Professor Michael Brown has been at Emerson College “forever,” he said. He has seen the campus change locations, watched as new dorms were built, and faced the college in a trailblazing lawsuit for tenure.
He’s also seen, for better or worse, 45 years of athletics at Emerson.
His hiring by Emerson in 1970, he said, had a lot to do with a participating member of the since-dismantled Emerson wrestling team.
“In May of 1970, I was out of graduate school. I just found out I wasn’t going to be in the Army, and I needed a job,” said Brown. “Ironically, my roommate was a senior at Emerson. He was a member of the wrestling team.”
Brown applied to teach in the journalism program and was hired in the fall of 1970 as an assistant professor in that department.
Back then, he said the athletics program was much less important than it is today. It’s an evolution he’s been able to witness firsthand: Along with his position as a professor in the journalism department, Brown also has another little-known and little-acknowledged title. Since 2007, he has been the Faculty Athletics Representative, whose role is to “represent Emerson and help build a bridge between athletics and academics,” according to the student-athlete handbook.
“He’s a person who commands respect,” said Athletic Director Patricia Nicol. “As a professor and as a man who is involved in the athletic department, he’s the perfect person to get rid of any misconceptions and bridge the gap between the school and our department.”
A voice that bridges divisions
Brown was on the committee that hired former Division I basketball coach Jim O’Brien, and was a deciding member in hiring Nicol last year. He was also a driving force behind the more lighthearted faculty versus athletes whiffle ball game in 2013.
Before O’Brien was hired in 2011, Brown said he was one of the few skeptics of O’Brien’s interest in Emerson. O’Brien had formerly coached at Ohio State and Boston College.
“I have a knack for saying what I feel,” said Brown, “and I didn’t understand why a coach like him wanted to come here, so I asked him, ‘Why?””
O’Brien explained he wanted another opportunity to coach and a chance to be with his family in Boston. Brown was sold, and he gave his approval.
The whiffle ball game, spearheaded by Brown, was the first of its kind. It featured administrators like President M. Lee Pelton and Dean of Students Ron Ludman playing against students. Though it was a mandatory event for the softball and baseball team, many students not involved in athletics either watched or played. At one point during the game, Brown was rounding third base and lowered his shoulder into Pelton, who was covering the home. The collision knocked both of them over, entertaining everyone else there.
Brown, who said his involvement in sports at Emerson far precedes any official title, said his priority has been to maintain good relationships with student-athletes.
“As members of the athletic department, our reach doesn’t always extend beyond that,” said Nicol. “To have a professor that can connect with our students is certainly a great thing.”
For many of the students who play sports at Emerson, Brown is simply someone who shares a relatively rare mutual interest.
“He’s one of the very few faculty members that has ever asked us about how our games went,” said Julian Rifkind, a senior on the baseball team who was also on the athletic director search committee. “He wants to see the athletic program flourish, and he does everything in his power to make that happen.”
For Rifkind, a journalism major, a mutual interest in sports teams has also helped.
“When I had his class, I walked in to a conference with him feeling pretty nervous,” he said. “I left 45 minutes later after taking about how great the Yankees were in the late ’90s.”
As a firsthand witness to over 40 years of the athletic department, Brown said the historically-recurring question of where to practice and play became much less of a problem when the Bobbi Brown and Max Mutchnick Gym opened in 2006, along with the rest of Piano Row—the first facility of its kind at Emerson.
“That [gym] was the first honest-to-goodness sports anything we ever had at Emerson,” said Brown, who credited then-Emerson President Jacqueline Liebergott, a fan of sports, for approving and installing the gym. “To me, that’s when the athletic department began to get serious.”
Brown said he did see one problem in the gym.
“When it got finished, [Liebergott] told me to come check out the gym,” he said, smiling. “The first thing I said was it way too small. She got so pissed at me.”
Before the gym opened, the basketball teams played at high schools and colleges around the area, most recently playing at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Brown recalled going to one game in the ’80s at Buckingham Browne & Nichols, a private middle and high school in Cambridge. Rumor had it that the Boston Celtics, a team for which Larry Bird played at the time, was set to practice after Emerson’s game. In fact, the Celtics showed up early and were all rooting for the Lions by the fourth quarter, Brown said.
Brown said he was in full support of Emerson’s move from the Greater Northeast Athletic Conference to the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference two years ago. He had watched the NEWMAC’s level of competition as a devoted parent and fan when his son played basketball at Clark University. His son won the first NEWMAC conference championship in 1999 as a member of Clark’s basketball team.
“I knew how good the NEWMAC was watching my son play against those teams,” said Brown. “And when Emerson switched, people were saying Emerson was going to get their butts kicked. In some respect, yes, but in some ways, they’ve held their own.”
The basketball team has beaten nationally ranked Worcester Polytech Institute, a NEWMAC opponent, and will likely make the conference playoffs this year for the second year in a row.
The role of Faculty Athletics Representative, Brown noted, has no job description. It offers no extra money and doesn’t allow Brown to teach fewer courses.
With a growing family, Brown said he hasn’t been able to attend as many games as before.
But so many former student-athletes at Emerson are in sports-related careers, and more are on the way. Brown, who taught Emerson graduates Sam Presti and Rob Hennigan, who are now both general managers in the NBA, said the demand for sports at the college is apparent.
“I believe Emerson is about what our students want and need, and there if there is an interest in anything, then there should be a fair share,” said Brown. “And based on that, I think there should be more money in athletics at Emerson.”
Though the future for sports here may be bright, Brown said his role in the department is still important.
“I want more faculty not to treat sports like Ebola,” he said. “And to understand there are a lot of students who really like sports, because that’s the hidden story here. But for now, I’m just the town crier going around saying there’s a game going on tonight.”
Deputy sports editor Claire Nobles, who is currently enrolled in one of Michael Brown’s classes, did not edit this article.