Jonathan Celestin was a solid student in high school, graduating with a 3.7 grade-point average. But after enrolling at the University of Minnesota, he soon realized that succeeding academically as a college athlete required extra effort and commitment.
"It's hard being a student-athlete," he said. "There's nothing easy about balancing football and school."
Celestin, a senior linebacker, has hit the mark, earning academic all-Big Ten honors the past two years. His success in the classroom reflects exceptional improvement academically by the entire Gophers athletic department — football in particular — in the past decade.
Once an area of embarrassment and ridicule, the department's academic performance has become a source of pride. Gophers athletes recently have set department records for cumulative grade-point average and Graduation Success Rate (GSR).
The U also has led the nation's public schools in receiving Public Recognition Awards in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate (APR) for four consecutive years.
The GSR takes into account transfer students, so it's meant to provide a more accurate snapshot of success in graduating athletes.
In 2006, the GSR scores of 14 of the school's 21 sports fell below the national average. The Gophers have flipped that script. In the most recent GSR report, 14 programs were above the national average and a 15th (women's swimming and diving) equaled the national average.
The football team has experienced the most dramatic turnaround after historically ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in graduation rates. The program has raised its GSR score 30 percentage points in the past 11 years, and the team's latest single-year APR score of 991 ranked in the top 10 nationally.
"It's a credit to the people who were here before me that made it a priority," athletic director Mark Coyle said. "And we will continue to make it a priority."
Kill made academics a priority
Department staffers cite a number of factors for the improvement. Specifically, leaders in the McNamara Academic Center for athletes enhanced their infrastructure; Jerry Kill was hired as football coach and made academics a priority; and Jacki Lienesch took over as director of football academic advising after a stint at Florida State.
J.T. Bruett, director of the McNamara Center since 2015, said the department has added one additional academic adviser and another learning specialist in the past two years. They also have expanded the tutoring staff since 2010.
"Our tutoring program is the biggest in the Big Ten by far," he said.
For years, academic shortcomings in athletics caused angst within the university. A 2004 NCAA report found that only 58 percent of Gophers scholarship athletes graduated based on four-class averages for incoming freshmen between the 1994-95 and 1997-98 school years. That was the lowest mark in the Big Ten, a rate that then-university President Robert Bruininks called "unacceptably low."
In 2005, then-athletic director Joel Maturi described the NCAA's new APR standards as a "wake-up call."
A turning point came in 2009, when the Gophers football team was penalized three scholarships because its APR score (915) fell below the NCAA minimum of 925 and at least three players who left the program were academically ineligible.
"That was embarrassing," said Bruett, who worked in athletic compliance at the time. "I think at that point, [we] said, 'This is crazy. We have to make an adjustment.' "
Lynn Holleran assumed leadership of the McNamara Center in 2010 and formulated a new strategy. She reorganized responsibilities and bolstered the tutoring staff by hiring more graduate students, which is more costly. Tutors became more proactive in providing assistance rather than waiting for problems to arise.
"We knew we had the ingredients to turn it around," said Holleran, who now works in athletic administration at Penn State. "I just needed coaches to buy in and see what we wanted to do and how it could help them."
Kill led the charge. Hired in December 2010, He recalled recently that 21 players were on academic probation and another four were in danger of being ruled ineligible.
"So we had 25 people in big-time trouble," he said.
Kill cleaned up that crisis through rigid discipline. Players who skirted their academic responsibilities earned early-morning runs. Those who skipped class or showed up late for study hall had to wear shirts to practice that read: "Minnesota Loafers. I let my teammates down."
He punished classroom slackers by making them perform hours of hard labor by pulling weeds from a community garden that supplies vegetables for homeless shelters, or cleaning barns of police horses that patrol parks. Kill also benched players in games for academic reasons.
"We made sure that kids were accountable," he said. "We dug ourselves out of a hole."
In a recent interview, Kill singled out Lienesch, the football program's lead academic adviser.
"Jacki has been the best thing that's ever happened to that school," he said. "They can't pay her enough."
Athletes Village a 'game-changer'
Bruett said the academic profile of all incoming athletes has improved as the university has increased admissions standards over the years. The emphasis on tutoring has been transformative.
"Even our best student-athletes, the kids that are in aerospace engineering that want to get that A instead of a B-plus, we will provide tutoring for them," Bruett said.
Celestin carries a 3.2 cumulative GPA as a kinesiology major. He said he works with tutors three nights a week during the football season and even more during the spring semester.
His message to younger teammates or other Gophers athletes: Be willing to seek help from tutors.
"Some people are just afraid to ask for help," Celestin said. "But I believe if you need it, ask for it."
Academic resources for Gophers athletes will expand significantly with construction of the $166 million Athletes Village. The new athletic complex will feature two floors of academic support.
The current academic center has only eight rooms for tutoring/study groups. Cramped conditions require athletes to study in hallways and any spare space available. Athletes Village will include 34 academic rooms (24 tutor rooms, five interview rooms that also can be used for tutoring and five group study rooms).
"It's a game-changer," Bruett said.
Expectations for academic performance have changed, as well. The department has made it a mission to stay at this new level.
"Coaches can feel comfortable recruiting some kids that will need that support," Bruett said. "We have it. We can tell the kid — whether you're a great student or more of an at-risk student — we've got the support to help you, no matter what."