies said. "ESPN and the major networks can do this anytime they want, and they can set their own rules."
Even with the complicating factors of huge television contracts, the pressures of filling large stadiums and healthcare questions that include how do players who are concussed while playing receive proper medical care 25 or 30 years following their playing days in college, Davies said there are important benefits to the American marriage of sports and society.
He recalled the year 1947, when he was 10 years old and he visited Crosley Field in Cincinnati with his father to the Reds play the Brooklyn Dodgers.
"The green of the field, the thousands of the seats, I will never forget that moment," Davies said. "Along right field, in the cheap seats, all the faces were black. Crosley Field, like many major league ballparks of the time, had segregated seating. They were there, as were many of the whites, to see Jackie Robinson play that day."
Robinson, the African-American UCLA All-American who broke baseball's color barrier that season with the Dodgers, remains to Davies the most important and influential American athlete.
"Sports played an enormous role in the civil rights movement," Davies explained. "And Jackie Robinson was the one athlete who sensitized the American people on issues of race. He was an incredibly important figure."
Sixty-eight years later, on a date which also happened to be his birthday, Davies showed why he has been one of the University's most important figures throughout his long and memorable career.
He did more than simply bring sports to life for those assembled on Monday. He brought, through his mastery of the subject, his vivid choice of words and examples and his rare sense of storytelling, the American experience to life.