Authentic Ivy - Steve Bilsky and Gary Walters
By Jerry Reimenschneider
He was only 95 miles from where he was raised in Reading, Pa.
But in so many ways, Gary Walters couldn’t have been farther from home in the formative fall of 1963.
The first of his urban-bred family to go to college, Walters wasn’t just attending any university.
He was a heavily recruited point guard at Princeton, and during his first days there dual expectations from distinguished basketball and academic programs were a crushing weight.
“I wasn’t sure, because of my background, that I belonged,” Walters said.
Then he got the letter that would firm his resolve, form his philosophy and direct his life’s work. It was from his high school coach, a then pre-legendary Pete Carril.
A little more than three years later in Philadelphia, a teenaged Steve Bilsky, another nationally coveted guard, took a recruiting trip to the University of Pennsylvania. As a native of Long Island’s north shore, Bilsky had been to New York’s Madison Square Garden more times than he could count.
But none of those visits prepared him for Penn’s fabled Palestra.
“I had never seen anything like that,” Bilsky said. “I couldn’t imagine playing in that type of arena.”
In retrospect, his other suitors – Columbia and Brown, the Naval Academy and Duke – never had a chance.
“I came back and told my parents, ‘This is it. I’m going to Penn.’ ” Bilksy said. “My recruitment was over by December.”
His nearly five-decade career at Penn, however, was just beginning.
Both Walters and Bilsky are retiring this spring after epic,
20-year runs as athletic directors at their alma maters. Their
departures serve as a simultaneous conclusion to a pair of largely
parallel stories – stories whose narratives begin during each
man’s earliest days on his Ivy League campus.
Reassurance, and a push
If Walters’ freshman uncertainty was the wound, Carril’s letter was the salve.
“It was my first month at Princeton,” Walters said. “I needed somebody to mentor me, somebody to show their belief in me, and indeed he did.”
Carril – who, in the spring of Walters’ senior year, would replace Tigers coach Butch van Breda Kolff and begin his historic tenure with the Tigers – had sensed his ex-player’s self-doubt when he visited Walters on the venerable New Jersey campus.
“You seemed a bit uneasy in your new surroundings last week, and I can imagine some kind of concern or apprehension on your part,” Carril wrote Walters. “You know that from the beginning, one of your outstanding character traits is courage. Don’t baby or pity yourself! Princeton will not be too tough for you!”
“I’ve often stated and believed that a life of sacrifice is a better character builder, and that competition brings out the best and the worst in us,” Carril continued. “In your case, it has always brought out the best.
“You have a lot of people back here (in Reading) who believe in you and know you will measure up to the most difficult standards. Remember what it means to a mother and a father to see a man excel and achieve. Surely that will be a motivating force.”
It was just the right touch of tough and tender, pressure and pride.
It was just what Walters needed.
“That moment was as transformative as you think it was,” said Tigers field hockey coach Kristin Holmes-Winn, whom Walters brought to Princeton 11 years ago. “Carril’s letter, yes, it was about showing the belief that you could do it. But it was also about not feeling sorry for yourself. You have this incredible opportunity in front of you. Just go out there and embrace the challenge.”
“What the letter represented,” Walters said, “was reassurance that he believed in me, No. 1, and then the obligation I also had not to let anybody down, that was equally important.”
Walters went on to a storied Princeton career. He directed traffic as the Bill Bradley-led Tigers advanced to the Final Four in Walters’ sophomore season, and was featured with teammate Chris Thomforde on Sports Illustrated’s cover his senior season, when Princeton climbed as high as No. 3 in the national rankings.
The unsure kid from blue-collar Reading accomplished something else, something perhaps more remarkable: He finished his research on stereotyping, and earned an Ivy League degree.
“Probably the proudest moment I had in my life as a student-athlete at Princeton was the day I handed in my student thesis,” Walters said.
Carril was right. Princeton was tough, but Walters was
Steve Bilsky’s friends thought it was funny.
