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Simply the Best Seniors cap record-setting season with a national title

by Heather Biele

At the beginning of the fall semester, University of Kansas debater Quaram Robinson refused to set her sights on winning the National Debate Tournament, the annual four-day showdown of the best competitors in college debate. She feared she would only set herself up to fail.

But here she was, eight months later, in the championship round of the NDT in Wichita. Robinson and her teammmate, Will Katz, had just delivered their final rebuttals late in the evening of March 26, the last day of the tournament. Countless hours of research and laborious study were behind them, dozens of hard-fought battles in their wake.

The two sat together in silence, laptops still open, half-empty bottles of energy drinks littering the table, anxiously awaiting the most important announcement of their college debate careers.

“The winner,” one of the judges began, “on a 4-3 decision …”

And just like that, KU debate won its sixth national title.

For the past 51 years, Jayhawks have qualified for the NDT, advancing to the Final Four 16 times and winning the national title in 1954, 1970, 1976, 1983 and 2009.

“KU is one of the most successful programs in the history of college debate,” says Scott Harris, head coach and David B. Pittaway Director of Debate, who has led the program for the past 27 years. “You need talented, hardworking, committed students in order to succeed, and we have been incredibly lucky for a long period of time that we have had very bright students in the program.”

With three teams of Jayhawks advancing to the NDT this year and several more making their marks in other postseason tournaments, one could argue that KU was indeed lucky to have such an outstanding roster of debaters. But as the season unfolded, it became clear that luck had very little to do with the Jayhawks’ run to a sixth national title.

Each summer, Harris and Brett Bricker, assistant director of debate and a member of the University’s 2009 national championship team, meet to discuss how students will be matched for the upcoming season. They consider several factors, including compatibility and debate styles, as well as students’ preferences for partners. As the only two seniors on this year’s 30-person squad, Katz and Robinson seemed a natural pair.

Their chemistry was evident from the get-go. “It happened at the very first tournament they won,” Harris says with a chuckle. “It exploded immediately. They are very different personalities, but they are both incredibly brilliant individuals.”

Katz, an economics major from Topeka, and Robinson, an African-American studies major from Round Rock, Texas, competed in five major national tournaments this season and took home top honors at Wake Forest University, Georgia State University and the University of Kentucky. They finished second at the University of Texas, the last regular-season tournament of the year, where they won 10 debates and advanced to the championship round before losing to second-ranked Harvard, a formidable force in debate and one of the Jayhawks’ longtime rivals.

In 2016, Robinson, the first KU debater to reach the NDT elimination rounds in each of her four years with the program, advanced to the finals with a different partner before losing to Harvard. Last year, also with a different partner, she lost to the Harvard team in the Sweet 16.

Harris makes a comparison to KU’s men’s basketball program when he examines the toughness of his team’s tournament rivals. “Imagine that KU was playing Villanova eight times over the course of the season,” he says. “We go to national-level tournaments around the country and all of the top teams are at each of those tournaments.”

Despite facing a relentless barage of powerhouse programs, Robinson and Katz emerged from the regular season with a staggering 21 wins and just two losses in elimination rounds of the tournaments, boasting an overall record of 55 wins and eight losses.

Their accomplishments made them the clear favorites to receive the Rex Copeland Award, given to the No. 1 team with the best regular-season performance. No other KU team has attained that level of success in a single season.

In 1982, Mark Gidley, c’83, and Zac Grant, c’83, received a No. 1 ranking going into the tournament, eight years before the Copeland Award was established, but they were knocked out in the Sweet 16. Gidley went on to win the national championship with Rodger Payne, c’83, the following year.

Despite the University’s longstanding achievements in debate, both Harris and Bricker agree that Robinson and Katz boast the most successful season in the history of the program, which dates back to 1885. “Their feat was remarkable,” says Bricker, c’09, g’11, PhD’13. “The thing that made them work well together was that as a team they successfully covered up each other’s weaknesses. If one student had a weakness in one or two areas, that was an area that the other student would excel.”

Katz discovered his passion for debate as a high school freshman. “I wasn’t great at sports, but I was pretty competitive,” he says. “I really liked mind games and intellectual curiosity.”

Despite his love of the sport, Katz didn’t dominate in high school debate and didn’t consider continuing to compete in college. But shortly after high school, he realized he missed debate and decided he would join the program at KU.

Similarly, Robinson, who first started debating in eighth grade thanks to her mother’s prompts, thought she was finished with the sport after high school, but she elected to continue her career at KU after attending a debate camp at Dartmouth College, where KU assistant coach Sean Kennedy, c’12, g’17, taught.

Like many other Jayhawk debaters, Katz and Robinson joined the program because they loved debate, not because they were granted scholarships. Harris notes that historically it has been easier to recruit in-state students, like Katz, mostly because KU doesn’t offer full-ride scholarships, unlike rival programs at the University of Southern California and Baylor. But, Harris says, there are certain advantages to not enticing prospective students with scholarships.

“The benefit of not having full-ride scholarships is you know that [students] are debating because they want to debate and not because they have to debate,” he says. “We primarily use the scholarship funds less as a recruitment instrument and more as a reward for students who are committed to the program and work hard.”

