The Gophers are not a household name in national college athletics — or even in their own esteemed conference.
But some of the Big Ten’s best academic work comes from student-athletes sitting in the University of Minnesota’s classrooms.
Gophers student-athletes compiled a 3.19 average GPA last year, according to Lynn Holleran, Minnesota’s director for student-athlete academic affairs. It’s only a slight increase from the 3.16 mark set the year before, but Holleran said the new mark is one of their highest ever.
The Big Ten honors student-athletes with “All-Big Ten academic” status if they achieve a 3.0 GPA or higher during their sport’s season. Thirty-eight percent of Minnesota’s 718 athletes made the cut, which ranks second in the conference.
Ohio State topped the conference with 318 All-Big Ten academic student-athletes. However, it has the most athletes of any school in the conference.
Northwestern, the only private Big Ten institution, led the Big Ten with 43 percent of its athletes achieving a 3.0 GPA or higher.
Mary Beth Hawkinson, associate director of academic services at Northwestern, said the school’s size — only about 9,000 undergraduates — helps professors individualize attention for all students, which trickles down to student-athletes as well.
“Just being a private school, where competition for getting a spot in admissions is so fierce, we end up drawing upon the top 3, 4, 5 percent of high school students in the country,” Hawkinson said. “That goes for student-athletes as well.”
At Northwestern, student-athletes often have to miss a portion of practice to attend core classes that only run at certain times of the day.
“It’s a challenge at times,” Hawkinson said. “But several of our coaches were Northwestern athletes, and they understand the values of our institution.”
At Minnesota, a public institution that enrolls about 30,000 undergraduates, scheduling for student-athletes is a little more flexible because of a higher demand for classes.
Holleran said the Gophers’ success in the classroom should be credited to the student-athletes first. But she said it wouldn’t be possible without the additional work from professors and advisers.
Twice a semester, Minnesota’s athletics department sends out midterm grade requests to University professors for every student-athlete.
“Then, if we see a 2.5, or even a 3.5 GPA student is struggling, we reach out and offer support,” Holleran said. “Whether it’s tutoring, time management help or any other kind of support they might need.”
Across the University’s 25 sports, nonrevenue sports represented the majority of the All-Big Ten academic selections.
Minnesota had 149 of its 275 selections during the spring season, with Olympic sports like men’s and women’s track and field and rowing representing 60 percent of the spring honorees.
“It’s not just athletics. These guys need to get their degrees too,” men’s track and field coach Steve Plasencia said. “When they leave campus, books have to come with.”
Plasencia’s squad had one of the highest percentages with 35 of his 62 athletes making the All-Big Ten academic team. Women’s basketball led all Gophers sports last year with 10 of its 13 athletes making the academic team.
Holleran said that before any incoming student-athletes compete, her advisory staff reviews their academic profile to help them decide their first-semester schedule. She said the first semester for all students, not just student-athletes, is an important indicator of their academic success in college.
“We also set a large number of incoming student-athletes with a mentor tutor for that first semester,” Holleran said.
David Pachuta, a senior men’s track and field athlete at Minnesota, said his first semester was his toughest.
“It was extremely difficult,” said Pachuta, a NCAA postgraduate scholar who plans to graduate with a 3.5 GPA. “The biggest thing was learning how to balance my life with classes, practice, traveling [for track] and trying to find time to hang out with friends.”
Pachuta was awarded the Big Ten Medal of Honor last Thursday. The award recognizes two student-athletes from every conference school who have “attained the greatest proficiency in athletics and scholastic work.”
Plasencia, Pachuta’s coach, said the seniors on the men’s track and field team set the tone for how the younger guys need to study to be successful. Pachuta was one of those guys.
A neuroscience major, Pachuta said he set up meetings with his professors before every semester to discuss what exams he would miss and what assignments he had to hand in early.
Pachuta said he had multiple exams proctored because he couldn’t be in the classroom when they were scheduled.
“I found it more difficult than taking it in class,” he said. “When you’re on the road for a sport, you really try and focus on your event.
“You have to be able to separate the different parts of your life pretty readily.”