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John Thelin
No one has studied college athletics more than former Brown wrestler John Thelin, and the award-winning writer and professor sees a wonderful future for the Ivy League.

Collegiate athletics was wrought with lawlessness, chaos and corruption after World War II, according to John Thelin.

An award-winning University of Kentucky research professor, Thelin examined not only the scandals of the 1940s and '50s -- but the entire history of intercollegiate athletics and the events that shaped its future -- in his 1996 book "Games Colleges Play."

Thelin described the post-WWII era as the worst period of scandal for collegiate athletics, but also an important stepping-stone in the evolution of college sports, particularly for the Ivy League.

"In its conception, the Ivy League made a deliberate, conscious effort in their response to what was going on at the time," Thelin said. "The eight institutions, although they had already been leaders in sports, understood they needed to get together, with presidential cooperation, and make some much-needed changes."

While Thelin has spent much of his career studying corruption in sports, the former Brown wrestler is also one of the biggest cheerleaders for collegiate athletics and athletes. He is also an expert who has appeared on ESPN's Outside the Lines, which provides a deeper look into issues surrounding sports.

"Usually there is a stereotype that professors and faculty are anti-sports," Thelin said. "I have the highest regard of student-athletes. I think the combination and balance is very important."

Thelin, who chose Brown over schools in his home state of California, successfully balanced the demands of varsity wrestling, a 20-hour-a-week dining hall job and Brown's academic rigors. Thelin believes his responsibilities to school and sport helped frame his future as a person and in his career.

"The balance of academics and athletics was demanding ? probably as big a challenge as I have ever faced," Thelin said. "The irony was that commitment to one turned out to have a reciprocation and multiplier effect with commitment to the other."

Thelin's hard work on the mats paid off and as a senior he earned a spot on the varsity squad at 123 pounds. An 11-to-6 victory over Harvard's Jon Moss in front of a large crowd in Cambridge highlighted his competitive years and remains a proud memory. Thelin noted that Moss is currently a professor of radiology at the University of Chicago.

Thelin -- who graduated cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa -- also worked as a research assistant in the history department his senior year. That experience led to his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley, on the Ivy League as a symbol, image and reality in American history.

"In graduate school I faced an uphill battle persuading professors at UC Berkeley that college sports was a serious topic, worthy of scholarly attention," he remembered.

Thelin -- who was a professor at both the College of William & Mary and the University of Indiana before moving to Kentucky -- also wrote "A History of American Higher Education" in 2004. Now in its fourth printing and considered the definitive work on the subject, Thelin's book is a single, readable volume on the entire story of American Higher Education.

What does the expert on higher education, the Ivy League and college athletics see for the next 50 years of the League?

"I see the opposite of a perfect storm," Thelin said. "I see a perfect rainbow."

When the Ivy League was formed, many thought the athletics would evolve into intramural sports, Thelin said. Because the League continues to produce many elite programs and athletes, Thelin believes there will be some point in the future when schools will face a decision on whether to continue competition on a national level.

"I've always maintained that the conference you belong to and compete in is the most important thing," Thelin said. "The conference is where institutions should really define themselves."

With the emergence of many conferences focused on winning national championships, Thelin hopes the Ivies will train their focus winning League championships.

"Some of the schools in the SEC have budgets bigger than the GDP of all of Africa," Thelin joked. "I like the fact that the Ivies have managed to do well on a national level -- but I see it more as frosting on the cake."

— Josi Carlson

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