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Duke Balances Academics and Athletics
Courtesy: Al Featherston,
Release: 09/08/2014
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DURHAM -- The NCAA believes – deeply -- in the concept of the student-athlete.

During NCAA championship events, it’s a firm rule that the participants are always referred to as “student-athletes.” The rote repetition of those two words often evokes cynicism from reporters who understand how far many schools stray from that ideal. They understand how often academic achievement is sacrificed for athletic success.

However, there are a handful of schools that compete at the highest level athletically without sacrificing academic integrity and Duke University is one of them. In fact, it’s possible that Duke does it better than anyone else in the NCAA.

“We’ve created a culture here, where the types of kids who come to Duke really want to do well academically,” Brad Berndt, Duke’s senior associate director of athletics/academics, said. “So when that freshman class comes in, the sophomores, juniors and seniors set the standards almost as much as the coaches do. It’s just an expectation.”

Dr. Chris Kennedy, Duke’s senior deputy director of athletics, has overseen that culture for 37 years, since arriving on campus as the athletics department academic coordinator in 1977.

“The 37 or so years I’ve been here, a lot of things have changed at Duke,” Kennedy said. “But the foundation has always been the culture. It was here when I got here. [Former football coach] Mike McGee and [former basketball coach] Bill Foster believed in it. The belief was always that we could do both – succeed athletically and academically.”

The result of that belief is reflected in the NCAA’s latest Academic Progress Reports. The NCAA’s most recent annual APR report (covering the 2012-13 season) was released and 15 Duke teams were honored for placing among the top 10 percent in their sports. Eight teams scored a perfect 1000 APR. Overall, Duke’s athletic teams averaged a 994 score on the APR – the highest figure in the ACC. The lowest APR score for any Blue Devil team was 978 – which is two points higher than the nationwide APR average score.

Duke’s six-year graduation success rate for student-athletes was 98 percent in the most recent NCAA graduation rate report. It has never been lower than 96 percent since the NCAA started measuring graduation success in 1998.

Yet, those figures tell just part of the story.

The harsh truth about NCAA academics is that most schools do a very good job of educating most of their athletes – in all but two sports.

The graduation rate for student-athletes in the Olympic Sports – which used to be called the non-revenue sports – is strong across the board. Duke’s numbers are better in this regard than the great majority of its competitors, but there are many schools that do a good job of educating their swimmers, their soccer players, their tennis players, their lacrosse, softball, volleyball and wrestlers.

But there are two glaring exceptions to this rule – the two sports that earn money for most NCAA schools. In football and men’s basketball, academic performance varies widely. There are a handful of other schools – other than Duke – that do a good job educating their football and basketball performers. But there are more that use their stars for their athletic talent, then cast them aside without a degree or an education. The great majority of the schools competing at the highest level in these sports have disappointing academic reports in these two sports.

“There is definitely far more pressure on the revenue sports than there is on, say, fencing,” Kennedy noted.

Duke had the nation’s best football APR among the BCS participants. It’s basketball APR was the best in the ACC and one of the best in the nation.

“The minimum expectation at Duke is that you’re going to come in and graduate,” Berndt said. “As long as you enter with that mindset – you are much more likely to fully engage academically.”


The Blue Devils have traditionally posted strong academic performances in both revenue sports.

In football, the American Football Coaches Association has been honoring schools with the best graduation rates for football players since 1981. Duke has won or shared 12 AFCA Graduation Awards – more than any other school. New ACC rival Notre Dame is a distant second with eight awards. Northwestern has six, Boston College four and Vanderbilt three awards.

In addition to the 12 first-place finishes, Duke has been honored another 18 times for finishing in the top 10 percent in football graduation rate.

The amazing thing about that sustained success is that it began during a period when Duke devoted few resources to academic support. At a time when many schools were pouring significant recourses into tutoring and academic support facilities, Duke’s effort was limited to one man – Kennedy.

Kennedy, once called “the Bear Bryant of academic advisors” by former Blue Devil football coach Steve Sloan, served as the sole academic advisor in the athletic department for 20 years. He jokes that his first office was “a window sill in the football office” although for most of his tenure, he worked out of a tiny cubbyhole in Cameron, usually working with athletes in a small conference room that he shared with the athletic director.

Berndt arrived in 1997 and now oversees a large academic support department. Heather Ryan, who joined the Duke staff in 2005, is the Executive Director of Academic Services.

“We actually have 10 people working in academic support, which is amazing, since in the 1980s, there was one guy doing it all,” Berndt said. “We provide much more academic support for all of our teams. More resources to put into tutoring than in the past, better facilities, and our budget has been greatly enhanced. We’re able to give a kid much more attention because we have more available staff. [We can do] a lot more one-on-one work than a few years ago.”

Duke’s academic support unit now works in spacious quarters in the Michael W. Krzyzewski Center for Academic Excellence.

“I tell Brad that he can’t do the things I did in the way in which I did them,” Kennedy said. “Duke is a very different place than it was in, say, 1985. It’s become an international top 20 university. The faculty has changed, the student body has changed.

