NU Great Fit for Academically Strong Big Ten

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Distinguished Scholars Emily Wong and Eric Schryver focused on academics.

62 Huskers Named Distinguished Scholars

Wong Worthy of NCAA Top Ten Award

Schryver NCAA Postgraduate Scholar

By Randy York

The Big Ten Conference is proud to say that since its inception, the pursuit and attainment of academic excellence has been a priority for every member institution. The Big Ten leads all conferences with nearly 1,600 Academic All-Americans, adding 40 in the last academic year that includes seven Husker student-athletes who elevated Nebraska’s nation-leading overall total to 314 Academic All-Americans.

Despite the Huskers’ domination of that key academic category, Nebraska ranked third in the Big Ten Wednesday when the conference announced its Distinguished Scholar Award Recipients, who maintained a minimum GPA of 3.7 or higher for the previous academic year.

“The Big Ten is a great fit for Nebraska,” said Dennis Leblanc, NU’s Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academics.  “Boyd Epley (former Husker student-athlete who became the first strength and conditioning coach in NCAA history) used to say ‘If you want to be the best, you have to run with the best’ and being in the Big Ten, we’re playing to our strengths – having more Academic All-Americans and more Top Ten Award winners than anybody else.”

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Faculty Athletic Rep Jo Potuto presents Wong with NU’s top individual award.

Wong a Strong Candidate to Be Top Ten Winner

Four 2013-14 Husker Academic All-Americans made the Distinguished Scholar list, including track-and-field student-athletes Levi Gipson, Anne Martin and Cody Rush.  The fourth Academic All-American among the 62 Distinguished Scholars has impeccable credentials that could enable gymnast Emily Wong to become Nebraska’s next Top Ten Award winner.  “She definitely has all the elite qualifications to earn that award,” said Leblanc, who finds it intriguing that Nebraska is now a member of a conference that administers nearly $200 million annually in direct financial aid to nearly 9,500 student-athletes for more than 11,000 participation opportunities on 350 teams in 42 different sports.

In terms of Distinguished Scholar Awards, Ohio State had 88 student-athletes honored Wednesday.  Penn State was second with 74 and Nebraska third with 62, followed by Minnesota (61), Michigan State (59), Northwestern (57), Michigan (56), Indiana (49), Wisconsin (46), Illinois (45), Iowa (44) and Purdue (43).  The conference understandably does not distinguish those Distinguished Scholar categories, but given Nebraska’s competitive nature, we find those numbers interesting, especially when you consider the depth and breadth of the vast majority of Big Ten schools.

Ohio State, for instance, has 900 student-athletes and 36 athletic programs.  Penn State has 800 student-athletes and 31 varsity sports.  Nebraska has 600 student-athletes and 24 athletic programs, 12 fewer than the Buckeyes and seven fewer than the Nittany Lions.  With 50 percent more student-athletes than Nebraska, Ohio State earned 30 percent more Distinguished Scholars than the Huskers.

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John Welk and Anne Martin earned awards at the NCAA Championships.

Welk, Martin Sweep Four NCAA Elite 89 Awards

Leblanc finds a relatively new academic measurement interesting as it commemorates its fifth season – NCAA Elite 89 Award winners, presented annually at each national championship event to the male and female student-athletes who own the greatest cumulative GPAs while competing at the highest athletic level in their respective sports.

John Welk and Anne Martin, joint qualifiers for the NCAA Track and Field Outdoor Championships the last two seasons, have swept that award, increasing Nebraska’s total to six such honors.  That ties the Huskers with Baylor for fourth place nationally, trailing only Alabama and Stanford, each with 13, and North Carolina with eight.  Ohio State and Penn State each have five, one fewer than Big Ten-leading Nebraska.

“When the Elite 89 Award is presented at a basketball Final Four, there are only 60 candidates eligible to win it,” Leblanc pointed out.  “To earn that award in track and field, you have to be the best among numbers that reach into the hundreds.”

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Dennis Leblanc thinks the Big Ten Conference is a “great fit” for Nebraska.

Leblanc Honed His Skills Working for Pepin

Nebraska’s track-and-field program was honored with 21 Big Ten Distinguished Scholars in the past academic year to represent more than one-third of the Huskers’ overall total.  Thirty-one years ago, Leblanc worked as a director of operations for Pepin-coached teams.  “He recruited solid athletes who were also solid academically,” Leblanc said of Pepin. 

Pepin’s teams won more conference championships than any other program in Big Eight or Big 12 Conference history.  “It’s worked well,” Leblanc said, acknowledging that the Big Ten sponsors more official sports than all conferences with the exception of the Ivy League.

Striking that pivotal balance between academics and athletics is integral to the Big Ten’s identity, and Nebraska feels like it fits right in with its own mission that has been successful for decades – putting the emphasis on the student before the athlete across the board. 

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