By Mike Lauterborn
(for Sacred Heart University)
In a recent comprehensive review of 197 NCAA Division I, II and III colleges nationwide, Division I-AA school Sacred Heart University was ranked 18th as a best college for athletes.
The study was conducted in the summer of 2011 by staff at The Daily Beast, the three-year-old digital news offspring of revered print brand Newsweek, and published the last week in August. It is the second annual study of its kind and was driven by interest from alumni, students, parents of college-eligible children and the schools themselves in college rankings. The athletic programs category was one of more than a dozen areas examined and rankings were based on a mathematical formula and where a school falls relative to a category average.
In the athletic program category, four criteria were examined: athletes as a percentage of total undergraduate enrollment, financial aid per athlete, total operating expenses and the ratio of athletic spending to instructional expense. In that order, SHU measured up as follows: 21.3% of enrolled undergraduates are athletes; $10,534 is provided in financial aid per athlete; $18,681,467 is spent on overall athletic operations; and $0.43 is spent on athletics per instructional dollar.
The top 25 schools were noted, with the University of Tulsa at the top end and company that included the University of Notre Dame, Boston College, Colgate University and Syracuse University.
Don Cook, SHU’s executive director of athletics for the past 19 years and a 47-year athletic program veteran with long-time posts at both Fairfield University (15 years) and University of Hartford (six years), was flattered about the school being honored. He pointed to several elements that may have helped gain attention for SHU.
To start, Cook said, “We have made a long-range commitment to our program. The fact that we have 31 sports and over 750 participating athletes – which is a high percentage of our student body -- probably caught the attention of the surveyor.”
SHU athletes also perform well academically. “We have had almost 14 consecutive semesters wherein our athlete G.P.A.’s are over 3.0,” said Cook.
Coaches are another exemplary part of the success equation. “We have a dedicated coaching staff, with an average tenure of 10 years,” explained Cook. “They know what they are doing. And many that I hired some 16 years ago are still with us.”
Awards from college athletic governing bodies contribute to SHU’s high profile as well. “Our school has won the last four consecutive Northeast Conference Commissioner’s Cups, for men and women, which is based on a point system and how our teams rate against other schools’ teams in regular season play. Our women alone have won five of these awards in a row,” he said, proudly.
What may not have been considered in the Beast rankings, though, which is a very important part of an athlete’s experience and growth as an individual, is the interaction of the athlete with his or her surrounding community, said Cook, who coached his first college game, in baseball, in April 1966.
“Our athletes have done a lot in terms of community service and have an enormous impact on the lifestyle of our institution,” he said. “For example, we send 10 to 15 of our athletes every single weekday to the Dunbar School in Bridgeport – a school that barely manages to stay open – to work with students and teachers to do mentoring. It makes such a difference to the stability of that school.”
SHU’s outreach efforts have not gone unnoticed. “In 2010, the NCAA gave us a community service award for our various work in Bridgeport,” Cook said. “This past year, we received the Northeast Conference Building Communities Award, based on the number of student volunteer hours and community service. We had a couple thousand hours of dedication, to which no other schools came close.”
Cook summarized, “Our success is really an interactive mix of volume, performance on the field, community service and academics.”