UConn head men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie in April became the only active coach with a perfect record in the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship while coaching a team that also earned a perfect single-year Academic Progress Rate.
The milestone marked a change in outlook for the Huskies. The 2014 men’s basketball national champions could not compete in the 2013 tournament due to an Academic Progress Rate that did not meet the minimum benchmark to be eligible for postseason play.
The success for UConn came in a year when the latest NCAA Academic Progress Rates, released in April, show overall improvement, including upticks among student-athletes who compete in baseball, football and men’s and women’s basketball.
For UConn, earning that perfect score after a year of postseason ineligibility required a team effort.
Typically, when schools struggle with their team Academic Progress Rate, NCAA national office staff will work with them to develop academic improvement plans. Staff members help schools evaluate their plans and share best practices from across the NCAA membership. The plan-development process requires schools to examine and identify where their individual challenges lie in terms of the academic performance and retention of their student-athletes and propose school-specific solutions.
After the Huskies hired him in 2012, UConn Athletics Director Warde Manuel, who previously served on the Division I Academic Cabinet, leaned on what he learned through his governance service. The cabinet works closely with the Committee on Academic Performance to develop academic policies, and cabinet members exchange ideas and best practices regularly.
“I learned a lot through Academic Cabinet and through my colleagues there, through some of the rules and regulations and the things that we were trying to impact, so that the student-athletes on campuses across the country would have the academic success and support that they needed to be academically successful,” Manuel said. “It really helped to shape some of the things that we did (at UConn) and could put in place to manage the academic success for our student-athletes.”
Ollie also played an instrumental role in the academic scores increase while leading the team to the national championship.
“Kevin Ollie cares about the whole student, how they’re doing in terms of their emotional health, their academic well-being, and how well they’re playing basketball,” UConn President Susan Herbst said. “Kevin drove a lot of this process and implemented a lot of the more structural plans that we have made.”
The improvements that UConn saw in academics stemmed from a number of factors, from administrative changes to basic aspects of the student-athletes’ lives to the involvement of the entire university in its approach to academic achievement within athletics.
“We made a lot of structural changes,” Herbst said. “We had the provost ‒ who’s the chief academic officer of the university ‒ and his people work very closely with athletics. We improved communication between those two offices.”
This resulted in a few changes for the student-athletes on the men’s basketball team. Study hall hours were adjusted to better accommodate their schedules, and more academic support was provided, particularly when the team was traveling.
That team effort depended heavily on the commitment from the student-athletes, as well.
“They did an excellent job in the classroom, in focusing their energy and winning in the classroom,” Manuel said. “We talk about the importance of what they’re here to do. They’re here to be students and student-athletes, not just athletes … the emphases are on their academic and personal growth and development.”
Now that the team has achieved the pinnacle of athletics and Academic Progress Rate achievement in the same year, the school remains focused on continuing that success in the years to come.
“Academic success is important because it’s what we’re here to do,” Manuel said. “We’re here to make sure that our student-athletes and our students are educated and are prepared to go into the world and have great success in whatever they choose to do, to have an impact on the world. So for us, it’s not secondary to what we do. It’s primary to what we do in terms of our emphasis – in athletics – on academic success.”
Herbst said UConn is proud of its academic standing and has high expectations for all of its students – including those who participate in sports.
“The University of Connecticut is a top 20 research university, and academics are central to what we do. Original research is our mission from the state,” Herbst said. “We are a global university. We expect the highest academic standards here, from our faculty and our students. So we expect the same thing from our athletes. And I’m so proud to say that they’re stepping up beautifully.
“We had four wonderful students (on the men’s basketball team) graduate. And so we celebrate them and their success.”