Majerus keeps academics top priority

ST. LOUIS — Rick Majerus sits near the court after a recent practice at Chaifetz Arena, another day of preparation complete in Saint Louis University’s quest to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 2000. Activity that filled the area a short time earlier is over, but for some of Majerus’ players, their work outside basketball is only beginning.

Majerus leans back wearing a black fleece sweater and speaks about the importance of academics. The man who is in his 25th year as a head coach knows basketball does not last forever. This is why he stresses to the 16 players on his roster that, above all, they must be students.  

“I’ve always emphasized to them that this is the most valuable thing you’re going to get,” Majerus said. “Pay yourself first.”

Some players with ties to SLU’s program have followed that message in untraditional ways this year. Forward Brian Conklin and guard Kyle Cassity, both seniors, have completed their undergraduate work and are pursuing master’s degrees in business. Guard Femi John, who attends practices despite not playing since the 2009-10 season because of an injured right knee, is a nursing major. Former guard Paul Eckerle bypassed a final season of eligibility to enroll in medical school.

Majerus takes pride in those players and others whom he has mentored throughout a career that has included stops at Utah, Ball State and Marquette. He has coached five Academic All-Americans, the most recent being former SLU guard Kevin Lisch, who earned third-team honors in 2009.

In an era of the “one-year-and-done” star that makes some question what is lost when players leave school early — 69 college underclassmen initially declared for the NBA draft in 2011 — four players with SLU ties know their futures rest in the classroom.

Majerus continues speaking below six blue banners which honor each of the Billikens’ NCAA Tournament appearances. To him, the chase for another on the court is not as important as what his players achieve off it. He says players such as Conklin, Cassity, John and Eckerle are true student-athletes.

“What is the essence of education? I’ll tell you what it is,” Majerus said. “Knowing who you are and what you can perceive about the times in which you live. Who am I? What am I? Why am I this way? Where am I going? What am I here for?”

***

A similar question crossed Conklin’s mind in December when he faced the toughest challenge of his academic career. At the time, he asked himself, “What am I doing?”

He knew pursuing a master’s degree in business would be hard, but he did not know how stressful the experience could be until he faced finals week. He took four major tests in as many days — all while preparing for an eventual 19-point victory over Vermont that improved the Billikens’ record to 8-1.

“There’s not a lot of sleep,” said Conklin, who is averaging 14.8 points per game this season. “Not a lot of eating going on — just drinking water and trying to stay hydrated. … It’s a grind.”

But it is a challenge Conklin is willing to face. From a young age, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound Eugene, Ore., native has enjoyed sports. He thought about combining his interests of business and basketball one day even as he worked toward an undergraduate degree in finance.

Cassity understands the pressures involved with Conklin’s schedule. He completed an undergraduate degree in marketing at the same time Conklin finished his requirements last May. Both began their master’s work last fall, and Cassity, a 6-4, 200-pound guard who is averaging 4.4 points per game, took three courses during the semester compared to Conklin’s four.

This winter, Conklin and Cassity share a similar schedule. Both are enrolled in three courses. Conklin is taking “Strategic Policy,” “Economics of Sports” and “Executive Decision-Making.” Cassity is taking “Accounting,” “Economics of Sports,” and “Information Technology Management.”

Before 2:30 p.m., they arrive at Chaifetz Arena for practice, which usually lasts about three hours. Afterward, they shower and eat dinner at a cafe inside the John Cook School of Business before making a three-hour class by 6 p.m.

“It’s just all night classes, which is different, because we never had night classes as an undergrad,” Cassity said. “You’ve got to get your stuff done during the day before practice, because right after practice you’re going straight to class. … It’s another level of education to put under your belt.”

Conklin will complete his degree in the spring. He hopes to work for an NBA franchise sometime in the future, either by serving as a general manager or helping players manager their money.

Meanwhile, Cassity will have six courses left after this semester. He is open to future plans, though he hopes to find work in the St. Louis area.

“I’m banking on us going to the (NCAA) Tournament this year,” Conklin said, smiling, “So playing in the Tournament my last year and having gotten an MBA — that would be a great legacy.”

***

John enters a small room after a recent practice, his role in the program different but his presence still valuable. Two years ago, after his sophomore season, a third surgery on his right knee forced the 6-foot-2, 205-pound St. Louis native to give up a game he had dreamed about playing since he was 5 years old.

But John has remained on scholarship while working through nursing school, and his impact has been felt in other ways. He views himself as a source of motivation for younger players, and Majerus encourages him to be vocal.

“I look at some of the young guys who are struggling, and sometimes they feel like, ‘This sucks — practice all the time,'” said John, who averaged 4.1 points during the 2009-10 season. “And I’m like, ‘Man, I would trade you right now.’  I would love to play again. But stuff happens, and that’s part of growing up.”

For John, part of growing up included learning to find a passion outside basketball. He discovered it in nursing. He knew nurses within his family from younger years, and he remembered how they found joy in their work.  

It took time for John to decide on nursing as a career, though. He majored in business as a freshman, but he decided early the choice did not fit him. As a result, he applied to the nursing school before the start of his sophomore year.

