You may think you know Northwestern sports. You may know that the football team finished thirteenth in the country in the College Football Playoff poll this year and made it to the Outback Bowl. You may know that the women’s lacrosse team is one of the elite programs in the country and has won seven national championships since 2005. You may know that although the basketball team has never made the NCAA tournament, they have a promising young core of talent and a fantastic coach that may just get the monkey off their back sooner rather than later.
As a football fan, you may have woken up at 8 in the morning, donned your purple attire and sat outside in 20-degree weather to cheer on your Wildcats. As a basketball fan, you may have painted your chest and stood in the front row of the student section at Welsh-Ryan Arena in the hopes that this year might finally be the year. But this story is not about touchdowns, slam dunks or goals. It’s not about what goes down on the field; it’s about everything that happens behind the scenes, before and after practice, and not only with the athletes but also with the people in the athletic department who rarely get their fair share of the credit. It’s about how Northwestern has crafted a unique reputation of having elite academics paired with a competitive athletics program.
During the fall of 2015, Northwestern student-athletes posted a record-breaking academic quarter, finishing with an overall average GPA of 3.26, and all 19 programs finished with GPAs above 3.0 for the first time since the school kept those statistics. They led the Big Ten with 103 Academic All-Americans, one of only two schools in the conference with more than 100. Northwestern also earned first place in a December Time Magazine study that ranked all of the Top 25 football teams by graduation success rate (without penalizing those who leave early to join the NFL), well ahead of academic and athletic peers such as Michigan, USC and Ohio State. And all of this is just what goes on in the classroom; they’re also one of just a handful of schools to have never been in major trouble with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Much has been written about Northwestern’s academic culture, and how the team takes the “student” part of student-athlete very seriously. But Northwestern’s high academic standing and near-perfect record with the NCAA is a collective effort, one that starts at the top with Athletic Director Jim Phillips and trickles down all the way through the athletic department. What happens on a day-to-day basis behind the scenes that has turned Northwestern into the class act of the NCAA? What is it that we do differently from other schools?
If you ask anyone in the athletic department, they would simply say at Northwestern, we “do it right.” But the answer is far more complicated than can be summed up in a single phrase.
Northwestern is a rare breed of university; a private school with academics that rival the Ivy Leagues as well as athletics that compete in a Power Five conference (Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12). It’s a major draw for students, and it’s also what attracted Athletic Director Jim Phillips to the school in the first place.
“There’s just not very many places in the country that, from that perspective, are trying to do it at that level in both areas,” Phillips says. “So you have some that have carved out the academic piece, and then I think there are others that strive to have excellence athletically, but Northwestern is just one of a few schools that really tries to aspirationally top it at both.”
But to Phillips, it’s not enough to just have independent success in each area. All student-athletes are held to the same academic standards as every other student, and the entire athletic staff has made an attempt to instill an academic culture on every team. It’s reflected in the 3.26 average GPA from the fall, but it’s a long process that starts where building any great team would start: recruiting.
For a school that’s not considered to be a traditional athletic powerhouse, Northwestern recruits well. Clayton Thorson was a top-300 football player when he came out of Wheaton North High School, and Victor Law and Aaron Falzon were among the 100 best recruits in basketball during their high school years. But many of the best recruits, no matter the sport, couldn’t even play at Northwestern if they wanted to – before the coaches even make contact with the players they’re interested in, the athletic department is required to view their academic performance. If there is any reason to suspect that the potential recruit won’t succeed as a Northwestern student, they’re immediately passed over. Any suspected lack of commitment to academics, such as poor grades or low standardized test scores, is immediately seen as a red flag.
“We don’t want to bring anyone in who won’t be successful [in the classroom],” says Chris Bowers, the director of player personnel for Northwestern football (a position that ultimately coordinates recruiting for the team). “Do we lose kids or have a challenge getting young men because they don’t want to ‘do the work,’ or they think it will be too hard for them? The answer would be [...] if you don’t want to do it, we don’t want you anyway.”
