LAWRENCE -- At the podium stands University of Kansas debater Andrew Jennings. Words - hundreds of them - shoot out of his mouth in the normal rapid-fire delivery of intercollegiate competition understandable to judges and seasoned debaters but probably not many other people.
Finally he takes a breath. This pace continues for nine minutes.
While talking at such speed, he's reading from pages of researched notes in front of him, then quickly handing off those pages to his KU debate teammate Brett Bricker. Bricker is sitting nearby at a table with a semicircle of blue Rubbermaid plastic tubs behind him filled with strategically sorted and filed paperwork.
Those papers are their toolbox, the means to flummox and challenge any opposing team during cross-examination. Preparation is everything.
The match lasts two hours. Jennings and Bricker will be up and down in alternating frenzies of nine, three or six minutes, all the while listening acutely to the other schools' arguments and hurriedly scribbling points to use during cross-examination.
They'll finish, pretty well exhausted, then wait to see which team wins and moves to the next round to do it all over again.
So good at this are Jennings, a senior from Silver Lake, and Bricker, a senior from Wichita, that the pair has earned a spot among the top 16 collegiate teams heading to the National Debate Tournament finals March 29-31 at California State University-Fullerton.
Also in this elite group is the KU team of Nate Johnson, senior from Manhattan, and Chris Stone, a sophomore from Derby. Johnson and Stone placed second nationally out of 182 teams at the Cross Examination Debate Association National Championship tournament March 21-24 in Wichita State University. It was the best performance ever for a KU team in the CEDA national tournament.
Each year, the NDT selection committee chooses 16 top teams in the United States based on their performance during the year and gives them automatic or at-large bids to nationals. The rest of the 78-team field will be filled through qualifying tournaments. Besides KU, only three schools have two teams in the top 16 this year -- Emory University, Harvard University and Northwestern University. KU hasn't had two in this top-tier group since 1998, although two KU teams have qualified for nationals most years.
"The heritage of debate at KU is every bit as rich as its heritage in basketball," said Scott Harris, KU's debate coach the last 17 years and national Coach of the Year in 2006 and 2007. "Our alums have set standards of achievement and are committed to doing what they can to help our students succeed. Some tell us debate was the best experience of their lives."
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For 41 consecutive years, KU has qualified teams for the NDT finals, better than any school except the University of Southern California. KU debaters won national titles in 1954, 1970, 1976 and 1983 and earned spots in the Final Four 13 times. Three of those national titles came under the tutelage of Donn Parson, KU's debate coach from 1964 to 1988. One of Parson's students on the top 1976 team was Robin Rowland, professor and chair of KU's communication studies department. Rowland coached the team from 1988 until Harris arrived in 1991. The debate trophy case is adjacent to Rowland's office on the first floor of Bailey Hall.
"If you're going to coach debate, KU is a place to be," Harris said. "It's great to teach at a place that appreciates debate. Even the chancellor talks about its success. Plus it's the quality and character of students I get to work with."
KU's top four debaters this year are all Kansans. In fact, all but one on the KU debate team of 19 men and one woman KU debater this year are from Kansas. As high school debaters, they learned oratorical and analytical skills but were restricted to competing only one semester. They didn't travel to matches year-round, as did students from some other states.
"They're hungrier. They're not burned out. They've gotten a taste of it and are eager to prove themselves," Harris said. "The ones who succeed in our program are very bright self-starters who easily put in upwards of 40 or 50 hours every week just on debate, much like any competitive sport. They earn their travel opportunities based on how hard they work. Some years we've had freshmen on our top team."
Harris said the refrain is familiar among peer-school competitors: " 'Who are these people we've never heard of who are killing us?' "
Harris said the outstanding work ethic and the camaraderie among Bricker, Jennings, Johnson and Stone fuel their success. Harris said this year's NDT-assigned question for debaters is not only long and complex but also one that demands vigilance to keep up with changes. In other words, ripe territory for the motivated KU four to uncover new information.
Here's the question:
Resolved: that the United States Federal Government should increase its constructive engagement with the government of one or more of: Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, and Syria, and it should include offering them a security guarantee(s) and/or a substantial increase in foreign assistance.
One thing that drives this year's KU debaters' victories is their track record of introducing new arguments. Judges reward debaters who can take a position and defend it.
"I think our team has put forth more new arguments than any other squad," Stone said. "We bring up things people don't have answers for."
Once a new argument has been introduced by a team, it's in the public domain and any school can use it. That means winning takes constant research. Internet. Library. Long hours. Finding something new. Cutting cards is what they call it, adding to the argument arsenal in those Rubbermaid tubs.
All year, but especially for the finals, that's what they'll be doing ... plus testing themselves in the sub-basement of Bailey Hall, the practice arena for KU debaters, hoping to be able to add to that trophy case upstairs.
--Jean Kygar Eblen