Cardinal Stritch University experienced its own March Madness this year as fans followed the men’s basketball team’s climb through the N.A.I.A. Division II National Tournament. Their championship victory elevated Stritch to a prominence reserved only for elite accomplishments. But now that the fever is cooled, what difference can a winning team or any teams make at a university like Stritch?
By Sara Woelfel
“One game,” said Athletic Director Pat Clemens, holding up his finger for emphasis.
When making the case that collegiate sports teams matter, Clemens points to a favorite example involving a 2007 football game with an unlikely outcome. Called “one of the biggest upsets in college football history” by the New York Times, the game between unranked Appalachian State University and fifth-ranked University of Michigan ended not only with a victory for the Appalachian State Mountaineers, but a major boost for their national profile.
“Not only did their football recruiting efforts benefit, but their overall applications and admitted students increased,” Clemens said. “We have seen many colleges over the years see an increase in interest from a big victory in sport.”
Clemens holds an obvious bias toward the importance of sports to a community like Stritch, but he also possesses armloads of statistics to back up his claims. Years ago, he began compiling the data that helped him make the case to the University’s administration that Stritch could benefit from adding eight new teams – men’s and women’s golf, tennis, bowling, and track and field – and his evidence won necessary approvals to begin next fall.
“It’s not about building an overpowering athletics program; it’s about recruiting students,” said Clemens, noting that a renewed focus on attracting resident students is a priority of the University, and sports often can be the “front porch” that most visibly welcomes them to the door.
Clemens said the new teams will account for 110 additional student athletes next fall, and he hopes his push to add more teams will elevate numbers even further.
“That kind of atmosphere is going to create a culture on campus, a vibrancy, that’s going to bring more students who are not athletes because they are going to want to be involved in the things that are going on around campus,” Clemens said.
The Stritch community sampled some of that vibrancy in March when the men’s basketball team brought home the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Division II national championship. Each victory along the way incited new levels of school spirit that culminated in a final match against No. 1-seeded William Penn University in front of a nationwide audience on the CBS Sports Network. The excitement spilled beyond campus, lit up social media feeds, and drove increased traffic to the Stritch Wolves website.
“The game was probably one of the best sporting events I’ve ever been a part of – professional, collegiate, anything – because I think our student section was really into the game,” said senior Shawn Wagner, one of 55 fans, including the university president, who took an 11-hour bus ride to Missouri to cheer on the team. “When we knew Stritch was going to win, I think that whole sense that you’re No. 1 in the country just kind of took over, and I think a lot of people lost their voices that night. It was almost like a sense of family. There were chants of ‘We are Stritch’ and I think that was just a big moment for the University as well as the team.”
That excitement spread among fans back home, even to those not typically tuned into games.
“I didn’t get it until I saw for myself the energy, the excitement, and the visibility that a national championship team can generate,” said Alumni Director Joel Cencius, ’06, a few days after the Wolves victory.
Sport management instructor Dan Underberg said sports create a special opportunity to elevate school pride at a place like Stritch, where the diverse student body sometimes struggles to find a common identity.
“People are united on a common front, they are all excited about the same thing, you see school colors. …I think what sport can do for a community like Stritch is really unite it. And I don’t necessarily think you have to be a sport fan. It’s difficult to be ambivalent when your gym is rocking,” Underberg said.
Interactive media writer/editor Nick Bragg said Twitter and Facebook chatter revealed an unprecedented level of engagement in response to the championship. He noted special tweets from Gov. Scott Walker, County Executive Chris Abele, and the Milwaukee Bucks, who later honored the team during an April game. Local broadcast and print media also shared the team’s good news. (Relive the championship through 24 hours of social media posts collected on Storify).
“We’ve got to build off what just happened and allow people to grow into excitement organically,” Underberg said. “You can’t market excitement. That’s got to build. It’s got to be personal.”
Coach Drew Diener confirmed that the hype led to tangible interest in the basketball program.
“Since our championship run, I have been flooded with emails from high school coaches and student-athletes interested in joining our program,” Diener said. “The championship has served as our best recruiting tool. Most of our recruits were able to watch the game on TV and were in contact with me the following day. We even got a commitment from a high-level prospect.”
