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Sunday Brunch: The Athletic Tradition of Academic Excellence

May 13, 2017

By John Heisler

It was 2 a.m. and walkways at the University of Notre Dame were mostly deserted.

Yet, all during finals week last Monday through Friday, there was no shortage of activity at that hour in the Coleman-Morse Center on the south quadrangle of the campus-with dozens of Irish athletes making 11th-hour preparations for their spring semester final exams.

Pat Holmes, who serves as director of Academic Services for Student-Athletes, smiles when he talks about the proverbial late-night oil burning so fiercely.

“The work has been done, and the staff is anxious to see outcomes. Our job is to make sure kids are using tutors, getting to reviews and study sessions right up until the end.”

After all, to Holmes, a 1979 graduate who has led the office since 2003, it’s just part of another storied Notre Dame tradition.


As the story goes, more than a half-century ago, former University of Notre Dame mechanical engineering professor and fencing coach Mike DeCicco took part in a meeting with University executive vice president Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., in which Father Joyce asked DeCicco to create an academic advising program for Irish athletes.

DeCicco figured the assignment would be simple. Call a handful of other institutions with like-minded academic ambitions and see how they had built that division within athletics.

DeCicco made the calls-but the results surprised him. He did not find a single school with an academic program for its athletes. So DeCicco constructed one from scratch-and doors opened for business in 1964. He ran the department until 1990 when Dr. Kate Halischak (now in a comparable role in athletics at Oregon State) took over.

Key to the unit’s success has been the fact that it reports through the provost’s office as opposed to athletics (“a great check and balance,” says Holmes). And, thanks in great part to DeCicco’s aggressive approach and personality, it immediately proved to be a success.

There’s a cadre of former athletes who attribute their degrees to DeCicco’s insistence on going to class and his thinly veiled threat that he might actually use the fencing sabre he kept in his office if his charges did not tow the line.

Says Holmes, “Mike had been on the academic side from day one, so that’s the way he approached it. And, back in those days, academic services reported directly to Father Joyce. There are a lot of guys from the ’60s and ’70s who will tell you what a difference Mike made in their lives at Notre Dame.”

More than 50 years later Notre Dame’s Academic Services for Student-Athletes program remains intact, its mission no different than when it began.

And, in an era where graduation rates and other academic details are now much more public as mandated by the NCAA, academic services remains more important than ever to the combined athletic/academic ambition.

In many circles outside of South Bend there remains some sort of debate as to whether top-level athletic pursuits are compatible with that same level of academic expectations.

At Notre Dame that conversation ended a long time ago-and the annual academic numbers produced by Irish athletic teams regularly add exclamation points to the resounding “yes” which answers that question.


Holmes’ eyes are fixated on the large monitor attached to his office computer. There are dozens of files and folders crammed onto the desktop screen.

His world revolves around numbers-with the grade-point averages (and lots of other academic data) of more than 700 Notre Dame athletes entrusted to him and his staff.


Pat Holmes received an honorary monogram from the Notre Dame Monogram Club in April 2012.

Holmes and his staff collaborate with a host of colleagues-whether it’s University provost Tom Burish, athletics director Jack Swarbrick and his head coaches or NCAA faculty representative Tricia Bellia and her Faculty Board on Athletics which takes a particular interest in how sports and classroom pursuits are intertwined at Notre Dame.

“That’s a group that has a vested interest in making sure student-athletes have the ability and resources to get the degrees we promised them,” says Holmes. “Tricia has a great relationship with every one of the constituencies involved in the process. She is well-respected and well-recognized nationally. And we are constantly sharing information with her and the board.”

Meanwhile, the whole world watches.

For years, Notre Dame had only its own institutional research to prove how well its athletes were doing in their classwork. For decades, the Notre Dame sports information office updated a chart in its football media guide that showed the number of scholarship football players from each recruiting class who exhausted their eligibility and how many of them graduated. That list began in 1962 and by 2004 included 923 players, all but 10 of whom had earned degrees (exactly 99 percent). Former Irish basketball coach Digger Phelps long bragged about the fact that in his 20 years at the helm (1971-72 through 1990-91) all 56 of his scholarship players who stayed four years graduated.

“It’s still very simple,” says Holmes. “We’ve always been able to tell people, ‘If you have the credentials to be admitted to Notre Dame, if you go to class, do the work, and if you’re here for at least four years, the odds are huge that you will earn your degree. That’s accurate, for sure.”

