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Putting The `A' In Athletics

Students, faculty and staff help Duke student-athletes succeed in the classroom

In 2010, Duke placed 424 athletes on the ACC Academic Honor Roll, the 22nd time in 23 years Duke student-athletes topped the conference list.
In 2010, Duke placed 424 athletes on the ACC Academic Honor Roll, the 22nd time in 23 years Duke student-athletes topped the conference list.

An 8-inch thick binder with daily schedules and syllabi for 27 members of Duke's baseball team sits on Khary McGhee's desk. As he flips through it, pairs of players stop by his office and sign in or out of study hall sessions in the Michael W. Krzyzewski Center for Athletic Excellence.

"Make sure you bring your homework with you this weekend at Clemson," McGhee told three freshmen on the baseball team. "You know coach will be mad if you don't."

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"Yeah, we know," they reply in near unison. 

Over the course of the academic year, McGhee, academic coordinator for the wrestling, rowing, men's lacrosse, baseball and swimming and diving teams, works with more than 100 student-athletes. He and seven other academic coordinators within Duke Athletics help facilitate tutoring, study sessions and time management for about 650 athletes across 26 varsity teams. With help from students, faculty and staff, Duke has a network of hundreds of academic advisors, coordinators, mentors and tutors who make Duke one of the best universities at putting the "student" into student-athlete. 

For decades, Duke students and employees have created an atmosphere where hundreds of student-athletes are regularly recognized on honor rolls and with national awards for success in the classroom. In 2010, for example, Duke led all Atlantic Coast Conference schools with 424 selections to the ACC Academic Honor Roll, the 22nd time in 23 years Duke student-athletes topped the conference list. Also, 15 Duke teams placed among the top 10 percent in their sports in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate report, which measures academic success based on eligibility and retention.

"This is all part of creating the culture that excellence in academics is just as big a part of excellence on the field," said McGhee, who joined Duke a year ago.

Finding Balance

One of the biggest challenges in maintaining academic excellence is that student-athletes spend time away from campus for road games or matches. That means academic coordinators and coaches work together to ensure athletes stay on track of studies.

On the baseball team, head coach Sean McNally makes every Monday an off-day from practice. Players must use the day to complete work in team study hall sessions and on their own time. Players are also expected to bring classwork with them on all road trips and log daily study hours with their academic coordinator.

"We're at one of the country's best academic institutions, and we've got some of the most talented students - not just student-athletes," said McNally, who's been head coach since 2005. "As a team, we need to divide up our time and energy to keep things in perspective and make sure we're taking care of things in the classroom and not just on the field."

McNally has a special reason for being stringent with academics. In addition to being a former Duke baseball player, he also worked as an academic coordinator at Duke in 2002 and 2003.

That commitment has led to results. In 2010, the Duke baseball team posted a combined grade point average over 3.0 and has annually led in selections to the All-ACC Academic Baseball Team. About 60 of McNally's players have also appeared on the ACC Academic Honor Roll over the past five seasons for holding grade point averages over 3.0 for the entire academic year. The baseball team's graduation success rate - a combination of players who graduate or leave Duke for professional opportunities in good academic standing - was 96 percent last year, 26 points higher than the national average.

"My experience would be much different if I didn't have Coach McNally and the Academic Services staff to be such a huge help," said junior Marcus Stroman, a top pitcher in the country and two-time member of the ACC Academic Honor Roll. "Because we travel so much and work on a tight schedule, having these resources means I'm not stressed, and I can just focus on taking class and playing baseball."

Resources and Support

picture of heather ryan

Heather Ryan

For Heather Ryan, executive director of academic support services in Duke Athletics, helping students score high outside of games and matches means working beyond 40 hours a week and meeting with upward of 80 student-athletes a week to ensure balance between demands of athletics and academics. 

"We'll do whatever we can to help, whether it's helping them set up their schedule, scheduling tutor sessions or making sure they're on top of a class' syllabus," Ryan said. "All these kids essentially have two jobs - a full-time student and a full-time athlete - and they're expected to excel in both areas."

She said making sure student-athletes succeed in the classroom comes down to a simple rule: let them know people across campus care about them beyond what is accomplished on a field, track or court.

"It's important to remember that all these athletes aren't just here at Duke to compete in sports. They're here to learn and expose themselves to opportunities that will shape their life," she said. "In the position we're in, we just have to help guide them to make sure they get the most out of their entire collegiate experience."