By Bob Brainerd Special to Published Oct 26, 2006 at 5:27 AM
There’s a reason why they are dubbed student athletes, and not the other way around.

When a player receives a so-called free ride to attend college, it’s like winning the lottery out of high school.  At Marquette University, a sampling of the men’s basketball team reveals that no one takes this opportunity for granted.

"We've got all the support that we need here at Marquette," sophomore point guard Dominic James said. "Anytime you're in an environment like this where people are willing to work just as hard as you, it’s easy to go out there and do your best."

James burst onto the scene last season and turned heads on the court with his blazing speed and leadership skills.  What you may not know is that this Public Relations major has aspirations off the court.

"I've got goals in the classroom, too," James said.  "I'm trying to be an academic All-American, that’s my main focus right now.  Focus on my studies and try and take it to a different level in the classroom, too."

James' mentality isn't an isolated occurrence.  Graduation is a proud badge of honor for Tom Crean and the Golden Eagles.  The team media guide devotes several pages to the learning environment available for players at Marquette, and boasts graduating 50 of 52 players over the past 16 years.

"They provide us with a great academic advisor, Adrienne Trice," sophomore forward Dwight Burke said, a sociology major. "She’s really on top of things... always taking care of us."

To a man, each player mentioned her involvement in their academic growth, which tells you they are paying attention.

"Adrian has made a big impact on my school work," sophomore guard Maurice Acker said. "It’s not easy, but it’s OK."

Acker, who transferred to Marquette from Ball State, already has noticed a jump in academic expectations.

"We didn't have as many opportunities with tutors as we do at Marquette," Acker said. "It’s big on time management now; I got to  take out time for basketball and school, because school is so important.  My best friend told me it’s no joke, so I came in real focused or I would be behind.  I took his word of advice."

A degree from Marquette is saying something.  Turning your tassel on graduation day is a statement that these players continue to strive to achieve.  Because the bar is set so high for anyone who hits the books at Marquette, there is added value for those who survive.  But, there are some who got a good taste of higher education elsewhere.

"I was at Rice, and they have extremely high academic standards," said senior center Mike Kinsella, who transferred to a junior college in Minnesota from Rice before arriving at Marquette. "But, once you get in any school, it’s all about trying to learn and work hard in the classroom."

Kinsella took his words of wisdom to heart, and found the academic formula for success. The 7-footer has already earned his degree in Communications Studies.  

"I was ready. I came here and got a great education and I'm really excited to have my degree from Marquette, and that’s obviously something that will be huge for me when I stop playing basketball down the road," Kinsella said.

Junior forward Dan Fitzgerald was ready for the rigors of life on the Marquette campus when he transferred from Tulane University in 2004.

"Tulane is a very tough school, and it’s called the Harvard of the South," Fitzgerald said. "I found out quick it’s a very tough academic school, but it definitely got me on the right foot my freshman year. Marquette’s no different, it’s a very tough business school, but I'm surviving and hope to finish well."

Fitzgerald will be one of the players counted on to provide outside shooting help, particularly with Brown Deer native Steve Novak taking his aerial attack to the NBA’s Houston Rockets.

Back home in Minnesota, Dan’s parents and family members will keep close tabs not only on his three-point shooting digits, but the numbers and grades he posts in the classroom.

"I'm one of five kids in my family and two of my sisters graduated top of their class, summa cum laude," said Fitzgerald. "We have some very organized and very smart people in my family, and the bar is set high.  My parents sent all of us to private schools (St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights), which is also a military school, so they talk every day about being organized, being respectful, doing the right thing."

Even with all the inside help, the personal focus and the pressure to succeed from family members, a recent NCAA survey found that men’s basketball had the lowest Graduation Success Rate (GSR) of any Division 1 sport at 59%. The data was collected from the late 1990’s, and that study was a percentage point higher than the preceding survey. Perhaps an upswing is afoot, but players know that keeping up with studies is tough.

"Organization is a really big thing," Burke said. "I keep a schedule and itinerary so I know when there’s an upcoming test or when assignments are due.  Just stay on top of it, don't be lazy -- just get the work done and out of the way.  You don't really have much time to mess around -- our time is very limited outside of basketball."

With practice, video meetings, games and major travel around the country, college basketball players have to pick and choose their spots and make it all click.  

"There are a lot of long nights and times we don't even want to open a book after practice," Fitzgerald said. "We're so tired it hurts our fingers to turn the pages, but its part of the package.  You can't leave things last minute.  Just like practice, just like Coach (Crean) says, you can't just win the game right away, you have to be prepared and organized way in advance."

