Players always in balancing act
Final Four teams constantly strive for academic excellence
NEW ORLEANS -- As soon as the Louisville Cardinals step on the airplane for a road game, there’s a dominant presence in the front seat. The players carry their bags and try to shuffle past him, but they hear his stern voice and freeze in their tracks.
“Show me your computer and books,” the man in the front seat tells them. “If they don’t have it we’re not leaving until they go back to their dorms and get it.”
With head coach Rick Pitino’s blessing, Louisville academics director Anthony Wright makes every road trip and schedules the players’ tutoring sessions. Wright, a former University of Maine wide receiver, stresses the importance of being a student-athlete, and recognizes the challenges of keeping the players up to date on their school work, even during the Final Four.
The four teams that reached New Orleans this weekend arrived at the end of a long month that began with the intense demands of conference tournaments. Traveling to different sites means missing a lot of class time and finding ways to proctor tests and quizzes while they are away from campus. Each program has its academic advisor with them and a team of graduate assistants who are helping schedule study hall hours.
The stakes for each program have gone beyond the academic status of individual athletes. Schools that do not meet minimums established by the Academic Progress Rate can face the loss of tournament eligibility.
When the Louisville student athletes give Wright a hard time about not wanting to do their work, or wanting to do it at a different time, he doesn’t budge.
“All I have to say is ‘Guys, you see what happened to [Syracuse’s] Fab Melo. He’s academically ineligible. We can’t ever allow that to happen,’ ” Wright said. “Regardless if you want to do the work or you don’t want to do it, it’s what has to happen.”
Once the players tire of hearing that example, Wright brings up Connecticut, the 2011 NCAA champions. He reminds them that the Huskies could be ineligible for the 2013 tournament, pending an appeal process.
The key to succeeding academically during the season for all of these teams is a direct reflection of the head coach, Kansas’ academic advisor, Scott Ward said. Knowing the standard the NCAA sets for academics, each coach and institution goes about achieving the same goal in a different way. If the advisors need more computers to bring on road trips, or have to meet with a student-athlete during a specific time, it’s up to the head coach and the advisor to work together.
The Jayhawks’ staff said they don’t need to constantly show up to their players’ classes and make sure they are in attendance. Head coach Bill Self preaches that message, even after his team returns from an away game at 3 a.m.
“The last thing he says before they get off the bus is make sure you’re in class tomorrow,” Ward recalled.
The academic services provided can even extend to the mascots. Ward, who was a faculty member before becoming the academic advisor, is the only person on the Kansas staff allowed to proctor exams. He has the Baby Jay mascot taking a test this weekend and joked that he wants her to take it in costume.
“It’s really hard to focus during this kind of situation and we have to be really flexible,” Ward said. “I might feel like, ‘Wow, this is the perfect time for me and a guy to get something done but he comes off a practice or maybe there’s ice on a body part. …Or the media needs to grab them or the NCAA needs to grab them. There has to be a lot of flexibility.”
Working as far ahead on their school work during the regional tournaments helped the players lighten the work load during the Final Four. The players take it upon themselves to relay that message to their younger teammates.
“Our grades have been great throughout the whole year,” Ohio State’s William Buford said. “We know how to manage it now. Some of the younger guys will come to me and ask me how should they do this, how should they do that. You have to learn how to manage time.”
Even with their routines altered, Wright said he reminds his Louisville players that his expectations of them don’t change. Whether it’s Senegal native Gorgui Dieng who speaks five languages and uses a French dictionary to translate words to English, or guard Peyton Siva who jokes with Wright about pushing his work back until the next day, Wright still plays the role of the “bad cop.”
It might take some prodding and a few text message reminders to stay on top of the students, but Wright said he holds the Louisville players to higher standards than the NCAA does.
“I never talk to any of them about eligibility because then that’s all we would strive for,” Wright said. “If I said to the guys all you need to do is pass six credits, that’s all they’d pass. I lie to them. I tell them if you fail one class you’re academically ineligible. The guys have no idea. ... We never settle for being mediocre.”