Now, a typical week for him looks like this: Monday morning, he attends a 90-minute lecture about caring for older adults before leaving for a seven-hour psychiatric clinical shift at the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center. Wednesday morning, he attends a 110-minute psychology lecture. Thursday and Friday, he works an eight-hour clinical shift on the trauma floor at Saint Louis University Hospital.

The training is intense. Sights in the hospital include gunshot victims and patients who have suffered strokes. He plans to finish his degree next year before his scholarship expires in May 2013. 

“It’s different from the sheltered scholarship-athlete world where everything is good,’ John said. “You see a lot of people that need help.”

Despite his passion for helping others, John has not lost his love for basketball. There are times when he wishes his path were easier. There are time when he wishes a series of injuries to his right knee, which include a broken cap, torn meniscus and a torn patellar tendon, would not have happened.

Still, serving as a mentor to SLU’s younger players has helped John keep a connection to the program that shaped him. He plans to continue his interest in nursing and perhaps coach one day. 

“Cherish every practice and every game, because it’s valuable,” John said.

***

Eckerle is leaving a “Microbes and Host Responses” lecture on a recent morning when he considers how different life is compared to a year ago.

The 6-1, 175-pound Washington, Mo., native averaged 2.5 points during the 2010-11 season. Now, he prepares to study for two weekend exams involving bacteriology and DNA replication.

“It’s a lot different,” Eckerle said of life without basketball. “I have a lot more time to dedicate to school work. Fortunately, the demands of med school have allowed me to fill that time up pretty readily.”

Eckerle has prepared for his current life for years. He enjoyed biology in high school, and he enrolled in courses at SLU beginning as a freshman that prepared him for a medical school track.

Majerus was flexible with Eckerle’s goals in the classroom. Once, the coach approached Eckerle and said, “Paul, you do what you need to do in the classroom. If that requires you to miss practice or if that requires special arrangements to be made, I’m all for it.”

At one point, such an arrangement was needed. During Eckerle’s sophomore season, he was part of a lab that could not be missed on a day the team was leaving for a game at Dayton. But Majerus helped Eckerle, a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship, arrange for a later flight.

The response was no surprise to Eckerle. He remembers hearing Majerus tell him and others within the program that he would rather lose each game than not have one player make the most of their academic opportunities.

Eckerle took advantage of his. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a certificate in business administration. He could have graduated in three years, but he chose to earn the business certificate so he could play basketball another season.

When Eckerle was accepted into the Saint Louis University School of Medicine in January 2011, Majerus proved to be one of his best supporters. One day, Majerus paused in front of a full locker room and announced that Eckerle was going to medical school. Teammates erupted in celebration.

“It gives you a different perspective on how to approach life,” Eckerle said of his path. “You make the most of the opportunity you are given. You try not to let anything go to waste, because certain things don’t last forever.”

For Eckerle, basketball did not last beyond the 2010-11 season, though he could have played another year because he sat out the 2009-10 campaign because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He is eager to see where his passion for medicine leads. He anticipates graduating in 2015, and he will be required to take various tests to determine his residency match.

Residency usually lasts four-to-six years. From there he can choose a specialty like orthopedics, which he has considered. 

No matter the future, Eckerle credits SLU basketball for giving him memories he is proud to carry. His untraditional academic path – like the ones experienced by Conklin, Cassity and John — presented him with a new outlook on life.  

***

Majerus knows each of the four players have influenced his program. They all had different goals with a variety of challenges, but he is proud to have watched them grow.

“Conklin and Cassity are prototype college students,” Majerus said.

On John: “It’s hard to … be told, ‘This is the thing you love the most, and you can’t play,'” Majerus said. “But he wants to get an education. … He’s going to have a lot of options. I give him a lot of credit.”

On Eckerle: “There are a lot of guys on the team who couldn’t spell ‘neurophysics,’ let alone know what it would be about,” the coach said. “He was never above those guys. He had a good heart.”

The four players serve as reminders of what Majerus enjoys most about college basketball. He knows the sport is imperfect. The chase for NBA riches by some has created a perception that major programs have become little more than places where blue-chip recruits buy time until they become draft eligible. In the process, a search for self-awareness is lost, replaced by a chase for an uncertain future within a professional environment that provides a limited window of opportunity.

“In college basketball there are a lot of compromises made,” Majerus said. “The kids are the ultimate ones compromised. The happiness a guy like (Tim) Duncan has is irreplaceable because of his sense of self. That is all residual benefits of college. It’s what you learn in the dorm room at night.”

And what have Conklin and Cassity, John and Eckerle learned?

Conklin and Cassity will take away hope for the future. They discovered work toward an MBA is hard, but placing full effort toward something they believe in is worth the reward.

John will take away relationships made. He sometimes wonders why his playing career ended so soon, but he is thankful for a chance to earn a free education and continue to spend time around teammates he considers “brothers.”

Eckerle will take away a new perspective. He followed a dream of attending medical school, but he learned to see the world in a deeper way from his time on the court.

Before Majerus rises from his chair to leave after the recent practice, he considers the balance between athletics and academics and what it means for everyone in his program. He knows wins and losses are temporary, both benchmarks that are forgotten with time. But Majerus also knows there is a more lasting pursuit available.

When his players graduate, he hopes they take away the gift of self-fulfillment.

“When these guys go home tonight,” he said, “I’d like to think they’re better off for the academics stressed.”