Christopher Watson, Northwestern’s dean of Undergraduate Admissions, has the final say on whether or not a student-athlete is admitted to the University, but the athletic department pre-screens every potential recruit’s academic standing so thoroughly that admissions rarely has to reject any of them. Watson would be the first to admit that having a background in athletics boosts their admissions profile, but also concedes that most students that go to Northwestern have something beyond grades and test scores going for them. To him, excellence in athletics is no different than excellence in theater, music or debate.
“Admissions is fairly open, and we’re fairly open about how things work,” Watson says. “But when it comes to the athletic component, there are a lot of schools that shut down… There are certainly universities out there that will accept – if you’re an NCAA qualifier, you can get in to the university, no question about that. And I don’t doubt that Northwestern plays against some of them.”
Bowers adds, “I would argue that in football recruiting, the only school that is our equivalent in football and academics is Stanford.”
The Wildcat football team, which rosters 107 players, had a collective team GPA of 3.133 this fall, one of the highest in school history, and one of the highest nationwide. It’s a result of the hard work the athletes put in, but also of the athletic department, who make an effort not to bring in anyone who isn’t committed to performing at a high level in the classroom.
“You’d have a hard time finding a hundred kids like that anywhere,” Bowers says. “If you just went to campus and found 100 male undergrads, of freshmen through seniors in about equal numbers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of guys with a GPA of 3.0.”
Some of the “intelligence factor” translates onto the field, too. In football, for example, Northwestern has made a habit of recruiting superbacks, a position that is essentially a hybrid between a fullback, tight end and slot receiver. Considering the superback has to block, run and catch the ball, it requires a large skill set, and according to Bowers, it’s the hardest position to recruit for.
“You have to be a really smart guy if you want to play this position,” says superback Dan Vitale. “You got your quarterbacks, and you got your superbacks–those are the two guys who need to be smartest on the team. You have to know everything.” Vitale, who was a standout student at nearby Wheaton Warrenville South High School and an academic All-American at Northwestern, is likely to be drafted in the upcoming NFL Draft, and recently played in the Senior Bowl.
When it comes down to it, all NCAA athletes are students first. But at Northwestern, everyone in athletics takes the term “student-athlete” seriously, from the players to the administrative staff. When they come here, they know that first and foremost, they are a student and playing Big Ten sports is a bonus.
Recruiting is certainly important in maintaining Northwestern’s reputation for academic excellence, but it’s not the entire story, and no amount of evaluations can perfectly predict what a student-athlete will do in his four-plus years in college. Even the smartest, most highly motivated kids can fall by the academic wayside without the proper guidance, especially when they have to devote so much of their time to their sport. As a result, a ton of work goes into academic support and compliance to keep Northwestern’s student-athletes functioning at a high level.
Head Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald often likes to crack a joke about academics. “We have a three-point academic plan here,” he often says, according to Bowers. “One, you’re going to go to class. Two, you’re going to go to class. And three…you’re going to go to class.” Sounds simple, but one might be surprised how much the very basic element of education is ignored at other schools with top athletic programs. Northwestern’s coaches and athletic staff know the importance of going to class; in fact, the football team deliberately practices early in the morning during the offseason to get their players out of bed, in turn providing added motivation to attend class.
“You’re not going to sleep past football,” Bowers says. “The freshman comp teacher is not going to come get you out of bed... But if you turn your alarm off and sleep through practice, and we’ve had that happen, someone is going to come knock on your door.” Bowers isn’t sure when the team switched to the morning routine, but he confirmed that after the switch, grades went up exponentially and stayed there.
Making sure that student-athletes attend class every day is one of the ways the administration promotes a culture of compliance at Northwestern and avoids trouble with the NCAA. Throughout its history, Northwestern has completely avoided any sort of major trouble with the governing body of collegiate athletics. There are four levels of violations (more recently, the bottom two and top two have been grouped together), and violations can range from anything as minor as officers talking to potential recruits more than once a week, to anything as major as paying a recruit to attend their school. The NCAA’s rulebook is nearly 400 pages long, and anyone who works in a collegiate athletic department will be the first to tell you how silly some of the rules are.
“We can’t talk to any potential recruit before their junior year of high school,” Bowers says. “Say, if before their junior year, a potential recruit messages you. Even if it’s about a visit, you can’t message them back. He can call you and you can answer, but you can’t initiate conversation with them in any way before their junior year. Completely insane rule.”
