What is it that 11,000 college students do so well?

Are you ready? Eight students lean forward expectantly, ready to hit the buzzer as soon as the moderator gets the first question out. The judges are poised, the audience intent, silent.

Ready!

Students in the audience whoop their support, and the contest is on.

College Bowl is back, big and growing bigger, on more than 500 campuses across the US. From small colleges to state universities, wherever there's a willing organizer, a coach, and quick-witted students who love words and stockpile information, you're likely to find College Bowl.

Called by its promoters the varsity sport of the mind, College Bowl is a question-and-answer game played between two teams in seven-minute halves.

Combatants respond to questions: tossups, in which teams compete against each other for the fastest time to the correct answer; or bonus questions, in which team members consult with one another, against the clock. In each case, split-second decisions, willingness to take risks, and quick, sure recall make the points. "It is," explained Rosanne Messmeo of Texas Christian, "the only sport I do well in."

In the 1980-81 season, more than 11,000 students have been competing in lively exhibitions of memory and speed.

First a radio program aired in the '50s, then a TV show through the '60s, College Bowl faded away for a time in the '70s. But in the spring of 1977, the executive committee of the Association of College Unions-International, an organization of college union officials and student activities directors, agreed to run a national competition of College Bowl teams through cooperating college union programs. ACU-I set up a committee and appointed regional coordinators from its members in each of 15 regions. That first spring, 100 schools signed up.

College Bowl, ACU-I feels, is a constructive activity for college unions to offer their campuses. As Ron Loomis, director of University Unions and Student Activities at Cornell University, sees it, College Bowl gives students who are not athletes a team activity. Those students who are more bookish than social or athletic have a chance to shine.

College Bowl presents them to audiences on campus and off in ways that reflect well on them and on their schools. It gives smaller colleges, like Davidson in North Carolina or Berry College in Georgia, a chance to compete against the Ivy League schools and state university giants -- and win.

Questions come from a stable of writers who are paid for them. College Bowl Company researchers validate and assemble them into packets which are then sold to schools setting up tournaments. Good questions, according to students, are neither too esoteric nor too easy, but require a specific nugget of knowledge, a fact. Good packets are not slanted toward one particular area of knowledge, but range over history, literature, the sciences, current events, sports, performing and visual arts, and popular culture.

Though ACU-I supports College Bowl through its student activities network, organizing and administering competitions, its partnership with the College Bowl Company keeps the needs of the promoter from becoming overriding. All mailings are monitored, and no changes in procedures or policies that affect campus competitions can be made without the consent of the College Bowl committee.

A coach may handle the logistics of campus competitions; he may guide teams in practice activities that heighten recall and memorization. But he also helps teams learn to lose well, according to Mr. Loomis.

"Losers learn," says Robert Mutchnick, professor of criminal justice and coach of the Marshall University team. "They learn to accept responsibility for losing, for sloppy playing, lack of cooperation, more ego than necessary."

"They learn how to cope with loss," explained Barry Bergey, former coach of the Washington University team. "The idea is not that winning is most important , but how well they play the game. There are two ways a team can really come across well. One is to win convincingly; and the other is to lose with grace. They're both very important things to learn."

A good player is an almanac reader, a lover of trivia, a listmaker, an encyclopedia reader from way back. Good players ask questions, read footnotes and indexes. They love to learn. "You have to read a lot," said Craig Leff of Washington University " -- since the third grade."

Good players are also workers, willing to practice. They like to know things and they're willing to do the work that it requires. They like what College Bowl offers them: a chance to show off what they know. They compete for the joy of it, the exhilaration of pitting their quickness and range against others very much like them. They learn when to take risks and when to let someone else on the team answer. They're quick, cool under pressure.

For Townsend Reese of the University of Maryland, the difference between a good team and a poor team is how members react to missed questions and low scores.

A good team will pick itself up and get going again. A poor team will stay down. A team can stay up, he emphasized, when it has developed a relationship in which members don't get down on one another, in which there's no one-upmanship on the team. "A good team," says Debbie Scott of Marshall, "is four people who can respect each other."

The payoffs for students vary: a chance to travel and meet students from other schools; recognition; a chance to perform in public, to compete; a chance to be with other students like them. There are no prizes for individuals, except winning itself, but winning teams can bring scholarship grants, provided by corporate donations to the College Bowl Scholarship Foundation, to their schools.

As a student activity College Bowl bridges the gap between the academic and the recreational. Players learn good sportsmanship. They learn discipline under pressure. They learn to focus on the task at hand, not to let emotions disturb thought processes. They learn to cooperate, to trust one another, to respect one another. For those who don't play football or soccer, it's a way to become visible.

Team members take care of one another, beyond practice sessions and coaching. During the competition itself instances of conscious care spark visibly in the general crackle of alert tension: the touch of a hand, a glance, a little leaning toward one another.

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