In Part III of our interview with Carrie Leger and Katie Sheridan, we take a look at how implementing strategies early to prevent problems and recruiting a different type of student-athlete has led to increased academic success within the football program.
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.
Implementing Strategies That Address Issues Before They Become Problems
While there are plans in place to ensure student-athletes stay eligible and have the structure necessary to succeed, it's unavoidable that obstacles will arise on the path toward graduation. NC State has been proactive in implementing measures designed to improve academic performance, including a new class attendance policy and the Summer Start program.
The attendance policy was rolled out last year, and Leger said that O'Brien maintains his support of the initiative because of the impact it had on his players. As a targeted policy, it is aimed toward incoming freshmen and players that have a GPA lower than the academic support team prefers. The program was announced to the team during a special team meeting that was attended by O'Brien, which Leger said helped set the tone that the coaching staff and the academic support team were a unified front.
"I think it just emphasized that, ‘Guys, this is real and it's important and we're all on the same page, so don't try to divide us,'" said Leger of O'Brien's presence in the meeting.
The attendance policy involves random class checks, as well as regular communication with each players' instructors. Should a player miss one class, Leger and Sheridan are notified, along with O'Brien and the player's parents. On the second absence, not only is there a half-game suspension, but the student-athlete has to meet with Leger and the sports supervisor, a position previously held by David Horning.
"That's an attempt to say, ‘Hey, do you get it? If you miss again, you're going to be sitting on the sidelines for the next game,'" said Leger.
Should a third absence occur, the student-athlete is suspended for an additional 10 percent of the season, which is an additional game. At that point, the player also has to meet directly with athletics director Debbie Yow—never a comfortable situation for a teenager.
"That's probably the scariest part of the whole thing as a student, and so that's not a meeting they want to have," said Leger with a chuckle. "Not only does that mean they're not getting to play for part of game, but they have to have that face-to-face meeting with her."
Thus far, the class attendance policy has resulted in an improvement in the attendance issues that Leger and Sheridan saw in the past. By that measure, it's been a successful new policy for the Pack.
"It's real, and the guys get it, and Coach O'Brien and his staff have really continued to enforce it, and when guys try to divide us, that has not worked," Leger said. "And that really has changed behavior."
As to the second new policy, the Summer Start program has "been a significant improvement, I think, to the service we can offer our students," according to Leger. The program was unveiled last year on a university-wide basis, with about 50 student-athletes participating. Based on the initial success, around 120 student-athletes will take part this year, along with transition program students, international students, and then a group of students from high schools in North Carolina that have traditionally underperformed in the math and sciences when they get here.
Describe as "intense" by Leger, the Summer Start program involves taking eight credits, along with structured tutoring and a university orientation course that focuses on diversity. The overall emphasis is on ensuring that students transition successfully to NC State—an approach that O'Brien favors for each of his incoming recruiting classes.
"Coach O'Brien has supported this program at the highest level, so every single incoming freshmen will be a part of this program this summer," Leger said. "So they're going to finish summer and have eight credits already completed, which is huge, because by the end of the summer following their freshman year, they're going to have around 35 or 38 credits, which is awesome. That's a great start."
Changing The Game Starts In Recruiting
Another way to get academic support off to a great start is to recruit a better caliber of student. This year, the school pulled off a rare feat when every member of their 20-man recruiting class qualified to attend State. Leger admitted that "this year we have a group that looks much different" than some classes she's seen over her years in Raleigh. She's also seen a reduction in the number of student-athletes that would be placed in an at-risk category in terms of academic eligibility.
Leger pointed out that, as long as an at-risk student is "willing to accept the support and committed to being an active participant," they are thrilled to work with such a student. In fact, it's the student who comes in with more impressive credentials and better preparation, and then demonstrates little interest in academics, that is much more frustrating to the support staff.
Leger feels that, under O'Brien, the gap between the student-athlete and the normal student that they're sitting next to in class is closing. And part of the reason is that the profile of the NC State football student-athlete includes the dedication and effort that academics require, plus a willingness to trust the academic support staff and what they're trying to accomplish.
"The game-changer, and I think Katie and I agree on this, is really the students' commitment and their buy-in to what we're doing," said Leger.
For young student-athletes who dramatically want to succeed and advance to the next level of their sport, at times their energies just need to be channeled in the right direction. Leger sees part of the role of the academic support team to provide student-athletes with the tools necessary to be successful. The reward comes from seeing student-athletes graduate when they and others doubted whether they ever could, and to see high-quality people being admitted to NC State, excelling on their chosen fields of play for the Pack and earning diplomas from State.
Increasingly, said Leger, that is what the academic support staff is seeing from the Wolfpack football program. And as is the case in so many fields, that change has come from the top.
"I think, generally, we've seen that improvement in the character of the groups, and that is a commitment that Coach O'Brien made when he got here, [that] ‘You will see a change,'" Leger said. "It has taken some time, but we have seen that change."
And what a refreshing change that has been for NC State—and for a collegiate athletics landscape that could use many more feel-good stories like the one that is unfolding in Raleigh.