Tuesday, Feb. 26th, approximately 11 p.m. CT: The Wisconsin men’s basketball team lost an exhausting road game to Indiana in double-overtime.
Wednesday, Feb. 27th, approximately 12:30 a.m. CT: The Wisconsin coaching staff informs the athletes that they will be attending class when they arrive in the morning, no excuses.
Wednesday, Feb. 27th, 1 a.m. CT: Mary Weaver-Klees awakes to a dozen text messages and a vibrating phone. Basketball players were texting her asking for advice on what to do. They tell Weaver-Klees that they will arrive at 4 a.m., and some have exams planned for 9 a.m.
Weaver-Klees, who has been an advisor to student-athletes at Wisconsin for over 30 years, sprung into action. She opened up her email and started sharing this information with various instructors. She told them what the student-athletes were dealing with: Arriving on campus in the early morning hours with little sleep after an emotional loss. She asked them to keep this in mind and use the information in their best judgment.
Several instructors decided to move exams to times when the athletes had had proper sleep, and one even acknowledged that they stayed up watching the game, too.
This is the life of an academic advisor in a Big Ten athletic department: solving time-sensitive problems while also taking responsibility for a student-athlete’s well-being.
“Our philosophy is family,” Weaver-Klees told B5Q. “We want the Fetzer [Center] to be home.”
Sophomore guard Brad Davison echoed that sentiment.
“I always tell my mom that [Weaver-Klees is] like my team mom here,” Davison said.
“Whenever I have any questions or just need some encouragement or some clarification, whether it’s an academic issue or a life issue, she’s someone that’s always there and her door is always open. She’s definitely someone I utilize quite a bit, and we’ve gotten pretty close over the last couple of years.”
Weaver-Klees has served nearly every sport UW offers and several it no longer offers, like fencing and baseball. Right now, she is assigned to men’s basketball and men’s hockey.
Throughout our sit-down interview in her office, her phone buzzed with messages from student-athletes asking for help. Instead of stepping in and solving the problems for them, she gave advice on how to navigate the challenges they were facing on their own. After resolving one string of texts for the time being, she pointed to her phone.
“This little thing has changed everything,” she said.
Student-athletes now have constant contact with their advisors, instructors, and course material. When athletes are on the road, they can access lectures and course content through Canvas, a learning management system that UW-Madison uses.
Weaver-Klees’ home base is the Kohl Center branch of the Fetzer Center, the student services area for swimming, hockey, and basketball. Once a week, she meets with her colleagues at the Fetzer’s original Camp Randall Stadium location.
As Weaver-Klees gave B5Q a tour of their space, she popped into the dining hall to ask a gentleman beginning meal prep if, going forward, lunch could be moved up a half-hour for men’s hockey players. The long-time advisor later explained that the players’ practice schedule had permanently shifted so that they finish earlier. She spends a lot of time focusing on how to improve the self-care of her students, particularly helping them get enough sleep.
Weaver-Klees is also concerned about the impact that negative social media has on student-athletes. She emphatically defended Davison and was frustrated that his physical style of play has led some fans to misrepresent his character.
“I try to avoid it,” Weaver-Klees said of social media.
When asked what message she would like to send to fans, she said, “They are students! They are people.”
The athlete portion of student-athlete is a 20 hour-per-week job, and it is a physically and emotionally taxing job at that, Weaver-Klees noted. Sometimes, she finds it hard to have patience for those who do not see the full picture.
“When I’m at the Kohl Center and someone yells at a player, I want to turn around and yell back, ‘He has a calculus exam tomorrow!,’” she said, “but I can’t do that.”
Another aspect of her advocacy for student-athletes is overseeing the development of their holistic identities. College is a critical time in the transition from adolescence to young-adulthood. That transition can be challenging for every student, but particularly for student-athletes who are often only seen by others for their box score numbers or highlight reel.
Weaver-Klees pointed to Badgers Give Back, a program that coordinates student-athletes’ involvement in the community, as one example of a program that supports student-athlete development. She also pointed to her students’ engagement in campus student organizations and supports students engaging in passions outside of what is offered directly on campus, such as social justice activism in their community.
Sometimes, Weaver-Klees’s biggest role is simply to give students a chance to step away from the stress of being a student-athlete. She mentioned players often stopping by her office, saying, “Maryyyyyyy ... I need a little something,” while pointing to a jar of Starbursts and chocolate. Other times, they come play with her assortment of fidget spinners or other manipulatives.
When I asked about her favorite sports memories, she immediately pointed to a large poster of the 1995 national championship men’s soccer team.
“I gave at least four final exams at that, two of which were for physics,” Weaver-Klees said. “The physics professor felt it really needed to happen.”
The student-athletes’ professors have a choice of giving exams themselves at a later date or asking the athlete’s advisor to administer the test. In this case when Weaver-Klees told the instructors that the team was in the Final Four, she was asked to proctor those four tests during the trip.
Weaver-Klees brought the exams and a pin from the national championship back to that physics professor. She recounted the professor apologizing for not knowing what the Final Four was until after seeing the team on the local sportscast.
She also steered my attention to two folding chairs in her office. At first inconspicuous, the chairs were from the bench during Wisconsin’s 2014 and 2015 Final Four appearances.
“I was there [in 2014],” Weaver-Klees said, “so many things have to happen to make a Final Four; those are very special.”
In many ways, Weaver-Klees’ work with student-athletes is similar to other advisors on campus. However, her work is unique because her relationship with student-athletes begins at a prospective student-athlete’s first official visit as a recruit.
“She’s awesome, honestly,” redshirt sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “She’s been with me from day one.”
“Other advisors ask me, ‘Mary, how do you know your students so well?’” Weaver-Klees said. “I get to see them every day—they practice here, they eat here, they study here”
Another distinct aspect of Weaver-Klees’s work is her collaboration with coaches, and she complimented men’s basketball head coach Greg Gard and men’s hockey coach Tony Granato for the emphasis they put on academics.
“There are no excuses for our students [in the classroom],” Weaver-Kless said, pointing to the night after the Indiana loss.
“They are in the Harvard of the Midwest, and I know because I’ve advised transfers from Harvard. They’re expected to perform like any other student.”
She added, “there is no coddling.”
NCAA and Big Ten regulations are not much of a concern for Weaver-Klees because UW-Madison’s requirements, college degree requirements, and major requirements are more stringent than the NCAA’s and Big Ten’s. However, she explained that the expansion of televised games makes scheduling students’ academics much more difficult.
“They used to play Tuesdays and Saturdays, but now there is a game every day of the week. You can’t build a schedule around that,” Weaver-Klees said.
Weaver-Klees is most fulfilled when her students succeed, which can range from graduating to seeing former Wisconsin guard Ben Brust appear on a TV in the Kohl Center during our interview.
“That was one of my students!” Weaver-Klees said. “I love to see him making use of his degree.”
She loves when her former students stop by, pointing to when she left some candy for “Franky” Kaminsky the last time he was in the Kohl Center, and he left a thank you letter for her. Other times, she loves hearing from former athletes who want to come back and finish their degree after a professional career.
The number of UW student-athletes who Weaver-Klees has impacted over the years stretches into the hundreds.
“She’s been there for a lot of behind the scenes that people don’t really see on the basketball court,” Davison said. “I think everyone knows the ups and downs of the basketball season, but she’s someone, for me, she knows the ups and downs you go through in life, whether that’s family, academics, athletic, or relationships. Whatever it is, she knows about it because we’re in there quite a bit.
“That’s something we all appreciate and never take for granted.”