Balancing books and basketball
Keeping student-athletes on top of academics takes teamwork
For Bob McKillop, men’s basketball coach at Davidson, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is.
For the student-athletes who are part of his program, it always comes down to accountability – whether it’s the beginning of the season or time for March Madness to break out, first with the pressure that comes with trying to win a conference tournament and then, if that goes according to plan, traveling to who knows where to compete in the NCAA tournament.
For participants in any Division I men’s basketball program, March presents its own special set of challenges -- not just on the court as a player, but academically as well. McKillop said the trail of responsibility starts with the student-athlete establishing a rapport with his professors long before any end-of-season tournaments break out.
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“It’s a cooperation that exists between professors and the student-athletes, where [the student-athletes] understand that they need to build credibility,” McKillop said. “And the way you build credibility is throughout the school year. Then because of this relationship that exists between students and professors, our players can go to a professor and say, ‘Hey, we may miss class this Thursday and Friday. What’s going to go on in those classes?’
“In many cases, the professors will give a test in advance, they’ll give notes in advance, they’ll allow a class to be made up in advance or in the aftermath. So there is a sense of teamwork here, and I can’t tell you how extraordinary that teamwork is. The academic arena here with the athletic community here has incredible respect for the mission of what each entity does. But it takes communication between the professor and the student-athlete, and it’s up to the student-athlete to establish that early on.”
Anthony Wright, who is director of academic services for defending national champion Louisville, said that sometimes student-athletes need a helping hand in forging those relationships and building upon them.
He also said that the travel at this time of the year can be brutal for everyone, but especially so for student-athletes who are missing lots of time in the classroom to compete all over the country on the basketball court. While the Cardinals beat Michigan in the national championship game last year in Atlanta, Wright said that didn’t present as much of a travel challenge on the academic side as a year earlier, in 2012, when Louisville also made the Final Four in New Orleans but lost to Kentucky in a national semifinal.
“The coaches have been very supportive of us academically,” Wright said. “I have had the opportunity to bring some of our mentors on the road. The perfect example is when we went to the Final Four two years ago and we played the Big East tournament, which was in New York during spring break. Then the next week we flew to Portland, Ore., to play the first and second round [of the NCAA tournament]. Well, we won and flew directly to Phoenix. We missed two whole weeks of school because of this.”
And the March Madness run wasn’t over for the Cardinals.
“We came back to Louisville for maybe a day or day and a half, and then had to fly back out to New Orleans for the Final Four. So really we missed four whole weeks of school on campus,” Wright said. “Technology has really helped us because we were able to submit a lot of the work online, but we also had two tutors and myself on the road with the team the entire time and we had study hall every single day.
“Coach [Rick] Pitino was fantastic along with the whole athletic department in supporting us to instill academics and allow me to bring two tutors. I tell students it doesn’t matter if we are traveling or not, we still have a responsibility to do well academically and we were able to do it.”
Like Louisville, the Charlotte men’s basketball program relies on sort of a mobile classroom setting when it comes to juggling the challenges of staying on top of academics while traveling during tournament time.
“One of the benefits we have is that our athletic director [Judy Rose] is very supportive of having the men’s and women’s basketball academic advisers travel on the road with the teams during the tournament to make sure a priority is still placed on academics while they are there,” Ramey said. “It’s not easy for these guys, especially the coaches, because their goal there is to win games and win the tournament. So a lot of times that’s what their focus is on.
“That’s what is nice about being on the road with the team in that situation. I’m there to monitor study hall for them and still meet with these guys individually while they are there to make sure they’re still utilizing their time the best way they can and staying on top of the things they may be missing back in the classroom.”
As McKillop said, at the end of the day – or the tournament – it all comes down to accountability.
“If the professor holds a student-athlete accountable for an assignment, well, that helps me when I’m holding a guy accountable for boxing a guy out [in going for a rebound]. There’s absolutely no difference,” McKillop said.
“Accountability doesn’t have any boundaries.”