Lucas at Large: Buckinghams a showcase for Badgers' best

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Wisconsin men's cross country coach Mick Byrne generously described his musical tastes with the confession that "I'm all over the place.''

Byrne has downloaded everything from Real Estate to Bon Iver, from The Cure to Coldplay, from Bruce Springsteen to Eric Hutchinson, from Adele to Mumford & Sons.

Byrne is likely to add to his list after hearing "The Big Shady Trees'' (pictured above) perform Monday night during the fourth annual Buckinghams at the Overture Center.

Elliot Krause was on drums, Zach Mellon was on guitar and Will Ottow was the vocalist for a cover version of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy.''

What was the genesis for the group's name, The Big Shady Trees?

"We're all tall and slim,'' Krause reasoned.

Krause, Mellon and Ottow all run for Byrne and the Badgers. How crazy is that?

"We do have a lot of musical talent on the team,'' Byrne volunteered. "When we go on trips, the guys will sometimes bring guitars and they're singing all the time. It's hilarious.''

Funny thing is, they know when it's time to get down to work -- on the track and in the classroom.

Last November, the Badgers won a national championship in men's cross country, the fifth in school history and first since 2005.

Monday night at the Buckinghams, the highest cumulative GPA team awards went to men's and women's cross country.

"We sit down before the season and as a team determine what goals we would like to set,'' said Caitlin Comfort, a senior from Peoria. "Highest GPA is one of them, and we take a lot of pride in it.''

Elliot Krause, a senior from Appleton, pointed out that athletes are frequently stereotyped -- stigmas are unfairly but routinely attached -- and this type of academic recognition helps dispel myths.

It definitely starts, too, at the top with Byrne.

"Mick's general philosophy is that the whole college experience isn't just about running,'' said Krause, a two-time Academic All-American. "But he doesn't baby us through the process.

"You have to take the initiative and do things yourself.''

Byrne's approach promotes the development of study habits and discipline, Krause said. "He's developing you as a person so when you leave college you can be successful,'' he added.

In February, Byrne's Badgers were cited as the Scholar Team of the Year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.

"When I came here four years ago,'' Byrne said, "one of the challenges that I threw out to the guys was, 'Look, we have to work harder in the classroom.'

"I felt like they weren't putting their best foot forward and I chose to keep on their case about it. We encouraged them and we kicked them in the butt when they needed to be kicked in the butt.

"The end result has been that they've gotten a little bit better every semester.''

The Badgers finished the cross country season with a team grade-point average of 3.08.

"It's not acceptable for them to be below 3.00,'' Byrne said. "That's the least we can ask from them. It's a high standard (academically), but our athletes compete at a high standard.

"If they can do that on the track -- or in cross country -- why can't they do that in the classroom? It certainly starts with me and what my expectations are. But it also comes from the older kids.''

Krause acknowledged the necessity for that kind of accountability and leadership.

"The younger guys, especially the freshmen are always looking up to the older guys,'' he said, "and when they see them taking care of business, on and off the track, that sets a good example.

"It's like, 'These guys are getting it done in the classroom. That's what is expected of me.'''

Comfort was one of the Performance Award winners Monday night. These student-athletes are nominated by their advisors or learning specialists for their academic work and improvement.

"When you come in as a freshman everything is totally new to you,'' Comfort said. "So it's really about getting your feet on the ground and realizing what you're here for.

"Ultimately, you're here to get a degree and obviously athletics comes after that. But it's also about making sacrifices; staying in on the weekends to get homework done.

"It's about coming back to your dorm or your apartment right after practice is over and working on homework. It's about waking up an hour or two early to study some more before a test.

"It's about time management and balancing (academics and athletics).''

But you have to know what your priorities are, she emphasized.

"You'll hear everyone say, 'It's all about balancing your time' and there's a reason everyone says it, and that's because it really is the most important thing,'' Krause said.

"But you also have to give yourself a little bit of time to breath and relax every once in awhile. Mick has this thing about overcooked turkey and how it doesn't taste very good.''

That would be a Byrne metaphor on life whereby he's suggesting that the student-athlete can fall prey to the stress or pressure of expectations within the classroom and on the playing field or track.

"Eventually you're going to overcook yourself,'' Krause said.

In this context, the Buckinghams are a breath of fresh air since they represent a celebration of academic excellence and achievement through community service and other vehicles.

Moreover, there is a special bonding component to the event -- rallying all sports on campus.

"Last year, I got the invite and Mick told me that I should go to the Buckinghams,'' Krause said, "and I was real reluctant. I thought it was another formal event that would be real dry and boring.''

Once exposed to what the Buckinghams are all about, he was hooked.

"I love it,'' Comfort said. "You rarely find all the athletes in one venue at one time. So it's kind of nice to see everybody together -- all the different athletes from all the different sports.

"You get to mingle and you get to catch up.

"It's nice to see everyone dressed up and not in athletic gear.''

Byrne has become a big proponent of the Buckinghams.

"I love this, I absolutely love it,'' he said. "It's a got a great feel about it to the point where I've encouraged all of our kids to go.

"It's good to see that there's a reward for doing well in the classroom; a reward for getting involved in the community; a reward for getting involved in leadership programs.

"That's all good and there's a trickle down affect to all of our athletes.''

There are some unique twists to the Buckinghams, like the red carpet leading into the theater.

There's also the innocence and freshness of the performers.

Whether it's women's hockey player Katy Josephs playing the piano and singing "Only Hope'' by Mandy Moore ...

Whether it's women's rower Kendall Schmidt performing an original tap dance routine to "Turn up the Music'' by Chris Brown.

Whether it's women's cross country's Megan Beers singing "Never Alone'' by Barlow Girl ...

Whether it's quarterback Joel Stave playing the piano and singing "Drops of Jupiter'' by Train...

Whether it's women's cross country's Lavinia Jurkiewicz ballroom dancing with her partner to "Rabiosa'' by Shakira ...

Whether it's linebacker A.J. Fenton playing the guitar and softball player Kendall Grimm singing "Firework'' by Katy Perry ...

Whether it's The Big Shady Trees ...

It all works.

"Any opportunity we get as administrators or coaches,'' Byrne said, "to recognize our student-athletes for their achievements is great, and this is a fun way of doing that."

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