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Argus Leader: Augustana Athletics Rising to the Challenge

Rising to the Challenge: Augustana sets standard; USF aims high

Matt Zimmer, Argus Leader

Augustana's academic reputation has frequently preceded its athletic one. The small, private institution has never been bashful about touting its lofty academic standards and graduate placement rates.

At times, those have been offered as excuses for less-than-impressive performances on the field.

But in the post-NCC Division II era, the Vikings are succeeding in the classroom and on the field. In fact, the Lutheran-based school - which lists an enrollment of about 1,700 - is among the best in NCAA Division II when it comes to excelling in both areas.

Augustana was fifth in the latest Learfield Sports Director's Cup rankings, which rate the overall athletic performance of 288 Division II schools based on postseason success.

Among those in the top 10 in those rankings, Augustana has the highest student-athlete graduation rate and the highest academic success rate (the graduation rate of athletes including those not receiving financial aid).

"We feel pretty good about the fact that we're doing an outstanding job of blending strong athletics with strong academics and carrying out the mission of our institution," said athletic director Bill Gross. "This is a challenging institution. There are no Mickey Mouse majors here. If you get a degree from here, you have really earned a quality degree."

Making the move

The University of Sioux Falls is currently transitioning to NCAA Division II status from the NAIA. Some skeptics theorized that the school will suffer under stricter NCAA rules, suggesting that academics take a back seat at the Baptist-affiliated liberal arts school, which lists an enrollment of 1,674.

But the Cougars point to impressive academic efforts of their own, and school officials shrug off the demands of Division II.

They insist that they have always held themselves to their own standard, one high above the bar set by the NAIA.

"We've always felt like we had to do that, because we were surrounded by NCAA schools," said USF athletic director Willie Sanchez. "It's important to us not just to abide by the rules of the NAIA, but to set and abide by more stringent rules, those of the university itself."

Private lessons

At Augustana, student-athletes posted a cumulative grade-point average of 3.02 in 2009-10, while athletes at the University of Sioux Falls combined to record a 3.06. Differences in curriculum aside, those are impressive numbers.

For Augie, it would suggest that their 2005 strategic plan that called for a more aggressive approach to athletic success has not forced them to sacrifice academic standards. USF's numbers imply that the perception that NAIA programs don't value academics isn't true, at least in the Cougars' case.

Being a private school in Division II means student-athletes don't get as much special treatment as they perhaps would at a larger school, or at a higher level.

Augustana men's basketball coach Tom Billeter, who has coached at major-college schools both public and private, said it can be a different world.

"Having been at Rice (a smaller, private Division I school) prepared me for what it would be like here," Billeter said. "When I was at Rice, I learned that there are going to be times you have to move practice or a kid won't make it to practice, because he's got a lab. When I was at Arizona, trust me, that didn't happen. Practice was at 2 p.m. every day, no matter what. That's just what it was like."

Larger schools also have larger class sizes, sometimes as many as 500 students. That makes it easier for athletes to skip class, something coaches at Augie and USF can keep a closer eye on.

"When you miss a class here, they know," says Augustana linebacker Andrew Keel, a business administration major.

Different level

Few NCAA Division II athletes get a "full ride," so almost all are paying for some portion of their tuition. Many have to get part-time jobs on top of their class load and training for their sport. Still, the experience isn't one that too many athletes regret, even ones that had offers to go elsewhere.

Augustana's student athletes actually enjoy a higher graduation rate than the general student body.

"Football is what brought me to Augie," says standout wide receiver Tyler Schulte, who admitted that academics played no role in him choosing the Vikings.

"But now I can see the role (the college) will have played in my life. The things they told you coming in about class sizes and teachers that know you and high placement rates - those things are true."

Raising the bar

There is a perception that it's much easier to become or stay eligible at the NAIA level, and even officials from USF don't deny that there is some truth to that.

Still, Cougar athletes have not been subject to the NCAA clearinghouse, in which high school transcripts are scrutinized. Some USF coaches admit that they have had players in the past that would not have passed the clearinghouse criteria.

As a private school, USF offers its students the same benefits (and challenges) that Augustana does, if not necessarily a comparable curriculum. Like Augie, the school's athletes have a higher graduation rate than the general student body.

"We've got guys that are good students, guys that are in the middle, and guys that have to work really hard to make it," said USF men's basketball coach Chris Johnson. "You try to recruit guys that fit. But at the same time, if you take a guy who's going to struggle, but you're able to work with him and push him to where he comes out of here with a college degree, that's about the greatest thing in the world."

Johnson and Sanchez both say they have no apprehension whatsoever about exposing their teams to NCAA academic guidelines.

"You've got to truly believe in what your school stands for," Johnson says, adding that his teams have had a cumulative GPA over 3.0 all four semesters he's been coach. "People think that's just talk, but it's true. You can win with good kids. Augie's doing it and we're doing it, too. You don't have to have knuckleheads to win games."