Modeling the Way: How NWU’s athletic culture shapes student-athletes

It’s college football bowl season.

This is that electric time of year when millions of eyes and millions of dollars pore and pour over every Bowl Championship Series game. In the frenzy of it all, it’s easy for fans to forget that the hand clutching that football over the goal line also clutched a pen over a bluebook for final exams just a few weeks ago.

The big business, big pressure and big lens of big-time college athletics can overshadow the quiet, off-the-field work of student-athletes.

It’s one thing for excited fans to get caught up and lose perspective. It’s quite another when coaches, student-athletes, athletic departments and entire universities fall out of balance. If the controversies regarding player benefits at Ohio State University, an unscrupulous booster at the University of Miami, and the tragic failure to report sexual abuse at Pennsylvania State University have anything in common, it is a shared imbalance that allowed the concerns of powerful athletic programs to overshadow concerns of right and wrong.

“It’s got to be student first, athlete second,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, himself an All-American basketball player at Harvard, told NCAA News in 2010. “When that flips,” he said, “the consequences can be devastating for the student, for the institution and for intercollegiate athletics in general.”

Today, a few NCAA Division I universities are feeling the impact of that imbalance. They’re reeling and looking for answers.

As these schools seek to reform their sports cultures on a more principled footing, they might want to look to their smaller NCAA Division III neighbors—neighbors like Nebraska Wesleyan University—for models.

A lone wolf

D-III standards at a glance

To many people, NCAA Division III, or D-III, means “small school.” To others, it simply means “no athletic scholarships.” But Nebraska Wesleyan’s NCAA Division III affiliation represents more than that.

Here’s a glimpse at what NWU’s Division III affiliation entails.

Class comes first
If the start of football practice overlaps with the end of chemistry lab, you’re late for practice. End of story.

No offseason coaching
When the season ends, so does the coaching. Volleyball is a fall priority. Learning is a year-round, lifelong priority.

Student-athletes before fans
Stands filled with fans are great. But we stay more focused on filling student-athletes’ college experiences.

No athletic scholarships
NWU rewards academic and artistic merit, not athletic performance.

Practices limited to six-day weeks
There is no such thing as a seven-day practice schedule at NWU or any other NCAA Division III school.

Athletic recruiting limited to high school seniors
While NWU takes note of high school sophomores’ and juniors’ academic potential, athletic recruiting never begins until after their junior year ends.

When a Division I or II school breaks NCAA rules, it often sacrifices, either voluntarily or compulsorily, a portion of its athletic scholarships in a given sport for a given period. Such penalties seek to deter wrongdoing by decreasing a program’s competitiveness in recruiting student-athletes.

But imagine a school with a clean track record voluntarily giving up not just some of its athletic scholarships, but all of them, in all sports and for all time. Then imagine that school taking additional steps to further constrain its recruiting efforts. Imagine it curtailing its practice schedules, capping its seasons and restricting its coaches’ offseason access to student-athletes. Imagine that program in an athletic conference where no other school played by the same rules.

This is exactly the scenario in which Nebraska Wesleyan University competes. While NWU is affiliated with both the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and NCAA Division III, it competes in the Great Plains Athletic Conference (GPAC), where every other member is purely NAIA-affiliated. They don’t play by NCAA Division III’s stringent rules.

Nebraska Wesleyan’s dual affiliation makes the Prairie Wolves very much a lone wolf.

Describe Nebraska Wesleyan’s unusual position to non-alumni, then ask them to predict where such a program would likely rank in its athletic conference. If they guess NWU should make itself comfortable in the conference cellar, they’re rational, but very wrong.

NWU golf player set against booksDespite playing by more restrictive rules, Nebraska Wesleyan University has historically competed at the very top of its conference, winning the conference All-Sports Trophy 23 times in 29 years.

More recently, NWU has seen stiffer competition. Its last All-Sports Trophy came in 2007, and performance has waned in some of the high profile sports where Nebraska Wesleyan has historically shown considerable strength.

