Hopkins graduates embrace inner `pig'

Ravens coach wins over students

May 18, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

Newly minted Johns Hopkins University graduates were proudly proclaiming themselves "pigs" yesterday after an unusual but apparently effective commencement speech by Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick.

The football coach repeatedly invoked a homespun bacon-and-egg metaphor to win over a student body that had questioned the appropriateness of having a sports figure honored at an elite college known mostly for its academic rigor and ultra-nerd personality.

"In a bacon-and-egg breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed," Billick said from the lectern at Hopkins' lacrosse field. "Be that pig."

With that admonition, delivered in a stern voice from the square-jawed coach, Billick earned one of several hearty laughs from the graduates, and their families and friends.

About 1,050 undergraduate degrees were conferred at the afternoon ceremony, one of several held this week at Hopkins' various academic and professional schools in Baltimore. In all, the 131-year old university expected to hand out more than 6,300 degrees, certificates or diplomas - including 531 doctorates and 3,863 master's degrees, officials said.

As clouds moved in to shield families and friends from a hot morning sun, the robed students processed through a midfield gate draped with the words: "From this crossroads of knowledge ... go and touch the world."

Michelle Samson, 22, of Northern Virginia wore a bouquet of paper flowers on her graduation cap. Like many of her classmates, the neuroscience major is going on to medical school.

"I'm going to miss Hopkins," said Samson, who plans to study at the University of Virginia before becoming an Army doctor. "It has a nice nerdy atmosphere."

Her only regret: "I wish I had played a little more."

Scott Rogowsky, 22, doesn't have that problem. Dressed in violently clashing madras trousers, a checkered shirt and green suspenders, the political science major spent the morning peddling the campus humor publication he edited, The Black and Blue Jay.

"I have a B.A., but I think it's B.S.," he said.

But seriously, Rogowsky plans to go to New York City and embark on a career of standup comedy. To prove his mettle, Rogowsky donned a Groucho Marx-style fake nose before going up to the commencement stage, and slipped Dr. William R. Brody, Hopkins' president, some cash.

The commencement began with a final invocation from veteran university chaplain Sharon Kugler, who is leaving for Yale University next school year. She led a prayer for Dominic Ferrara, a Class of 2007 member who committed suicide in February 2005.

Billick, who led the Ravens to the playoffs last year and to a 2001 Super Bowl victory, was asked to deliver the address by officers of the senior class. But his selection was greeted with skepticism on campus.

"It was definitely controversial," said Kyle Fritz, 22, a biomedical engineering major from Allentown, Pa. Fritz said he thought class leaders had "overcompensated" for last year's commencement speaker, National Institutes of Health chief Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, who was perceived as being "too academic" and not high-profile enough.

Before the ceremony, Billick joined university deans and honored faculty in an impromptu "robing room" in the gym, where he chatted up campus officials while being helped into his black gown.

The co-author of two books on leadership and a regular on the corporate motivational speaking circuit, Billick said the message he delivers to diverse audiences is not that different from the talks he gives in the Ravens locker room.

"Young people are young people. Their anxieties and concerns about the future ... . are the same that my group has," he said. "You try to mentor them if you can, tell them it's going to be OK, and give them an idea of what's out ahead of them."

Engineering Dean Nicholas P. Jones said he thought Billick was a "great choice" because it symbolizes a strengthened relationship between Hopkins and its host city, a relationship that has often been strained.

Political science Professor Matthew A. Crenson, who can usually be counted for on-the-spot analysis of politically sensitive situations, demurred when asked for his take. "Needless to say, the faculty was not consulted," he said, laughing.

Crenson, who is retiring this year, was honored yesterday with a teaching award, along with history of science Professor Laurence M. Principe.

But Billick, who spoke without any notes, managed to seduce the crowd with broad motivational themes and football anecdotes. In explaining his pig-and-chicken thesis, he took a swipe at the owners of his former team, the Minnesota Vikings.

"We had 10 separate owners," he said, claiming their respective individual commitment to the team was minimal. "I don't mean it disrespectfully, but they were chickens."

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, by comparison, is "very much a pig," Billick said.

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