Notre Dame is accustomed to being first.

The Fighting Irish football team will enter January’s BCS National Championship Game ranked No. 1. The team’s Graduation Success Rate for all its student-athletes is the best among the 120 largest Division I schools, making it the first team to garner the top spot in both of those all-important metrics.

And, not surprisingly, the school was the first to implement a comprehensive academic support system for student-athletes.

In 1964, the university created a program now known as Academic Services for Student-Athletes, which reports directly to the provost’s office instead of the athletic department. It was the first of its kind, and the results suggest it’s still among the best.

The key to that success, Notre Dame officials say, is the department operates with autonomy from athletic interests. Rather than battling against professors and department heads for student-athletes’ time and energy, they work in concert.

Coaches are hired knowing that, though they’ll be in regular contact with the Academic Services team, they’ll hold no sway on the academic decisions counselors make. This creates what several staffers call “healthy tension” between counselors and coaches who are simultaneously pushing for excellence in different arenas. That tension, though, has long led to triumph in the classroom. Since the Graduation Success Rate (GSR) was first reported in 2005, Notre Dame has ranked no lower than second among the largest Division I schools.

“The issue wasn’t whether we could restore football,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “The issue was whether we could restore football and remain at the top academically. That was our challenge. That was the goal. There are few things that I’ve been associated with that I take greater pride in.”

Program started 48 years ago
That pride, and a program that has grown to eight staffers and more than 200 tutors, has decades-old roots. Forty-eight years ago, former university president Theodore M. Hesburgh and executive vice president Edmund P. Joyce gave Mike DeCicco, then Notre Dame’s fencing coach and an engineering professor, an important assignment. They asked DeCicco to create a service that would ensure student-athletes had extra academic guidance as they navigated the increasingly complex life of a modern-day student-athlete.

Father Joyce was adamant that our athletes graduate and not just do enough to stay eligible. He said the degrees would measure the success of our athletic program.
-- Mike DeCicco

DeCicco put calls in across the country in search of advice, only to find that no such program existed anywhere he looked. So he built one from scratch that pushed student-athletes in the classroom not to merely keep them eligible, but to better prepare them for life after they shed their jerseys for the final time. 

“I must have made 100 calls, and within two weeks I realized there were hardly any schools that even bothered with it,” DeCicco told Notre Dame Athletics earlier this year. “One major school touched on it, but a coach was in charge -- the ‘academic coach.’ It sounded like all he did was make sure the players were doing enough to stay eligible. Father Joyce made it clear that he wanted more than that. He was adamant that our athletes graduate and not just do enough to stay eligible. He said the degrees would measure the success of our athletic program.”

What DeCicco started five decades ago is now in the hands of Notre Dame alumnus Pat Holmes, who has been the program’s director since 2003. Today, Academic Services for Student Athletes is located in the bottom floor of the Coleman-Morse Center on Notre Dame’s quad, far from the school’s athletic department. The office space is routinely augmented with student-athletes dropping in to chat with a counselor, working in a large study room or taking advantage of a private tutoring session in one of the several glass-walled rooms that line the facility.

Holmes, who in addition to running the program works directly with men’s basketball and women’s tennis student-athletes, and his counselors don’t tutor students directly. Instead, they help them manage their schedules and their lives. If a student-athlete is struggling academically, the counselors seek to alter decision making and improve time management.

‘We’re not here to hold hands’
The counselors are in constant contact with professors and routinely correspond with coaches and liaisons in the athletic department to address any concerns. Some players need little attention, while others, especially underclassmen, require near-daily interaction. Student-athletes often bristle at the intrusiveness of the program initially, but come to appreciate how much the counselors’ doggedness has helped them. 

“It would’ve been impossible [without them],” Notre Dame defensive end and team captain Kapron Lewis-Moore said. “It would’ve been very hard. Having somebody on you to keep you on top of your work, especially when you’re a freshman or sophomore and you’re still trying to get in the groove of things and you’re still trying to balance out academics and football and time management is really important.”

The program’s associate director, Adam Sargent, and senior academic counselor, Colleen Ingelsby, oversee the football team. The duo is responsible for monitoring the academic performance of the 85 scholarship athletes and is also available to help walk-ons who seek assistance.

While they keep organized records of every player’s academic performance and study-habits, they work closely with about 30 players every semester, often younger ones, who need the most cajoling. The job requires monitoring two-hour study halls four nights a week and staying in contact with players throughout the day. The pair meets with head coach Brian Kelly on a biweekly basis, not to take orders, but to inform him of progress and any issues. Given how many players they oversee, both counselors chuckle at the mention of a 40-hour workweek.