When Penn head coach Dick Harter and assistant Digger Phelps were luring Bilsky to Philly, their pitch was simple: They were going to guide the Quakers to an NCAA title.
“I’m a naïve, 17-year-old kid being recruited by these two super salesman saying we’re gonna win a national championship,” Bilsky said. “Anyone I mentioned it to just started laughing, because not only was it unlikely that an Ivy League team would win a national championship, but Penn at the time wasn’t even .500, so it became like a dream – something that I took seriously, but no one else did.”
No one laughed four years later, when the Bilsky-captained Quakers went undefeated through the 1970-71 season before falling in the East Regional final to Philadelphia rival Villanova. Bilsky became a three-time All-Ivy guard and a Wharton School graduate.
He also became a believer in impossible dreams.
“The experience of accomplishing something that seemed unlikely to just about everybody else, but not unlikely to me because I believed in everything, made me realize that there was nothing that you couldn’t accomplish,” he said.
Bilsky has dreamed big ever since.
Education through Athletics
Walters has done more than keep that long-ago letter from Coach Carril. He has spent the past 51 years living it.
As a student-athlete at Princeton; as a head basketball coach at four colleges; as an investment executive; and then most profoundly during two prolific and impactful decades as Princeton’s AD, Walters has put Carril’s words into motion.
Shortly after taking a chance on an unproven Holmes-Winn and hiring her in 2003, Walters took his new field hockey coach out for coffee.
“He just was checking in to see how it was going,” Holmes-Winn recalled.
During the conversation, Walters offered Holmes-Winn a variation on a quote by educator and author Eugene P. Bertin: “Teaching is leaving a vestige of one’s self in the development of another.”
Holmes-Winn wrote the quote down and keeps it in her desk to this day.
“For me, that encapsulates who Gary is,” she said. “He feels this great responsibility to help others, and to help them along to the extent to which he’s no longer needed. That to him is like the greatest accomplishment.
“And for me that kind of gave me the direction that I needed. It just summed up what my purpose is here.”
Holmes-Winn has honored that purpose, and rewarded Walters handsomely for the hire with a perennial place in the national rankings and a 2012 NCAA championship.
She is just one example of Walters passing along the spirit of Carril’s letter to the many he’s mentored.
As Carril did in that 1963 missive, Walters has spent five decades applying positive pressure with guidance. He has preached to his players, employees, coaches and student-athletes his belief in achievement through accountability.
And he has captured that all-encompassing philosophy in a motto that defines his Princeton tenure: Education Through Athletics.
“My responsibility is to make sure it’s not just some empty bromide, but it is a saying that possesses real integrity,” Walters said.
Walters needn’t worry. The Education Through Athletics mind set has been far more than “some empty bromide.” It has sculpted world-class students, people and professionals.
Not to mention some pretty good teams. The Tigers have claimed 219 Ivy League crowns, 74 more than the next-closest Ivy program, and 30 national championships with Walters at the helm.
“I don’t believe that by pursuing character-based
and value-based coaching, that one has to sacrifice the pursuit of
excellence on the field,” Walters said. “In fact,
you’re actually holding people to higher standards. So the
reality is that it’s two sides of the same coin.”
Impossible dream, part 2
Rudy Fuller has been on the Steve Bilsky train since 1998, when Bilsky tapped him to turn around the Quakers’ men’s soccer program.
“It has been an unbelievable ride, to experience it first-hand,” said Fuller, who has repaid Bilsky’s faith with three Ivy titles and four NCAA Tournament berths.
Fuller has watched Bilsky do more than merely overhaul Penn’s brick-and-mortar athletics pieces; he’s watched him virtually raze and remake them, along with portions of the campus and community.
The physical changes Bilsky has forged in Philadelphia are nearly too numerous to mention, but here’s a sampling: He is the man behind multiple Franklin Field and Palestra renovations; the force behind construction of new homes for soccer, softball, tennis, baseball and field hockey; and the power behind Penn Park, which morphed a between-two-bridges concrete span into a breathtaking community green.