The American Football Coaches Association got into the act in 1981 by presenting an annual Academic Achievement Award based on the team with the best graduation rate (based on a particular entering freshman class and permitting five years to graduate). Notre Dame celebrated in a major way in 1988 when it won not only a consensus national title on the field but also the Academic Achievement Award (with a 100 percent figure, the first time any school had done that).

The NCAA first began issuing graduation rate reports in 1992 based on numbers schools were required to provide to the federal government. In those reports, students were allowed six years to graduate, but institutions were penalized for any transfers, even if those individuals left in good academic standing.

Then, a dozen years ago, the NCAA upgraded its institutional databases to begin showing sport-by-sport (and even coach-by-coach) breakdowns exhibiting exactly how well each sport at each school has done in the academic realm. Annual fall releases offer federal graduation rates as well as Graduation Success Rate (GSR) numbers that are more forgiving relative to those who transfer in good standing. Spring releases, the most recent of those coming last week, provide Academic Progress Rate (APR) numbers which credit individual sports for ongoing semester eligibility and retention.

It’s safe to say Notre Dame has flourished in any of those measurements.

Critics suggest those who flaunt Notre Dame’s numbers in these areas are spoiled-based on the University’s lofty admissions requirements.

Yet Holmes appreciates the scrutiny. Like in any athletic event where there’s a scoreboard, it makes it easy to measure how the University is doing.

“If we do our job well and the collaborative effort is there,” he says, “we’re almost always going to be in the top four or five and we’re going to be compared with Stanford, Duke and others.”

Those who closely follow the graduation rate narrative likely are bored with Notre Dame’s tale. Why? Because when measured against the other NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision programs-the schools that the vast majority of Irish programs compete and recruit against-Notre Dame either finishes first, second or in the top handful of institutions. In part because the rollover four-year averages generally include three of the four data sets used in the previous year’s numbers, Irish numbers are consistently remarkable.

Notre Dame programs last Wednesday finished with a dozen perfect 1,000 APR scores-second only to Stanford’s 14. In those same listings Notre Dame has finished first seven times (2006, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016) and second the other five times (twice behind Stanford, twice behind Duke, once behind Boston College).

“But it’s more than just a number,” Holmes says. “If we get a 98 and there are 100 individuals in your cohort then you know that there were two outcomes that did not work. We’re paying attention to those. What didn’t we do, what do we need or what didn’t they do? It’s all to try to make it better. And when we have kids leave here without graduating we are actively reaching out to them to try to get them back here to complete their degrees.”

In GSR data issued last November, Notre Dame for the 10th consecutive year achieved the best overall graduation rate for all student-athletes. Eighteen of 22 Irish athletic programs posted GSR figures of 100 percent, and 10 produced federal rate scores of 100. For the 11th time in 12 years, Notre Dame ranked number one on a percentage basis in terms of number of GSR 100 scores among FBS schools. Eighteen of Notre Dame’s 22 men’s and women’s programs posted GSR numbers that ranked them best in the nation within their sports–and 11 produced federal graduation rates that led all FBS institutions.

Both the federal and GSR rates can be broken down into subsets measuring all student-athletes, football players, male athletes, female athletes and black athletes (among others available). Over the 12 years worth of numbers for both rates, Notre Dame has had 120 possible rankings in the five categories and 53 times ranked first (among FBS schools), 27 times ranked second and 13 times ranked third.

Throw in three 2017 NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship winners (football player Corey Robinson and men’s soccer players Michael Shipp and Evan Panken won from fall sports, while women’s fencer Lee Kiefer is a nominee from winter sports), four ACC Postgraduate awardees (Robinson, men’s lacrosse standout Sergio Perkovic, Kiefer and women’s soccer star Kaleigh Olmsted)-and it’s already been a pretty good year.

How intense is the competition at the top? Consider these numbers from last week’s APR release:

Notre Dame and Stanford sponsor 21 of the same sports. Since each sport features a perfect 1,000 APR score, the combined total for each institution would be 21,000 in those programs. In six sports, both schools scored 1,000. Add up those combined 21 scores for each school-and Stanford finished with 20,883 points. Notre Dame was at 20,881.