“I couldn’t do the things I did then and succeed now.”

Kennedy suggests that many outsiders misunderstand the goal of academic support.

“The misconception is that it’s there to help struggling students get a C and stay eligible,” he explained. “We work with kids who are not satisfied with a B. We help good students become excellent students. Our goal is to have athletes on the ACC honor roll, to be academic All-Americans and Rhodes Scholars.”

For all the academic support, the single most important factor in Duke’s academic success is selectivity in recruiting. Very simply, it’s a matter of recruiting athletes who have a chance to succeed as students.

“Admission is the key thing – not just for athletes, but for everybody,” Kennedy said. “Often when a coach gets here, his first question is about what threshold, what [academic] numbers must he recruit at. We don’t have them … you don’t want them.”

Instead, Duke’s goal is to find students who are both capable of and willing to do the work at Duke.

“Coaches have to learn that,” Kennedy said. “There are places we can’t go, but there are a vast range of kids who can succeed. Once coaches learn that – once they get a feel for who is admissible – the first step in the admission process is the coaches.”

The coaches have to develop a strong relationship with the admissions office.

“What the coaches do from a selectivity standpoint and what Christoph Guttentag does in the admissions office – if those two pieces don’t work well, we’ve got huge issues at a place like Duke,” Berndt said. “We have to select students who not only have enough gray matter to do the work, but who want to do the work.”

Guttentag has overseen admissions at Duke since 1992 when he was appointed director of admissions. He was appointed Dean of Admissions in 2006, a job that he still holds. He meets personally with every at-risk scholarship candidate, from the sports of football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball.

“The other thing that’s overlooked is that we have tremendous continuity in our coaching staff,” Berndt said. “When you have a lot of turnover in your coaching staff, the recruiting really fluctuates. Our coaches have been here long enough. They know what kind of student is going to be successful. That’s a huge piece … a huge piece.”

Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s commitment to the academic performance of his players has long been evident. His graduation rate has been phenomenal – 100 percent over the last three seasons measured by the NCAA. Obviously, early departure for the NBA and transfers (usually for players looking for more playing time) prevent a perfect graduation picture, but Krzyzewski recruits students who stay four years at Duke almost always graduate.

“Every [men’s basketball player] who came as a freshman and stayed four years has graduated, except one,” Kennedy said.

Coach K made his commitment to that ideal clear in 1990, when he refused to hang the banner for Duke’s 1990 NCAA runner-up finish until the three seniors on that team earned their degrees. Over the next four years, all three completed their degree work and the banner went in the Cameron rafters.

It’s interesting to note that three of Duke’s prime academic/athletic competitors have hired former Krzyzewski assistants to guide their basketball programs – Johnny Dawkins at Stanford; Mike Brey at Notre Dame and Chris Collins at Northwestern. That doesn’t count Krzyzewski protégé Tommy Amaker, who has guided Harvard, perhaps the top academic school in the country, to the greatest basketball success in its history.

The recent national trend of one-and-done basketball players has impacted Duke. Before 1999, Krzyzewski never lost an undergraduate player to the NBA. That spring, two sophomores and a freshman jumped to the pros. In the last 15 seasons, Duke has lost five one-and-done players – three in the last four years.

“That’s a difficult and complex issue,” Berndt said. “It would be a whole lot easier if there was a rule that student-athletes had to stay in college two years or three years. I think it comes down to recruiting kids with good character who value academics – even if they are only going to be here one or two years.”

All five of those one and done players left Duke in good academic standing.

“The guys we’ve had come through our basketball program – even the guys who have only stayed one year – have done a good job academically,” Berndt said. “If you get kids in here who are willing to work hard in the classroom, it works. It’s not ideal for a school like Duke for kids to come in and not finish … because the vast majority of their peers at Duke come in and finish.”


Balancing athletic success and academic success is obviously not easy. But when examining the data, a handful of schools stand above the rest. Not coincidentally, the five best athletic/academic programs belong to private schools competing with large public universities in the BCS conferences – Duke, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Stanford and Vanderbilt.

Berndt said that in general the relatively smaller private schools have an advantage over their larger competitors.

“We have natural, inherent safety nets at a small private school,” he said. “The small class sizes make a huge difference. If you are in a class with 14 students, the professor knows if you’re there or not. They know if you’re falling behind. They know if you didn’t do well on a quiz. If you’re in a class of 400 students at a large public institution, they don’t even know if you’re in class.”

The smaller, more intimate environment also helps the support staff monitor the progress of student-athletes.

“We don’t monitor on-going class performance as much as you might think,” Berndt said. “Our academic deans do the monitoring.. There’s a good line of communication between the faculty and the deans and the athletic department. That’s the way it works at Duke. If a student is not going to class, the faculty members reach out to the academic dean and the deans reach out to our staff.

“Again, it’s a system you can have in place when you have 6,000 undergraduates. It’s not a system you can have in place, when you have 30-40,000 undergraduates.”

For whatever the reason those five private schools have been able to compete without compromising their academic standards. When it comes to balancing academics and athletics – even in the two revenue sports – those five clearly stand out.

