Athletics and Academics: A Performance-Enhancing Duo

by Micah McDaniel

“At first, we thought it nearly impossible,” said Director of Athletics Gary Pine ’84, MBA ’03, who served as the school’s sports information director at the time. “By the end of his tenure, we not only believed it, we saw it.” During President Richard Felix’s 10 years, the university doubled enrollment, constructed seven buildings, initiated its first doctoral program, and quadrupled the number of graduate programs, expanding Azusa Pacific’s academic reach.

While APU emerged as a premier Christian university, the athletics program simultaneously became one of the best in the country, capturing 7 national championships in the 1990s and leveraging that into 18 more during the first decade of the new millennium.

“Prior to his arrival, we saw ourselves as a regional school,” said Pine. “Under his leadership, we began developing a national brand both academically and athletically. Those years gave us an identity that was good for us internally, as well as externally.”

That vision imagined athletics and academics having a symbiotic relationship, challenging the conventional view of collegiate sports. “Society places such an emphasis on athletics, especially in the past few decades,” said Paul Anderson, MBA, CPA, associate professor in the School of Business and Management. Understanding that magnetism, APU sought to leverage the success of its burgeoning athletics program to attract top student-athletes eager to identify with a high-performing academic institution. “There is so much more money, attention, and focus on sports now compared to 20 years ago, and people want to be associated with a winner. For a university, a successful athletic program is a great draw. Athletics extends the brand.”

And the Azusa Pacific athletics’ brand is strong. The Cougars have amassed 51 national championships, 116 conference championships, an most recently 8-straight Directors’ Cup trophies (2005–12) as the top athletic program in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. While Felix’s vision laid a foundation for success, President Jon R. Wallace, DBA, pushed the limits once again, culminating in a move to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II this past July, adding another landmark to the university’s shared vision of being “a city on a hill that reflects the life of Christ and shines the light of Truth.”

“Dr. Wallace fully engaged in the transition to the NCAA and has taken an avid interest in the athletic program’s development the past 14 years,” said Pine. “He possesses an impressive breadth of knowledge about issues surrounding college athletics, and he clearly understands the benefits and challenges of maintaining a competitive and quality athletic program.”

The NCAA transition involved a three-year journey, with successful completion predicated on the entire institution coming together and each department playing a role. Such a move resulted in a university wide initiative and complete cooperation from the entire community, one of Azusa Pacific’s Four Cornerstones. “When you step onto campus, a sense of community greets you—from personal attention throughout the admission process, to engagement with scholars, to support staff who assist students with meeting their academic objectives. It’s our strongest calling card,” said Anderson. “Community provides the foundation for other things to happen, and athletics advances that sense of family. But it does even more. Athletics and academic excellence work in concert—not mutually exclusive, but rather inextricably linked to the mission to prepare disciples and scholars to be difference makers.”

With a 35-year perspective, Sharon Lehman ’82, Ed.D., has experienced Azusa Pacific as a student-athlete, coach, athletics administrator, and department chair. “President Wallace says that APU athletics is the front porch of the university,” said Lehman, who is now associate athletics director and chair of the Department of Exercise and Sport Science. “You don’t necessarily see test scores in the newspaper, but you do see athletic scores, and the character of our student-athletes also earns headlines. There’s excitement on campus because of the NCAA transition. Athletics is now an integral part of this university.”

Pine gives a Cougar’s share of the credit for that strengthening bond to the rigor of Azusa Pacific’s academics. “We have become better athletically as our academic rigor has improved,” said Pine. “We’re now a first-choice school, and the quality of student-athlete we’re attracting is impressive—people who desire top-notch academics and tough athletic competition, all in a Christian environment where one can explore God’s call upon their lives. We are now recruiting against schools like California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo; Pepperdine University; Loyola Marymount University; and the University of San Diego.”

APU chose NCAA Division II for its emphasis on the well-rounded person, which aligns with the university’s ethos. The emphasis on academic success, higher graduation rates, a commitment to service and sportsmanship, and partial scholarships that are viewed as investments rather than costs all support APU’s commitment to its students. As a result, Cougar student-athletes perform at a high level in the classroom, and the administration has taken steps to ensure that continues: This year, the department launched an official academic support program, instituting mandatory study halls, tutoring programs, and grade checks—things Pine calls “the first bite of the apple.”

Academic support’s immediate impact includes 11 of the 15 programs posting team grade-point averages above 3.0, and a combined department GPA (nearly 460 student-athletes) of 3.101, an increase from the 3.067 the previous year. The department also saw a 61 percent increase in student-athlete retention among those on probation from 2012–14, according to Jackson Stava ’05, assistant athletics director for compliance and academic support. Further, the student-athlete graduation rate of 69 percent in 2012–13 was five points higher than the general student population. “Our coaches recruit student-athletes that fit the academic rigor of this institution,” said Stava. “You can see how athletics and academics work hand in hand, and student-athletes want to be a part of it. We’re perceived as a great school because of that.”

Head football coach Victor Santa Cruz witnesses the value of NCAA Division II membership play out daily in the lives of APU students athletes across campus. “For the student looking for a higher education that will springboard them into adulthood, we have something special to offer,” said Santa Cruz. “Because of the excellence on the court, on the field, and in the classroom, the Azusa Pacific brand has the strength and vitality to attract and deliver the best of both worlds.”

Originally published in the Fall '14 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.