When I first arrived in Northwest Indiana, I thought of Valparaiso University in terms of my thinking about the School of Mines in Rapid City, S.D. I am not sure 100 percent what all they do, but I know it is good stuff turning out good kids. That’s been changing since VU President Mark Heckler arrived, expanding VU’s presence not only regionally but also internationally.
The one consistency before Mark arrived and continuing under his leadership is that VU students are true students first and athletes second. And while I say athletes second, that has nothing to do with class, for when it comes to status they all are definitely first class.
We’ve all known this about VU’s student athletes, but it really struck home last week while my wife, Julie, and I traveled to watch Valpo play in the opening round of the NCAA tournament and then staying to watch our South Dakota State team play Michigan. I was so pleased to see the great support Valpo had with many region people traveling so far, knowing the prospect of victory was going to be a tough hill to climb. And that got me thinking. Why do we (including me) always seem to be bandwagon jumpers? It is so great to see good young people have success, but what about supporting them just as much when they have a season record of 6-14?
I know it is extremely difficult to watch a VU football game when they only win a couple games a year, but do you know what is worse? Watching a young athlete used to make money for his college or university for four years only to have little hope of doing anything else when the school is done with him. Don’t get me wrong. I love to win, and watching Athletic Director Mark LaBarbera, he does too. (I think he played the whole game with the boys). But winning isn’t the first goal; it is just a bonus.
I started thinking about this as I sat watching the South Dakota State University game and listened to some conversations from what I believe to be the Akron Zip family or friends of some of the athletes sitting behind me. They lost just as Valpo did in the first round. So what now? And what about the 250 or so other NCAA Division One teams that had already ended their seasons?
There are a lot of great student-athletes, and Indiana schools have much to be proud of both on and off the court. But while we live and die by the results of our big dogs like Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame, let’s not forget the efforts and accomplishments of a school that will never compromise its academic integrity for a winning season. Those winning seasons are nothing but a bonus. The Drew family, athletic director LaBarbera, coaches of other VU sports and President Heckler deserve a tip of the hat for keeping this first and foremost.
Congratulations to VU for a great season of basketball.