A passion for education excellence

Cynics will contend that academics and college athletics will often struggle to co-exist, and in the ultimate win-loss environment victories should be measured between the lines and not outside of them. For Arizona State's Jean Boyd classroom achievements reflect success as much as athletic accolades do and this philosophy has been a long standing point of pride for Sun Devil athletics.

Credibility is the greatest tool a teacher can have at their disposal. Therefore, when Jean Boyd, Arizona State's Associate Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Development, preaches the importance of a college degree to high school recruit or a college student he can easily draw upon his own life story.

Boyd was born in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, and grew up in neighboring Carson, Compton, Long Beach and Paramount. All of these inner-city communities certainly offered social economic barriers, disparity and violence that could have forced teenagers like Boyd at the time to make the proverbial wrong choice that would affect the rest of his life.

"I grew up in a single-parent home," Boyd said, "and my mother did a great job raising me and my young brother and sister. She is my hero. You had to make a lot of choices on a daily basis that would take you down a path of success in life or take you the other way. Luckily, my mother at the time was also a secretary at a church and I had a lot of positive role models at that church.

"I was blessed that my mom was such a strong person and that I had those positive influences in my life."

Out of high school Boyd wasn't able to attract Division I scholarship offers, but that all changed after playing one year at Cerritos (Calif.) College. The safety attracted over 30 offers from schools of that caliber and in 1991 he signed with Arizona State where he played for the next three seasons.

"I just had an incredible experience here and met some great people," Boyd stated. "I didn't have any desire to go back to Los Angles at the time. I built a network here and I decided to stay.

"I always had a heart and a passion for education. I thought I wanted to be a teacher or a coach. I received a degree in History and I thought I would be a History teacher and a coach."

After exhausting his college eligibility, Boyd signed a free agent contract with the New England Patriots but due to injury he wasn't able to earn a roster spot which led him back to his alma mater for good.

In July of 1995 Boyd joined the ASU Athletic department as a management intern, yet even throughout that hiring process he learned a valuable lesson that would benefit the student-athletes that would come across his department for years to come.

"The person that hired me, Sandy Hatfield-Club (current Director of Athletics at Drake University), asked me ‘are you serious about this deal?' and that was because my resume and cover letter were full of spelling errors and had a bad format," Boyd recalled. "She told me to clean that thing up but I was lucky that she was patient and could see the potential in me."

While being employed as an intern Boyd was also working on his Master's degree in Higher Education Administration which he received in 1998. Throughout his studies Boyd conducted a lot of research on student development and the various theories on how individuals make choices about their education.

"Now I started putting the pieces together," Boyd explained. "All those guys that I grew up with and played with that were better athletes than me, that could have made it to the next level and didn't, were now still in the ‘hood doing the same things because of social-economical dynamics.

"You see all those things and you become even more passionate about helping young people, especially those who are participating in sports and come from the same background I did. This where my passion to empower young people began."

***

Boyd's work is probably manifested itself the most in the renowned Scholar Baller program, a non-profit organization which promotes academic and life achievement through motivational academic incentives and educational initiatives.

This program was co-founded by Boyd, his childhood friend and teammate Cliff Parks and Dr. Keith Harrison who is a Professor at Central Florida University. Harrison coached both Boyd and Parks at Cerritos College which is where the connection between the three started.

"Keith was a mentor to me and said that I should go to grad school," Boyd said, "and I asked him ‘what's that?' I just wasn't in-tune with what that was. As I was going to grad school he was talking to me about the things I was learning, the problems that we saw amongst the guys that grew up in the same area I did.

"He would tell me that ‘these cats are all baller and no scholar.' We talked about something we labeled ‘baller syndrome' where education didn't seem like a vehicle to success but just a necessary evil to allow you to play your sport. At some point Keith flipped it and said that we will call this movement ‘Scholar Baller.' He was at Washington State then and one of his students was an artist and he drew the original ThinkMan® (listed below) which is the patch that the players wear."