Still, since that last All-Sports Trophy win in 2007, Nebraska Wesleyan has placed second or third in three of the last four years. The men’s golf team has missed winning its conference championship a mere three times since 1990. Women’s cross country has taken home six consecutive conference crowns. And NWU volleyball has qualified for NCAA nationals seven of the last eight years.

Hardly the marks of a cellar dweller.

NWU also cracked the top 100 in the 2011 National Collegiate Scouting Association’s Collegiate Power Rankings. The rankings combine athletic and academic measurements and put the Prairie Wolves among the top quarter of NCAA Division III schools nationally. And the NAIA recently named Nebraska Wesleyan University one of its “Champions of Character” institutions.

Nebraska Wesleyan’s rare status as a dual affiliate and its strong athletic performance raise two questions:

Why does NWU do it this way?

And how do we do it so well?

The why

Your Serve: How NWU Athletics Serve Learning Goals

As provost, Judy Muyskens oversees NWU’s academic departments and all elements of student life—including the Athletic Department. She’s a big fan of the way athletics add to academics here. “Look at the university’s proposed learning outcomes,” Muyskens said, “and the relevance of athletics quickly becomes clear.”

Here’s a partial look at those outcomes and how sports advance them.

1. Develop intellectual skills, including:

  • communicating effectively;
  • working collaboratively; and
  • thinking creatively.

Athletic teamwork is nothing if not communicating and working together for common goals. And creativity is a must in crafting and adapting game plans to changing circumstances.

2. Develop personal and social responsibility, including:

  • intercultural knowledge and competence;
  • ethical reasoning and action; and
  • commitment to lifelong service.

From Major League Baseball to the Olympic Games, cultures have always blended through sports. And a dedication to playing clean and serving the community are trademarks of NWU athletics.


3. Deepen self-understanding to develop:

  • self-awareness, self-discipline and openness to change;
  • ability to lead others; and
  • respect for the dignity and worth of all individuals.

A receiver ignoring an oncoming linebacker to watch the ball into his hands; a captain rallying her teammates; competitors shaking hands after a fierce game. This is discipline. Leadership. Respect.

Accepting added limitations on how Nebraska Wesleyan rewards athletic performance, recruits student-athletes and conducts practices isn’t part of some mad scientist’s scheme for winning in an otherwise exclusively NAIA conference. In fact, Nebraska Wesleyan’s unusual approach may actually cost it recruits, victories, even championships.

Rather than a recipe for wins, this chosen path represents a principled reflection of what Nebraska Wesleyan is.

“We call it ‘modeling the way,’” said Assistant Athletic Director Jo Bunstock. “You can’t propose to guide 18-year-olds unless you can model your own values.” And NWU is a part of NCAA Division III because the association most closely mirrors the university’s values of athletic endeavors serving students’ larger academic experiences. NWU chooses to live by those values regardless of what any competitor does.

“Other schools recruit the athlete first and hope for the student,” Bunstock said. “We make it very clear.” She tapped her desktop for emphasis. “You’re coming here as a student first.” It’s fitting in this light, if not intentional, that Bunstock’s and Athletic Director Ira Zeff’s Weary Center offices don’t overlook Abel Stadium or Snyder Arena where the Prairie Wolves compete. They look out instead on Cochrane-Woods Library, where NWU’s student-athletes study, and Taylor Commons, where they graduate.

“Sure,” Bunstock said. “We want great athletes. But we don’t actively pursue them unless we see a good fit for the academic community here.”

She called the field of play at NWU “another classroom” where student-athletes learn organizational skills, time management, teamwork and leadership. “We look at our coaches as educators.”

That sentiment may strike some as athletic department-speak until they consider that Bunstock is being perfectly literal. “All but one of our full-time coaches teach here.” She counted them off on her fingers. “Ted (Bulling, track and field and cross country), Cam (Schuknecht, men’s basketball), Gina (Chambers, volleyball), Brian (Keller, football). The athletes see their teaching as a demonstration of that educational ethic,” she said.

