Athletics, academics can work

Commentary by Ron Chimelis
Springfield Union-News, Springfield, Mass.

When he played basketball for the University of Kansas, Dr. Kenneth P. Koenigs would return by bus from a road game at Oklahoma State at 3 in the morning, and be working in the chemistry lab by 7:30.
So it can be done. Keep that in mind, next time someone tells you the awkward marriage of big-time college sports and academics should be annulled because of irreconcilable differences.

"A lot depends on how much emphasis the university puts into it," said Koenigs, who lives in Longmeadow, Mass., and works in Springfield as a gastroenterologist, dealing with stomach and intestinal problems. "They talk about paying the players, but shouldn't that money be put into better academic support services?"
A 6-foot-10 forward from Wichita, Koenigs, c'78, m'82, played from 1974-'78. A Pioneer Valley resident since 1987, he knows the difficulty of balancing sports with studies.

This seems especially timely because the 2002 NCAA men's basketball tournament drew heavy publicity over what type of "student-athletes" - the NCAA loves that phrase - we were watching.

Just before the tournament, Nolan Richardson was fired and went out on a wave of self-proclaimed principle, even though Arkansas hadn't graduated a single player over a five-year period. Even Duke took heat for funneling players into easy courses.

Kansas reached the Final Four, where it lost to Maryland, which according to NCAA figures, graduates 19 percent of its players. The Jayhawks didn't get to play Oklahoma (zero percent).

When it was over, Kansas - whose grad rate in one recent study was 65 percent - was again a non-champion, but one of the few powers that emerged with a spotless academic reputation.
Koenigs is proud of that, even if he understands the extenuating circumstances involved.

"A lot of kids don't have the academic background, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be given a chance," said Koenigs, 45. He is the antithesis of the academic snob, supporting increased academic help for at-risk students, and perhaps a minor-league option for the kid not cut out for college.

On Kansas teams that included stars like Paul Mokeski and Darnell Valentine, Koenigs averaged 9.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. He was also a pre-med major and an academic All-American in 1977 and 1978.

His coach, Ted Owens, cared about academics. Kansas still has a coach, Roy Williams, who cares. The entire athletic department cares, and Kansas' reputation is similar to that of Duke, Stanford, or the Connecticut women's team. If you're a top player and top student, you'll seek out these schools as quickly as they'll find you.
Is that worth more than the national championship Williams can't seem to win? Most Kansans, including Koenigs, think so.

"The best example was when Roy almost left for North Carolina," Koenigs said. "It was a crisis all over Kansas. The great majority of fans were ecstatic to have him and thrilled he stayed."
In the 1970s, players like Koenigs proved balancing sports and classes can work - if you have a coach, athletic department and school that really care about it.

It wasn't easy then or now. "And not every school can be a Kansas, Stanford or Duke," Koenigs said.

Yet Kansas - the only state-supported school of those three - proves it can be done. And while Kansas hasn't won an NCAA title lately, neither have, say, Cincinnati and Fresno State, which mortgaged their reputations trying.

"I don't think there's any doubt it can be done," Koenigs said. Keep that in mind, next time some million-dollar coach tries to alibi his way around why his program hasn't cared enough to do it.

(To contact Ron Chimelis, write to [email protected])
2002 UNION-NEWS. Used with permission.