December 6, 2012 | Vol. 116 -- No. 33

Academic game plan

Keeping EWU student athletes champions in school is a team effort

The trophy that commands the most headlines for Eastern Washington university is the one the football team won in early 2011 in Frisco, Texas where the Eagles were crowned the NcAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision national champions.

But to most of those inside the athletics department at EWU, the 2010 Big Sky Conference’s President’s Trophy – the award that recognizes the academic accomplishments of all teams at the school – is one that really honors their overall mission.

If there’s one term that reverberates throughout the people who populate the many offices across Washington Street on the Eastern campus it’s “student athlete.” The emphasis being on the student part of the title.

Eastern dedicates a lot of time and effort to making sure Eagle athletes shatter the age-old stereotype of being the dumb-jock. And it has paid off with that coveted Big Sky award singling out the accomplishments of teams during the 2009-10 academic and athletic season.

Across the board, all Eastern teams maintain at least a cumulative 3.0 grade-point-average and graduate over 50 percent of their athletes. That’s a pretty good stat these days in the world of college athletics.

And like the teams and teamwork that goes into winning national championships on the field, it takes a similar concerted effort to keep busy student-athletes on track towards graduation in a reasonable period of time.

Part of that team consists of newly-hired – this past summer that is – Jim Fitzgerald as the academic coordinator and life skills adviser. He is aided by Tamara Hageage in keeping athletes healthy in the classroom so that they can compete on the court, field or track.

Dr. Donald Ross is the other part of the team and is the school’s NCAA compliance officer, among other hats he wears.

“The compliance and academics are so interrelated,” Ross said. “Making sure that the student athletes are eligible and taking the right courses that are counting towards a degree and making progress towards a degree.”

You really don’t have one without the other, he said.

Following NCAA sanctions at the university that hit the football program with a postseason ban in February 2009, Eastern doubled its efforts on compliance with the complex nature of the NCAA rules.

While cumbersome and complex, the rules are well-intended Ross said.

“They’re changing a lot of things right now,” he added. “They’re reworking the rule book and trying to get rid of some of the rules.”

Ross displayed a rule book that was just short of 300 pages and said “Some people want us to get it down to 25 pages.”

That might include ridding the rules of things like one of Ross’s “favorites,” he said with a big smirking smile.

“My favorite rule is you can provide bagels, fruit and nuts but you can’t provide peanut butter or jam,” Ross said.

To get around the rule some schools have a peanut butter machine that takes peanuts and reconstitute them as peanut butter. “And that’s fine because you gave them nuts,” Ross said. “You can give them fruit but you can’t give them jam.”

Or, ironically, chocolate milk as a drink offered to athletes after a workout.

Muscle milk, a protein-enhanced, lactose-free beverage, is a supplement that is OK; chocolate milk is not. “These are the things we’ve just got to get over,” Ross said of the complex web of rules that bog down the system and can innocently get athletes and schools is varying degrees of trouble.

But it’s in the classroom where there is true danger of falling below the line of acceptance. And that revolves around three initials – APR – or what is known across athletic academia as Academic Progress Rate.

APR is a one-year snapshot of a student athlete and is based on a formula of retention and eligibility. The NCAA recently honored nearly 1,000 institutions across the nation with APRs ranging from 978 to the perfect score of 1,000.

“A score of 920 used to be the benchmark but that is now 930,” Ross said. “(A score of) 930 I think correlates to 33 percent of your kids graduate; 940’s like 50 percent.”

While most recent APRs for the last academic year have yet to be released, a check with the NCAA showed major sports at Eastern to be generally above that benchmark number.

Volleyball has the highest APR for the 2010-11 season with a 985. Women’s basketball is at 977, football has a 945 and basketball 928. Football has improved from a 926 in 2008-09 and men’s basketball is well up after scoring an 884 APR for the 2004-05 season.

Everyone chases the perfect 1,000 earned by EWU’s cross country and women’s golf teams, the 991 recorded by women’s tennis or 987 earned by women’s cross country.

“Cross country’s been at 1,000 since they started doing this,” Ross said. “I know women’s golf has been at 1,000 for a few years.”

Fitzgerald is a vital cog in the student-athlete wheel at Eastern.

“My focus is to get these incoming kids, transfers, into the right classes, “ he said. “They generally enroll in 12-credit blocks per quarter, especially their first two years it’s making sure general education requirements are met.”

Fitzgerald, the brother of former Cheney High basketball coach Ryan and nephew of former Gonzaga University coach Dan, also works with teams and a specific coach to make sure there are not any issues. “Hopefully we meet every couple of weeks to say, hey, how we doing.”

There is no special treatment given student-athletes. Similar academic help is provided to all students at Eastern, Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald’s duty is to maintain an open door and remain accessible to student-athletes who need help. “My job is to make sure there are no surprises when grades get posted,” he said.

Fitzgerald attends games and practices and also teaches a life skills class, primarily for freshmen and transfers in the fall and spring

“The life skills class is how do you present yourself, how do you study, how do you take notes,” Fitzgerald explained. “We will bring in guest speakers, former Eagle athletes who say this is what got me through.”

There are 320 student–athletes at EWU. “And there’s one of me,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ll take care of you but I’m not going to spoon-feed you.”

Paul Delaney can be reached at pdelaney@cheneyfreepress.com.

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