Oct. 22, 2004

By Katie Stuhldreher

Notre Dame is all about tradition. Over the years, Irish players have been recognized not only for their excellence on the football field, but also in the classroom. The Academic Honors Program for Student Athletes offers unique opportunities for student athletes to get the most from the rich academic life at Notre Dame.

The Academic Honors Program was established in 1997 and pairs student-athletes with faculty advisors in their areas of academic interest. These faculty mentors help student-athletes decide which courses to take and how to focus their studies. They also provide information about scholarship, research, and internship opportunities.

“The major component of the program is the mentor relationship. With such outstanding faculty to work with, the program has gotten better through the years. I always say that the student-athlete that gets the most out of the program is the one that develops the relationship with the mentor,” said Christy Yarnell, head of the Academic Honors Program.

The Academic Honors Program also provides unique opportunities to student-athletes including resume and portfolio development, postgraduate scholarship forums, campus and community leadership programs, networking opportunities, and community outreach programs.

Each year the Honors Committee reviews and selects student athletes that exhibit a strong commitment to academic excellence for participation in the Academic Honors Program. Candidates are identified by coaches, academic counselors, and faculty members based on a list of criteria which includes outstanding academic record at the end of freshman year, superior athletic achievements and potential, strong personal recommendations, and outstanding citizenship and leadership involvement.

The program has 45 total participants, 12 of them inducted this year, representing 13 different sports. Currently, there are six football players participating in the Academic Honors Program: Kyle Budinscak, Brandon Hoyte, Brian Mattes, Chris Frome, Dan Santucci, and John Carlson.

Kyle Budinscak, a fifth year senior defensive end, is known as one of the top scholar-athletes on the football team. Budinscak graduated in 2004 with a 3.59 overall grade-point average as a finance major in the Mendoza College of Business. He is an Academic All-America candidate again this year as he has earned Academic All-District honors in each of the last three years. Currently, Budinscak is enrolled in graduate courses at Notre Dame. This is his fourth year in the Academic Honors Program.

“The mentors are great to have because they are always more than willing to meet and discuss anything. It’s challenging to try to focus on a lot of things at a time when you’re a student-athlete at a place like Notre Dame,” says Budinscak.

Senior linebacker Brandon Hoyte is a psychology major who carries a 3.17 grade-point average and is a three-year member of the Program.

“This gives athletes the opportunity to have a great mentor who is there to put you in line to succeed. My mentor [John Affleck-Graves] is a very successful man and he gives me advice on how to get there,” explains Hoyte.

Junior offensive tackle Brian Mattes, a finance major in the Mendoza College of Business, is beginning his second year in the Academic Honors Program.

“I think it’s a really good program because you always have someone to go to. It allows athletes to build up great relationships off the football field and it allows athletes and faculty to learn about the two different worlds they live in,” says Mattes.

Kevin Scanlon, associate professional specialist in the Mendoza College of Business, is Mattes’ faculty mentor.

“I think it’s important to make sure athletes focus on their books in addition to their sports. Having this kind of a program sends the right message in showing that there is plenty of support for student-athletes at Notre Dame,” Scanlon says.

Chris Frome, a junior defensive lineman, is pursuing a degree in finance in the Mendoza College of Business and has been a member of the program since his sophomore year.

“The program gives you a chance to meet with people in your area of study. You can talk to people who have been out in the world and know what it’s like. People always talk about living in this Notre Dame bubble that is remote from the real world, but this gives you a chance to get in touch with reality and see what is important to take with you when you leave here,” says Frome.

Richard Sheehan, a finance professor and Frome’s faculty mentor, adds, “I think that athletes have a lot of demands on their time and a lot of out-of-class academic opportunities are closed to them. So we as mentors try to fill in the gaps. Being an athlete is a very demanding part-time job and we are here to offer support.”

Junior offensive lineman Dan Santucci, a marketing major in the Mendoza College of Business enjoys his relationship that he has with his mentor.

