Before there was an Ivy League or even a “Little Three,” the only grouping of schools by athletic conference was the Intercollegiate Football Association. Based on information from David B. Potts’s book “Wesleyan University, 1831-1910: Collegiate Enterprise in New England,” one could argue the reason Wesleyan was not included in what later became the Ivy League not because of its size, but because of its inadequacy in football.
In his book, available in Olin’s Archives and Special Collections, Potts writes, “In 1885 Wesleyan joined the Intercollegiate Football Association, founded by Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia nine years earlier. Increasingly outmatched, Wesleyan withdrew from this disintegrating league in 1893 and joined Amherst and Williams in 1899 to establish a league with more stringent rules for participants.” As a result, Wesleyan joined Amherst and Williams in 1899 to form a new “Triangular League,” where “[f]ootball, baseball, and track competition… was something of a trial run for later contests in a wide range of sports under the rubric ‘Little Three.’” The Argus stated its approval of this alliance among “institutions of equally high standing in athletics and in scholarship.” Remembering the days of dignity in the big league, an alumnus hailed Wesleyan for having “at length won anew the recognition of the college world.”
Prestige was also a factor in Wesleyan’s choice to join the Triangular League for baseball. “For reasons of prestige as well as principle, Wesleyan began in the mid-1880s to seek and consider various possibilities for a baseball league,” Potts wrote. “The most desirable opportunity did not develop until 1898, when Dartmouth expressed disdain for the stature of her companions in the original Triangular League. Amherst and Williams reacted by withdrawing and inviting Wesleyan to join them in a new Triangular League.” The cohort of Amherst, Wesleyan, and Williams has stuck ever since.
While the “Little Ivies” exists as a loose term that can incorporate any number of small liberal arts schools inside or outside of the NESCAC, it is most often used in conjunction with the athletic conference of the Little Three, consisting of Amherst, Williams, and Wesleyan. Over time, the Little Three became seen as a counterpart to the so-called “Big Three” of Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. The idea behind the “Little Ivies” is that the education quality is as good or even potentially better than Ivy League schools because of the small class sizes and, therefore, increased attention from professors.
The Ivy League, with the prestigious connotation it brings forth, is merely an athletic conference. The same goes for the Little Three. Rivalry among these schools, both the little and the big, however, has resulted in an arms race for superior facilities to attract the best students in the world. The “Little Ivies” and the Little Three are still relevant today because they spur competition among elite schools on and off the field. Amherst, Williams, and Wesleyan have been competing against each other not only in football but also to maintain prestige.
For the university, this arms race started shortly after the formation of the “Triangular League” under President Bradford P. Raymond. Speaking on athletics at Wesleyan, President Raymond said, “Athletics in our colleges are doing a great deal for the development of physical men who must be able to stand the stress of hard business life, and of professional life, and to carry on with success the enterprises which they take hold of.” One could argue that the same logic applies to today’s student athletes; the sports they play are not only good in and of themselves, but also serve a pragmatic professional purpose by instilling good values in student athletes that they will carry with them beyond the University.
The development of intercollegiate athletics spurred a spending binge never seen before on the college landscape. “The gymnasium (1894) and athletic field (1898) emanated from metropolitan zeal for manly sport,” Potts writes. “A wave of modern gymnasium building moved across the New England collegiate landscape: Hemenway at Harvard (1878), Pratt at Amherst (1884), Lasell at Williams (1886), Lyman at Brown (1891), and the new facility costing more than $200,000 at Yale (1892) [today worth over $5 million]. Olin and other urban alumni began a concerted effort in 1889 to place Wesleyan in such company.”
Olin spoke at an alumni association gathering in June 1889, declaring, “If the new President wants to immortalize himself, let him build a gymnasium.” This resulted in the building of Andrus Field and, in 1893, the Fayerweather gymnasium. At Fayerweather’s groundbreaking, Olin declared, “Here will be formed ideals of manliness and sportsmanship.”
If it were not for the development of athletics and the founding of the Little Three, perhaps Fayerweather and Andrus field—today staples of Wesleyan’s campus—would not be here today. By extension, it could be argued our school’s prestige, whether measured by faculty-to-student ratio, acceptance rate, or any other metric, would not be what it is today without the Little Three and Wesleyan’s competition not only within it, but also with its Ivy League counterparts.
Lahut is a member of the class of 2017.