Talent extends beyond play
Last year, all 10 Stritch teams earned the N.A.I.A. Scholar Team Award, which recognizes those with a team G.P.A. of 3.0 or higher. The average G.P.A. for all Stritch athletes reached 3.37.
“These student-athletes are coming to Stritch for their education and being allowed to engage in sport as well, but they really are dedicated scholars,” said Retention Coordinator Maria Von Arx.
Clemens added that this year’s teams also include 15 Academic All-Americans (juniors and seniors with G.P.A.s higher than 3.5) and 43 conference scholar athletes (higher than 3.25 G.P.A.).
In addition, the teams always engage in at least two service projects per year, with this year’s softball team exceeding that by undertaking nine service opportunities together. As a result, Stritch teams have earned the N.A.I.A. Champions of Character Award since the program began in 2008.
Von Arx noted that Stritch’s players integrate seamlessly into the University’s intimate campus community.
“They feel a part of the Stritch community, are employed in offices,” Von Arx said. “The majority are connected far beyond their teams.”
As a result of this connection and their academic success, Von Arx noted that athletes tend to stay put once enrolled at Stritch. Retention rates for athletes from 2007-11 measured 11% higher when compared with the whole student population. Retention is an important statistic for universities and colleges when measuring student satisfaction and program effectiveness.
Clemens said the athletes also bring diversity to the student body, with men and women from various countries, races, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds. He noted that two new sports – golf and tennis – actually allowed Stritch to recruit students from new schools that often are not feeders to the University, and he believes track and field, tennis, and golf all may extend Stritch’s long history of recruiting international students, as soccer and basketball have for years.
Many athletes, particularly those recruited internationally, admit Stritch may not have been their first choice without its athletics programs. For alumna Kelli DeRuyter, ’92, choosing Stritch hinged not only on the reputation of the nursing program, but on the opportunity to continue playing a game she loves.
“That sealed the deal for me to be able to do the best of both worlds and get a phenomenal education out of it,” she said.
Athletics also go a long way in creating a lifelong connection between athletes and the University, particularly through the bonds they form with coaches and teammates. In January, an alumni basketball reunion drew approximately 70 athletes home to Stritch, with alumnus Greg Frost, ’81, even flying in from Hawaii to join the fun. And, in March, four former players took a road trip to Missouri to cheer on the men’s team in their championship game. When looking for a way to reconnect, alumni athletes never forget these bonds.
Creatively approaching challenges
When asked, many athletes said they chose to play for Stritch because of the opportunity to work closely with coaches who care about their players and provide guidance and support in all areas of their lives.
“The thing we sell is the relationship with the coach, with the University, and with the athletic department,” Clemens said of Stritch’s recruting efforts. “They build that relationship up front, and it’s with the entire family, not just the student. …We stress academics; we stress character; we tell them up front we do service.”
ut the fact remains that only the most dedicated Stritch fans will make the 30-minute drive to see the baseball team or travel the 10 minutes to see the soccer teams compete. Sport management majors working as part of the On Campus Sport Marketing and Promotions Group understand this disconnect and seek to overcome it by advertising home games, promoting fan buses to events, and creating game-time promotions to attract new fans.
“We’re trying to get the student body excited about athletics because it’s about camaraderie, it’s about coming together to cheer on your classmates,” said senior sport management major Nathan Jaeckels, of the OCSMP’s efforts.
One of only two Wisconsin colleges or universities competing in the N.A.I.A. II, Stritch faces another hurdle, as the University often is overshadowed by teams in the higher profile N.C.A.A. The wider community is largely unaware of Stritch’s teams even when they accomplish feats like winning a national championship, earning a national ranking, or breaking records.
Jaeckels expects the thrill of the men’s championship to create a foundation of excitement that can extend fan interest in other teams. He foresees the new sports will play a role in sustaining the interest of Stritch fans, but thinks the continued support of the University’s administration is key. Jaeckels rode the fan bus to Missouri and knows firsthand that president Dr. James P. Loftus is already setting the tone for the campus community.
“I think having your president being passionate about your athletics and your teams helped stir the pot a little bit and sparked interest as well,” Jaeckels said. “So when you have the president going down and cheering the men on, I think that definitely helps.”
To keep up with Stritch Wolves sports action, visit www.stritchwolves.com for news, live feeds, scores, stats, schedules, and player profiles.
Photos by Bethany Fobia, '07