Q&A with the Buffaloes' Director of Football Academics

For the next four-to-five months, Colorado's football players will be dissected for what they do between the lines. On the eve of camp, BuffStampede.com decided to run a piece that will give you a look into the academic side of the program. To do that, we sat down with Katie Bason, the Buffs' Director of Football Academics.

Katie Bason began helping student-athletes as a manger for the Wake Forest men's basketball team when she was still a college student herself. After graduation, she spent time as an academic support staff member at her alma mater and as a high school teacher.

How did you initially get connected with Mike MacIntyre out at San Jose State?

Katie Bason: My ex-husband got a job at Apple out in California so we moved out there. It was truly hard to get a job in California in 2010 so I e-mailed every school in the Bay Area that had an athletic program, and San Jose State got back to me. I got hired on as a 60-day temporary replacement for their learning specialist, who was going on maternity leave. It turned into another 30-day contracted position. Coach 'Mac' and I found out that we have similar ideals and a similar mission in terms of how we see student-athletes and academics at this level. He was in the process of rebuilding that program as you know. When he got there, things were not in great shape academically or athletically. He decided he really needed someone to help focus on football academics because he wanted to turn it all the way around: academics, football, everything.

During those 90 days we bonded and developed a great relationship. After those 90 days, he said, 'I really want to hire you to stay here.' And I said, 'Great, I am in.' But creating a job in California is very challenging. For four months, I was unemployed and he kept telling me, 'Trust me, we are going to get this done.' They created the job but they had to make it a public search. After several months, he was able to hire me as a full-time learning specialist there. That is when I started doing just football. Those first 90 days, I was working with all sports.”

Did you know when Mike MacIntyre was hired here at Colorado that you were definitely going to follow him to Boulder?

No, I didn't. It was really hard because I did not get into this to be a carpetbagger. I am solidly in it now, but at first I didn't even mean to get into college football. I didn't get into it to follow a coach, or be part of this process. I got into it to support student-athletes. So when he got the job here, it was so hard and scary. The relationships I form in my job are really, really special. And I create those over several years. So leaving those guys at San Jose State was really hard. You don't think about an academic person's job as temporary. When he got the job here, none of us really knew. We were all sitting together in my office watching the press conference and we didn't know quite what was going to happen.”

Could you describe an average day on the job here, or does it vary vastly day-to-day?

I can tell you the amount of time I spend sitting at my desk is very limited. It really depends on the time of year. In the fall, it is a little more standard because we have practice. I get here the same time the guys do. If it is 6 am for them, it is 6 am for me. Often times there will be things I need to tell guys first thing when they get here at 6. I think that is also part of the bonding process, that they know I am here the same hours they are.

I go down and Coach Mac has me speak first at the end of every practice to make sure they hear the academics and the plan. And then from right after practice until about 6 pm, it is all just meeting with our players. I have set meetings. Every player that works with me has a time they have to see me. But there are also four other players in here all the time, doing school work or asking questions.”

The players always speak highly of you... what else do you do to connect with them?

I think why I loved being a high school teacher so much is because I believe if you are able to establish a positive and supportive relationship with someone first, and then build off of that, then you can get to the hard stuff. I can say, 'Listen, I know you don't really want to go to this tutor, but I need you to go.' And they may not see the value in it in that moment, but because they know it is important to me, they'll go. If I can get them to that point, I can get them to where they see the value in it.”

Are you a football fan? If so, do you have to separate your emotions in terms of being a fan with the responsibilities of your job?

I have loved sports my whole life. I enjoy watching it, but I am so tied to it, knowing the behind-the-scenes and knowing everything these kids put into being successful, I can kind of see the bigger picture of it and value it on another level. What people see is such a small snippet. The actual game is such a small part of everything we do.”

How big is your academic support staff here for football?

We have three academic coordinators for football: myself, Medford Moorer, who played here, and Chris Howlett. The way we structure it is, there are 105-115 players on the team after fall camp and we divide our team into three tiers. Tier one is made up of all freshmen and new transfers, and any students that have demonstrated they need a higher degree of academic support. I am responsible for all of the tier ones. Medford and Chris deal with tier twos and threes. Medford deals with offense and Chris will deal with defense.

When they work with me as freshmen, our priority is for me to teach them what it means to be a student-athlete, how to be successful in this crazy world of intense football and intense academics and have them move on to Medford or Chris. It doesn't always happen. There are guys that continue to work with me, and sometimes it is more just a relationship thing.

We also have three learning specialists, which are people who specifically work with students with disabilities. And they provide just another layer of academic support. So if you come to us and you have an education impacting disorder, like you struggle with reading comprehension and you are diagnosed, you might meet with Michele Brannigan three times a week, a tutor for each of your classes, and me. So it is really extensive support.”

Your office is here in the Dal Ward Center... how much has the Champions Center helped with the academic side of things?

It has been awesome. It has been transformative honestly. Being this close to football makes it easy for our guys to come in. They come across that bridge every day, so we don't have any issues with guys not being around because we are so close. The space is amazing because before this, our tutoring happened in what was training table. So training table would end, we would separate the tables out as far as we could and it was like a bullpen setting of a bunch of tables with 20 tutoring sessions going on at once. You can imagine, if you are a student that has trouble focusing, with 20 other conversations going on, that's hard. So now we have enough private rooms for all of our tutoring sessions, whether it is an individual or group session.”

We hear about the Summer Bridge Program... could you break down exactly how that program works with the incoming freshmen?

