A little more than a century ago, a group of eight Calvin students unofficially formed a basketball team and challenged Hope College to a game. To escape the wrath of the Calvin administration, which believed organized sports would hinder academic pursuits, they called themselves the “Calvin Y,” because they occasionally practiced at the YMCA, located three miles from Calvin’s Franklin campus.
This motley crew, with no coach and little practice, was soundly defeated. Yet the fledgling team sparked an interest in intercollegiate competition that would lead to the flourishing of Calvin’s athletic program over the next century.
Much has changed since that first game in Hope’s Carnegie gym in 1917: Calvin athletics has a mascot, school colors, a 5,000-seat arena, 25 varsity teams, the support of the university administration, and most recently a new strategic plan, designed to further develop the student-athlete experience and foster spirit across the entire Calvin community.
“We’ve become one of the most successful athletic programs in NCAA Division III,” said Calvin director of athletics, Jim Timmer. “We have 11 national championships, 27 national runners-up, 54 final four appearances, 19 national coaches of the year, and many, many All-Americans and Academic All-Americans. We’ve done all of this while standing firm in our commitment to the athlete-as-scholar and in our dedication to the leadership and faith development of student-athletes.”
While the foundation and success are apparent, an official plan for resources dedicated to Calvin athletics had never before been formally written and approved.
“Unlike athletic programs at almost every other college and university, ours is housed within the academic division and tied to the provost, which reflects the educational mission of athletics,” said Timmer.
This structure has fostered the development of athletes as students but has challenged the department’s ability to fully support intercollegiate athletics.
“We’re like the little engine that could,” said Timmer. “Most schools that do really well in Division III are state schools with much larger budgets and lower tuition or schools with huge endowments. Our programs are competing right there with them, and we’re committed to offering the best student-athlete experience in Division III.”
The inaugural five-year strategic plan adopted in fall 2021 lists providing the best student-athlete experience as one of its focused goals. Other goals include building spirit and community-wide engagement, creating an effective and sustainable administrative structure, and attracting additional students.
Accompanying these strategic goals is a plan to support them with additional resources for coaches, more club sport opportunities, a director of club sports, outdoor facility upgrades, and the introduction of football, men’s volleyball, and women’s acrobatics and tumbling.
According to Amber Warners, associate athletic director and women’s volleyball coach, excitement surrounding the new initiatives has created a buzz around campus that has been missing.
“I think for a long time Calvin has wanted to send a message that athletics isn’t the end-all, and I 100 percent agree with that,” she said. “But if you do athletics in the right way and follow God’s calling, it can be celebrated. It can touch everybody’s life in a positive way. Even people who never step foot inside the fieldhouse will have a way to be connected and a reason to celebrate with the entire Calvin community.”
Increasing community access and engagement is the vision for the new outdoor facilities plan, which will be implemented in phases the timing of which is dependent on funding from the Calvin community. These outdoor facilities will support men’s and women’s track and field, lacrosse, soccer, and football and enhance the student-athlete, coach, and fan experience.
“I’m envisioning a fall Saturday when there is a football game, a soccer game, and a volleyball game—events that will bring the whole campus together,” said Warners. “I think it will bring a feeling of ‘I want to be at Calvin because it’s an exciting place to be.’”
While creating an atmosphere of enthusiasm for all things maroon and gold is certainly one of the strategic goals, so is continuing to offer the best student-athlete experience in NCAA Division III. Calvin athletics’ three-fold mission of the pursuit of excellence in athletic competition, commitment to the scholar-athlete ideal, and devotion to the leadership and faith development of student-athletes is the foundation of providing that experience.
“We chase competitive excellence,” said Timmer. “If you talk to our coaches, if you talk to players, you’ll hear it. That’s what we do. Obviously, our faith commitment is foundational to everything we do, but we also believe that we are being less than authentic if we aren’t pursuing championships. Nothing flourishes if you aren’t doing that.”
Timmer and provost Noah Toly agree that strategically investing in this pursuit will benefit the university.
“Calvin athletics has been incredibly successful when it comes to athletic excellence and competitive achievement, and it’s been done without compromising academic integrity or our Christian identity,” said Toly. “This new plan links athletics with the university’s many other priorities. There is a lot of excitement in supporting existing programs and teams in new ways and expanding the student-athlete experience to more students.”
Timmer also feels adding teams and enhancing and expanding club sports will afford more opportunities for students to be shaped by the university’s mission.
“We’re pretty good at a large number of things at Calvin, and athletics happens to be one of them,” he said. “We’d like to invite more people into the Calvin University athletics community. We’d like to invite young people who play football or men’s volleyball or participate in acrobatics and tumbling to come and benefit from a Calvin education, something we had zero opportunity to do before.”
Toly believes the mission of Calvin athletics has always aligned with the university’s mission: to equip students to think deeply, act justly, and live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.
“There is nothing we do—whether it’s teaching a student to play a trumpet, play a role in theater, or play a position on the football field—that doesn’t help shape them into Christ’s agents of renewal in the world,” he said.
And while the start-up of some of the new programs— particularly football because of its scope—will be formidable, Toly believes Calvin will achieve success.
“Football is not uniquely challenging; it’s just big,” he said. “Will we be good at it? I’m confident we’ll eventually be good at football. But if we define good as developing students with high character and shaping them to be Christ’s agents of renewal in the world, I expect to be good at that from day one.”