“It’s nice to have a mentor to talk with on a personal basis about things you might not talk with other professors about. It’s challenging to compete academically at this school where high grade-point averages are the norm. So this program is really helpful,” says Santucci.

Marketing professor Kevin Bradford is Santucci’s faculty mentor and was a student-athlete himself.

“We really see the need for this kind of a program here. Being a former student-athlete, I can identify with a lot of students in this program. I encourage students like Dan to pursue academic goals as well as goals on the field because in the long run this is what they will rely on most,” explains Bradford.

“I know I really would have benefited from programs like this one when I was in school. But I love being a part of it now because it gives me a chance to interact with top notch people like Dan. I’m here to give advice and help, but also to be just a sounding board that allows Dan to work things out for himself. It’s always good to have someone to talk to about your studies,” adds Bradford.

John Carlson, sophomore tight end, is enrolled in the College of Arts and Letters and is in his first year with the Program.

“It’s definitely an honor just to be involved in this and I hope that it will open doors for me down the road,” says Carlson.

The academic achievement of the football team is not limited to these outstanding student-athletes, however, as Notre Dame boasts a 99 percent graduate rate among its football players. Notre Dame has received the American Football Coaches Association Academic Achievement award six times, most recently in 2001 with a graduation rate of 100 percent. Notre Dame produced the first 100-percent graduation rate in a single year for a college football team in 1982.

In terms of graduation rates based on four-year averages, Notre Dame ranks third in the nation with 87 percent, behind Duke and Northwestern. In 2003, Notre Dame received the USA Today/NCAA Academic Achievement Award with a 92-percent graduation rate, three points ahead of second-place Tulsa.

Notre Dame ranks second behind Duke in the NCAA for highest graduation rate among both male and female athletes and is ranked sixth for graduation rates among African-American athletes.

In the spring of 2004, Irish football produced its highest team grade-point average on record with 2.96. In the spring semester, 11 players made the dean’s list, 21 posted a grade-point average of 3.4 or higher, and more than half of the team had a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher.

The top six semester grade-point averages on record were posted during the past seven semesters. Three of these top semesters have occurred under the leadership of Coach Tyrone Willingham, who makes an effort to stress the importance of academics to his players. He has also stressed that he wants his team to strive for success in three main areas: on the field, in the areas of spirituality and personal development, and in the classroom. Willingham said that he expects this of his team because those three areas of commitment are what he expects of himself.

These accomplishments are not easy to achieve as the dual role of student and athlete at a major university is a challenging one.

“The biggest challenge of being a student-athlete is having to balance 100 percent of both worlds consistently. It’s easy to do it here and there, but doing that consistently is challenging,” says Hoyte.

Frome adds, “You have to be competing all the time, both on the field and in the classroom. It’s all about managing your time and keeping that level of competition high.”

Carlson says, “The big challenge is trying to excel both in school and in football. There are lots of schools with good students in them, but there aren’t many places where you will find the strong combination of athletics and academics that you see here.”

The Academic Honors Program offers a variety of benefits to student-athletes that help them to overcome many of the challenges associated with balancing studies and sports at a big university. The Office of Academic Services for Student-Athletes in the Coleman-Morse Center lists many of these benefits, which include: increased support and recognition for achieving academic and athletic success, advanced intellectual growth; enhanced relations and rapport with faculty and community; individualized guidance; refined academic credentials; and guided postgraduate concentration and focus.

The Academic Honors Program also increases students’ chances of receiving an NCAA scholarship or academic scholarship including the prestigious Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright Scholarships.

“This is one of the only programs of its kind in the country. It is well supported by faculty, coaches, deans, and Father Malloy,” says Yarnell.

Each season, more and more athletes raise the bar even higher in the classroom, which is a characteristic that distinguishes Notre Dame from many other college football programs. Programs like the Academic Honors Program prove that Notre Dame is not just about training good football players, but about educating strong people equipped to deal with the diverse demands of the real world.