In 2001 Boyd's responsibilities in ASU's Athletic Department came under the title of Manager for Football Academics as he started to work along with then first-year Head Coach Dirk Koetter. Boyd wanted to implement the Scholar Baller® program, which was founded six years earlier, into the Sun Devil football team's culture. Luckily for Boyd his audience was receptive to the concept that was so near and dear to his heart.

"I remember my first meeting with the football team that year," Boyd said, "it was actually up at Camp T. I asked them ‘how many of you consider yourselves ballers?' So now, you have guys jumping up and down, standing on their seats. Then I asked them ‘how many of you consider yourselves scholar ballers?' A couple of guys raised their hands a little bit. I defined to them what that was, and immediately after the meeting I had some guys come up to me and say ‘I'm going to be a Scholar Baller.'

"Dirk told me that (former player) Daryl Lightfoot came up to him and said that he was going to be a Scholar Baller. D-Light, was a freshman from Maryvale and maybe didn't value education as much at the time and time and for him to say that…Dirk told me ‘you have something there.' We started taking conversations that we were having with players and packing them into a curriculum."

ASU was the first school to implement the program, and these days it is being implemented by over 20 universities including fellow Pac-12 school University of Washington, ACC schools Maryland and Virginia, and was even practiced at Ivy League school Columbia in 2009. The program has also been adopted by several community colleges and high schools across the nation.

The Scholar Baller distinction is given to athletes who have a GPA of 3.0 and higher. Boyd said that student-athletes highly value wearing the ThinkMan® patch on their uniform, which proves the worth of the program.

"It's relevant to them," Boyd said of the program. "It's geared towards (student-athletes) because they want to wear it and they like to wear it. They are some guys who I see everyday in their scholar baller shorts and I say to them ‘do you ever put those in the washing machine?' So this is something they take pride in."

Boyd added that not all ASU sports partake in the program and that it is up to each coach whether to implement it or not. However, the three major sports at ASU: football, men's basketball and baseball each have the Scholar baller integrated in some form into their programming and academic rewards.

***

When he was a student-athlete, Boyd said the academic support was certainly accessible for him and his teammates. Tutors were available if needed and the athletic department staff was committed to assist with any academic need possible.

As Boyd moved up the ranks during his ASU career and was named Assistant Athletic Director in 2003, he brought his life experiences to the academic support department. It was important to him to understand the dynamics of a student-athlete who was at risk academically, and that was someone who doesn't value education as much as some of their peers.

"You can provide all the tutoring in the word," Boyd said, "but if you don't achieve some kind of shift in their thought process and why they need to do well academically, the movement won't be as dramatic as you would like to see it.

"My number one priority was to properly identify, and properly apply an education plan to the highest at-risk students. Our line of thinking became that if we could minimize retention challenges with the group of students that struggles and elevated their performance, and then we could elevate our overall performance."

This approach is naturally not a one size fits all theory, and thus needed to be judiciously applied.

"Someone like (former football player and first team Pac-10 All-Academic player) Mike Nixon – you stay out of his way," Boyd described. "You don't mess him up. We have had so many dynamic scholar athletes who were going to graduate despite what programming you provided. We created a formula to identify levels of risk for every student-athlete that comes to ASU and we began to apply support based on that model.

"If we have someone who has ten risk factors on the scale, we know they will require a pretty intensive level of support. These risk factors were researched by the NCAA as predictors of academic success. Take grade point average for example. If you have a 2.6 or above, your probability of graduating significantly increases compared to someone with a GPA below 2.6. Poor performance on standard test scores, having a learning disability, being a first generation college student, and socio-economic level are some of the other risk factors we take into account. We are not into labeling young people but we must be clear about what challenges they might be facing to be able to mitigate the risk by dynamic programming."

***

Thanks to these efforts of the academic support staff, ASU is able to substantially minimize those aforementioned risks and some of the NCAA's measuring sticks provide proof that these efforts have led Arizona State to be recognized amongst the elite schools in the conference in terms of academic achievements.

