Book Smarts and Basketball -- A Trend?
America's smaller colleges and universities are rarely given much chance for victory in the NCAA basketball tournament. But, they call it March Madness for a reason, in large part because of the upsets when an underdog takes on the big favorite and wins. Bucknell has 3,500 students, but last year enjoyed the thrill of taking on a far larger school and succeeding, when we upset Kansas in the first round.
Now that we have earned a second straight bid to the NCAA men's basketball tournament last week, the media have praised our players' talent and tenacity. The Los Angeles Times described Bucknell as "Duke of the Susquehanna." Added the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, "Think (of a) bigger, stronger, more talented and more athletic Princeton."
As Bucknell's president, I can tell you we mean what we say at Bucknell -- on the court and, more important, in the classroom. Our basketball success has demonstrated that impressive academic and athletic achievements are not mutually exclusive. In fact, athletics directors and academic administrators at colleges and universities around the nation need to understand the new realities of Division I basketball competition.
Earlier this week, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida released yet another study showing a disturbing disparity between basketball players' and all students' graduation rates. Of 65 teams competing in the Big Dance, only Bucknell could boast a 100-percent graduation rate (one team, Penn, does not report such data). I want to suggest, however, that rather than remaining an anomaly in Division I athletics, Bucknell's program -- and many in the Patriot League -- be taken as a model of the next best thing in college sports.
That is, our Bison have confirmed that fielding a team of smart players can create a competitive advantage.
There are enough bright students with basketball skills who want to play major college basketball to permit schools like Bucknell, with a driving focus on quality education, to succeed in the NCAA tournament.
Consider Kevin Bettencourt, who scored a game-high 23 points in last week's Patriot League tournament final. He's an American history major who chose Bucknell for its "great academic reputation along with Division I athletics." Chris McNaughton, the 6-11 center whose graceful hook shot sent Kansas home early last March, traveled all the way from Germany to avail himself of Bucknell's nationally celebrated electrical engineering program. Kevin, Chris, and Patriot League Player of the Year Charles Lee, earned 3.4 G.P.A.s or better this fall.
When we recruit students like these, they choose us because they receive a great education and a great basketball opportunity, yet they always know that academics will come first. On Friday, Arkansas will meet a Bucknell team populated with future scientists, engineers, writers, and businessmen who, happily, also love to play basketball.
In the future, being a "big time" sports school is going to provide less competitive advantage than it used to, in part owing to the NCAA's academic reform plan. Bucknell supports reform efforts because we want all students, not just ours, to graduate with a solid education that prepares them for life.
Also, the schools that traditionally have dominated television coverage now have competition for viewers. The championship games of all the conferences -- not just the ACC, SEC, Big East, or Big Ten -- are being broadcast. And the trend is accelerating with broadband coverage and new stations such as ESPNU and CSTV.
As the lesser-known basketball programs enjoy greater exposure, quality players will increasingly opt to attend institutions like Bucknell, knowing they will have a reasonable shot at two hours (or more) of fame every March. But more important, they will join the ranks of those alumni who are CEOs, COOs, university professors, doctors, and lawyers, ensuring far more than two hours in the spotlight.
Just ask Les Moonves, a 1971 Bucknell graduate. He runs CBS, and CBS runs all the Big Dance games.
Brian C. Mitchell is the president of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.
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