Success in academics and athletics

Elite academic schools thrive in the classroom and on the field

Originally Published: May 15, 2013
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

STANFORD, Calif. -- At a meeting of college administrators a few years ago, Howard Wolf found NCAA president Myles Brand eating breakfast by himself.

Wolf, the president of the Stanford Alumni Association, would chat up the guard at Buckingham Palace. Of course, he asked Brand if he could join him.

They talked about the NCAA and they chitchatted. Breakfast done, Wolf expressed his gratitude and got up to leave. Brand stopped him and said he had something to say. The NCAA membership needed Stanford to win. "Excuse me?" Wolf said.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Kevin ReeceDavid Shaw and Stanford have found a winning formula on and off the field.

"It is vital that Stanford succeed athletically," Brand said, "not only in the Olympic sports but in the marquee sports. If Stanford succeeds across the board, it shows the world of intercollegiate athletics that it can be done and done the right way. If, however, Stanford does not succeed in these arenas, it gives everyone else an excuse for how it isn't possible to be great in both academics and athletics.

"Don't let that happen," Brand said. "Don't give others that excuse."

It's too bad Brand, who died in 2009, isn't around to see the state of college football today. Excuse? These days, it's a recipe. The unspoken assumption that high SAT scores and bowl trips aren't compatible has passed its sell-by date.

It's not just that Stanford is 35-5 over the past three seasons and just won its first Rose Bowl in 41 years. It's that the campus that has embraced the hashtag #NerdNation has a lot of company among the academic/athletic elite.

Notre Dame matched Stanford's 12-1 record last season and played for the BCS National Championship. Northwestern went 10-3 and won its first bowl game since the Truman administration. Vanderbilt, from an ancient Southern dialect meaning "last place," went 9-4. The Commodores won their last seven games, the longest winning streak in a Southeastern Conference that includes BCS champion Alabama and four other top-10 teams.

Even Duke (6-7) went to its first bowl game in 18 years. Duke has won the most awards for the highest graduation rate, as given by the American Football Coaches Association. Notre Dame is second. Northwestern, in third place, shared the 2012 award with Stanford. Think about that. The two programs with the highest graduation rates went a combined 22-4.

Brand would have a smile that stretched from Palo Alto to Durham, at least until he tried to explain the success. It could be as random as five schools whose numbers came up. "I have to say I think it's probably like a Powerball ticket," Stanford provost John Etchemendy said.

There is nothing systemic, nothing in the NCAA manual that tilted the football field toward the sideline with the highest GPA. But there are some similarities among the schools in how they have approached football.

"

There's a huge gap between just qualifying for college and pushing yourself to excel in academics as well as athletics, and seeing they can both be linked. It's OK to try to do well in everything that you do. You don't have to choose one over the other.

" -- Stanford coach David Shaw

Vanderbilt vice chancellor David Williams described four reasons that the Commodores have turned around what seemed like a hopeless situation: a change in campus culture, a coach who sells the academic message, athletes and parents who are receptive to that message, and a national recruiting strategy.

The change in culture is a recommitment to athletic success, a realization that winning football games wouldn't cause the academic buildings to crumble. "I think there were a cadre of folks who were willing to say, 'We can be excellent in some things and being mediocre in the others isn't a problem,'" Williams said. "We really had to make sure that people understood being great in sports -- winning a ballgame, winning a national championship, winning an SEC championship in any sport -- does not dilute the academic reputation of the university."

The athletic department began to focus on raising the grade point average of athletes to where it matched the overall student body. "As I say to faculty members all the time," Williams said, "they passed your class. You gave them an A. Not me. They're going to do the work you put in front of them just like that student next to them. And that starts to buy you credibility.'"

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald can rattle off similar numbers: 13 straight quarters in which at least 50 football players have a 3.0. "If you're comparing stocks, the football team is a pretty good stock on campus as far as compared to the rest of the student body," Fitzgerald said with a laugh.

During the last decade, when Stanford went 20-40 over five seasons (2002-06), university officials began to question whether football should be downsized out of the FBS. When current head coach David Shaw arrived on Jim Harbaugh's staff at the end of 2006, the talk "was rampant," he said. "And I know for a lot of us, that hurt, because Stanford spirit is supposed to be, 'You tell me I can't do something, I'll show you that I can.'"

When Shaw said "us," he referred to former players, of which he is one. Shaw says Stanford is the only job he ever wanted. Notre Dame proved with Charlie Weis that hiring an alum guarantees nothing. But hiring the right alum can bring a bonus.

Fitzgerald grew up on the south side of Chicago and became a two-time All-American linebacker at Northwestern. Since taking over at his alma mater in 2006, Fitzgerald has rejected overtures from Michigan. He, like Shaw, can sell the academic message to recruits because he lived it.

"My number one road is [to] prepare for life, and I'm going to do everything I can to play in the NFL," Fitzgerald said. "That's not the end-all. That's just the beginning of my life. I think you choose a school like ours to be able to say, you know what? I want to have options. I want to choose what I want to do when I want to do it and how I want to do it, instead of saying, you know what? If I don't make it in football, I don't know what I'm going to do."

All of these schools have expanded their recruiting territory in recent years, a task made easier by the Internet, social media, and the saturation of media coverage of what used to be a national sport. "When I was getting recruited," said Fitzgerald, who is 38, "there were maybe 15 or 20 schools that were being talked about in college football, and that was it. Unless you lived regionally, you had no idea who the other schools were. Now you pop on the Big Ten Network, you're going to hear about Northwestern all the time. And when you win and you have success, now all of a sudden you get on ESPN all the time. Obviously, with all these young men able to get things on their phone, you're able to tell your story."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Tony DingNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald can sell the academic message to recruits because he's lived it.

Stanford's national recruiting outreach begins early in a recruit's career. If the prospect doesn't have a transcript loaded with AP classes, his 40 times won't matter. Shaw may not send out a letter of intent until the university has accepted the recruit. "Forget about the players and their families and the coaches. It's the [guidance] counselors," Shaw said. "There are still a lot of counselors saying, 'OK, just qualify.' There's a huge gap between just qualifying for college and pushing yourself to excel in academics as well as athletics, and seeing they can both be linked. It's OK to try to do well in everything that you do. You don't have to choose one over the other."

The margin of error is slimmer at these schools. Etchemendy, a philosopher by training who has become an ardent football fan (don't ask his thoughts about Stanford's double-overtime loss at Notre Dame), echoed his head coach, pointing out that some years there are more academically eligible recruits than others.

"We really do try to do everything that we do at an excellent level," Etchemendy said. "We try to excel in everything. … I think probably we began to question whether we could still compete in football and basketball at that level, because it has become pretty absurd, the amounts of money they are putting into football and basketball and coaches' salaries and so forth and so on. And there's a certain point where we're just not willing to go."

Etchemendy said the university is vigilant in making sure that everyone understands who is the dog and who is the tail. As he spoke, construction continued on a massive expansion of the athletic administration building, with most of the space committed to the reigning Pac-12 football champion.

At Vanderbilt, Williams often meets with prospects in his office. He puts them through an exercise to explain the relationship between athletics and academics.

"I have a stack of books. I'm looking at it right now," Williams said, "and I ask the kid to stand on the books. And I ask, 'Well, how long can you stand up there?'

"'I can stand up here 15, 20, 30 minutes. How long you need me to stand up here?'"

Williams continues chatting with the prospect for five minutes or so. He asks the prospect to step down off the books and hands him a football. "Stand on that," he says.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com