Jocks Need Not Apply
to national stereotypes of Division 1 college sports, RPIs
hockey program breeds success in the classroom
smart: (l-r) Oates after the 1985 NCAA title game;
Juneau on the ice for RPI.
March 30, 1985, Adam Oates fulfilled every Division 1 college
hockey players 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.
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 hockeys holy grail,
the Stanley Cup. But summer also usually found Oates back
on familiar territory: the RPI campus in Troy, finishing
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.
58, is now assistant to the vice provost at RPI; hes
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 Adessas players from the championship era
were good enough to move on to
the NHLand move on they did, often before graduating.
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 hasnt 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.
counseling players who leave early to go pro is only a fraction
of Conways 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 players 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 isnt all looming at night. What I dont
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.
results appear to speak for themselves. Last spring, 19
of the 25 varsity hockey players made the deans list,
and the overall team grade point average3.136exceeded
the campuswide GPA of 3.131.
the numbers are the human beings, hockey stars past and
present, of whom Conway cant 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 Id be home. Well, he not only did
well in school, he graduated with a bachelors and
a masters degree. He said, I was a street kid
from Boston, and nobody thought I could do itbut with
the support I had at Rensselaer, I did it.
fact, while there remain a few players who went pro and
still havent finished their degrees, its 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
studentif you didnt meet Rensselaer standards,
you couldnt get in.
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.
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.
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 thathey, 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 wouldnt
be here just if they were good hockey players. They needed
to qualify academically first and foremost.
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.
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 youve 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.
says it was clear from the beginning of the recruitment
process that the RPI coaches werent kidding about
the academic sideand 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.
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. Thats whats 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 theres any trouble, theres
always help right away.
he adds, With the meeting every two weeks, you dont
want to come in with bad grades.
says he meets with all freshmen, and anyone with a GPA below
2.5, every three weeks. Everyone else is once a month. And
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 thatwith
a reminder that their academic performance not only might
help them get into graduate school, but might also get that
school paid for.
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
the NCAA continues to reexamine its policy on academic standardsand
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-athletesRPIs
hockey program stands as an exceptionand, perhaps,
many schools use athletes as meat, Conway asserts.
When their eligibility is up, people kind of forget
about you academically. They dont really care whether
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.
with student-athletes has been a labor of love for me,
Conway says, as if it werent obvious. Id
like to think Ive done something to affect their lives
over the years. The difficult part is, when whatever you
do doesnt help the kid. . . .
is still thinking about the one that got away, the player
he lost to academic dismissal 18 years ago.
still wonder whatever happened, he says, and
how he is.