By Brad Wolverton

Notre Dame’s football program this week became the first to earn a No. 1 ranking in the Bowl Championship Series standings while having the nation’s top graduation rate.

The Fighting Irish had a 97-percent NCAA Graduation Success Rate in the most recent period. That’s more than 20 points higher than the results of any of the other top-five BCS programs.

The team’s Academic Progress Rate, a more accurate NCAA measure of players’ real-time academic performance, is 970, putting it in the top 70 to 80 percent of football programs nationally.

The Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, shared a few thoughts with The Chronicle about the challenge of balancing academics with a sports-crazed culture.

Q. How do you emphasize academics with so much pressure to win?

A. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible, either. It requires a real commitment up and down the line. Coaches, when they recruit, have to sell this. When players get here, we have an academic-support staff that works with them. … Our faculty has to be committed. If all those parts are working—and if you get good kids—then you can do it.

Q. So are you just recruiting fewer risky students than other top programs?

A. It is true that some students simply don’t have the preparation to succeed. You have to be honest with yourself about that and not bring in kids who can’t succeed academically. Our admissions staff looks at SAT’s and preparation, but there is also an element of character. It’s not as much about smartness—it’s commitment. If a kid is committed to do the work, that kid, if he has the basic ability, can succeed.

Q. In what ways are you personally involved?

A. The role of the president in any area is to just set the tone and expectations, and hire people who buy into the right values and hold them accountable for results. But if your rhetoric is belied by how you reward people and how you hold them accountable, it will be empty.

In my AD’s compensation package, we talk about graduation rates, and it’s an important part of what he talks about with his coaching staff. Frankly, I don’t think it makes much difference what I say to players. What makes a difference is what coaches tell them.

Q. What kinds of things are your players studying?

A. It is the range. We have kids in business, in our College of Arts and Letters. Andrew Hendrix, our quarterback, is a premed major. … We don’t have any kind of phys-ed or recreational-development majors like that. They have to be in a major that other students are taking. They do have rigorous programs to go through.

Q. If you win this weekend, you’ll likely have a chance to play for a national championship. If you had your choice, what would you pick—a national title without a perfect graduation rate, or no national title and a 100-percent graduation rate?

A. Well, that’s an easy one: It’s got to be the second. What gets me out bed—what motivates us—is being at a place where we can do both of those things. Last Saturday was our senior day, … and every one of our players has either gotten his degree or is going to get it this year. If you don’t have the satisfaction that you’re helping kids live a full life, it just wouldn’t be worth it. No number of championships would be worth it.

Q. I doubt a lot of college presidents would say that.

A. I think there’s an appropriate cynicism about college athletics, and I understand that. The challenges are that there is a lot of money in college athletics and a lot of pressure to win. We all know that. That naturally produces a pressure to ignore academic success because you just want to win football or basketball games.

But if we lose the connection between academic success and athletic success, we become a lesser version of professional athletics. What makes college athletics interesting is that the kids are students. That’s why it’s so important across higher education for us to bring those two things together.

Q. So what’s your prediction for this weekend?

A. Well, we’re certainly going to try. You know, this may be anathema to our coach, but whether we win or lose Saturday, it will be a great season, and each one of these kids will get a degree. And that’s something to celebrate.

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