"We go to class early in the morning, then practice in the afternoon until the evening, then we eat, then it’s time to take care of studies," Burke said, describing a typical day for many basketball players. "You stay outside of your room all day until then.  Nothing changes, work on top of work, but you can't procrastinate or else you'll find yourself in a hole."

If you're looking for a hidden secret or study tip from these Golden Eagles, you'll flunk trying. There are no shortcuts, just focus and determination -- some of which spills over from the radar lock intensity these players take to the court.

"It’s tough, but I credit that to my competitive nature," said sophomore guard Wesley Matthews. "It’s a tough school to get into, tough school to succeed in, but I think it just prepares you for the real world. With basketball and school, we're student athletes, so the school part comes first, which comes hard with the demands of being an athlete, but you find a way to do it."

Wesley’s father, Wes, starred at Wisconsin and went on to play in the NBA.  His son has the smarts enough to know that bloodlines don't always mean an automatic connection into the pros, so a balance of books and buckets is essential.

"For many of us, the NBA isn't going to be an option, so we have to have something else to fall back on, and that’s a driving factor -- life outside of basketball," Matthews said.

The Madison product says he tries to avoid the all-nighters because athletes need their rest.  So what does the player or student do when he gets himself in a tight spot?

"You just get it done," Matthews said. "Being a student athlete, your back’s up against the wall with traveling all the time and you're tired.  Me personally, I work easier when my back is against the wall and I know I have to get it done."

The parallels between basketball and life away from basketball strike these players with the easiest lesson.  Practice makes perfect, or at least prepares you for what lies ahead in a game, or in life.

"(In life) like basketball, in both you have situations where you have to do this, this and this, and in that order, and do it in a certain amount of time," Kinsella said. "Yeah, I definitely see that."

"I'm a competitor in all aspects of life," James said.  "I try to reach my full potential in everything I do, including the classroom.  That’s one thing I've always been taught -- I really took that to heart."

James certainly stayed on task in high school.  Not only was he the state of Indiana’s leading scorer his senior season, he posted the grades at Richmond High School to secure his ticket to Marquette.

"My brother made a lot of sacrifices for me when I was younger, and he missed out on a little of his education and he didn't really study the way he should have," explained James. "He’s always told me to focus on the books, take care of the day and then focus on basketball, and that’s what I've been doing my whole life."

Number 1 on the roster is also a student of the game.  Determined to keep his basketball mind sharp, James spends hours pouring over video -- watching how opponents match up with Marquette. James can detect who is open and who isn't, and in the end, he’s a better floor leader.

"Every day, I call Coach (Crean) constantly after class to ask if I can come in and watch game tape," James said. "You've got to be a student of the game, and I saw so much improvement in my game last year just from watching film, so why not keep doing that this year?"

Now that’s a work load even the most prepared student athlete would have a hard time juggling.  Not James, who like any great point guard looking for the assist, wants to give the credit to someone else.

"There’s no secret to it, I'm just at a great university with great people that are willing to help."
Bob Brainerd Special to
Born and raised in Milwaukee, what better outlet for Bob to unleash his rambling bits of trivial information than right here with

Bob currently does play-by-play at Time Warner Cable Sports 32, calling Wisconsin Timber Rattlers games in Appleton as well as the area high school football and basketball scene. During an earlier association with FS Wisconsin, his list of teams and duties have included the Packers, Bucks, Brewers and the WIAA State Championships.

During his life before cable, Bob spent seven seasons as a reporter and producer of "Preps Plus: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel High School Sports Show."

And the joke is, Bob has a golf shirt from all four Milwaukee television stations. Sad, but true: Bob has had sports and news anchor/reporter/producer stints at WTMJ, WISN, WDJT and WITI.

His first duty out of college (UW-Oshkosh) was radio and TV work in Eau Claire. Bob spent nearly a decade at WEAU-TV as a sports director and reporter.

You may have heard Bob's pipes around town as well. He has done play-by-play for the Milwaukee Mustangs, Milwaukee Iron, and UW-Milwaukee men's and women's basketball. Bob was the public address announcer for five seasons for both the Marquette men and women's basketball squads. This season, you can catch the starting lineups of the UW-Milwaukee Panther men's games with Bob behind the mic.

A Brookfield Central graduate, Bob's love and passion for sports began at an early age, when paper football leagues, and Wiffle Ball All Star Games were all the rage in the neighborhood.