Jeff Cesler has been coaching players through their academic careers longer than most of today’s student-athletes have been alive.
Ces, as his advisees call him, has worked at the Office of Student-Athlete Development since 1994. He is now an associate director and academic coordinator for women’s basketball, swimming, soccer and volleyball.
His job — cultivating a passion for learning in each student-athlete and across majors — is difficult for someone who is neither a coach teaching players a sport they love nor a professor trying to inspire in the classroom.
From his office in the Hixson-Lied Student Success Center, Cesler is a model of efficiency, sporting a long-sleeved, white Under Armour shirt and khaki pants, shifting through an array of colored papers littered across his desk.
He’s in the middle of a weekly meeting with one of his first-year students, a soft-spoken swimmer from Israel. It’s registration time, and her academic adviser recommended she take a certain class. Cesler disagreed, saying he knew of a similar class that would move at a better pace for her.
When she mentioned the professor for another class, Cesler made a humming noise.
“I know which ones I can roll my eyes at,” he said.
He asked her about an assignment he knew she was working on for a business class. When Cesler sensed she didn’t understand the requirements, he told her to bring it in so they could work on the task together.
“I’ve seen that thing so many times,” he said.
Pictures of his family and inspirational quotes typed in artistic fonts are scattered on Cesler’s desk and dot the stark walls of his second-floor office. One in loopy font says, “If you don’t have time … make time.” Another shows Cesler’s grandfather and three other young men holding dead animals with “Don’t shoot skinny rabbits” overlaid in white text.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” he explained.
A Helping Hand
Cesler graduated from Iowa State in the mid-1980s, then taught math to middle-schoolers for eight years, which helped him learn about the diverse needs of students, he said.
He learned that motivation is a character trait he cannot teach, only help to inspire, he said. And he rarely has to dig deep to motivate student-athletes, he said, because the competitiveness and passion that make a successful student are also what make a successful athlete.
After seven years of teaching, Cesler said, he wanted to return to Iowa State to work in higher education, but he had no idea that student-athlete development was a field he could pursue. He had been a high school athlete and had coached junior high and high school girls basketball, football, golf, softball, track and volleyball. His desire to be a part of a team and to help others led him to walk into the women’s basketball coach’s office in 1994.
“I just went in and said, ‘Here I am. I’ve taught and coached for a long time. I’ve never done anything for myself. My life has always revolved around helping other people. Is there anything I can do to help?’”
He asked whether he could stuff envelopes.
“My life can’t revolve around what I’m doing because that’s not going to work for me. I said, ‘I don’t even care if I get paid or not.’ Her jaw dropped,” Cesler said. “She told me, ‘Let me talk to my staff because I’ve never had an offer like this before.’”
A week later, Cesler began to oversee the study table in a student-athlete development office that was much smaller than Iowa State’s current arrangement. He was hired full-time in 1997.
Student-athletes often stop by Cesler’s office outside of their typical meeting times to chat. His eagerness inspired one group of 2002 graduates to write a poem that is now framed in Cesler’s office, thanking him for the enthusiasm and stimulus he provided during a difficult time.
“You’ve helped shape who we are, for that we are grateful
for every drop of water shapes the stone,
and thanks to you we’re successful,” the poem reads.
“So we leave here today trying not to cry,
for this is the end, but definitely not goodbye.”
One of Cesler’s first advisees, basketball player Stacy Frese, struggled with giving speeches, so Cesler demanded that she rehearse in front of Cesler each time. She has not forgotten. As part of her induction into Iowa State’s Hall of Fame this year, she was supposed to give a speech at a dinner before the ceremony. Frese called Cesler and asked whether she could read him her speech, 15 years after her career as a student-athlete ended.
“I said, ‘I guess you can. Don’t worry about it. Just get up there and people are going to love you,’” Cesler said. “The day of the speech, she found out her speech only needed to be three minutes. Then she was nervous because she didn’t know what she needed to cut out. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Stace, relax. Relax.’”
For first-year student Riley Behan, a soccer player and engineering student, Cesler provides a chance to talk about any academic issues, team troubles or struggles that may arise.
“He’s reassured me that it’s just a wall,” Behan said about one conversation. “Just him telling me the rest of the semester will be OK helped me push over that wall.”
He also suggested study tips and advised her to call her parents more often, Behan said.
Cesler’s helpfulness extended beyond his students.
“He has a huge heart, but he doesn’t advertise it,” said Tommy Powell, who was head of the Student-Athlete Development Department before current director Patrice Feulner.
Cesler has let most of his colleagues borrow his truck, he’s driven to Powell’s home during severe weather to make sure his family knew what to do during a tornado warning, and he throws a barbecue for the department each year.
