Academic Gameplan - A Roadmap for Success
Aug. 30, 2005
FRESNO, Calif. - When Fresno State football associate head coach John Baxter talks about academics, he speaks tenderly yet the words are succinct and defined. Make no mistake that the road to football goes directly through academics and every student-athlete who signs up to wear Bulldog Red and Blue will be expected to make a commitment to himself, first and foremost.
Academic regulations with real teeth were first introduced in 1987 with the adoption of Proposition 48. Then came the satisfactory progress rules of the early 1990's. And, 2008, the freshmen coming out of high school will have to completed 16 college prep core courses. What has been done educationally to help students achieve versus these stiff requirements is Baxter's very concern.
"When we came to Fresno State, the idea that Pat (Hill) and I had was to change the normative culture to where academic success was rewarded at an equal or as high as level as athletic success. Why? Young people will gravitate to what people get excited about, what people reward. So, we built this system of rewards.
"At the kick off dinner, we decided not to announce the starters but announce those who were academic achievers in the spring semester," Baxter said. "In addition, all the guys who achieved this level of academic recognition received a certificate and we also sent a copy of that certificate to their parents with a letter. We award t-shirts to identify these players as an academic achiever. We also have a big sign up in our office showcasing the names of those who have top 10 cumulative GPA's and all the guys who made a 3.0 or higher and those who achieved a personal record.
"In the fall the conference recognizes scholar-athletes and in the spring we have the Torch of Excellence Dinner," Baxter continued. "This fall we've added the idea of the uniform patch. We're going to play eight to nine games on national TV and when the talent is discussing peripheral issues about the team and our program this patch will catch their eye. This will give them a very natural way to bring out and highlight our academic success. This is a great advertisement for what we are doing."
What the Fresno State football program has done since 1997 has been remarkable. Raising the team's cumulative GPA to a current 2.72 has been a by product of the Academic Gameplan's three pillars of success. Combining positive reinforcement with an environment where student-athletes want to be included has translated into victories on the field and personal victories in the classroom.
Preparing the student-athlete for life is like installing software into a computer, according to Baxter. In football, players go to a training camp and go through what is called an "install" or "installation." Like a computer, each student-athlete has the hardware but the software must be installed for the computer to operate. The coaches install the offense and the defense and with the Academic Gameplan® they also install the academic offense. Once that happens, the coaches must make sure these items are installed correctly and that everything is working properly. Everyday Academic Gameplan® is an opportunity for each student to refine his academic process and each coach has an opportunity to teach life skills.
This is not just a one-time seminar, either. The coaches track this process every day the same way they track football skill development. This very progression is built into the Bulldogs' daily schedule. Meeting four days a week year round both in season and in the off season, is the first pillar of support of the Academic Gameplan®.
The second pillar is the system of rewards - a tool utilized to reinforce the importance of academics. Between the Academic Gameplan® and following up with it every day and then rewarding those who have success put the Bulldogs in a position to win. The third pillar is the whole idea of personal records. One does not have to make a 3.0 to be considered an academic achiever or worry about competing against a teammate. Instead, each student-athlete is merely asked to do his personal best in terms of improving based on his single best semester to date.
This, in turn, then leads everyone to look at the newest piece of information handed down by the NCAA - the Academic Progress Rating (APR). Without any glimpse into the future, the Fresno State football program took care of its own house with the arrival of the Pat Hill era in 1997.
"When we came here in 1997, no one had an idea that in 2005 the NCAA would get together and come up with something called the Academic Progress Rate," Baxter said. "All we did was try to clean up our own house. We teach it, critique it and demand that it gets done - that is our mantra. Now, with the APR being used as a measuring stick for us coaches, we took a comparative look at the schools in the west. There are three Division I conferences in the west: the Pac-10, the Mountain West and the WAC. There are 28 teams in those leagues and our APR ranked fourth.
"If you look further into the numbers, No. 1 is Stanford," says Baxter, "and they should be because the APR measures the ability to retain students from semester to semester as eligible players. If football is not working out, no one is just going to leave Stanford. The No. 2 school was Air Force. It's not in the best interest of the United States military to be flunking out people who they brought into school, especially when they are paying for their education. No. 3 was Utah and we're right next to them. My father-in-law was the head coach for them the last 12 years and they are an Academic Gameplan® school. If you look at where we are ranked, there are some notable institutions well below us. Nine schools in the Pac-10 are below us. All I can say is we're taking care of what we're given and doing the best we can with it. And we're doing so with only a small fraction of the budget they have."
The basic premise of becoming a Bulldog football player lies in an academic awakening. With 30% of the time spent on the practice field and 70% in the meeting room, being able to think, solve problems and communicate enable good athletes to win. Becoming a football player is without question an academic process!
"It has taken a long time and a lot of hard work to get our program to where we want it," said head coach Pat Hill, whose 2005 squad has a No.19 preseason national ranking by Sports Illustrated and a No. 24 preseason showing in the Associated Press College Football Poll. "We want well-rounded people in our program. We want players who play hard and compete at the highest level. We also expect that same commitment from the players in the classroom. We you get competitors who want to compete and can channel that competitive energy and spirit toward their academic studies, it's a positive experience."
Building a program around academic achievement is an investment.
"Everyday you work with a young athlete," says Baxter, "and you're making a deposit in his emotional bank account. He knows you care and you develop trust. It's hard to ask for a withdrawal when you've never deposited. There are times when just about every game, especially the close ones, when we call a time out and unequivocally ask for a withdrawal - 'Hey guys we have to make this play now.' When you look at the close games, we've won more than we've lost. That's why I can say these players have done an amazing job of pleasing us and we've done an amazing job of pleasing them - doing what's right for them. I have a sign in my office that I try to live by and it says 'doing what's right isn't always easy but it's always right.'"
If the APR is the newest tool to measure success then Baxter's copyrighted Academic Gameplan® is the most current and creative way to reach academic prosperity. If academic progress is being measured by the retention of personnel then the Bulldogs' own a winning formula by teaching life skills to young players who can effectively and efficiently run their own life. If the NCAA uses wins and losses on the field and in the classroom to determine top-notch football programs then Fresno State's yearly deposits will continue to provide dividends.
Season tickets for the 2005 Bulldog Football Season, including various Family Value Plans, are available at the Bulldog Ticket Office, by calling (559) 278-DOGS or on-line at gobulldogs.com. Students can purchase season tickets at the Bulldog Ticket Office kiosk at the Student Union weekdays between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.