Playing on a Thursday night presents its own unique challenges. With the team being on the field on a Thursday evening instead of in the classroom, it can make it tough to balance school and football commitments.
But that’s exactly what No. 18 East Carolina will have to do when American Athletic Conference opponent Connecticut visits this coming Thursday. It’s tough, but academic excellence is something that the coaching staff expects from its players.
Fifth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill has created a culture of accountability in ECU’s football program. Within that lies academic accountability.
“You can say all you want. I think it’s about your actions,” said offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. “Do you make it important in the program, which Ruffin and the staff have done. That’s why you see us break the GPA record I think every year since we’ve been here. You’ve seen the number of guys that graduate and seen our APR (Academic Progress Rate) skyrocket.”
Since McNeill took the reins in 2010, ECU football’s APR has consistently been at least 10 points above the 931.8 the team averaged in the five years before—including a peak of 952 in 2010-11.
“Everybody says academics are important. But, at the end of the day, are you willing to suspend a guy for it for a big game?” Riley asked. “Are you willing to do some of the things that we do inside the program when they don’t meet the requirements academically? A lot of people talk a big game. Not everybody backs it up.”
Few players embody the focus on academics like placekicker Warren Harvey. He was awarded the Conference USA Academic Medal the past two academic years for having at least a 3.75 GPA. He’s experienced Thursday games before and was able to continue to succeed in the classroom.
As a senior, Harvey admits that it’s a tough challenge to play a game in the middle of the week. He had a similar experience when ECU had a Thursday-night showdown with Florida Atlantic last season.
However, he has picked up on a few keys to not letting a Thursday game conflict with his academics. Among them are time management and communication with professors.
“One of the bigger things in life and in football is communication,” said Harvey. “I try and keep a really strong line of communication up with my professors and make sure they understand my situation and try and understand if there’s anything extra I can do to help my situation in the classroom, I’m more than willing to do it.”
His approach has worked. Harvey said that just like the practice schedule is bumped up a couple of days, he gets a few days ahead of his schoolwork to prepare for playing on Thursday.
Student athletes face academic challenges every day—playing on a Thursday night just happens to be one. The culture of accountability within the football program has helped teach players—young and old—how to face said challenges.
“It’s not just because of the Thursday. We approach academics every day in the classroom and in study hall,” said sophomore receiver Isaiah Jones. “People are doing the right things off the field as far as academics and getting that taken care of. When it comes time to play football, we focus on our goals.”
The goal Thursday will be to pick up a third conference win, but ECU will have to get past UConn’s defense. The Huskies have had a tremendous run defense, so that will be the challenge on the field while remaining academically strong will be the challenge off the field.