KU Debate Hall of Fame

This March, the University of Kansas will host the National Debate Tournament (NDT) for the first time. For the uninitiated, the NDT is the debate world’s equivalent of March Madness. Spread over five intense days, the top teams from across the USA compete to be crowned the nation’s best debaters. After a hugely successful fall semester, KU was ranked number one in the country in the national varsity debate rankings, and head into the tournament full of confidence.

KU’s success in this prestigious event is as long-standing and impressive as that of the Kansas Jayhawks men’s basketball team. The university has qualified teams for the NDT consecutively for the past 50 years, an outstanding achievement. Five times National Debate Tournament Champions, Kansas Debate is an important point of pride for the University of Kansas, and their trophy-laden cabinet in Bailey Hall is a must visit on Mount Oread.

To celebrate the proud history of the debate team at the University of Kansas, and to give inspiration to the current team, we delved into the archives to tell a little of the story of KU’s five national debate championship-winning teams. From 1956 to 2009, KU Debate’s hall of fame is full of tales of dedication, passion and conscientious Jayhawks representing their university with modesty and world-class distinction.

Since 1964, the team has been steered to great success by two notable coaches: Donn Parson  and Scott Harris. For over half a century, both coaches have ensured that the program has been competitive on the national level, a truly remarkable achievement. And both coaches have ensured that the team lives by the words of KU Debate legend Professor Ezra Christian Buehler : “We must always reinforce, color, touch up what we have done. You’re always reaching. When you think you’ve got it, watch out: you’re licked.”

First Alumni Committee meeting. Scott Harris, Robin Rowland, Tom Beisecker, Joel Goldman, Bill Russell, Jim Prentice, Bill Hensley, and sitting, the once and always “Head Hawk” Donn Parson.

1954: Resourceful champions set the benchmark for future teams:

Seven years after the National Debate Tournament started, KU won the trophy. Led by coach Kim Griffin, the team of William Arnold and Hugh Bell emerged victorious in 1954, writing their names into the earliest history books of the tournament.

In these early days of the national tournament, the KU team achieved success with little to no fanfare or financial support. But these champions created a spark that would ignite an increasing interest in the debate program at KU. And in 1956, the team caught the eye of then-Chancellor Franklin David Murphy.

It was 1956, and the Jayhawk basketball team had just been defeated at their home in Hoch Auditorium. The dejected Lawrence crowd was turning to leave, when they were stopped in their tracks by some good news booming across the P.A. system: KU Debate had taken first place at the Northwestern Debate Tournament. The crowd cheered loudly and left the game jubilant. It was then that Chancellor Murphy discovered that the team had driven to Chicago, rather than flying, due to a lack of funds, and pledged more financial support to the team.

University of Kansas Archives

1970: A squad of strategic animals led by the Head Jayhawk:

Donn Parson took leadership of the  program in 1964, helping navigate the  team through a period when debate became faster and more furious, reflecting the increased pace of life during the ’60s. As the availability of information exploded, debaters needed to pack more and more into their arguments, delivered at a machine gun rate. And it was Donn Parson who stepped in to guide the team through these fast-flowing waters.

Now director of the National Debate Tournament and professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, Parson was known to his team as the “Head Jayhawk.” In turn, the head coach referred to his team as “strategic animals” or “hawklets.” And in 1970, two of his squad rose to claim the national championship.

KU’s 1970 NDT championship-winning team were Robert McCulloh of Shawnee Mission and David Jeans of Independence, Missouri. The key to their success? Parson credits the enthusiasm for debate at KU and the keen sense of competition among his debaters.

1976 Parson’s Hawklets strike again:

In 1976, Parson successfully guided a second team to the NDT championship, a feat that helped him win coach of the decade for the 1970s. The team consisted of Frank Cross and Robin Rowland, now professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication Studies at KU.

1976 NDT champions Frank Cross and Robin Rowland compete at the Heart of America Debate, April 1976. Image courtesy of University Archives, Spencer Research Library, KU

“When we have practice debates prior to tournaments and some team has not done enough research in preparing its case, the other squad members in many instances are more critical than I would be in getting across the point that more work is needed before tournament time,” Parson said in 1970. This peer group strategy continued to work with his 1975-76 team reaping the awards.

The 1975-76 debate team’s trophy haul on January 22, 1976. Photo courtesy of the University Archives Collection, Spencer Research Archive, University of Kansas.
Robin Rowland and Frank Cross with a selection of trophies from the 1975-1976 season.

The early season form of the 1975-76 team was phenomenal. By mid-season the team had already won 70 awards. But when they posed with their trophies in January 1976, they wouldn’t have known that team members Frank Cross and Robin Rowland would finish the season as national champions.

Frank Cross (left) and Robin Rowland (right) pose with the National Debate Tournament trophy.

1983: Through difficulty to a fourth NDT

In December 1983, head of Kansas Debate Donn Parson wrote to friends of the program with bittersweet news. Parson relayed the financial cuts “that would bring tears to the eyes of old Jayhawks.” But despite the need to tighten their belts, two seniors had claimed the fourth National Debate Tournament title for the University of Kansas that year.

When Mark Gidley and Rodger Payne traveled with their teammates and a cooler full of sandwiches to the NDT in Colorado Springs that year, they dreamed of leaving KU as champions having had a successful fall semester.

On April 2, the pair  returned to KU victorious, having defeated Dartmouth in the final.

The humble pair both confessed with embarrassment that they had been awful debaters when in high school. So how did they achieve victory in 1983? The answer is, as ever, hard work.

Long hours were spent researching and practicing with teammates and the experienced coaches at KU. “Everybody helped us get ready for nationals,” Gidley said. “Everybody shared research. We did a lot of hard work and had a lot of experience, but it was a corps of people that made the difference.”

2009: What do you get when you pair a mathematics major with a philosophy, political science and psychology major? A lot of smarts and a pair of national champions!

Half-time at Allen Fieldhouse, but the crowd shirks their hot-dogs and sodas to show their love for KU’s newest National Debate Tournament champions, Brett Bricker, a mathematics major, and Nate Johnson, majoring in philosophy, political science and psychology. As the Kansans Bricker and Johnson stroll to the center of the hallowed court the crowds’ appreciation grows louder.

The Bricker-Johnson duo had topped the 79 intercollegiate teams competing March 27-31 at the University of Texas-Austin, in a final four described by debate’s head coach, Scott Harris, as “one of the toughest final four fields ever.” Like the 2008 basketball Final Four, the top four teams made it to the semi-finals. And mirroring the success of Jayhawk basketball the year before, KU emerged victorious.

Brett Bricker, Scott Harris & Nate Johnson with the NDT trophy. Photo courtesy of the National Debate Tournament.

This was Scott Harris’ first national NDT title but he turned the spotlight on the winning duo, and the entire KU Debate team that had helped make the dream a reality. “Brett and Nate’s performance at the tournament was spectacular,” Harris said. “They are two of the brightest and hardest working students I have ever worked with and what they accomplished was incredible. Their success was also the product of a lot of hard work by all of the KU assistant coaches and the rest of the KU debaters who worked hard to help them.”

Photo via KU Endowment Association