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Why The Highlanders Prove That There Is No Such Thing As An Underdog

By JASON BELZER, Lenny Kaplan
7 min read

The story of David vs. Goliath is a familiar one in sports. An unassuming team takes on an unconquerable giant, the two battle it out on the court or pitch before the underdog eventually triumphs; the seemingly invincible opponent done in by its own hubris. Yet as business leaders, while we may fantasize about our organizations rising up to conquer our greatest competitors, in reality, we often find ourselves defeated again and again.


While there are any numbers of reasons why we stumble, the truth is that those rare underdogs, who are in the end victorious, are the ones who never really perceived themselves as having a disadvantage in the first place. One needs to look no further for proof of this than by recognizing what the athletics program at the  New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) has been to able to accomplish in recent years, even when all the odds (literally every single one) seem to be stacked against them.


Considered one of the best engineering schools in the country, NJIT is far more synonymous with producing the nation’s brightest technical minds than it is All-Americans. The school’s tough admission standards, as well as its less-than-desirable location in the middle of downtown Newark, New Jersey, do it no favors when it comes to attracting student-athletes. Their primary indoor athletics facility, the Estelle and Zoom Fleisher Athletic Center, would be impressive… if the Highlanders sponsored high school sports.


Of the 351 schools that participate in NCAA Division I sports, 350 of them are members of a conference. Exactly 1 of them, NJIT, is not. When the school made the transition to Division I, the NCAA had lowered the financial barriers to entry for universities to do. Yet inevitably an influx of schools led to a rash of conference realignment and the NCAA, for some arbitrary reason, decided to once again raise its price tag for admission to college sports most exclusive club.


When the game of musical chairs was over, NJIT was the sole school left without a home. The NCAA also instituted a new rule whereby reclassifying schools can only move up into Division I with a binding commitment from an existing conference, which assures that no future team will be in NJIT’s predicament. But unfortunately for the Highlanders, who abided by all the rules, no provision was made to address their unique situation.


Being Division I’s only independent team is like being the last remaining store in a giant, abandoned, strip mall. You might see the occasional customer when they really need your wares, but no one is going out of their way to patronize you business.


When it comes to scheduling games, finding teams to face off against during the non-conference season isn’t that difficult, mainly because big schools perceive the Highlanders as a “cup-cake” – an easy way to fill their stands and secure a win in the process. Of course, when conference play begins and teams are locked into schedules created years before, finding opponents can be downright impossible. Moreover, no conference means no championships, and so the student-athletes of NJIT’s athletics program play only for pride.


It is an understatement to say that the New Jersey Institute of Technology faces an uphill battle in winning on college sports’ highest level. Yet since becoming members of Division I in 2006, the Highlanders have become nothing short of a paradox. Not only have they been competitive in many of the sports that they sponsor, but winning is becoming more common place. This philosophy is due in large part to the leadership of NJIT athletics director Lenny Kaplan, whose unassuming demeanor masks an “us against the world” attitude which now permeates throughout the entire Highlanders program.


“Sometimes the least collegial things about college in this country is athletics,” opines Kaplan. “Everyone talks about student-athlete welfare, how we should do everything we can to ease make sure athletics doesn’t jeopardize education, but in reality it’s all about the money. If it weren’t, then schools like [NJIT] wouldn’t be left out to dry, and our student-athletes along with them. We struggle every day to give our kids the best educations and the best athletic experiences that we can offer, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re getting left out by the NCAA,” he adds.


While Kaplan clearly feels strongly about the Highlanders predicament, he has nonetheless done a remarkable job of leading the program despite the challenges. With a budget that ranks in the bottom half of Division I, NJIT continues to defeat opponents with far greater resources and established traditions. For instance, earlier this year the Highlander’s basketball team played their first ever game against a ranked opponent, the then #17 University of Michigan Wolverines, and left Ann Arbor victorious.


When Kaplan became athletic director 14 years ago, fencing was like a club sport and the students were coaching themselves. This year, the Highlanders would have been are ranked #15 in the nation (based on number of votes received) and have defeated historic powerhouses like the University of North Carolina. Both Michigan and North Carolina will each spend more this year on their athletic programs than the Highlanders will over the next decade combined.


How has NJIT managed to thrive under such difficult circumstances?


David understood that only way to slay Goliath was not to try to beat him at his own game, which was impossible, but instead use what Goliath perceived as his weaknesses to his own advantage. While he may not have been big or strong, he was smarter and more agile. More importantly, David entered the face-off never really questioning whether he would triumph – to him it was an inevitable formality. Much the same, Kaplan recognizes that organizations that have seemingly unlimited resources often feel entitled to success.If the Highlanders can turn their purported weaknesses in strengths, then maybe they can catch larger programs off-guard when they least expect it.


For example, since NJIT is a public school, by recruiting in-state student’s athletes, the university is able to save a tremendous amount of money on scholarships. Many of the schools the Highlanders compete against are private or recruit out-of-state, paying up to $40,000 in tuition, room and board while NJIT pays closer to $24,000. The substantial saving NJIT generates through this strategy are used to fund additional scholarships or is allocated towards other expenses like additional coaches and support staff, better food, travel and lodging for the student-athletes. In fact, except for track and swimming, the Highlanders are near fully funded in all of their sports programs; a rare occurrence among Mid-Majors.


While making more with less is important, it is only a part of the equation. While David may have had the tools to succeed, if at any moment he felt hesitation or that he was at a disadvantage in battle against Goliath, the outcome would almost certainly have been different. Similarly, Kaplan and his coaches understand that maintaining a culture of both humility and confidence within their organization means finding individuals who embody both traits well before they ever reach the university.


“When a kid sets foot on our campus, they know exactly what they’re getting into. While they understand that we can’t always offer the same amenities that larger schools can, they also know that everything they do, they’re making history. They’re not following in anyone’s footsteps, they’re creating the path for others to follow,” explains Kaplan. “Our student athletes are true believers, they aren’t always the fastest or the strongest but that matters less than character and capacity to sacrifice. And never, under any circumstance, do they feel entitled.”


Very few athletic programs have open door policies when it comes to speaking to top levels of administration on any issue. Most who don’t sponsor football won’t employ a full complement of strength and conditioning and athletic training staff. Almost none can claim that the majority of the coaches within the department have local roots. Yet these are but a few characteristics that make the NJIT unique. It’s also the reason why Highlander student-athletes do not necessarily believe that they are at a disadvantage


“I challenge anyone out there to prove that they try to offer their student-athletes greater levels of support than we do at NJIT,” proclaims Kaplan. “Just because we don’t have the same facilities, or can’t fly around on our own plane doesn’t mean that each and every athlete here isn’t receiving a first-class experience in the areas that matter.”


Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how anyone can argue that the Highlanders are not deserving of permanent home in college athletics. There is little question that the school treats its student-athletes just as well, if not better, than the majority of programs – even ones with far superior resources. Moreover, the university recently announced that it would be spending $100,000,000 to build a 200,000 sqf all-purpose sports and recreation facility that will be the envy of Mid-Major athletics programs around the country. The powers that be in college athletics are simply running out of excuses when it comes to justifying NJIT’s exile.


While there are many lessons that can be taken away from the story of David vs. Goliath, the one that matters most is that in any battle we face as leaders, sometimes the keys to victory are obscured by our own misconceptions. One needs to look no further than the New Jersey Institute of Technology to understand that sometimes what can be perceived by the rest of the world as a weakness is in reality a great strength.


As the Highlanders have already learned, it is precisely when the giant underestimates his opponent the most that he is most vulnerable.