“That’s what we mean by modeling the way.”

Athletic Director Ira Zeff said the impact of Nebraska Wesleyan’s academics-first approach is easy to see. He pointed to NWU’s 2010-2011 Dr. Myrvin Christopherson All-Academic Award, which honors the GPAC school with the highest student-athlete grade point average in all sports. “It’s another example that shows Nebraska Wesleyan University has the best student-athletes in the GPAC,” Zeff said.

The how

Ashley Wimes (’98) is Nebraska Wesleyan’s lead multicultural admissions counselor and a former Plainsman sprinter and cornerback. In his view as an alumnus, athlete, recruiter and fan, Nebraska Wesleyan’s success rests on the clarity with which the university deals with prospective student-athletes.

“We try to exemplify doing things the right way,” he said.

He said the absence of athletic scholarships at Nebraska Wesleyan is an issue for some recruits. And it’s often more complicated than the simple bottom line cost. NWU’s generous need-based aid and academic awards often more than fill the gap of an athletic scholarship. “It’s a pride thing for a lot of students,” Wimes said, “and for a lot of parents, for that matter. They want to say, ‘My kid’s here on an athletic scholarship.’

“We tell them, ‘Your son will be here on an academic scholarship.’” Wimes said that if students and parents don’t seem to take an equal measure of pride in that, he sees it as an indicator that NWU might not be the best fit for them.

At the same time, NWU student-athletes can take pride in something that their peers on athletic scholarships elsewhere in the conference can’t share: the opportunity to compete in the NCAA. “The NCAA has that brand,” Wimes said.

Bunstock added, “When you go to NCAA championship tournaments or meets, you feel a special energy. They’re well-run events. It’s an exciting environment that our student-athletes get to be a part of.”

Volleyball player set against music technology class studentsFor Rick Harley, NWU’s head men’s and women’s tennis coach, the rightness of the university’s priorities is in itself a selling point. “I don’t want to point fingers, but there are coaches at other levels who will tell you that you can’t major in this or that because it takes too much time or it conflicts with practice.” Harley shook his head. “I just can’t imagine working at a university and ever saying that to a student.”

He tells prospective student-athletes and families that the priorities of NWU’s Athletic Department run with the priorities of NWU’s academic departments. It’s attractive and reassuring to parents and student-athletes alike.

There’s just a clearer sense among NWU student-athletes of exactly why they’re in college and what they’re there to do.

As a transfer-student from NCAA Division II Pittsburg State University, sophomore outside hitter Michelle Pettit of Omaha, Neb., has seen the difference firsthand. “Our practices at PSU often ran for about four hours nearly every night,” Pettit said. These practices came on top of team meetings, workouts and matches. “With so much time devoted to volleyball, there really was never a lot of time for anything outside of volleyball.” Coming to NWU has opened the door for a more balanced college experience.

Pettit’s experience meshes with what President Fred Ohles has seen. “On average, NCAA Division III student-athletes report spending 40 hours per week on academics and 30 hours on athletics,” he said.

Taking athletic scholarships out of the equation has a positive effect on NWU’s sports culture. “We’re all walk-ons here,” Wimes said. “There’s no special treatment. No predetermined favorites. No skewing coaching toward the athletes a program has a heavier investment in.”

The resulting atmosphere lends a purity to student-athletes’ decisions to compete. “We’re not getting paid to play here,” said Russell Walton, an NWU defensive end and a 2011 Capital One Academic All-America First Team selection. “We’re here on academic scholarships. We’re smart and we have a deeper passion for the game. It makes us a dangerous team to play.”

“A lot of kids come out of high school a little banged up or burned out,” Wimes said. “They’re unsure whether they want to keep playing or just focus on school.