There are two main indicators where an academic support department is measured by. One is the Graduation Success Rate (GSR) which measures freshman and transfer graduation. Currently ASU is at 79 percent for its total student-athlete body which puts it in 5th place in the Pac-12, four percentage points off of second place (83%). The Sun Devil football program is ranked 3rd among its conference foes in the GSR standings.

The second measure is Academic Progress rate (APR) which is more of a current snapshot of eligibility and retention of student-athletes. When you take in account the total student-athlete body, ASU ranks second only to Stanford among the league's members. Boyd cited men's basketball and baseball as two sports that in recent years made "dramatic improvements" APR wise elevating those sports from the lower to the upper echelon of Pac-12 teams. Boyd said that he was "encouraged" about the prospects of improvement for the football team in this area under first-year Head Coach Todd Graham.

When it comes to attrition among all sports, Boyd noted that if a player transfers out of ASU in good standing, and has a 2.60 GPA or above, then there is no adverse effect on the school when it comes to the APR score.

"There are some adjustments," Boyd explained. "The NCAA has allowed for schools that have individuals who depart in good academic standing with a 2.60 GPA to not be penalized. The premise being that if a student-athlete chooses to go somewhere, among other reasons, it is to play their sport at a very high level. If for some reason they get there and see that they don't have an opportunity to play, then why should the school and the program be penalized for that individual's decision if they do leave in good academic standing?

"The 2.6 GPA I mentioned before – if someone leaves ASU and has that GPA or higher then they don't hurt your APR. If they do have less than a 2.6 then it counts one point against the APR but doesn't account against your GSR. The APR can be a tricky calculation, but I think the NCAA does a good job accounting for some of those realities."

Many of ASU's Olympic sports have posted impressive academic marks as well. ASU's softball team didn't only win the National Championship last year but also had the highest APR in the conference with a near perfect mark of 99.7 percent. In the last ten years the soccer's team GPA has yet to dip below a 3.4. ASU's women student-athletes graduation rate last year was at 93 percent with a cumulative GPA of 3.26 .

"Since 2000 ASU has the second most Academic All-Americans in the conference," Boyd commented. "We are Top 20 all time for Academic All-Americans nationally in Division I schools. Since 2000 we are 2nd in the conference for most the NCAA post-graduate scholars. These are all things that fans should really appreciate.

"Because we have a sports program that is good across the board, we aren't only attracting the highest caliber of athletes in those sports but also high caliber students that end up being Academic All-Americans. This is all a synchronized team effort with the coaches who recruit these types of student-athletes, the academic coaches, the administration, and the university. They are all onboard with the vision of what we are trying to get accomplished which produces the type of growth we have had over the years in academic performance."

***

When interviewing recruits who visit Arizona State, it's quite common to hear these prospects, and their parents for that matter, rave about ASU's academic support. Boyd is often present during those visits providing an academic support presentation, highlighting the school's methodology and success rate in that area.

It's an aspect that isn't mentioned with the same degree of frequency when prospects visit other Pac-12 schools. How do Boyd and his staff ensure that the school does have a strong niche in this area as part of the overall recruiting process?

"I cannot imagine a more committed and passionate group of human beings that work with student-athletes," said Boyd of ASU's student-athlete development department. "I will put them up against anyone. I think visitors feel that when they come over they sense that this person who will oversee my son's or my daughter's academic progress, is extremely passionate and committed to him or her.

"When you look at the football piece in particular, Corinne Corte, Courtney Skipper and Marcus Walker are three dynamic individuals. Those are the people they get to sit with, talk to on the campus tour, as they share some of the success stories, as well as sharing who they are and what they are committed to. My staff is remarkable."

Boyd admitted that he does have an advantage for not only being a former football player, but also being a Sun Devil that allows him to bring a unique perspective to the table as he talks to recruits.

"Parents love the fact that there is very little that their son could say or do that I won't have experience with," Boyd said. "If their son comes in here talking nonsense, we tend to recognize nonsense. Parents like that and it makes an impression on them. The fact that we have a Scholar Baller concept that rewards academic success the way we do, and a school that can claim academic success like we do, is a strong point as well.

