Middle Tennessee focuses on student athletes

For many of the freshmen student-athletes who first stepped foot on the MT campus this summer, their first stop was not on their respective athletic fields or courts. Instead, befitting their role as students first, every incoming freshman started their MT careers by first visiting the Student-Athlete Enhancement Center.

According to Todd Wyant, the center's director, that immediate connection for incoming freshmen plays an invaluable role in starting the student-athletes off on the right foot.

"Some of the student-athletes may have viewed it as punitive," Wyant said. "But they get into it and all of a sudden they go, ‘This is a good thing. I have someone here to help me get organized, to keep me on track and help me get focused. I have tutoring available. Someone can help me organize and select my classes.'"

The role of the academic enhancement center is to serve as a one-stop resource to provide assistance to Blue Raider student-athletes throughout their time in college. The staff members work with student-athletes at every step from their first day on campus through the day of graduation.

"The staff works with students on class selection. We work with the coaches asking them ‘When is weight training? What is your travel schedule?' and use that information with the students," Wyant explained. "One of our major components is monitoring, kind of an academic alert which the university implemented this past spring. Our faculty provides us grades and feedback. We share that information with the student athletes and coaching staffs."

Wyant explained that the academic enhancement center also offers tutoring, life skills training and career services similar to those available elsewhere on campus to students who are not athletes. The difference, according to Wyant, is that with the enhancement center all of the resources are available under one roof and on a schedule that meets the time demands of student-athletes.

In many ways, the current academic enhancement center is a direct result of one of the darkest moments in Blue Raider athletic history.

Following the report from the 2003-04 academic year that men's football was last in the nation in the NCAA Academic Progress Report, MT President Dr. Sidney McPhee and Athletics Director Chris Massaro set about to revamp the manner in which the athletic department monitored the academic progress of Blue Raider student-athletes and how the university could better meet the unique needs of those 300-plus student. Working together with Dr. Debra Sells, Vice-President for Student Affairs and Vice-Provost for Enrollment and Academic Services, the three completed the overhaul of the academic enhancement center.

Wyant pointed to that unified approach from the top down as the reason the academic enhancement center is successful.

"When the APR came out, it sped up the process of evaluating student progress," Wyant explained. "I think that's where Dr. McPhee, Mr. Massaro, Coach Stockstill and all of our coaching staff really looked at everything. Changes were made. More help and more money was allocated. What has happened, from Dr. McPhee to Dr. Sells to Mr. Massaro, they've hired this staff to help student- athletes make the transition to MTSU as smooth as possible.

"People can point at certain things. But a lot of it comes down to, in my opinion, the emphasis placed on the student-athletes, their attitudes, their academic preparedness to come to college and the expectations of our coaches, Dr. McPhee and Mr. Massaro."

Wyant pointed out that the number of staff dedicated to assisting Blue Raider student-athletes went from two to six. This increase in staff numbers allowed each academic counselor to focus more closely on a fewer number of players. Each counselor is assigned specific sports and works directly with the coaches and student-athletes of those teams.

One of those academic counselors is Debbie Carroll. Carroll, who works with volleyball, soccer, men's and women's track and men's and women's golf, has been with the enhancement center since 2005. Her time working with the student-athletes has given her a unique perspective and appreciation of the Blue Raider student athletes.

"My biggest thing is that people outside of what we do have a perception of student-athletes not being scholars," Carroll said. "Some of them aren't. Some of them only come to play their sport. But the vast majority of the student-athletes want their degree and work really hard to get it. They have a lot to balance. Their time is very limited with a lot on their schedule. I wish everybody could see it from my side."

As an academic counselor, Carroll works hand in hand with student-athletes to ensure their academic success.

"We do study hall, keeping up with their progress, degree plans and check that they are making progress to their degrees as NCAA rules require and generally just help them with whatever academic needs they have," Carroll explained. "We get them a tutor when they need it, check their grades with their instructors. So if they don't tell me they need it but I find that they do need it I can help. We also make reports to our coaches every two weeks about the grades."

Matt Peck, head volleyball coach, spoke highly of the work Carroll and the rest of the enhancement center staff.

""We rely so heavily on our academic enhancement center," he said. "You know, with student-athletes practicing and competing for so many hours each week in addition to the travel, they don't have as much designated study time as an average student. The enhancement center really enables them to keep pace with, or even exceed, what other students are doing because it allows them to use resources like tutors or mentors that they wouldn't have the time to secure for themselves."

Todd Wyant also pointed to the unique time demands of student-athletes as an specific area with which the enhancement can help.

"A lot of it we look at the classes and see when they have to take place," he said. "If it's a football player for example, we may encourage them to take certain classes in the spring. Sometimes we can't avoid certain courses. That's when the staff can help communicate with the faculty.

"We send out travel letters to say that the student-athlete has a competition coming up. We try to get the tests taken prior, homework turned in prior so we aren't following up after we get back. And the faculty really works well with us on this. Everything is done to be as proactive as possible. Once again, the student-athlete understands their responsibility that they have to get things done ahead of time. And the students appreciate that because they don't want to get back from a trip and say ‘Oh my gosh, I have this huge exam on Monday.'"

With so much time spent with student-athletes, the staff members of the enhancement center become quite close to them. Debbie Carroll shared that she enjoys keeping up with the student-athletes even

after they leave the university.

"When you are in this relationship, you get pretty close to them," she explained. "We see them all the time, especially their freshman year when they have required study hall.

"We have a lot of wonderful students. I have one of my volleyball players who just graduated from law school and is now working in California. I have one who just started medical school in Atlanta. They were good players as well as being excellent in their academics."

Excellence in academics as well as athletics is the proud calling card for the staff of the enhancement center as well as the entire athletic department. Director of athletics Chris Massaro recently lauded the fact that three MT teams [football, men's tennis and men's golf] garnered Public Recognition Awards as released by the NCAA. These awards are given each year to teams scoring in the top 10 percent in each sport with their APRs. All three sports at Middle Tennessee competed in postseason play and helped the program secure it's third straight Sun Belt All-Sports Trophy.

"This speaks to our institutions commitment from Dr. McPhee on down for how we balance academics and championships," Massaro said. "It is gratifying to know that we win our league's all- sports trophy each year and now we have more teams recognized for APR achievement than any program in the Sun Belt Conference."

While the enhancement center helps the student-athletes achieve their academic goals, Wyant said that it is still the individuals themselves who are ultimately responsible for the success of the program.

"I am very happy with what the staff has accomplished," Wyant said. "But a lot of it comes down to our student athletes and their efforts. If they don't go to class, it doesn't really matter what we do."

Based upon the results, both on the field and in the classroom, the Blue Raider student-athletes are putting in championship efforts.

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