Coach Mac really created what we see as the Summer Bridge Program here at Colorado. We started at San Jose State our very first year there. Everyone in college football has some type of academic program for the incoming players in the summer, but what we believe, and this is what I get really passionate about... we believe it is our obligation to teach these young students how to be a successful college student. We don't just say, 'Here are your classes, here is your tutor, good luck.' I am going to teach you how to properly take notes in a college course. I am going to teach you how to e-mail a professor, how to read a syllabus, things some people take for granted that students should know. But in high school you don't have to do those things and they are away from home for the first time.

So Summer Bridge, we bring them in the third week of June and they take two classes between June 20th and August 5th. They are in class or with me or in study hall for six or seven hours a day. They eat together, they live together, they workout together. It is designed to be a bonding experience. It is not easy. It is a tough, grueling six weeks, but they come out of it with six units of course work, a bond that is going to last four or five years with their freshman class, and a relationship with me that is super important. That Summer Bridge Program sets up my relationship with them for the fall. So now they know how to ask me for help. They know what I do and how I can support them. When we go into the fall, they have already been through the stress of their first college classes and maybe not being successful on a paper, things like that. So it is really the philosophy of, how can we provide these students with a true orientation to what it is like? Not just to be in college, but to be a student-athlete in a Division-1 program.”

How much study hall is required of the players?

A tier one student-athlete is required to have eight hours of study hall per week here in our facility. Now, hopefully they are doing a lot more elsewhere. But at minimum, they are in our building for eight hours a week. And if they are meeting with me or a tutor or a mentor, that counts toward their eight hours. Tier twos and threes have fewer requirements. I travel to every game. I am on the road and we do study hall in the hotel every Friday night and those hours can count toward that.

We pride ourselves on really creating a personal experience for the student. Not everyone is going to do the same thing. I know their learning styles and I know how they work best and what they need. So if they need to meet five times a week, then they meet with me five times a week. If they can do it successfully one time a week, that is fine too. It really just depends on the student.

And really it is Coach Mac's commitment to academics and that balance, this holistic development of a student-athlete: social, academics and athletics. He works so hard to make sure all three of those are tied together. They are not separate entities. We treat it as, your social life and your personal time is important. In order to be a happy student-athlete you need that. So Coach Mac has a rule that, if at all possible, and 90 percent of the time it is, all of the academic obligations are over by 6 o'clock. Because we want them to go home and play video games and sleep and take care of their bodies and have fun with their friends. We want them to enjoy college. Because if they are spending too much time with just football and just school, they are not going to be as happy as they could be. And we think that will have a negative impact on their academic and athletic performance.”

In your eyes, what is the biggest challenge these football players face as student-athletes here?

I don't think it is unique to Colorado, but I think time management is really hard. That is the number one thing we try to work on in Summer Bridge. There have been a lot of Pac-12 and NCAA legislation that has really helped the student-athlete. And I think we have been on the cutting edge of that. I think we have a lot of policies that are preemptive, where we do them and other people follow. It is hard [to be a student-athlete]. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. And you have to spend a certain amount of time in football and you have to spend a certain amount of time in class. So I think figuring out that balance and how to strike it properly for every individual student is the hardest thing for them.”

Are you involved at all with recruiting in terms of evaluating prospects from an academic standpoint?

I have a little bit of a role, but we have a whole recruiting department, which has been awesome for us. They are really in charge of the transcripts at the high school level. I do jump in on the seventh and eighth semester transcripts, their senior year, to make sure they are enrolled in the right courses and to make sure their qualifier status is confirmed.

"In terms of knowing who is going to need more support or not, we do know test scores and we know GPAs, but that doesn't tell the whole story. When I get them here in Summer Bridge, that is really my evaluation period. I don't really like looking at a transcript and saying, 'Oh, this kid is going to need this.' When they get here in Summer Bridge and I see the performance in the classroom and interaction with me, I have a lot better idea of what they are going to need.

I do all of the Junior College academic evaluations also. So when our coaches go out to recruit Junior Colleges, we first look at the academics. We don't want to waste our time and we don't want to waste the student's time or the Junior College's time by recruiting someone we know isn't going to be able to make it NCAA wise or be able to get into Colorado. I evaluate a ton of Junior College transcripts and figure out which guys have a fair chance. We work with Junior College counselors to make sure they are taking classes that are both transferable and count for graduation. It has been a huge reason for our uptick in Junior College recruiting.”

Coach MacIntyre and other coaches talk about how gratifying it is to connect with former players and seeing they are doing well in life. I would imagine it is really gratifying for someone in your position to see that as well?

So true. I haven't been in it as long as Coach Mac has, this is my seventh year in college, so the oldest guys I have worked with are just now getting into their real professional lives. I stay in touch with a lot of them and I get to hear their stories. Like Coach Mac says, getting invited to weddings and things like that and seeing them have fruitful years in football and out of football is really, really gratifying for me. It is really similar to teaching in that we don't necessarily see the benefits of all our work every single day because it is a struggle sometimes. I am asking them to do things they don't always want to do. But down the road, they see it, and get it. And for me, it is probably faster because when I go to graduation, it is a great feeling. I see their mom in recruiting and then I see their mom at graduation. The appreciation we feel from parents, helping them through this process and seeing how they develop as young men, is just really, really special. Yeah, I love that part.”

In the most recent NCAA Academic Progress Rate report that was released in April, CU football posted a program record 973 score, up from 966 last year and well above the 959 national average.

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