July 26, 2010
A PERFECT EQUATION
By Josh Katzowitz
Special to www.atlantic10.org
Chris Mooney sits in his office at the University of Richmond office, and he knows he's in the right place. To a head men's basketball coach like him, there has to be the perfect blend of academic and athletic performance in order for him to feel like he's performing his job correctly.
He's about to head out on the long recruiting trip that marks every July. He'll travel all over the place, see the best high school players in the country, try to convince them that the Spiders are the team that provides the best fit. But the thoughts of academia never leave his mind.
Phil Martelli is holding down the fort in Philadelphia, and he's discussing the academic culture of the Atlantic 10. To a head men's basketball coach like him, he has to feel like he's doing the right thing at all times. He has to feel like he's giving the players who are committing to him and his school the richest college experience he can provide.
His coaches have begun to spread away from the Northeast, as they work to prepare the recruiting landscape that will help Martelli continue to land the talent that makes Saint Joseph's a perennial conference title contender. But the thoughts of academia - and all of its benefits - never leave his mind.
Mike Bobinski looks across the Xavier campus from his athletic director's office window, and he reflects on the unparalleled success the Musketeers have seen the past two decades. Not just on the basketball court, mind you, but with the team's graduation rate as well. To an athletic director like Bobinski, combining the two so successfully means he's doing his job the right way.
Xavier's coaches are already on the road to places like Akron, Ohio and North Augusta, S.C., to find the next recruiting gem. But Bobinski knows thoughts of academia will not wander far from head coach Chris Mack and his band of assistants.
Across the A-10, from Dayton to George Washington and from Saint Louis to Massachusetts, the goals are the same - maintain top-notch academics and blend that into great basketball success. The reason the philosophies are so similar? The reason why Mooney, Martelli and Bobinski all toe the same line? Simply put, it's the culture of the conference.
"It has much do with the total commitment at the top," Mooney says. "Academics are the biggest part of that. The culture is that we're going to work very hard as a basketball conference to make sure our student-athletes are getting the best education. The culture created for that is very strong in every facet."
"Some of this is due to the vision of the athletic directors and the league administration. They make this an environment where kids can be successful," says Martelli. "The schedule is scrubbed down so that teams aren't away from home so much where they're going to miss academic opportunities that other students have."
The statistics show that the efforts made by the A-10 have worked. In all 21 sports sponsored by the A-10, the league's Academic Progress Rates (APR) surpassed the national conference average, and in May, the NCAA recognized the conference for having 59 of the 841 Division I sports teams that were publicly honored for their APR (all 14 conference schools had at least one team recognized for those accomplishments).
It's not just the league administration - which has helped graduate the second-most men's basketball student-athletes (126) out of the 31 Division I conferences from 2005-06 to 2008-09 in the latest APR data - that makes top academics a priority. The coaches have the same mindset as well.
"For me to be able to associate with a university and a conference that does stress academics and does stress superior athletics, it's very important," Mooney says. "Those are the experiences I've had and would like to continue to surround myself with. For me, that's extremely important."
Mooney didn't have to move from Air Force to Richmond. But he saw how much the A-10 embraces the academic culture, and for Mooney - who played his college basketball at Princeton - that was a key factor. Martelli didn't have to stay at St. Joe's for all these years, particularly after the No. 1 ranking and the Elite Eight appearance in 2003-04 made him an exciting high-major coaching prospect. But he loves the A-10 for a variety of reasons, and the academic experience was too rich for him to leave.
"It's a huge deal," Martelli says. "I would go beyond the word comfort. You have to go on a road where you have conviction. I have a true conviction for what the Atlantic 10 stands for. That's what I stand for."
It's also the way he - along with his league counterparts - recruits new players.
"By and large, we're dealing with kids who are four-year players," Martelli says. "We're dealing with really reputable administrators who are going to hold their coaches accountable for the social growth, for the academic growth and the athletic growth of their players. The kids are recruited the right way. There are no corners cut in recruiting. It's very important we coach them and teach them. We have to recruit them the way they're going to be treated on their campus."
Bobinski, widely respected nationwide for his athletic director work, could have moved on from Xavier by now. But he's not interested. What XU accomplishes on the basketball court and in the classroom are too important to throw away for a flashier job where academics simply might not be as important.
Xavier, as you know, has won the past four regular-season conference titles and has made the Sweet 16 three years running. But the school is proud of its academics stats as well - 77 straight players who have exhausted their eligibility at Xavier have left with a degree. That is an unbelievable statistic.
And while most fans see the basketball success (last year, the 14 teams scored a combined 135 victories in non-conference play - the highest total in the league's 34-year history - while the league as a whole ranked No. 6 in the final RPI ratings, the conference's highest finish since concluding the 1992-93 campaign at No. 4), thoughts of academic success are at the forefront of the league's collective mind.
"It's certainly a league that could stand alone if it was just about basketball," Martelli says. "But the best thing is that it's not just about basketball. It's about doing things the right way."