One of the all-time great March Madness Cinderella stories played out this year as 15 seed Saint Peter’s University made it to the fourth round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Although their outstanding performance caused some consternation here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, this was clearly a magical moment for college basketball fans across the nation. I congratulate the Peacocks for their impressive and inspiring season.
Our teams represent how athletics, done the right way, can elevate a university and help it transform students’ lives through teamwork, leadership and community engagement.
As a university president, I embrace the importance of intercollegiate athletics on a campus, which made the Saint Peter’s story even more thrilling. With proper oversight and a commitment to excellence on the court and in the classroom, athletics has the power to showcase strong, mission-driven academic institutions outside the Power Five conferences.
At Bellarmine this season, we also experienced what March Madness moments can mean. After playing one of the toughest non-conference schedules in college basketball history, our Bellarmine Knights won our first Division I conference championship in just our second year since rising from Division II.
We were prevented from using the ASUN Conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA men’s tournament, however, because of reclassification rules that we hope will soon change. Being the first team in at least 25 years to experience that was disappointing, but it gave our campus community something to rally around, and the ensuing publicity introduced the nation to Bellarmine. For a smaller but ambitious institution like ours, that publicity—in our case, 3.7 billion media impressions over seven days—can be transformative.
During March Madness, we love the underdog and the overachiever. Bellarmine and Saint Peter’s share those qualities, as well as a mission to educate men and women for others. Our teams represent how athletics, done the right way, can elevate a university and help it transform students’ lives through teamwork, leadership and community engagement.
As I shared with the Bellarmine community at an on-campus celebration after the tournament, I was not surprised by our victory. After my presidency was announced five years ago, I attended a basketball game in Knights Hall, having been at a mid-major school for 32 years, and saw the Knights play. And I was convinced they could have defeated our Division I team right then.
In the first year when Bellarmine’s DI plans were announced, there were people who said I can't believe you're doing this. We win all the time in Division II; now we're going to lose all the time. And they were wrong.
And there is no way that anyone else could have achieved what our Knights have achieved. Yes, they certainly outplayed the Jacksonville Dolphins in the championship game. But from Day One, they have also cleared the bar in all the standards required for reclassification, including equity and academics. Our student-athletes are succeeding both on and off the court. We believe in them—and they have taught us to believe in ourselves as well.
Like Saint Peter’s, we share a vision for advancing mid-major universities with strong academics, an education driven by Catholic values, and phenomenal student-athletes. College basketball—and the world—needs institutions like Saint Peter's and Bellarmine now more than ever.