Behind the Scenes of Cougar Football: Part 6

In writing the sixth and final ‘Behind the Scenes' piece, I thought this would have been my toughest article to write as fans usually don't want to hear about academics concerning college athletes (unless they are a friend or relative of said athlete).

However, in a continuing theme from last week’s article (in which I learned how much head coach Tony Levine and his staff care about the student-athletes beyond the playing field), the Academics staff (led by Maria Peden) is bred much from the same cloth. It isn’t just about helping the 350 UH student-athletes in their studies, but also with what she refers to as ‘life skills,’ as she mentions during our interview, “Our focus is on making sure the students just aren’t progressing academically, but that they are happy; that their time here is a good experience, that it’s fun. College is supposed to be the greatest time of your life after all, isn’t it?”

In focusing on ‘life skills,’ Maria states that her staff asks these simple questions with each student-athlete if they see any struggles in the classroom, “Are they performing off and on the field to their full capabilities? We also focus on any other issues – are they depressed, what’s going on – is this class challenging? Is their not getting playing time affecting them in the classroom? Those are the kinds of things that our counselors are much more aware of now because it affects their progress.”

Maria’s official title is the Associate Athletics Director for Student-Development. She has been employed by the university for 16 years in various roles on the academics staff. Her main responsibility includes the oversight of academic progress over the student athletes, from admissions all the way through graduation. She also helps coordinate recruiting visits and answers any academic questions that recruits or assistant coaches might have. Also, her job entails helping the coaches with the admissions process along with making sure academic support is provided and resources are given so the student athletes progress from admissions through graduation.

Before joining the Academic Center for Excellence/Student-Athlete services in September of 1996, she was a tutor at the University of North Carolina (where she earned her Masters in Sociology) before moving back to her home town of Washington, D.C. where she began working on her doctorate at George Washington University. After being hired at UH as an academic counselor for volleyball and women’s basketball, she was assigned to football in the spring of 97. After moving to Ireland for a year, she returned to UH where she was hired as an academics counselor for men’s basketball in December of 2000 before being promoted to oversee the entire department in 2002. While not an athlete herself, Maria “enjoys opening up educational opportunities for students” as her main reason for getting into the field and states that her career is “very rewarding.”

As for her staff, the following is from an email directly from Maria stating each member and their responsibilities;

Gretchen Wiggins, J.D.

Director, Academic Center for Excellence

*Freshmen and sophomore football; all new transfer football students 


Lateki Lewis, M.A.

Assistant Director, Academic Center for Excellence

*Junior and senior football and returning (former) football students 


Helen Gore-Laird, Ph.D.

Assistant Director, Academic Center for Excellence

*Volleyball, Tennis, and Women’s Track

*Coordinates Laptop Library staff and prepares/submits Student-Athlete Handbook


Lori Selzer, M.A.

Assistant Director, Academic Center for Excellence

*Baseball, Softball, Men’s Track


Russell Royal, M.A.

Assistant Director, Academic Center for Excellence

*Women’s Basketball, Women’s Soccer


Angel Shamblin

Assistant Director, Academic Center for Excellence

*Men’s Basketball, Women’s Swimming and Diving


Natasha Ball

Senior Learning Specialist, Academic Center for Excellence

*Learning Assessments/Interventions, Liaison to Center for Students with Disabilities

Students are assigned as needed; currently working with Football and Women’s Basketball


Blanca Rodriquez, M.S.

Program Coordinator, Tutorial Program

*Coordinates all tutoring assignments and staffing (hiring, evaluation, payroll, scheduling)


Terri Bauer

Laptop Library oversight and learning specialist/tutoring assignments as needed



Chris Pilot, Academic Support Intern (supports Football counselors and Senior Learning Specialist)

Tatjana Banjeglav, Intern Learning Specialist (supports Men’s Basketball, Men’s Track)


Our Cougar Pride Leadership Academy is going into its third year now and the Director is Sasha Blake– our student-athletes participate in a 4 year curriculum of life skills, leadership and personal development programming.  The Leadership Academy is a crucial part of our overall program. 

Finally, I’m the academic counselor for Golf.


Each Monday morning Maria is involved in an Academic Report meeting with Coach Levine and his assistants, and in her words, “we go through what was accomplished the previous week; what big exams are upcoming for the current week, who’s having challenges and who isn’t. We’ll go through all of the latest grades that have been reported – basically we talk about everybody’s progress and what we can do better.” As for her working relationship with Coach Levine, “It’s tremendous. He’s really supportive of not just the academics staff but everybody involved with the program. He’s always been interested in academic progress; even on down to who we’re recruiting – whether or not they’ll make it out of here with a degree. He never stops – he reads every email, knows whose in study hall and doesn’t just take our word for it as he’ll talk with the athletes about their classes, how they’re doing – that kind of thing.”

Speaking of the athletes classes, Maria says their academic schedule is “pretty intense, especially during the summer where one class is about two hours long. Say if a class begins at noon, we’ll have them in study hall around 10:30 so that when they finish their class, they’re basically done for the day, academics wise. Now the season is more challenging with travel and all. We (as a staff) believe in fitting in study hall and tutoring during the day (if possible) where they have the most energy. As I just stated, we try to get academics in earlier – study halls, tutorials and then classes so they can go into practice relaxed because they’ve completed their academic tasks for the day. Now each sport is different, but students below a 3.0 GPA have to attend six to ten hours of study hall per week. We try to make study hall structured and focused so the students know what they are working on during each session. We try to prioritize it for them, depending on which subjects they are struggling with the most. This really helps the freshman in particular. Basically we try to develop their academic skills by structuring their study time.”

According to Maria, the NCAA rules changes that have affected most universities include “academic requirements becoming more stringent, which is for the good of the student athlete as graduation rates are going up. While my counseling staff is focused on the students academic progress and well-being, I’m really focused on the APR and how when a student chooses to decide to leave the program (or they don’t graduate), how is that going to affect the program?”

And for those of you not in the know, the APR stands for Academic Progress Rating, and according to Maria, “it’s the way the NCAA tracks and holds schools accountable for retaining the student athletes they sign and making sure they graduate along with making sure each university is meeting their eligibility standards along the way. To play in the 2012-13 post season, teams need to have a four year APR of 900 (which is calculated by team, not the athletic department as a whole). Many people remember the UConn (University of Connecticut) basketball program being banned from the men’s NCAA basketball tournament next season because they earned less than 90 percent of all the points they could have earned in keeping their student-athletes eligible. Each student-athlete has the possibility to earn four points per year. Were they eligible for fall and returned for spring and vice versa? APR measures retention and eligibility. If a student knows they are going to leave the program, they check-out mentally and can fail classes which really hurt the APR of that team. If the student is eligible when they leave, they don’t hurt the program – it’s just documented that they left the program (went pro, etc). The APR holds coaches accountable. Each coach receives a single year APR as well, which can be found at the NCAA’s website.” For the record, UH’s football program received a four year (or multi-year) APR of 926 with a school record single year APR of 935 for last season’s football team.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this ‘Behind the Scenes’ series as much as I’ve enjoyed interviewing the various staff members and writing each article. The one thought I’ll leave you with concerning how all of the coaches and administration feel about our student-athletes can be summed up when Maria said, “We feel more responsibility because we get to know the students so well. Some have family challenges and with the media these kids have so little privacy these days. We’re very conscience of that. Basically, all of our coaches and administration are focused on the kids’ well being in the present, and future.”

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