New hope for Mississippi student/athletes

Last year's graduating class in Mississippi had the lowest percentage of admissible students for all colleges and universities throughout the country. Help is on the way however as Cellular South has sponsored a new program for the student/athletes in the Magnolia state from grades 9-12.

What is the name of the new program?

"The program is called Cellular South Game Plan," added Coach David Saunders, who acts as the cordinator for Cellular South Game Plan's Elite program, which he oversees the Top 30 prospects in Mississippi while the program in itself is designed to help all 90,000 student athletes.

When was the program started?

"It was launched in January of '07, and the broad based concept of the program was to provide a venue for all the kids and activities associated with Mississippi to be able to track their academic plans throughout high school."

Why did Cell South decide to come up with this program and when did they approach Coach Saunders about it?

"I believe the original idea came about because: 1. Cellular South is very sports minded and involved with major college programs in the State and their leadership wanted to have a way to get involved with providing answers for the high school kids with academic situations. Orien Watson, one of their main people in their advertising department suggested the idea to their president, Hu Meena, and they just took it from there. The program was launched in January. Hu has been very hands on with the program and has been a key part of the success we are having."

Coach Saunders has an extensive background in coaching and dealing with academic issues for student/athletes.

"It started back with my first job coaching high school football. I was a classroom instructor for two years, a high school coach, and that was the beginning of some legislation that provided for students with disability, recognizing, one, the importance of it and, two, the strength of it. From there I went on to a division two program. That was in the early eighties when Proposition Forty Eight first came into effect. So, being in a Division Two program, a lot of the top players at that time that Proposition Forty Eight was affecting, I recruited. And I helped put together academic plans for them that met the NCAA requirements."

Where was the Mississippi student athlete, academically, before this program was started?

"I first experienced involvement in Mississippi back in the mid nineties as an assistant coach at Arkansas State, coming into Mississippi recruiting but seeing that probably fifty percent and in some years even less, of the top talent, especially Division One talent, in the State, was failing to meet Division One NCAA requirements. I would say as far back as ten to fifteen years or about the beginning of Proposition Forty Eight."

Going into this year, when you started the program and the class that you are seeing now--the seniors--where did the class stand as a whole academically, and where are they now?

"OK, if I can say now my part in this program, as I said originally, the program is available to all kids and the activities associated with grades 9 to 12, male and female, but what happened is Cellular South recognized that the top athletes in the State, the ones that get the recognition, and looking into where they stood academically going into their senior year realized that some work needed to be done. I think the best way to put it is that of the top thirty compiled from lists of recruiting services, media and coaches, the top thirty going into this year, a small number were on track with their number of core requirements, the GPA minimum, and test scores and combination. An even smaller number had a slim chance of meeting the requirements. The majority, probably about 85% fell between these two groups and had significant improvement to make to meet the number of core units required, the GPA in the core and test scores. I think what we identified here is that a majority had significant improvement to make to meet minimum requirement this year."

When you took over the program this past year and you saw the production in the summer and this fall, how many did you see out of that top thirty improve their core GPA?

"I became involved in the program in July, and meeting with the administrators of the schools and coaches. I did not become involved with the athletes themselves since they were in season and I didn't want to do anything to detract them from what was going on in season but by implementing individual plans for each student, we have actually seen twenty of the thirty improve their grade point averages this semester."

What is some of the strategy as far as kids lacking in core classes? Also, do you tell them to take the ACT test as many times as you can or wait until they are prepared?

"That is a hard question, and I know everyone wants a single answer about the test. It is a really complex issue there, and I can't give you a one set answer because each case is so individualized. The number one thing if I can go back and first identify the people that can affect the plan. We, in the summer, began to take the transcripts, scores and all the data. We evaluated it and came up with an individual success plan for each person in this elite program of the top thirty. From that, they have been following it this fall and that's where we saw the GPA improvements. As to the test score, there can be numerous answers there. Some, I would say a high percentage, had not even taken the ACT going into the fall. So with that group, you would like to do some ACT prep, take a practice test and evaluate where the student is with that. Is he ready to take the test on a national testing date? Or if the results don't coincide with other things that you are doing or that need to be put in place, prep test courses and things like that. What you want to do is make sure that he is ready for that initial test and is going to get the highest score achievable at that point. If he has already taken the test, and it's a low score, then you go into and try to identify why it was a low score."

Out of your top thirty players, are there any players that are going to be academically ineligible that you know about without naming names and how many are there?

"Out of the players identified at our last meeting, and this year there is a lot of exceptional talent, I would say there is a very small number who won't qualify at Division One level. One player has withdrawn from high school and one other may fit that category but a determination has not yet been made, so I would say a very small number, at this point, would not qualify."

So would it be fair to say that 28 out of the thirty players enrolled in the program have a legitimate chance of qualifying assuming they continue their work from here on out?

"I would say that is very possible that 25-28 are still in that range. It all comes back to them, and they know it, but if they continue to follow their individual plan, that high number is in position to qualify by the fall."

What kind of reception have you received from the counselors, principals, players about this program?

