Athletic Success and Academic Quality

Belhaven University arguably had our most successful athletic year ever across all 13 of our sports.  In the latest news:

  • Our softball team was ranked 5th in the nation this week, and started their playoff run yesterday with a win.
  • Baseball is ranked 11th and will get into the conference tournament soon.
  • If you want to read about our two players going to the NFL, here is the link the the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks.

Our winning on the field and court, also means winning in the classroom.  I thought it was interesting that during our recent honors convocation, the time each academic department honors their top seniors, five of those awards went to student-athletes: two from baseball, and one each from men’s soccer, men’s cross country, and women’s basketball.

Bobby Fong, the president of Butler University, whose team missed winning the national championship by only one shot, articulates well the importance of athletics within a campus committed to academic success for athletes.  It’s a good read:

How Butler Won the NCAA Tournament

By Bobby  Fong

I am not the first university  president ever to crowd-surf: Penn State’s Graham  Spanier was one who experienced that particular thrill before I did.  But I’ll tell you that my moment was one of the more exhilarating of  my nine years as Butler University’s  president.

Our men’s basketball team, the  Bulldogs, had just beaten Kansas State to earn a berth in the  first Final Four in Butler’s  history. A crowd of students began to congregate in front of our  union. My wife, Suzanne, and I gave a lot of high-fives, shook hands,  and posed for pictures.

The crowd began to pack  together. Suddenly I found that three football players were protecting  me, watching my blind side. One of them, Ryan Myers, said, “Dr. Fong,  get on my shoulders.” Up I went. It was my Peyton Manning moment.  Cheers erupted, and I raised four fingers on each hand to signify the  Final Four. People took photos of me with cellphones and cameras and  forwarded them around campus and to the team. The next week, sophomore  guard Ron Nored was asked what was the most unusual thing that  happened as a result of the victory. He said, “Getting pictures of the  president crowd-surfing.”

I was touched by the joy and  affection that evening, which marked the beginning of a wild 10-day  ride for Butler. Our  small university of 3,900 undergrads and 550 grad students found  itself in the national spotlight as we basked in the reflected glory  of our team’s success. It was in many ways as if the institution  itself had caught a wave. Preparation and opportunity came together in  a remarkable confluence of circumstances. Not only were we playing in  the Final Four, but we were playing at home. The games were six miles  from campus, in downtown Indianapolis,  and interest in our university and team grew immensely.

The public wondered about this  little university playing on the national stage. They heard that our  players continued to go to classes, even on the day of the national  championship game, and wondered whether that could be true. (It was.)  Many were curious about whether the Butler  Way, as we like  to call it, could be replicated.

The attention was gratifying.  Butler didn’t  just stand as a model for small institutions being able to compete in  the tournament. For many people, we exemplified how a university could  seek a proper balance between academic seriousness and athletic  excellence—and without breaking the bank.

Internally, we have always  positioned ourselves as a university with a basketball team, rather  than the other way around. We take to heart our commitment to  student-athletes. The overwhelming majority of them will never play  professional sports. Get an M.B.A., yes. Go to the NBA, probably  not.

The National Collegiate  Athletic Association estimates that only 2 percent of college  basketball players go pro. I tell potential Butler  basketball recruits: “Your odds of going to medical school are better  than your odds of playing in the NBA. If you understand that we’ll ask  you to work as hard in the classroom as you will on the court,  Butler may be  the right fit for you.”

We keep in sight what  Butler’s  approach to education is. We want our students not just to make a  living but to make a life of purpose, where individual flourishing is  intertwined with the welfare of others.

A fellow president wrote me:  “When the announcers were pointing out that there were two academic  all-Americans on the floor tonight and both of them were from  Butler, and  that eight of your players were in class this morning, I swelled with  pride. This is what intercollegiate athletics is all about. I am a  member of the NCAA Board now and we are struggling with what is  appropriate for college sports. All we need do is look to Butler, and we  have our answer.” That was the image I wanted us to project during the  Final Four, and I think that is what occurred.

Meanwhile, we received  overwhelming encouragement from around the world—from a Butler alumnus  serving in Iraq, from  New  Zealand, from Europe, and  from a cruise ship at sea. We had former Butler basketball  players come back from Sweden and  Switzerland  to attend an alumni reunion and pose for a picture with the  team.

Our bookstore sold in one week  what it usually sells in a year. T-shirts came in literally hot off  the press—they were actually warm in the boxes as they were  unpacked.

News-media coverage was  abundant and overwhelmingly positive. After reading an article by the  sports columnist William C. Rhoden of The New York Times, an Oakland Tribune reporter in  California discovered that I grew up  in Oakland. After  the Tribune reporter  wrote his story, I heard from old elementary- and Sunday-school  friends from 50 years ago. I also suggested to Mr. Rhoden that our  ballet program was as distinguished in its way as the basketball team.  He proceeded to research the program, and Butler ballet  became an item in the Times‘s sports  page.

We saw increased pride in  Butler from  friends and alumni. On the day I’m writing this, we received a check  from a man with no ties to the university and a note that said: “Here  is a gift to your scholarship fund; a place represented by such a  classy coach and students has to be a wonderful  university.”

A friend put it best, I think,  when she said, “Duke won the game, but Butler won the  hearts of the nation.”

Now that the games are over,  everyone wants to know what’s next for Butler. I was  asked in a Parents Council meeting: With the heightened attention,  what do you see Butler  becoming? I thought for a moment and said, “We’ve become an  inspiration to other colleges—that they could do what we did. We don’t  want to be anything other than the best version of what we are. I  think our future is continuing to be Butler.”

Our men’s basketball coach,  Brad Stevens, was asked how such success would change his recruiting  practices. He said he wasn’t planning to change. “The guys we  recruited got within one shot of a national championship,” he said.  “Why would we want to change our formula?”

The best news for us is that  more people now know who we are. The Nielsen ratings showed that 134  million people saw some portion of our game against Duke. As Tom  Weede, our vice president for enrollment management, pointed out: 100  percent of students who have never heard of an institution will never  apply to it. We don’t have to worry about that now.

Athletics has become the front  porch to a university, and our front porch has been crowded of late.  We’re proud of the attention because our athletic achievement has been  consonant with our academic mission. As the president of an  educational foundation wrote, “It was a privilege … to appreciate  how the educational values of an institution can be so perfectly  reflected in the accomplishments of its athletes.”

Many college leaders are  devoted to finding the right stories to tell that tap into our past  and legacy, our present challenges and opportunities, and our hopes  for the future. I hope this experience has helped us create more  stories that get to the heart of what Butler is. Our  basketball triumphs have become a metaphor, a trope, for the larger  story of Butler  University.

Bobby Fong  is president of Butler University.

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