Fuller marvels at the before-and-after, and not just in the buildings and grounds.
“If you rewound the tape 10, 12 years and predicted that level of success in facility creation, money raised and improvements seen across the board, I think people would have thought you were a little crazy,” Fuller said.
Or maybe they’d have laughed, just as Bilsky’s buddies did nearly a half-century ago after his first visit to Penn.
“It’s another example of somebody telling you that you can’t do something, and knowing that you could,” Bilsky said. “Whether it was realistic or not is immaterial; it’s that you believe that you can.”
That same, dream-big belief drove Bilsky during The Campaign for Penn Athletics, a capital drive that minted an eye-popping $125 million over the six years ending in 2013.
“Again going back to lessons learned when I was a student-athlete, Penn athletics had never done a capital campaign in the history of the school,” Bilsky said. “So No. 1, to do any kind of capital campaign was unique, and then No. 2, to raise $125 million was unheard of.”
Those less familiar with Bilsky might have even called it
No one who has worked with or for Walters or Bilsky would make the mistake of boxing their broad accomplishments. Walters’ impact on Princeton extends well beyond the philosophical, just as Bilsky’s on Penn stretches far past the physical.
Few understand that better than Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris.
“Steve and Gary, as former Ivy League student-athletes themselves, have operated their departments with the interests of the student-athlete experience paramount,” Harris said. “They have left tremendous legacies at their respective institutions and within the Ivy League.”
While posterity will most remember Bilsky for the buildings he left behind, Walters has left his own formidable facilities trail. He replaced football’s Palmer Stadium with Princeton Stadium, and directed numerous other projects that have left the track, soccer, tennis, rowing, field hockey and lacrosse programs with new homes.
Walters also spent five years on the high-profile NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee, and was its chairman in 2006-07.
Bilsky boasts a similar breadth. While Walters is the one renowned for an athletics mantra that has bred singular success, Bilsky’s programs have produced 74 Ivy titles, 37 Ivy Players of the Year and 144 All-Americans. Twenty-one different programs have won League championships on his watch.
And Harris is quick to mention another keystone in Bilsky’s wall of accomplishments: his critical roles in the creation of the Ivy League’s groundbreaking Digital Network and in negotiations for the League’s first national television deals for football and men’s basketball.
Yet for all their other accomplishments, both Walters and Bilsky regard their signature achievements much as the general public does.
For Walters, it is Education Through Athletics, his two-decade homage to his own Princeton experience.
“Oh, without question,” Walters said. “That’s exactly what it is; those three words capture the experience that I had as an undergraduate.
“I think it’s absolutely become the major commitment of this athletic department, of this university, of our coaches and our student-athletes. We’re not only teaching them to do things right – those are the fundamentals of the game – we’re teaching them to do the right thing.”
They are Walters’ words, but within them is the loud echo of that long-ago letter from Carril.
For Bilsky, who will ease into “retirement” by becoming the Philadelphia Big 5’s new executive director, the lasting stamp he leaves upon Penn is unquestionably his unparalleled fundraising and facility-building.
“It will benefit generations of student-athletes that aren’t even here yet,” Bilsky said. “I took the job 20 years ago because I looked at it as a way of giving back to future student-athletes, so that they could have the same kind of wonderful experience that I did.”
Both Bilsky and Walters dreamed big, and believed bigger. No one is laughing at either one of them now.
Authentic Ivy is an ongoing feature series that will highlight
current and former student-athletes, coaches and administrators,
focusing on how their Ivy League experiences prepared them for
success, in and out of the realm of athletics. Authentic Ivy
features will roll out throughout the year on IvyLeagueDigitalNetwork.com and IvyLeagueSports.com.
Jerry Reimenschneider is an editorial writer, copy editor and longtime former sports columnist at the Reading Eagle in Pennsylvania. His sports writing, business features and editorials have won more than 20 national, regional and state journalism awards. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about freelance or full-time writing or public relations opportunities.