Sister Rose Ann Fleming, a Xavier University academic adviser, right, walks with Xavier basketball players Stanley Burrell, left, Brian Thornton, center, and Josh Duncan, after helping them with their studies in her office, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2004 on the Xavier campus in Cincinnati.
AP Photo/David Kohl
CINCINNATI When he became Xavier's coach, Sean Miller quickly discovered who had the most clout in the school's high-profile basketball program a 72-year-old nun.
Sister Rose Ann Fleming is such an important part of the sports program that she was added to Xavier's Athletic Hall of Fame, ranked right up there with coach Pete Gillen, center Tyrone Hill and other luminaries.
''She exemplifies what Xavier prides itself on,'' Miller said.
Fleming sees to it that players keep their grades up and maintain the Jesuit university's standing as one of the nation's best at graduating players. Since Fleming became the academic adviser in 1985, all 60 basketball players who finished their careers at Xavier have graduated.
The group includes such stars as 2003 national Player of the Year David West and NBA draft picks Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers, who led Xavier to the final eight in the NCAA tournament a year ago.
''She'll come in and stop practice if she wants to,'' said Keith Jackson, the only senior on the current team. ''She's got that much say-so on this campus. She's over everybody in terms of what she does and her importance on this campus.''
The 6,600-student college didn't have a full-time academic adviser for athletes until 1985. Fleming, who was teaching English and fiction while finishing her business degree at Xavier, had success working with several basketball players.
She was offered the newly created position and quickly accepted.
''The theory at that time was that I was outside the athletic department and they wanted someone who did not have any pressure on them to do anything that would be less than the best for the players,'' she said. ''I said, 'Let me think it over.' I knew then that I was going to do it.''
Fleming grew up in Cincinnati and played various sports at the College of Mount St. Joseph. She was a forward on the basketball team and had a decent shot ''They let me play, so I guess it wasn't that bad,'' she said, laughing.
She was president of a high school and Trinity College before winding up at Xavier, where it didn't take her long to let everyone know she was serious about her latest job. If a player wasn't keeping up in the classroom, Fleming would hunt him down during practice or after a game. On at least one occasion, she went looking for a player after an NCAA tournament game.
''That time has probably come and gone a little bit,'' said Miller, in his first season as head coach. ''I think they respect her so much that she doesn't need to go to that level as much now as she did early on. When she needs a player, they go to see her. That's how it should be.''
The university emphasizes a well-rounded education players must take philosophy and theology, for example. The school sets higher standards than the NCAA minimums for eligibility. Coaches look for players who are committed to getting an education, a point that's driven home to recruits when they visit Fleming.
''We've had so many players just on the basketball side graduate in a row,'' said Jackson, who will get a degree in sports marketing. ''When they come on their visits, they meet with Sister and it's emphasized that you don't want to be the one to mess up that streak. You have to take that seriously.''
Fleming and her staff help players on Xavier's 17 teams. Fleming's office walls are covered with team photos and mementos of lasting friendships formed over the years.
''There's a little bit of the terribly concerned and loving grandmother in her,'' said the Rev. Michael Graham, the school's president. ''She conveys that to students. She's for them, she's on their side. She'll do anything to help them succeed.
''But she's steely strong at the same time. I remember noticing her walking down the campus one day flanked by two of the men's basketball players who dwarfed her, but there was no doubt who's in charge.''
The university left no doubt about it when it inducted Fleming into its Athletic Hall of Fame on Nov. 17, 2000, a clear statement about priorities.
''That was driven by the coaches and the players, who thought it was a great thing to do,'' Graham said.
Players and coaches describe her as persistent and positive. She prefers to encourage rather than punish, and the approach works. She rarely encounters a serious academic problem with one of her players.
''You can't be punished into doing your best,'' she said. ''You have to want to do your best. The one thing I've learned from coaches is nine-tenths of success is motivating people.''
She does it in a way that impresses the coaches.
''She's very consistent in her approach,'' Miller said. ''She's unwavering. It doesn't matter if you're the best player or the worst player. In her mind, everybody's the same and deserves an equal opportunity.
''Her mission is the same, regardless of who they are. That's really an amazing quality to have.''
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