Meanwhile, only Nebraska has produced more all-time Academic All-Americans than Notre Dame.

Adds Holmes, “The NCAA legislation has put some pressure on offices like ours. The transparency that has been created has prompted a lot of offices in this area to grow. We have different types of positions now-we’ve hired some learning specialists. We have a great group of people in the office, and everybody believes in the mission.”

In addition to directing the office, Holmes long has worked with the Irish men’s basketball and women’s tennis squads. His staff includes associate director and former Irish lacrosse player Adam Sargent (lead counselor for football), assistant director Chad Grotegut (hockey, women’s lacrosse and men’s and women’s soccer), senior counselors Amanda Hall (women’s basketball, rowing, softball and men’s tennis), Tara Pillai (men’s and women’s fencing and men’s and women’s track and field) and Josh Skube (baseball, men’s lacrosse and volleyball), counselors Lorrin Ostojic (football and men’s swimming and diving) and Kenny Thomas (football and women’s swimming and diving), learning specialists Shannon Hagedorn (women’s golf) and Samira Payne (men’s golf), program coordinator Jennifer Pratt (athletic trainers, student managers and cheerleaders) and tutor coordinator Emma Venter.

“It’s still all about getting an education,” says Holmes, recipient of an honorary monogram from the Notre Dame Monogram Club in 2012. “On every campus there’s a little tension between the athletic and academic sides, and that’s OK. We’re comfortable with that because this is a collaboration and we’re a piece of the puzzle. For this to work effectively it’s important to provide a consistent message, and there need to be consistent consequences when there’s something to be addressed. It’s top down here, and we have a faculty board that has a great appetite for this subject.

“When we recruit kids, we tell them that we want to make sure they get an education-not a degree but an education and a way to impact the world in a positive way. That’s a fabulous opportunity. Our job is to support them, make sure we have the resources to support and push the buttons to make sure they use the resources effectively. Parents want to know about this, so each of our counselors is very involved in recruiting.

“We have added full-time staff in the past four or five years, so that reduces the number of student-athletes each counselor works with. We’ve added two learning specialists who, in addition to being more hands-on with a small number of athletes, also work with at least one team. We’re hiring more tutors, and we’ve used more grad students in mentoring roles. We continue to evaluate. Every year we look at where we are.”


It’s been a busy week in academic services.

With many spring sports teams nearing the completion of their seasons, all or part of finals week also saw Irish teams in women’s lacrosse and women’s tennis competing away from campus in NCAA Championships play-with the men’s lacrosse team avoiding a road trip by virtue of its number-four national seed.

Over the same week Notre Dame teams in rowing, softball and track and field traveled to take part in ACC Championship competition. That meant lots of rescheduled exams-while other teams took a member of Holmes’ staff with them to proctor exams on the road. Sitting on Holmes’ desk was a 17-page document that listed the exam schedules for all student-athletes potentially impacted by competition during finals week.

Final grades are due Monday and by the end of business that day Holmes expects a full report on how 26 Irish athletics teams have fared since January. Summer school completes the cycle for the year–and then it begins all over again when classes resume in August.

Part of Holmes’ presentation last week to the Faculty Board featured a chart with adjusted APR numbers for individual sports based on the NCAA’s more lenient eligibility requirements. (The NCAA requires only that each student-athlete pass a minimum of six credit hours each semester plus progress-toward-degree requirements prior to fall enrollment. Notre Dame requires at least a 2.0 GPA in each semester for sophomores, juniors and seniors to be eligible for the following semester-the numbers are 1.7 and 1.85 for first-year first- and second-semester students.) His chart shows that, by the NCAA’s standards, five of Notre Dame’s sports would have jumped to 1,000 scores and five others also would have improved.

Holmes might like to throw a party every time there is another success story like that in his area, yet he resists that notion.

He says, “This past fall we had the highest semester GPA the student-athlete population has ever had. When I look at it and look at trends I notice that our bottom numbers moved up-so the numbers we had in the (lowest) 25th percentile (of athletes) went up dramatically. That’s a direct result of being more hands-on with a group of individuals-and a higher level of investment, use of services, by them.”

Most schools would trade for Notre Dame’s numbers-yet Holmes knows there’s never time to rest or exult.

“You’re constantly looking at outcomes, trying to figure out what happened and then adjust and address any issues,” he says.

Just another Notre Dame tradition.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on