Competing against some 'big boys' in battle for debate

October 10, 2003|HERB BROCK


On Oct. 29, Centre College will celebrate the 82nd anniversary of its shocking David-vs.-Goliath 6-0 victory over then-football powerhouse Harvard University. This month, Centre finds itself battling not just one, but several big boys in a contest that will again draw national headlines.

But this largely collegiate competition is quite a bit different. It's "played" on a stage, not a field. And it puts a premium on brains rather than brawn.

Centre is one of 14 colleges and communities, along with a radio network, that have applied to be one of six sites for the 2004 presidential and vice-presidential debates. Every one of the other colleges is bigger than Centre, and every one of the communities is bigger than Danville.


For instance, two of Centre's competitors - the universities of South Carolina and Kansas - each have enrollments of nearly 30,000, and two others - Case Western Reserve in Cleveland and Washington University in St. Louis - are in cities with populations in excess of 2 million.

These schools and cities are giants compared to Centre's dwarf-like enrollment of 1,100 and Danville's microscopic population of 17,000. The population figure could be puffed up to 90,000 if you count all the people who live in Boyle and four neighboring counties.

And one of the Goliaths vying with Davidville - that is, Danville - is home to two applicants. Nashville, with a population of nearly 1 million, appears to have a leg up on the other communities, if the law of averages is applied, because two of its institutions of higher education - Belmont University with 5,800 students and Vanderbilt University with nearly 10,000 - are both in the hunt.

The other potential debate sites are: Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz.; Columbus State Unversity and the city of Columbus, Ga.; Greater Pittsburgh, Pa., Convention and Visitors Bureau; Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, N.Y.; University of Miami, Miami, Fla.; University of North Carolina at Charlotte, N.C., and the city of Charlotte; and National Public Radio. NPR's staff is probably smaller than the enrollment at Centre, but its headquarters in Washington, D.C., is much bigger than Danville.

Despite the size of the opposition, Centre is undaunted. The college is taking a good-things-come-in-small-packages approach.

"Centre takes a certain pride in being small in size but large in stature," said Mike Norris, director of communications for the college, which is annually rated as one of the top national liberal arts colleges in the country. "When we hosted the 2000 vice-presidential debate, we were the smallest institution ever to host a televised general election debate."

When the 2000 debate was over, Centre added another pelt to its belt of accomplishments against larger schools.

"The success we experienced in landing the debate and in hosting it fit very well with Centre's tradition of unexpected victories and of playing the role of giant-killer," said Norris.

"The list of these victories is long, but it includes such highlights as the fact that, for the last 20 years, Centre has led in the nation in alumni giving percentage, we have had seven students win Rhodes Scholarships, more than many larger schools, and, oh yes, we upset Harvard in 1921."

The banner headline over a story about the Centre-Harvard game that appeared in a major newspaper on the day after the contest says, in part, "Southerners clearly outplay Cambridge (Mass.) team." Given its track record, as a debate site in 2000, as a football phenom in 1921 and as an academic powerhouse for several years, Norris said that Centre feels good about its chances of outbidding its much larger opponents for a 2004 debate site.

"We feel pretty confident," he said. "We may not have size in our favor but we do have history and reputation on our side."

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