"It's been very positive and again the majority of my interaction has been with the coaches, the counselors, the principals to this point. Now that the season has ended, I expect a little more interaction with the players themselves. The school officials have been very excited about any opportunity to help their students. The parents have been receptive and this enables us, with this Cellular South plan, to build a support system totally around the individual and thereby provide the answers the student needs to have a chance to qualify."

Talk about the new NCAA rules changes as far as qualifications with added cores, GPA, and limiting the number of courses you can take after their scheduled graduation date.

"Well I think without question the additional two cores, going from 14 to 16, is dramatic. Even though the athletes have been aware of this for I believe 4 years. Going from 14 to 16 cores is significant. The rule change allowing only one core course to be allowed in the computation after graduation date is also a big change. Some students have gone on to prep schools after graduation and this will have some impact since they will be limited to one core course. The good news is that the change will not affect students identified with learning disabilities or special needs."

This is kind of off the subject as far as Mississippi, but what happens to the prep schools since you are only allowed to take one core class after your scheduled graduation? Will this limit the number of kids going to prep schools?

"I think this is yet to be determined. I think that so many prep schools out there do good jobs. If you look at the rosters from the top college programs across the country, you see so many kids that have gone to prep schools; I know that those schools are still going to play an important role. We are going to have to go through a couple of graduating classes to see what effect the changes will play. But, I definitely don't think the prep school's role will be diminished. Remember, student athletes that have been identified with a learning disability is exempt from these rules and will still be able to attend prep schools."

The program has now been in effect from July through December. When will you start targeting the Juniors and Sophomores? Will you be expanding to those classes to get the kids on track earlier?

"Absolutely. We already have a 2009 list working with the coaches and Cellular South has done many seminars. The most recent was at the state wide meeting for counselors that was in Philadelphia this month. The presentation made there will be repeated at the coach's clinic in Biloxi next month. We are very aggressive in getting the word out to school administrators and coaches. We started aggressively by attempting to affect the 2009 class in such a short period of time. We are encouraged by seeing such positive results. If you think about it, we are actually ahead since in the past, signing day was the beginning of the effort to qualify the student. So we are actually about 6 months ahead. But to your question, we anticipate getting the underclass student underway in the spring and focus on test preparation and test taking and have an additional semester to prep them."

Where do you visualize down the road, say about 4 to 5 years, as to what kind of difference we can see when those students enter their senior year?

"I definitely feel like we can expect a difference with positive results. What we have maintained is that our Mississippi student athletes have every bit the same ability to become eligible to enter Division One programs and to be successful once they do enter such a program. I believe that ability is there, and I think this positive result that we have seen in just a semester's work, as to GPA increases, identifies that ability. Now, to say that there is some work that needs to be done maybe in the foundation areas to get some basic skills, to get up to speed, in grades 9, 10 and 11-to identify early so that a prospect going into his senior year can say I have already made that minimum test requirement, have may core in good shape, what I am taking in my senior year is going to meet my core requirements and GPA requirements so that going into his senior year he can enjoy it athletically and not have to be concerned about qualifications, and obviously be in a better position to receive offers."

On a personal level, how much satisfaction will you receive just by seeing these kids who might not have made it, succeed over the next 4-5 years? What does that do for you?

Without question, it will be immensely satisfying. And going back, we know it can be done. I am proud of the fact that as the director of recruiting in a division one program (at Ole Miss under Coach Cutcliffe) that in four signing classes, we had one signee not matriculate. It's been proven that it can be done. I am also proud to be associated with Cellular South, a company that has really stepped up and made a big investment in the youth of Mississippi, and recognizes that our Mississippi kids are every bit as able but just need some things in place to get the whole group up to speed. And when we do that and our top athletes qualify year end and year out, because the numbers dramatically show that per capita, the ability level of Division 1 recruitable athletes is one of the highest in the country. And now that we can tag their academic success on top of that, it is going to draw more attention and provide more opportunity to all the kids in Mississippi, so to see that happen will be tremendously satisfying.

Last question, is Mississippi maybe a testing ground for Cellular South for maybe expanding into other states with this program? Have there been any discussions?

"We are still within the first year of our program, but there has been discussion that if we get the kind of results that we are expecting, there may be expansion into some of the areas that Cellular South provides for. So, I do think that is a consideration. To say today that it is going to happen, let us get through this year and see if we get the kind of results that we targeted."

Do you feel the pressure of getting the results in the end so you can take this program and expand it?

"I am glad you asked that question. I think all that are involved, not just my self, with the elite program, but Chad Wallace who coordinates the program state wide and Orien Watson who oversees the whole program, all of us don't feel pressure as much as excitement . We have already seen results. We know that our kids have the ability to achieve but just need some structure which we can provide to turn that ability into qualifying student athletes. We believe this program can provide that structure. We also see that the students themselves are excited about the program. They now feel that if they sign with a school this spring that they will be reporting to that school in the following fall. That is the ultimate goal."

Thanks Cellular South, Hu Meena, Orien Watson, Coach David Saunders, and Chad Wallace for recognizing the long standing problem and providing a solution.


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