“At NWU, you can give it a shot and if it doesn’t work out, you can walk away without lowering your financial aid at all.” He said the decision of whether to continue playing on bad knees just shouldn’t be a financial one.

“I have friends who want to walk away from football at another school,” Walton said. “But they’d have to drop out of school if they lost their scholarships.”

NWU’s Division III status means the Prairie Wolves across all sports are competing for the right reasons and with the right goals in mind for their college experiences.

Caretaker coaching

NWU student-athletes compete in an atmosphere where coaches take a keen interest in their total well-being. That’s something student-athletes don’t find to this degree at every school. “Our transfer students say it all,” said Bunstock. “They tell us, ‘You guys care. You guys take care.’”

Cross country runners set against NWU English classTake Cody Brousek, a cross country runner and decathlete from Wahoo, Neb., who transferred to NWU after Dana College’s closure. “I am amazed at the coaches who surround me here,” he said. “I love knowing that whenever I’m in a time of doubt, I can turn to Ted (Bulling) for guidance, on and off the track.”

If there’s something a little bit parental about this caretaker mentality, it’s not something the university shies away from. While no NWU coach or professor has any illusions about replacing parents, they do see a philosophical overlap between coaching, teaching and parenting. All are about helping others establish independence. They’re about putting young people in the best possible position to succeed.

“It’s like (Coach Chambers) says,” Pettit said. “‘If we learn to do the small things correctly, that will translate into the large things being easier.’” Few parents would argue.

So it’s no surprise that we should see a connection between NWU’s approach to academics and athletics and CNN columnist LZ Granderson’s June column on parenting, “Why I’m Raising My Son to Be a Nerd”.

Granderson wrote:

I finally figured out that if I wanted my son to really embrace education, I had to take the lead. Not by downplaying his accomplishments on the field but by elevating the importance of his work in the classroom. So I smile in the doorway when I walk into a room to see him reading for fun the same way I smile when I look out into the backyard to see him working on his dribbling….

But we can tell our children that school is important until we’re blue in the face, they’re not stupid.

They see the loudest applause is for the kids on the field…. They see the hypocrisy, and we can’t expect society to correct itself.

If we want to have any lasting influence on the way our kids approach education… then we have to grab our pompoms and paint our faces and celebrate intellectual curiosity with the same vigor we do their athletic achievements. 

Adopt this approach wholeheartedly, and whether you’re a parent, a coach or a professor, you’ll stand out in a crowd, like Nebraska Wesleyan stands out in a crowd. And the reaction from that crowd won’t necessarily always be warm.

“It’s true that we’ve set ourselves apart in certain respects,” Bunstock said. “It’s also true that others sometimes interpret that as us acting superior. We’re not superior. But we are different.”

Nebraska Wesleyan operates by a different and uncompromising code. That code stands at the heart of what makes our student-athletes and alumni so proud. “Since my freshman year of high school, I had attended the Woody Greeno Invitational and countless other meets,” Brousek remembered. “I always held a great deal of respect for Nebraska Wesleyan, and I always thought to myself, ‘I can’t wait for the day that I get to put on that jersey.’”

When he finally did, dressing for the same Woody Greeno Invitational he’d watched as a kid, he felt a chill. A distinct pride. “I’m proud to say I run under Ted (Bulling). And I’m proud to run with the P-Wolf jersey.”

Competitors can’t help but see that pride. Bunstock said she hears the occasional barb from people at other schools passed along from mutual recruits or transfer students. “Coaches will say, ‘I don’t care what happens the rest of the year. Our season is a success if we beat Wesleyan.’”

She’s heard it all by now. But the smack talk doesn’t seem to faze Bunstock or anyone else in the Athletic Department. “We don’t want to give anyone anything to hang up in the locker room,” she said. “So we don’t say much. We don’t need to.”

A proud little glint appears in her eye as she looks up from her desk, Taylor Commons still green outside the window behind her. “You’ll see what we’ve got when we meet on the field.”