Just a few hours before the men’s basketball team tipped off in their win against Manhattan two weeks ago, head coach Mike Lonergan scheduled a makeshift team study hall off the hotel lobby instead of sneaking in an extra practice on an unfamiliar court.
It was the peak of midterms, so even if the game had ended in a GW loss, Lonergan said he would not have regretted his decision. For Lonergan, Director of Athletics and Recreation Patrick Nero, and the NCAA, getting players to complete their degrees has become just as important as winning a championship, even if it means tackling problems head on.
“I’m very hands on for a coach and if I have problems, I’ll call the mothers,” Lonergan said. “You know, it’s better for us to call them in October and tell them, ‘Your son’s not spending enough time on academics,’ instead of waiting until the report cards come out in December.”
The focus on the classroom and not just the court has intensified under Nero. The third-year athletic director has brought with him a philosophy that student-athletes’ top priority, just like other undergraduates, should be academics.
He enforced a mandatory class attendance policy and began requiring eight hours of study halls each week. He, as well as coaches, receives regular progress reports from professors about the athletes’ grades and participation in classes.
It sounds simple, but the structured system with renewed efforts at communication, accountability and oversight is starting to get results.
The men’s basketball team, which has historically had one of the worst academic records at GW, saw its cumulative GPA rise from 2.2 to 3.0 in just three years.
As recently as 2006, the team’s six-year graduation rate was stuck at 60 percent. But Nero said last year’s team boasted a 100 percent graduation rate.
Grades and graduation rates have climbed across the board, with 22 of the 23 Colonial teams reaching a combined 3.0 GPA. Just the men’s squash team fell below that threshold.
Part of Nero’s approach is holding players accountable as students, he said, calling students out on missing assignments or falling asleep in class if he runs into them in the Smith Center. He said athletes buy into the model because they’re already prone to the structure.
“They’re used to coaches, whether it’s high school or club or college, holding them accountable every single day,” Nero said.
Nero has also made new head coaching hires – about a half dozen since 2011 – bringing in people who share in his philosophy and will push for their athletes to perform in the classroom. Upperclassman athletes said they have noticed a shift.
“We focus a lot on academics, and to be honest, we’ve had some of our best years academically in the past few years. But I would say most of the older kids previously, who have now graduated, were not that way,” said senior men’s soccer forward Tyler Ranalli, a finance major.
Another key element is showing students that he’s serious: Nero said coaches have pulled athletes out of starting lineups for not going to class.
“The first time somebody is suspended for not going to class, it quickly spreads to the rest of the teams and then everybody’s in class the next morning,” he said.
The athletic department has some history to battle against. When Karl Hobbs was men’s basketball head coach in 2006, the team came under harsh scrutiny after the Washington Post found that two top players came to GW from high schools that were more like diploma mills. The team was also hit with a scholarship reduction because of poor academic performance in 2007-08.
Last year, GW’s flagship program, men’s basketball, earned its best NCAA academic performance rate, scoring far beyond the threshold for postseason eligibility. Programs like women’s basketball and men’s soccer saw their scores slightly slip.
The NCAA has tightened academic rules in recent years, hitting basketball powerhouses like UConn with sanctions as harsh as postseason bans. The NCAA has tried to raise academic standards in recent years for student-athletes – who often receive big scholarship money.
“Whether that’s study hall or in-house tutors, or a really good working relationship with learning center, it’s becoming a higher priority across the country,” said Mark Jones, a legal counsel with the law firm ICE Miller who has represented both GW and Georgetown. “I think a lot of it has to do with NCAA changing the rules. I think that’s been a good thing.”
When senior women’s soccer defender and exercise science major Melanie Keer came to GW, she said the structure helped her transition, but was also “kind of a pain, I’m not going to deny that.”
While academics are a priority, Keer said that doesn’t mean athletics aren’t just as important. Coaches still expect focus from their players, not letting them miss practices to write a paper or study for a final.
“You came to be a D1 athlete. You’re not D2, D3. You could have done that,” she said. “Being D1, there’s still expectations that you’re going to get your work done. You might pull an all-nighter and then go to practice the next day, but you’re going to do both.”
At first, Nero said some students were taken aback by athletic department staff constantly asking about class and assignments, which he said can sometimes feel like the badgering of a parent.
“But we’re at the point now that they embrace it, they understand it, and they appreciate that it’s in their best interest,” he said. “It’s not somebody just trying to get in their business. We’re going to keep you on track.”
– Sarah Ferris contributed to this report