"The way that we package our presentation to the student-athletes and their parents, is such that it's less about tutoring, mentoring and keeping kids eligible, and all about empowering young men to go into the world that we live in and be highly successful and be high achievers."

As always, Boyd ensures that the presentation will include an approach that will be easy for recruits to relate to as it pertains to various aspects of their life.

"When I start a presentation," Boyd explained. "I'll ask a recruit to show me their body stance right before a ball is snapped. So some of them have their hand in the ground, some of them stand like a receiver or a defensive back would. Sometime you get a defensive lineman facing an offensive lineman and one of them will have his hands in their pockets. That's great, because then I ask everyone ‘what's about to happen now?' and they said ‘he will be smashed.'

"So I show them that if someone is a competitor and wants to be good at football, they have to get into a stance because it's a ready to perform position. So I ask them ‘what's your stance in a classroom?' and then you'll see someone just sitting there (slouched). So I ask them ‘is that your stance when you're going to receive some important information? If so you're going to get ‘smashed' in this competition just like the guy who trying to play O-line with his hands in his pockets. If you're a competitive person beyond the football field, then you better be in a ready stance, where you're sitting up in the front row of the class. That's what we teach as an academic coach. Parents appreciate that we use language that can transition into everything their son does. Parents appreciate that it's not all about football and that people here have put their minds around how to speak to these guys in a manner that they will respond to, and reward them in a way that they will respond.

"I think that separates us from most schools."

***

The perception that the Pac-12 is very competitive academically is certainly a reality according to Boyd, who feels that Arizona State has been able to more than hold their own in this aspect thanks to the university's leadership.

"Our President Dr. Michael Crow has worked with people on campus, around campus, and nationally," Boyd said, "to have a vision to elevate Arizona State University as a leading public institution, while maintaining access to the population here in the Phoenix area. What he had led in terms of this evolution of this university is absolutely remarkable.

"Without question, the two degrees I have are infinitely more valuable now than when I graduated..The way that ASU is regarded as an academic institution nationally and internationally, is light years ahead of what it was prior to Dr. Crow's arrival. That's being visionary, non-traditional, and innovative that falls in-line with how ASU has grown historically. It has always been non-traditional and it is embracing that. That sells well."

Boyd truly believes that the party school image ASU has had in years past, or the perception that it's a state school that isn't academically dynamic, is an observation that is being negated quite vigorously in light of ASU's academic achievements in recent years.

"Visitors that come to our campus find out that every program we have is in the top 10 percentile in the United States," Boyd said. "The Barrett Honors College has absolutely helped us in our recruiting of elite caliber academic student-athletes. So you now you have a package of a school that is ranked Top 25 in the U.S., where you can major in a top ranked business school, be part of the number one Honors College, and be in a Top 25 sport.

"Some places can offer either a Top 25 academic school or a Top 25 sports program, but not both. So we have been able to level the playing field with a lot of top academic intuitions."

***

The time demands placed on a student-athlete can occasionally prevent a player from majoring in a program that would be challenging and require more bandwidth than one could muster. It would require a balancing act that quite frankly could have a low probability of success.

Therefore, many student-athletes despite their best intentions, end up choosing a major that would be easier to reconcile with their demanding schedule. Football players have been known to mostly major in Interdisciplinary Studies which could carry the perception of a major than is greatly less challenging than the majority of degrees offered at ASU.

Boyd emphatically opposes the notion that ASU even offers any easy degrees.

"If there is one I've yet to find it," Boyd claimed. "The Interdisciplinary Studies degree requires an internship, which is very valuable. The core classes are research based classes that help you transition into the workplace. These are challenging classes. In essence you're combining two concentration areas into one. We have had 4.0 students major in Interdisciplinary Studies."

