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Dumb Jocks Need Not Apply

Contrary to National Stereotypes of Division 1 College Sports, RPI's Hockey Program Breeds Success i

By Stephen Leon

Metroland, October 17, 2003

On March 30, 1985, Adam Oates fulfilled every Division 1 college hockey player's dream: He and his teammates at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute won the NCAA championship, defeating Providence College in the tournament final. For Oates, then a junior, it also proved to be his last game in an RPI uniform. He left school at the end of the semester to join the Detroit Red Wings organization, beginning a long and productive career in the National Hockey League.

With young stars like Oates and Steve Yzerman leading the way in the late '80s, the Red Wings were beginning to rise toward the top of the NHL, and late spring usually found them in the playoffs, competing for hockey's holy grail, the Stanley Cup. But summer also usually found Oates back on familiar territory: the RPI campus in Troy, finishing his degree.

"From the time he turned pro, he came back summers until he finished," declares Bob Conway, beaming with pride as if Oates were his own son. "He had one year to go when he left. He came back and took courses every single summer, except maybe one, and he got his degree."

Conway, 58, is now assistant to the vice provost at RPI; he's been at the school 30 years, 24 of them as director of the Advising and Learning Assistance Center, in which capacity he began offering academic counseling to hockey players in the late '70s at the request of then-coach Jim Salfi. The program really got going under Mike Adessa, who coached the team to the '85 title. Several of Adessa's players from the championship era were good enough to move on to the NHL-and move on they did, often before graduating.

So Conway, the coaches and players developed a system, in place to this day, to ensure the greatest possible chance of players making the time and effort to complete their degrees. Before Oates left, he and Conway sat down and figured out exactly what coursework the young star would need to graduate, and worked out a timetable; they also kept in regular touch by phone over the next several years so Conway could monitor his progress and motivation. The formula has proved so successful that Conway hasn't changed it much. "Last week," he says, "I talked with Marc Cavosie about his plan for finishing his degree," referring to another RPI standout who left school a year ago, also after his junior year, to play pro hockey.

Actually, counseling players who leave early to go pro is only a fraction of Conway's job; most players complete their degrees in the standard four years, and Conway is there to advise them from the day they lug their hockey gear onto campus. They have regular meetings; they discuss their coursework in detail; they go over the player's academic progress and set goals; Conway advises them of tutors, study groups and other academic resources available on campus; and, if family or other personal problems are at the root of a classroom slump, students often find in Conway a supportive and fatherly ear. At the core of the program is planning: Conway urges student-athletes (in hockey and several other sports programs at the school) to schedule their study time in manageable blocks, say, getting some out of the way early in the day so it isn't all looming at night. "What I don't want to see," he says, "is for a student-athlete to go to class, then practice, then dinner, then hang out with their friends for a couple of hours, then decide to sit down with four hours of work to do."

The results appear to speak for themselves. Last spring, 19 of the 25 varsity hockey players made the dean's list, and the overall team grade point average-3.136-exceeded the campuswide GPA of 3.131.

Beyond the numbers are the human beings, hockey stars past and present, of whom Conway can't say enough. The brilliant goalkeeper Joel Laing, whose GPA was as impressive as his save percentage. NHL veterans Ken Hammond, who earned an MBA while playing pro hockey, and Joe Juneau, a French Canadian who spoke little English when he arrived at RPI, and finished his undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering in three years. And the popular Mike Sadeghpour, captain of the national-title team: "By his quote," Conway says, "'The people in Boston were taking bets on how soon I'd be home.' Well, he not only did well in school, he graduated with a bachelor's and a master's degree. He said, 'I was a street kid from Boston, and nobody thought I could do it-but with the support I had at Rensselaer, I did it.'"

In fact, while there remain a few players who went pro and still haven't finished their degrees, it's been 18 years since Conway and the hockey program lost a player to academic dismissal. And even that one still gnaws at Conway. "Of all the guys I remember over the years," he begins, before trailing off wistfully. "The main thing about this program," Conway emphasizes, "is about bright people not buying into the dumb-jock syndrome. Everybody that gets into Rensselaer is a bright student-if you didn't meet Rensselaer standards, you couldn't get in."

The sentiment is echoed by coach Dan Fridgen, who has earned a reputation among players and others close to the team for taking academics seriously and keeping hockey in perspective.

"At the pro level," Fridgen recalls, "I saw guys that, even though they had gone to school, really were afraid of making the transition from hockey into the real world. I happen to feel that the academic foundation is basically a foundation for life."

"Not only are they [RPI players] getting the opportunity to play at the highest level of college sports," Fridgen continues, "but to get a quality education that-hey, the game is only going to take you so far. Some of them might not even get to that point. Academics has always been a very important part of this equation, because they wouldn't be here just if they were good hockey players. They needed to qualify academically first and foremost."

"They have an opportunity to play the game they love," Conway says, "but they also have an opportunity to graduate from one of the finest school in the United States. At some point [hockey] is over with."

That concept is not lost on players like senior defenseman Scott Basiuk and junior forward Nick Economakos. "You know, it would be great to play professional hockey," says Economakos. "But you've got to prepare for a future, and who knows, even if you have the ability to play professional, you never know when you might have an injury, or what might happen to you."

Basiuk says it was clear from the beginning of the recruitment process that the RPI coaches weren't kidding about the academic side-and that only enhanced the appeal. "I knew right off the bat that it was going to be a little more serious" than the schools some of his hockey-playing friends were attending, Basiuk says. "That actually motivated me more."

Economakos credits the regular meetings with Conway and the coaching staff, as well as the many academic resources available to students, as reasons why athletes perform so well academically at RPI. "That's what's good about the RPI community," he says. "They really encourage you to get help when you need it. There are great tutors here, help sessions. . . . If there's any trouble, there's always help right away."

Besides, he adds, "With the meeting every two weeks, you don't want to come in with bad grades."

Conway says he meets with all freshmen, and anyone with a GPA below 2.5, every three weeks. Everyone else is once a month. And besides helping student-athletes manage their time and find extra help when they need it, Conway works with the high achievers to help them set ambitious goals. "If they come in with a 3.7, we talk about whether they want to maintain that"-with a reminder that their academic performance not only might help them get into graduate school, but might also get that school paid for.

Conway is quick to point out that "the help that they get is available to any student here. . . . There are not special tutors for the hockey team. Student-athletes should be treated like members of the student body."

As the NCAA continues to reexamine its policy on academic standards-and as many schools with successful Division 1 sports programs continue to keep the minimum-GPA bar ridiculously low and to post appalling graduation rates for student-athletes-RPI's hockey program stands as an exception-and, perhaps, an example.

"Too many schools use athletes as meat," Conway asserts. "When their eligibility is up, people kind of forget about you academically. They don't really care whether you finish."

"RPI has never sacrificed academics for athletics," he continues. "When we work with students who play a sport, we see them as student-athletes, in that order. And they can be good at both."

"Working with student-athletes has been a labor of love for me," Conway says, as if it weren't obvious. "I'd like to think I've done something to affect their lives over the years. The difficult part is, when whatever you do doesn't help the kid. . . ."

Conway is still thinking about the one that got away, the player he lost to academic dismissal 18 years ago.

"I still wonder whatever happened," he says, "and how he is."