CINCINNATI – Here in Xavier’s Cintas Center, gaze upward toward the roof and look at all the retired jersey banners hanging from the rafters. David West, Byron Larkin ... hold it a second. What’s that one?
“Sister Rose Ann Fleming. Academic advisor.”Now there’s something you don’t see every day. Might be the only academic advisor with her own banner – not to mention her own bobblehead doll. Then again, Xavier has something else you don’t see every day.
The basketball program just hit 100 seniors in a row who have graduated. An even hundred since the 1985-86 season; diplomas without fail for anyone who completed his eligibility. And during the same streak of sheepskins, the Musketeers managed to go to 23 NCAA tournaments and seven Sweets 16s.
“She was just in the locker room,” freshman guard Quentin Goodin said the other night after a game. He was talking about someone who never takes her foot off the gas, academically speaking.
“That graduation streak started in ’85, right when Sister became our academic advisor,” coach Chris Mack said. “Make no mistake, she’s responsible for about 90 percent of that graduation streak.”
“What that number means to me is Xavier has fulfilled one of its commitments in terms of creating a culture of study for the athletes,” she said over the phone from her office. “The key to that has been two-fold. One is the coaches. They have been very supportive. The other absolutely essential factor is the faculty. We’ve worked closely with the faculty over the years to make sure the student-athletes get a quality education. I don’t want just numbers for graduation.
“That number is kind of a surprise to me because I never watched the numbers when I began advising back in August of 1985.”
But the years have gone by, and so have the graduates, and now Xavier has a round figure it can celebrate – not to mention use in recruiting.
“Honestly, it was a big reason I came here,” junior forward Sean O’Mara said.
“For my mom, she don’t play about my grades,” Goodin said. “When she heard that, that was like, 'Oh, I love this school already.'”
Which is the idea.
“That’s one of the first things we talk about it,” Mack said. “We talk about when basketball is stripped from you. And it will be eventually. It might be when you’re 35 and you’ve had a great career, but it could be like me, right out of college with two ACLs. You need to have a degree, you need to have a plan of what you’re going to do when the basketball stops bouncing.
“A little like Cal Ripken, we’re going to protect that streak as hard as we can for as long as we can.”
And nobody wants to be a streak-breaker.
Mack: “It puts a little bit of weight on their shoulders. The kids that come here, they understand the expectation.”
Goodin: “For you to fail here, you actually have to try to fail. Every time you turn around and need help, they’re right there. The tutors are waiting for you. I don’t know anybody that wants to fail.”
O’Mara: “For some guys it’s more of a motivational tool. [Good grades mean] less academic demands and more free time, which as student-athletes, is the most valuable thing we have. It’s kind of a give and take; you get more leash as you prove that you can handle it.
“We have a lot of bright guys, we have a lot of awesome guys helping us. Everybody’s accountable for each other.”
Going back to the Ripken analogy, there were some close calls when he had to play hurt to keep the streak alive. Same for Xavier.
“Sister Fleming had to drag a couple of guys by the ears to study hall,” Mack said. “It’s not all flowers. There’s been a lot of tough endings to semesters, there’s been a lot of extra summer classes. But it’s an important streak and it means a heck of a lot more than the game of basketball.”
Other schools of basketball note can claim impressive academic runs, too. Villanova not only has a new national championship trophy, but every senior who spent four full years in the program has a degree, going back to 1977. Dayton has graduated 110 of its last 111 seniors, back to 1978. And now Xavier has its century club.
Which takes us back to the Sister who inspired a banner and bobblehead. She has moved from day-to-day academic advising and is now a special assistant to the president, overseeing academic growth, and is also a faculty athletic representative.
“What I did basically is tell players who had problems and came through the door, 'I know what you need, I’ve gotten the message from teacher x, y and z. I want you to sit down and we’re going to talk. I want your permission to get your parents involved in this,'’’ she said. “And I have never been refused permission to call the parents. The reason I do that is if they are having trouble, sometimes it’s because they’re lonesome, sometimes they just weren’t prepared for being a student-athlete as much as they wanted to. They just need someone to talk and share that with. They need to know they’ve got support.
“All 100 of them have been very, very different. Their interests and their desires to learn, and then the ultimate outcome. We focus on individuals, but numbers kind of pile up. We were not focused on 100. We don’t want to stop there. We want the athletes to keep on growing. Each individual who walks across that stage who has been through our athletic program has another life to live after us.
“They understand what Xavier is all about. We want them to get their degrees. We want them to get to the Final Four.”
The first part has been a rousing success. They’re still working on the second part.