He also volunteers in the neonatal intensive care unit, where his twins stayed as newborns.
If Cesler’s office is a blank canvas defined by students’ paperwork and inspirational quotes, Feulner’s office is the opposite: tidy and cozy, decorated as if it were a coffee shop. The most prominent inspirational phrase in her office hangs above her desk on a chalkboard.
It says, “What’s your why?”
This is Feulner’s motto, which she asks her staff and student-athletes to consider.
Student-athlete development has shifted in the last decade to focus less on eligibility to compete and more on holistic success and cultivating passions off the court or field.
“I ask student-athletes, ‘Why do you want to play basketball? Is it for your family? Is it for your former coach?’ And then I apply that to academics,” Feulner said. “The why behind why you play the sport you love has to be the why behind why you get that degree.”
The majority — 79 percent — of student-athletes at Iowa State graduate with degrees in four years, according to 2013-2014 records provided by the Office of Student-Athlete Development. The average GPA for ISU student-athletes is 2.94.
Both Feulner and Cesler said they work hard to help student-athletes develop their own passions.
Even student-athletes who play in significant contests that draw national attention might need to go home from those and study for tests the next day or write papers.
“I would struggle if I was playing in front of 14,000 fans every day that go crazy for you; it’s incredible,” Feulner said. “When they’re up here, it truly amazes me that they’re able to separate that, and they’re just normal college students that need a little pep talk or some cheerleading from us.”
Cesler and Feulner said it’s crucial that students can define their own success. For some students, that means graduation. Others want to graduate with honors and go on to pursue advanced degrees.
“I work to get my people to their destination safely, making sure they can compete all four years,” Cesler said.
Differentiating the pep talks for each student-athlete is important, he said.
“The kind of help that my 3.9 [GPA], wants-to-go-to-med-school senior needs is totally different than my freshman from Israel who doesn’t speak English very well,” Cesler said. “Not only are they both student-athletes, they’re on the same team. The only thing you can categorize them the same is they all are honored a letter jacket after their freshmen year.”
Celser and Feulner help the student-athletes realize that their ability to play could evaporate in an instant, which is why they emphasize acadmic degrees.
“I don’t necessarily like the fact that they identify themselves so tightly with their sports, but they’ve been doing that since they were young,” Cesler said. “When they come in my office, I do my absolute best not to talk about their sport.”
And the student-athletes understand.
Kidd Blaskowsky, a senior in communications who plays basketball, said Cesler helped her during her sophomore year when she was struggling with ADHD. Now, Kidd said, she will be the first of nine kids in her blended family to graduate from college, and she wants to use her major in communications to join the military.
“When basketball’s over, what’s next? You’re entering the real world,” Blaskowsky said. “At any point, at any time, this could be over. You can’t limit yourself to only one thing that motivates you. You could get the best grades in the world, and then you’re at the Big 12 tournament and your name’s on the list of honor roll. That’s a big deal.”
Cesler said he accomplishes his “why” by helping “one kid at a time make it through the next crisis.”
For all students, Feulner said, crises are numerous, but being a student-athlete exacerbates the moments of frustration, disappointment and stress. Cesler said he tries to help them manage that balance.
“You’re always moving on. Whether you won or lost, you’ve got to deal with it,” he tells his student-athletes.
The door to Cesler’s office is almost always open. It closes when it’s time for hard love, he said.
“Whenever I do, it’s definitely going to be one of those conversations,” he said. “I say, ‘I don’t think you understand what’s going on here.’ I grab a box of Kleenex because I know my people are going to need the Kleenex. I’m pretty straightforward and blunt.”
Ed Banach, who works in the Athletic Department’s compliance division, said Cesler knows how to coach students in a way that is not harsh but helps them “to see the fallacy of their thinking.”
“They don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care,” Banach said. “He was a big brother to some. (Cesler) would listen to their problems and say, ‘I think you’ve got a valid concern there’ or ‘I think you’re full of crap.’ It would help them mature.”
Blaskowsky said it would be hard for any of Cesler’s student-athletes to slip through even half a semester with subpar grades. It’s also difficult to trick an energetic, wily man with access to students’ Blackboard accounts and a firm grasp on most of the classes and assignments his students take on.
One first-year student-athlete was not wise to Cesler’s tenacity did not include one of her test grades in her weekly report to him. Cesler coaxed the score out during a weekly meeting. There’s a photograph of men holding skinny rabbits in his office for moments like these.
“It’s just like playing basketball and you throw it straight out of bounds,” he said. “A thousand people saw you. Turn around and go play defense. Let’s get this figured out.”