Part I: Creating Champions In The Classroom

True to his nature, Tom O'Brien didn't arrive in Raleigh promising national titles, conference titles or undefeated seasons.

Stay tuned tomorrow or Part II of our feature, "Champions In The Classroom," that appears in the September issue of the Pack Pride Magazine.

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True to his nature, Tom O'Brien didn't arrive in Raleigh promising national titles, conference titles or undefeated seasons.

He kept his commitment more modest, pointed and poignant: he promised that his teams would be "champions in the classroom, champions in the community, and champions on the field."

And four years into his tenure as NC State's football coach, the Pack has made huge strides toward each of those three prongs of his motto: his program's team grade-point average has improved every year, his players have become regular contributors to many charitable efforts in the region and elsewhere, and his Wolfpack finished just a game out of the ACC championship game a season ago.

Recent events on the national—and local—landscape have made it easy to be a cynic about college athletics. Seemingly every week, another school is announced as being in the crosshairs of the NCAA and another program is detailed as committing violations. Headlines blare missteps all over the country, even as coaches claim to know nothing about goings-on in their program or on their staff, players bolt school ahead of a posse of investigators and conferences struggle to understand their role in punishments.

Amidst this media firestorm, the good stories rarely get told. Yet there are programs out there that place an emphasis on charitable involvement within their communities, that maintain a focus on the "student" part of "student-athlete." So it's refreshing to hear about the schools that work hard to protect the amateur nature and teaching aspect of collegiate athletics. And that's where NC State's Carrie Leger and Katie Sheridan come in.

Leger was elevated to the director of the academic support program for student-athletes (ASPSA) for the second time in July, after serving as associate athletics director for academics and student services for NC State. She's been at State for a decade, with responsibilities in that span ranging from housing to charitable giving to sport administrator for Wolfpack gymnastics.

She also has experience with the NCAA, in addition to her four-year stint as director of academic progress and life skills development at Elon. Leger holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from Towson University, where she competed in gymnastics, as well as a master's in business administration from Elon.

Sheridan is the assistant director of ASPSA and lead academic advisor for football, a role she has held for nearly six years. After competing on the swim team at NC State, she moved into academic support for both men's basketball and football while pursuing graduate courses. Originally from Toronto, she has a bachelor's in business management and a master's of education in counseling from State.

Both were captains in their respective sports during their collegiate careers, demonstrating the roots of the leadership qualities that have flourished in their positions at State. And with the guidance of both Leger and Sheridan, among others, around 40 Wolfpack football players have graduated during the O'Brien tenure. The reasons for the academic improvement in State football—and throughout the athletics programs—are numerous.

Working Within The Challenges Posed By APR Measurement
Though there have been improvements in many of the variables used to measure academic performance at NC State, Leger is quick to point out that the school isn't satisfied with where it stands in relation to the Academic Progress Rate (APR). With coaching changes in both football and men's basketball in the last four years, State is taking a hit when it comes to the controversial retention aspect of the APR.

"It has the biggest impact in the sport of men's basketball when there's a coaching change, and the second-biggest impact in football, and it takes two or three years to really see that go away," said Leger. "And where we are now, [they're] all Coach O'Brien's students; there's no one's else that remains on the team. So now, in moving forward, it's really his [students], and I think we're going to see it move up, we just haven't yet. So we've still got some work to do in that area."

Since the APR is comprised of both eligibility and retention, Leger is confident that Wolfpack athletics will eventually see the APR catch up with the rising GPAs. In the past, NC State has seen some issues with players who have left school without graduating in order to "chase the dream," she said, a decision that severely damages the school in terms of the APR.

Sheridan also pointed out that, even if a player leaves NC State in good academic standing to transfer to a lower division in order to play right away, if that student-athlete doesn't follow through and graduate at their new school, State is punished for that from an APR perspective. Transfers and dismissals were not uncommon in the early part of the O'Brien era, and NC State is still recovering from that standpoint of the APR.

"To be honest—and this is very public, this isn't new information—when Coach O'Brien got here, he made some difficult decisions because some guys weren't doing what they were supposed to do off the field," Leger said. "Some of that did impact those students' eligibility because they just bailed, so we did see some issues where some guys left not in good standing. That was a personnel decision by Coach to say, ‘You don't fit in here, and so either get your business right or don't. And if you don't, you're not going to be here.' "The metric is you have to be able to graduate them, so you have to keep them eligible and retain them."

A Plan For Every Student-Athlete Means School's Not Out For Summer
In order to give the student-athlete the best chance to succeed academically and the school the best chance to improve its APR, NC State has taken measures to ensure each player has a customized strategy designed to help them graduate in a timely fashion. With a spreadsheet that has the approach necessary for each student-athlete to graduate before or when they exhaust eligibility, the school feels they have a plan for every academic need.

"That sounds easy to do, but it's not , because some guys play in their first year and some guys don't," Leger said. "So we're trying to kind of manage that whole process, and I think right now, every guy is on track, with the exception of a few transfers. And [with] transfers, it is harder, because they lose credits along the way. So we have a couple of transfers who will exhaust eligibility with one term left."

Each one of those spreadsheets includes the presence of summer school classes, which have become a vital component in keeping student-athletes on track for graduation. For the rare player who sees action as a true freshman at State, they are put on an accelerated timeline, which means they will likely need to "load up" on multiple summer classes, said Sheridan. Redshirts, on the other hand, may need fewer hours in the summer since they get, essentially, an extra spring and fall.

As a result, the specific timelines for graduation for individual student-athletes aren't built until after their first fall semester. And that spreadsheet is always a work in progress, since redshirts, injuries and other unforeseen circumstances can impact academic standing and timelines. And while summer classes aren't mandatory, most student-athletes do take advantage of the opportunity to firm up their academics.

"It is voluntary if they come to summer school or not, [though] there are some students that Coach O'Brien says, ‘You must be here for [summer school],'" said Sheridan. "But at this point for our continuing students, we have one student that's not in summer school, and he chose to go on a mission this summer. Other than that, everyone's here—they want to be here."

"And that's changed significantly just in my 13-14 years in the profession," Leger added. "It's gone from being only the guys in summer that absolutely needed it for eligibility to being every single guy and now every single incoming student. So we have 75 incoming freshmen coming [in July], so if we look tired, we are … And we have 275 continuing student-athletes from all sports who are here in the summer. So we kind of laugh when we're on campus and people are like, ‘It's so relaxing,' but no, [for us] it's not."

So not only do summer offerings help student-athletes get and stay on track to graduation and assist the school in its ongoing efforts to improve its APR ranking, but it can also help to alleviate pressure on academics in senior years. A well-documented example came when USC quarterback Matt Leinart was so far ahead academically in his senior campaign that he only had to take one class in his final semester— ballroom dancing.

The hope for NC State players is that they are in good enough position from an academic standpoint to have only a couple of classes to take or even to have already graduated, so they can pursue graduate courses in their final season of eligibility.

"And that's what they get to do, if they follow through on everything and they pass their classes," said Sheridan. "And they don't have to pass with ‘A's, but if they pass their classes and they're moving along, they're not going to have a full load in their senior fall. So it's nice, and that's kind of the goal at the end; that's the reward."

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Stay tuned tomorrow or Part II of our feature, "Champions In The Classroom," that appears in the September issue of the Pack Pride Magazine.


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