The fact that Northwestern has never committed a top-level violation groups them with only a small group of Division I programs, Boston College and Stanford the only two others from the Power Five conferences. Northwestern, like every other Division I program, employs a team of compliance officers, who work on a daily basis to ensure that every player and member of the athletic staff is following NCAA’s rules. But at Northwestern, compliance is not just something that the dedicated officers deal with. Every December, each member of the athletic department (staff and coaches) is required to take a multiple-choice compliance test, which is designed to familiarize every single member of the staff with the wide variety of the NCAA rules.
According to Aaron Hosmon, associate director of athletics for compliance, Northwestern is the only school in the Big Ten that does this, and one of the few nationwide. “We present it as one of our shining rules,” Hosmon says. “We have a huge staff, maybe 200 or so staff members, so there’s a big group of them that don’t engage with the rules on a day-to-day basis. But we really look at compliance as a shared responsibility of the entire department.”
Oftentimes, it’s not the university officials themselves that get athletic programs into trouble; rather, it’s outside influences such as boosters or agents who offer recruits or players impermissible benefits. Reggie Bush, for example, famously had his 2005 Heisman Trophy vacated after an investigation determined he took hundreds of thousands of dollars from an agent while still at USC. For that reason, the compliance department at Northwestern forges relationships with everyone around them, from the student-athletes to the boosters and everyone in between.
“We don’t look at ourselves as cops,” says Jane Wagner, assistant athletic director for compliance at Northwestern. “We are very visible, we’re around and I think that helps for us to build a relationship with coaches and student athletes. We can walk down the hall and say ‘hi’ to the student athletes, we know them all, and they’re comfortable coming to us and asking questions, or telling us if they made a mistake.”
The fact that everybody knows the rules not only has kept Northwestern out of trouble, but it’s also given them a reputation that has extended throughout collegiate athletics. Bowers, who would admit he’s “not a compliance guru,” has gotten calls from other programs that didn’t know the rules. An officer at Ball State called him last year, asking whether or not he was allowed to pay for a potential recruit’s checked bag. “His own compliance office didn’t know the rule, so they called us.”
Hosmon adds that the world of compliance is a collaborative space and officials are constantly in communication with each other, but Northwestern’s reputation speaks for itself.
“I don’t lose sleep over compliance,” Hosmon says, “mainly because of the people around me. That’s such a key.”
If you click to a sports website on any given day, the chances of finding a story about a Division I program in the NCAA doghouse are quite high. In September of last year, legendary basketball coach Larry Brown was caught for failing to report academic fraud on multiple occasions, and his team, the Southern Methodist Mustangs, was banned from the postseason for three years. This January, Missouri’s basketball program was found guilty of three major NCAA infractions. A few weeks later, Louisville’s basketball program, which won the national championship in 2013, self-imposed a postseason ban in light of a number of claims saying women were paid to have sex with recruits.
All of this sensationalized coverage certainly casts a negative shadow over the NCAA, and makes it out to be a sketchy operation with members that constantly break the rules. But negative stories tend to get the most press, and overshadow the positive ones. Northwestern’s academic success, which has soared to new heights this year, is one of them. They recruit the right kids. They hire the right staff members. They ensure that all of the rules are being followed to the letter.
The future looks bright for Northwestern athletics as a whole. The football team finished with 10 wins for the second time since 1997, the men’s basketball team got off to the best start in school history before struggling in Big Ten play, and the University broke ground for a brand new athletic facility this past November, which is sure to attract recruits and transform the University’s athletic capabilities. But the culture among the athletic programs is already something to be envied–and makes the winning even sweeter.
“I’m really proud when we have athletic success, but nothing makes me more proud than when we have academic and social success,” Phillips says. “I really believe we try to represent what’s good in college athletics. These men and women challenge themselves at a really difficult school, with a really difficult course load. And then to try and play big time athletics? That’s pretty daunting. But these young men and women do it beautifully.”
“It’s cool to do well in school here, even on the football team,” Bowers says.“That’s rare on a football team. You’re not ostracized as a nerd. We chuckle about Justin Jackson the ball carrier, but Justin is a great student. And when an 1,000-yard rusher is kicking butt in the classroom, that’s special.”