But which of the five are best?

Any ranking depends on what criteria are selected as most important. Let’s break them down in a number of ways.

-- The average graduation success rate for overall athletic departments (between 2005-13, the period measured by the NCAA):

            1. Notre Dame 98.6
            2. Duke  97.2
            3. Northwestern  96.9
            4. Stanford 94.6
            5. Vanderbilt  93.0

-- Balance that against the schools’ athletic success. The best way to measure overall athletic performance is with the Learfield Director’s Cup, awarded annually to the school with the best overall athletic program. Stanford has owned the award – winning it ever year this century. The average Director’s Cup rankings for the five schools in question.

            1. Stanford 1.0
            2. Duke 11.4
            3. Notre Dame 17.4
            4. Northwestern  39.1
            5. Vanderbilt 56.2

Duke shows up well in these two measurements – second to Notre Dame in athletic graduation rate and second to Stanford in overall athletic success.

But what about football, a sport where so many schools fail to measure up? Let’s track the five schools in this sport:

-- The NCAA has been tracking football APR since 2005. Over the nine years that have been measured the average APR for the five schools in question are:

            1. Duke: 983.2
            2. Stanford 982.3
            3. Northwestern 980.7
            4. Notre Dame: 971.8
           5. Vanderbilt: 968.6

While Duke has not fared as favorably on the football field as their cohorts during this reporting period, the Blue Devils have made significant strides under current head coach David Cutcliffe.  Last season, Duke’s 10 wins were second to Stanford (11) and ahead of Notre Dame (9), Vanderbilt (9) and Northwestern (5).

The most encouraging thing from Duke’s point of view is that as the Blue Devils have risen on the football field, the team has remained a powerhouse in the classroom. The team’s grade point average has been remarkable – for the last 10 semesters in a row the Duke TEAM has topped 3.0 in cumulative GPA.     

“I remember the day we interviewed David Cutcliffe,” Kennedy said. “He had to attend his daughter’s recital [in Knoxville, Tenn.] the night before. He drove all night and we met with him at 9:30 in the morning. In that interview, he already had a plan for Duke – not a vague “we’re going to win and we’re going to do well in the classroom,” but a specific plan for how he was going to do those things. It was an incredibly organized, prepared and really profound analysis of what it would take to win.”

It didn’t happen overnight, but Cutcliffe has delivered on his promise. In the last three years, as the team’s win total has risen from three to six to 10, so has its APR – peaking at 992 in the latest report – the best figure in the nation (among BCS schools).

-- In men’s basketball, Duke clearly stands head and shoulders among its peers. The nine-year APR rankings in men’s basketball for the five schools:

            1. Duke 986.4
            2. Notre Dame: 986.0
            3. Vanderbilt 977.0
            4. Northwestern: 974.9
            5. Stanford 971.2

-- Balanced those numbers with the success rate on the court. The average number of wins by the five schools in the nine-year reporting period:

            1. Duke  29.2
            2. Notre Dame  22.2
            3. Vanderbilt  21.3
            4  Stanford  19.3
            5. Northwestern  15.4

Duke has won a national title in this period and finished in the top 10 in the final AP poll in eight of the nine seasons covered by the APR.


So which of the five schools on this list offer the best combination of academics and athletics?

It’s pretty clear that Vanderbilt and Northwestern are just a shade behind the other three. Duke, Stanford and Notre Dame all have a case – Stanford has the best overall athletic success (but is fourth out of five in academic success); Notre Dame has a slight edge on Duke academically – based on the APR and graduation rate, but is behind Duke in athletic achievement; Duke could argue that it is the best balanced of the three – the second-best academic resume and the second-best athletic resume.

Duke is clearly the most successful of the five in men’s basketball – tops (by a wide margin) in success on the court and tops (by a narrower margin) in terms of academic success.

Football is not as clearcut. Notre Dame, Stanford and maybe even Northwestern could make the case as the best balanced football program. Duke, which is the top football program academically, has been the weakest of the five on the gridiron.

That changed last year as Duke finished second among the Big Five – just a game behind Stanford. If Coach Cutcliffe can sustain and build on his recent success, Duke will also build its case as the best balanced football program to go along with its superiority in men’s basketball.

Whether Duke is the absolute best at maintaining athletic-academic balance or merely one of the three best, it’s clear that the school has found a successful formula.

“The collaboration between the athletic department and the campus is phenomenal here,” Berndt said. “That approach was led by Peter Lange, the provost here for a long time (1999-2014). In real simple terms, Peter has always had a commitment to excellence. He wanted us to have an excellent academic program, an excellent athletic program, an excellent band, excellent graduate programs … I think he was the driving force behind the fact that we all collaborate to get that excellence at Duke.”

Lange stepped down as provost in June, but Berndt believes that the pattern of cooperation that has been established will continue under new provost Sally Kornbluth.

“It really is a group effort, Berndt said. “You bring in the right students initially. You support them when they are here. You make sure they are engaged academically. And you get a good result.

“That may be an oversimplification, but that’s the way it seems to work at Duke.”


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