All first-semester students are required to take part in eight hours of mandatory supervised study hall a week, but can earn their way out of the program via a good GPA. Those who continue to struggle are “confronted” by Sargent and Ingelsby, who have a blunt discussion regarding why they’re not meeting expectations in the classroom and what they need to do to improve performance. The honesty can sting, the counselors say, but it ultimately earns respect and builds trust. Their goal, after all, is to foster independence and to push football players to a point where they don’t have to take part in study halls or academic counseling sessions.

“We have a very candid confrontation that is healthy and challenges them to make a better decision or incorporate a slightly different set of habits that will allow them to better succeed here academically,” Sargent said. “When they leave here, no one’s going to be holding their hands, so we’re not here to enable; we’re not here to hold hands.”

Starts with recruiting process
Notre Dame student-athletes are exposed to the Academic Services staff immediately. When they first set foot on campus as recruits, they hear from counselors like Sargent. He says his goal is not to sell them on the school, but to inform them of the academic rigors they’ll face should they chose to attend. If a recruit is undaunted and accepts an offer from Notre Dame, they’re often thrust into a summer bridge program before their freshman year. Scholarship athletes from high profile sports like football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball, along with a smattering of players from other sports, spend the summer on campus taking a handful of classes and regularly meeting with the academic staff while they’re going through preseason workouts.

“By the school year, we were ready to go,” freshman women’s basketball player Jewell Loyd said. “We knew where everything on campus was. We knew we should be getting in touch with our professors. We had an inside scoop.”

Once school begins, tutors -- fellow undergraduates or graduate students -- begin to play a significant role in each student-athlete’s life. Academic Services for Student-Athletes hires its own set of tutors and is independent from other tutoring programs on campus.

Tutor coordinator Amanda Hall is in constant communication with faculty members to find qualified students to join the staff and hires are typically spurred by recommendations from professors and department heads. It’s her job to match tutors, who specialize in subject areas, with student-athletes.

The pairs will work together for an entire semester, so identifying compatible personalities is an integral part of her job. Despite having about 800 student-athletes and more than 200 tutors, she says only a handful of the partnerships every semester result in one party asking for a new partner.   

An ideal match
Eilar Hardy, a sophomore safety on the football team, found an ideal match with Jon Schwarz, who is pursuing a Ph.D in sociology and holds a master’s in education from Harvard. Now in his third semester as a tutor, Schwarz is mentoring Hardy and three other student-athletes through the fall.

He helps them manage and organize their schedules, sends them reminders of upcoming assignments and checks to see how they’ve fared on tests and projects. He’s been available to answer Hardy’s questions via phone and email late into the night to help him with a statistics project that has been looming as the national championship game fast approaches.

Schwarz has worked regularly with Hardy this semester on a 300-level statistics course and guides him through complex tasks like hand-calculating multiple regression slope coefficients. The two routinely meet in the Academic Services’ private tutoring rooms and manage to keep the atmosphere jovial despite the stresses both are facing.

“I need to learn the material,” Hardy said. “Jon is the resource that I have to help me. He’s been through it. He knows the material. Why not get in here once or twice a week to go over some stuff? It’s helpful, so why not?”

That’s precisely the mindset that Holmes and his staff work so hard to instill, and he’s seen the benefits. Last year, he accompanied the men’s basketball team to New York for the Big East Tournament.

The team congregated for a meal and coach Mike Brey welcomed in a trio of former Irish players, all recent graduates, who had come to Notre Dame from inner-cities, not comfortable suburbs. A pair of them had dabbled in professional basketball in Europe and the NBA’s Developmental League, but each had stopped trying to carve out a career on the court. 

Yet they didn’t have somber stories to relay. The former players introduced themselves to the team and shared what they were doing with their lives after basketball: One worked for Merrill Lynch, another was an assistant producer at the Big Ten Network and the third worked at NBA TV as a graphic designer. Their performance in the classroom, not on the court, garnered promising careers.

Moments like that, Holmes said, are why he and his team pour so much of themselves into their job, why the program has had such success, why, by seemingly any measure, it’s first.

“Not only are these guys graduating, but they have used that and tapped into it and are successful,” Holmes said. “Those kinds of things -- if you talk to any one of these [counselors] -- that’s what keeps you coming back; that’s what gets you up in the morning.”