Katz estimates that last fall he devoted as many as 40 hours a week to debate; this spring, because of a lightened course load, he spent nearly 60 hours a week preparing for tournaments, poring over coverage of current events, studying topics such as economics and philosophy, and practicing both affirmative and negative arguments on this year’s topic—national health care. “For people who are really committed to debate,” he says, “it’s like a full-time job.”

For Robinson, who’s also a McNair Scholar at KU, devoting 40 hours a week to debate was plenty. “I was thinking about debate constantly,” she says, “but I was trying to find a balance.”

Debate coaches Scott Harris and Brett Bricker led the Jayhawks on a triumphant run this season, securing a new set of trophies and banners for display at Bailey Hall.

As a former KU debater, Bricker believes the sport is even more rigorous now than nearly a decade ago, when he won the national title with Nate Johnson, c’09. “The expansion of the internet in the past 15 years has really changed the way students are required to prepare,” he says. “The expectation for our students is that they understand everything that is being written and said about their arguments.”

Debaters not only scour the internet for information to back their cases, but they also take inspiration from their classes and fields of study. As a student in African-American studies, Robinson incorporates elements of race and gender studies into her arguments, complementing Katz’s focus on public policy.

“We both have different skill sets that aren’t always seen together in debate,” says Katz. “I think that combining those approaches made us effective against all sorts of teams.”

Robinson echoes that sentiment. “We have different backgrounds,” she says, “not only in terms of our upbringing, but also our upbringing in debate. That ended up helping us a lot because we could both bring different perspectives and benefit from each other’s experience with different models of debate.”

In addition to her success as a Jayhawk, Robinson, one of only five out-of-state students on the KU squad, has been a trailblazer among women and African-Americans in the debate community as well. She was the first black woman to reach the NDT finals in 2016 and the first black woman to win the Copeland Award, a goal she set for herself at the beginning of her senior year.

“A lot of it for me was wanting to be the first black woman to set that standard,” says Robinson. “It sucks that it had taken that long to do that.”

In setting that standard, Harris believes, Robinson has cemented her role as a historically significant figure in more ways than one.

“Q has embraced the mantle as a role model to other African-American debaters on the squad, to other women on the squad, to other women in the community and to high school students who look to her as a role model,” he says.

Katz and Robinson had prepared all season for the National Debate Tournament, fine-tuning and revising their arguments through 21 tournaments in eight months. They traveled to Wichita with 77 of the top teams in the country and emerged from the preliminary debates with a 6-2 record, advancing to the final elimination rounds with 28 other teams, including heavyweights Harvard, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Wake Forest.

The duo was a No. 5 seed going into the elimination rounds and swiftly defeated Georgia in the first round to advance to the Sweet 16. Northwestern University and UNLV loomed in the next two rounds, but Katz and Robinson took down both teams before toppling archrival Harvard in the Final Four, a victory that had escaped Robinson in recent years. “I was so elated,” she says. “I was incredibly nervous as the decision was coming out, but when it came out in our favor, I was very, very excited.”

With their fourth win in hand, the only team left to overcome was Georgetown, which had defeated the University of Michigan in the other semifinal. Although Katz and Robinson had emerged from the preliminary debates with a victory over the Hoyas, facing them again in the championship round would be no easy task. Both teams performed nearly flawlessly, and the KU team finished the final round feeling uncertain.

“I thought that we debated really well in the final round, but I also thought that the team from Georgetown was doing a really phenomenal job,” Katz recalls. “I knew it was going to be a close debate either way.”

Indeed it was. The judges ruled the Jayhawks the winners on a narrow 4-3 decision, sending a crowd of KU debaters, coaches, alumni and spectators—even supporters from opposing teams—into a frenzy of enthusiastic high-fives and emotional embraces.

Senior debaters Will Katz and Quaram Robinson, who sported KU basketball jerseys for the elimination rounds of the National Debate Tournament, were the first Jayhawks to win the coveted Copeland Award and the national title trophy in a single season.

“One of the cool parts about it,” says Bricker, “was the fact that we had people who were not affiliated with KU genuinely excited about the success of this team and thought that it was a well-deserved award.”

Amid the excitement, Harris was overcome with an unfamiliar feeling as he watched his team celebrate. “As soon as the judges started talking about why they voted, my immediate thoughts turned to next year,” he says. “What will these debaters do and what can we do to get ready for the next season?”

Despite losing his most accomplished seniors, Harris is eager to see what lies ahead. Of this year’s 30-person squad, he anticipates that 28 debaters will return in the fall, including two Kansas freshmen, Nate Martin and Nick Massa, who advanced to the NDT with Katz and Robinson.

“It’s not a cupboard-empty kind of feeling,” says Harris. “There’s not an expectation that we’re going to replicate this success immediately, but getting the chance to watch this next group of students grow and get better is exciting.”

Credits:

Photographs by Steve Puppe, KU Marketing Communications/Meg Kumin.  © 2018 KU Alumni Association. All Rights Reserved.

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