Boyd added that ASU's football student-athletes are well distributed among the university's different majors. At the same time, for a transfer student-athlete who has already completed the majority of his classes towards a degree, certain majors would obviously make more sense to pursue than others.

"What I found out is that with every student-athlete who is attempting to take on a challenging major," Boyd said, "the departments have been very willing to work with us to make it happen.

"The departments want student-athletes in their programs because it creates diversity."

Boyd commented that every student-athlete needs to look into themselves and see if picking a certain major will accommodate their schedule, and do they have the adequate level of commitment and intensity to achieve that goal.

Online classes have been the one of the biggest trends in universities all across the nation, and naturally assist in the course workload of a student-athlete who normally doesn't have much down time regardless of the time of year.

"Some young people see online courses and think that there are going to be easy because they don't have to sit in a class," Boyd remarked. "However, it's often more challenging because you're required to make decisions concerning your time allotment and some young people aren't equipped to make those decisions at this stage of their life. So, it's a balancing act.

"It's helpful to have these courses as part of the puzzle and at our disposal when putting a schedule together for a student-athlete that is traveling regularly. These days, you can complete work in online courses virtually anywhere - even on airplanes."

***

While Arizona State is one of the leaders of academic support in the Pac-12, much like the various sports it supports, it can never get complacent with its success or it will encounter regression and see its competitors pass it by. Boyd is cognizant of this theory, and shared his vision on how his department can move forward and improve.

"As a society evolves, young people evolve," Boyd said. "A lot of young people entering college are very technology advanced. They have an apparatus such as an iPhone, and that drives the way they communicate. Now you can't have a productive conversation with someone and text on your phone at the same time, but we can advance education while incorporating technology.

"When we do programming with student-athletes, instead of the traditional lecture or a guest speaker, we do a lot of video features. We show video of stories in the cyber world that can illustrate points, create a little bit more emotion. Video can stimulate all of the senses and is a more of a holistic learning model. When you use this approach the person watching it is more likely to grasp the concept and incorporate it."

According to Boyd, ASU has already started implementing that approach, and with the introduction of the Pac-12 Network all member schools have been encouraged as it is to enhance their videography departments and resources in that area.

Life skills and career development are aspects which the school is emphasizing more than ever with its student-athletes, so these young men and women can recognize their strengths and weaknesses that will translate into a career.

"We show them how to prepare a resume, how to interview for a job and how to network," Boyd described. "We help them execute a plan as they approach graduation. We also ask alumni and business owners in the community who have a heart for Sun Devil athletics to get involved. This can be done by offering internship opportunities or seeking out student-athletes who are ready to become a dynamic team member in their organization."

***

Through their tireless efforts, Jean Boyd and his staff have been able to witness numerous success stories of student-athletes who had several of the aforementioned risk factors when they entered ASU only to ultimately graduate and embark on a successful career.

Lamar Baker, a local and highly recruited cornerback from Avondale Agua Fria High School, is one former player that Boyd often cites as a prime example of an Arizona State student-athlete who maximized all the resources that were at his disposal.

"He was our first commit of the (2001) class," Boyd recalled. "I've told this story many times and he is OK with it. When he came in he was very high risk. He had most of those risk factors on the list. He had a learning disability, he was a father, he had a younger brother that he was partially, if not completely responsible for, from a single-parent home, and family issues…he had every risk factor a person could have.

"He immediately embraced the concept of Scholar Baller® and our system of support. As he moved forward during his time here, it was clear that he was a very hard worker and very committed to being successful."

Baker didn't allow a disappointing football career riddled with injuries to get the best of him, and become just one more risk factor and a potential hurdle in his education.

"He graduated in three and half years," Boyd said, "and by the time his five years at ASU were completed he also earned his Master's degree. He then went back to Agua Fria High School and went on to coach and teach students with learning disabilities (Baker currently coaches at Desert Edge High School in Goodyear, Ariz.).

"He's a powerful example of overcoming obstacles and road blocks that people think would put you at a disadvantage. He showed that if you give a great effort and a great attitude you will absolutely prevail and succeed."


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