Hansen: UA's 'Big 6' help Wildcats make grade

2014-07-02T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T12:10:44Z Hansen: UA's 'Big 6' help Wildcats make gradeGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The most telling number of the UA’s recently completed 2013-14 sports season wasn’t the basketball team’s eight-week stay at No. 1 in all the polls.

It was that Arizona matched Stanford, 6 to 6, in academic honors inside the Pac-12.

What’s more, UA athletic director Greg Byrne reported that Arizona had more than 320 of about 480 athletes complete the year with GPAs of 3.0 or better.

Harvard West, you might say.

Arizona produced six Pac-12 Scholar-Athletes. Stanford had six. No other school had more than two.

Inside the Pac-12, a Scholar-Athlete is chosen for each sport, a composite of academic achievement and on-field excellence. Prior to this season, Arizona had just eight Scholar-Athletes since the award was created in 2006.

Now: six in a year.

At a time college sports are too often known for runaway coaches salaries, one-and-done jumps to the NBA and what’s-in-it-for-me, statistics-seeking tailbacks and second basemen, the UA has soared in academics.

Please don’t stop reading.

Cal last week “repositioned” athletic director Sandy Barbour for, among other reasons, an APR (academic progress rate) in football that was so humiliating you’d have thought they got it mixed up with that of the Miami Hurricanes of the 1990s or the Oklahoma Sooners of the 1980s, two schools once notorious for treating academics like a social disease.

That approach no longer works.

Elvin Kibet, who led Arizona to a No. 2 finish in the NCAA women’s cross country finals and was fourth in the NCAA 10,000-meter finals, became a Scholar-Athlete with a 3.79 GPA in public health.

“I’m going to attend medical school,” she told me. “I want to return to Kenya and help in the fight against communicable diseases.”

Lacey Smyth, who was the best singles player in UA women’s tennis over the last decade, was a Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Her assistant coach, Jim Rosborough, told me his admiration for her work ethic was unparalleled.

“We work out at 6 in the morning most of the year and play tennis most of the afternoon,” he said. “Lacey just never stopped competing. She insisted on being the best she could be.”

Swimmer Margo Geer, a 20-time All-American, a three-time NCAA champion, posted a 3.55 GPA in business management. Swimmers have two-a-day workouts all season, when the sun rises and in mid-afternoon. Her commitment to academics was similarly exhausting. That’s how you become a Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete.

The same goes for Giles Smith, the Pac-12’s men’s swimming Scholar-Athlete of the Year, a 10-time All-American. He posted a 3.55 GPA in journalism.

And what more can you say about Lawi Lalang, who won eight NCAA distance-running championships? Lalang, the league’s scholar-athlete for men’s track and field, told me he often didn’t get eight hours sleep because he insisted on doing as well in the classroom as he did on the track.

“Last summer I was running in Europe in the Diamond League and completed an online course,” he said. “I would sometimes stay in the hotel rather than sightseeing, working on my class.”

Lalang has a 3.42 GPA in public health. He plans to return to Kenya and work in a capacity to improve access to clean drinking water.

While outfielder Kelsey Rodriguez was hitting .419 for Arizona’s softball team, she was even better in the classroom. Rodriguez compiled a 3.92 GPA in psychology. No wonder she was the Pac-12’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year in softball.

As recently as 2000, Arizona had two full-time academic specialists in the athletic department. Now it has 11. The commitment to academic success is no longer just a hollow vow.

The NCAA released figures that should be made available to every student-athlete. It was a probability chart that detailed the following sobering percentages:

Of all college basketball players, 1.2 percent reach the NBA for at least a game.

Of all college football players, 1.6 percent play at least one game in the NFL.

Of all college baseball players, 9.4 percent play professionally, with a smaller number making it to the big leagues.

Until this year, Arizona had eight Pac-12 Scholar-Athletes. Their post-UA success has been dynamic.

Place-kicker John Bonano, who had a 3.93 GPA in physiology, is a medical resident at UC-San Francisco.

All-league softball shortstop K’Lee Arrendondo is a police officer for the City of Tempe and head coach of the Desert Vista High School softball team.

Sixteen-time swimming All-American Justine Schluntz, a Rhodes Scholar, is a lecturer in engineering at St. John’s College in Oxford, England. She gives tutorials in thermodynamics and fluid dynamics to second-year engineering students.

Swimming silver medalist Lacey Nymeyer John is the outreach and special events coordinator for the UA Campus Recreation.

Gymnastics standout Karin Wurm is the mobile engagement manager at Bottle Rocket in New York City. Bottle Rocket creates custom mobile applications for major brands.

Golf star Alison Walshe is a regular on the LPGA Tour.

Tennis standout Danielle Steinberg, who had a 3.9 GPA in social and behavorial sciences, is the head women’s tennis coach at McNeese State.

Spencer Larsen, an All-Pac-10 linebacker, has played for the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Not all of Arizona’s Scholar-Athletes of the Year are putting academics to work immediately. Smith and Geer are training for the 2016 Olympics. Lalang has begun a pro running career. Kibet has one more UA season.

The UA’s athletes of the year, 2013-14, the Big Two, were probably tailback Ka’Deem Carey and basketball standout Nick Johnson. They got most of the headlines and recognition.

But inside the league, Arizona’s real Big Six was Lalang, Kibet, Smyth, Geer, Smith and Rodriguez.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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