Academics and Athletics

"Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"

-President George W. Bush

Through a combination of time and circumstance, my life has brought me back to high school, where I am doing my student teaching and trying, sometimes in vain, to convince a large number of high school students that books are in fact a very, very good thing. They, in turn, are trying to convince me that perhaps we should just watch the movie. Because of my new role as an educator-in-training, when the University of Kentucky Wildcats began their quest to win an 8th NCAA Title, I was with my A3 class, Junior English. On any other day, we would be discussing some great piece of literature, or perhaps going over vocabulary words, but this was not any other day, because we live in Kentucky and the Cats were playing. So, in place of a normal class, we watched the UK Wildcats play IUPUI in a game that was over at some point in the first five minutes. Suffice to say that a majority of classrooms across the Commonwealth followed suit and it is a hypothesis that this was perfectly fine. Sure, there are some people who would object to watching basketball games in the classroom and they may have some good points. The truth, however, is that these are not simply basketball games, they are NCAA Tournament games, and any high school student spending their time watching them is going to learn some very valuable lessons.

Every assignment is important. A lot of times the difference between an A and a B is the zero a student received on a small assignment they simply forgot to do or blew off, and so it is in the NCAA Tournament that overlooking any team you are assigned to play can have disastrous consequences. Ask Mississippi State for example. When the brackets were released, everyone pointed to an exciting second-round match-up between MSU and the University of Louisville. First, MSU had to play Butler. Well, the pundits were half-right, the second round match-up with UL was exciting, but it was Butler providing the excitement. So, remember boys and girls, there are no small assignments, just small students.

Having a good teacher helps. Here is a quick run down of coaches in the Sweet Sixteen with Final Four experience: Tubby Smith, Lute Olson, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun, Tom Izzo, Kelvin Sampson, Gary Williams, Roy Williams, and Jim Boeheim. Six of those nine have national titles as well. These men are not simply great coaches, but they are also known to be great teachers of the game as well. When you watch a team like the University of Florida, a number two seed, get outplayed in every facet of the game by Michigan State, a number seven seed and a less-talented team on paper, much of the credit goes to Spartan Head Coach Tom Izzo. His team was ready to play; Billy Donovan's Gators were not. It is a lot easier for students to excel, on the court and in the classroom, when you have dedicated teachers who believe in them.

Do your homework. In the NCAA Tournament, many times you have only one day to prepare for your next game. That means when you are given your scouting report, you have to cram. If you take to the court without doing your homework, you only increase your chances of going home early. Rick Pitino's UL team plays a frantic pressing style that can overwhelm a team that is not ready and during the first five minutes of their game with the Butler Bulldogs, it appeared someone had eaten the Bulldogs' homework. Yet, rather than panicking, they followed their game plan and slowly began to dismantle the pressure defense and soar into the Sweet Sixteen. If you expect to succeed in the classroom or on the court, you have to do your homework.

Complete your work and always give your best effort. The greatest game of the tournament, and in fact the greatest college basketball game in years, was a second round contest between the Arizona Wildcats and the Gonzaga Bulldogs. A double-overtime affair that saw both teams refuse to quit, and when it ended, both teams collapsed on the floor, overcome with exhaustion and emotion. Head Coach Mark Few's Zags lost, but he walked onto the court clapping. The teams slowly rose and began to embrace each other in mutual respect of the jobs they had done. Sometimes hard work is its own reward. Giving your best effort may not always garner an A, but at least you know you gave your best.

Seniors rule. March is usually the time of year when "senioritis" begins to occur. A general malaise settles over seniors as they slack on work and instead look to the future. Fortunately, this disease does not translate over to basketball. Maryland, Kansas, Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma, Butler, and Wisconsin are Sweet Sixteen teams that feature multiple senior starters. Drew Nichols of Maryland hit a miracle shot at the buzzer to lift the Terps over UNC-Wilmington in the first round, and Darnell Archey of Butler lit up UL, shooting 8-9 threes. Two seniors who refuse to let their team lose. These seniors have set a great example for our high schoolers to follow, showing that being a successful senior means working hard all spring.

As illustrated, the lessons woven throughout March Madness can be beneficial to us all. High school students across the Commonwealth should take these lessons to heart and use them as a base for building a successful academic career. So, while pondering ways to convince seniors the Age of Romanticism is going to be both fun and exciting, while at the same time letting them enjoy March Madness, the answer to your question, Mr. President, "Is our children learning?" Yes they is, sir. Yes they is.